Matt Hales of Aqualung is pretty honest about the true love of his life. Growing up above his parents’ record store in Southampton, music was just there – following him as he composed his school song at the age of 11, when he wrote his first symphony at 17, and now at 35 as Aqualung releases its second major-label US album, Memory Man – it’s his music that keeps him alive and kicking.
He’s pretty busy – Aqualung’s single “Pressure Suit” has a new music video out on VH1 and is in the midst of a tour. Hales was kind enough to allow me to chat with him about peanut butter, magic 8 balls, The Police, and more importantly, his music, as he hung out in his big, green bus outside of the 9:30 Club in Washington DC. I was on the other end of the phone, of course, the New Yorker that I am.
R: So you were back in the UK on holiday for a while? How was that?
M: It was excellent. We went to Jamaica.
R: Oh nice! Did you get a nice tan?
M: Oh well you know me, pale and English, but by my standards, token. I’m as tanned as you can imagine: slightly brown. We had a lot of fun.
R: Awesome. So in your new video for “Pressure Suit,” was there any significance to these forces of nature – first the water, then you freezing, then in the end your piano crumbling to the ground?
M: The kind of sense of that song is it was always about a kind of a journey against, in peril sort of thing. In my mind it was science fiction, a story of a lost spaceman hurdling back to earth and his anxious friends and family looking up into the sky. That was going to be a slightly expensive video to make, but there was something about it in a simpler way – this performer just carries on doggedly through these various challenges and eventually its all too much for the piano, but I survive.
R: But then your poor piano is gone.
M: Yes it really is gone.
R: I saw your performance in Austin at the South By Southwest music festival. How many years have you been performing down there?
M: In my whole actual life this was the fourth time. Once with my old band, once before we had a deal in the States, once when my record first came out and this was my fourth.
R: I bet it’s quite different playing down there now that your record has been a success over here.
M: Yeah a slight sense of having been promoted. We were allowed to play in the nighttime, things like that. And some people came to see us. It’s not normally the case at SXSW. We’ve always been lucky with having an audience. You always expect it to be small just because of having millions of options for everybody, but it was nice. The journey we’ve made in the last couple of years, it’s kind of reassuring.
R: On that note, how do you think the Aqualung albums have evolved up from your first self-titled album until now?
M: Well I think it is pretty clear, if you were to listen to all of them, it’s different. The album which was in between the first record was an exercise in minimalism really, and using the least kind of force that I could find that could make these atmospheric and quiet songs work. Then the unexpected success of that record in the UK gave me a chance to tour that record and kind of realize there was a slightly more scope to Aqualung that I realized. That led to the second record, and then the surprising success of the compilation over here kind of gave me the chance to push that further and partly just to keep myself interested in a way. That sort of resulted in memory man which I think is quite a lot more vivid and dense a piece of work compared to the first and second record.
R: When you were younger you and your brother covered The Police classics. Are you still big fans?
M: No, not really, I kind of went off of them again. They’re a weird band really. They’re only just in my humble opinion, just about good, its weird. I think without their total belief in themselves you know its like, it’s a bit of a kind of con in a way. I don’t know it is sort of weird. When I think about it now I think, was it really any good? I’m not sure.
R: Well you know they are reuniting.
M: Yeah I heard. I’m glad to see my opinion hasn’t stopped them.
R: Well, I dunno. We’ll see after this interview runs.
M: Yeah exactly, then they’ll call it all off. “I dunno Matt’s not sure about us!”
R: So you started playing at the age of four, composed your school song at 11, and at 17- 60 people performed your first symphony. It sounds like it was all a bit easy for you in the beginning. Then you struggled a bit with your different bands. Was there ever a thought of, this is hard; maybe I should do something else?
M: There are certainly a lot of moments where I was thinking, how on earth am I going to pay the rent? And there was a year that I lived on baked potatoes, but I don’t know. There’s never been any doubt in my mind about being a musician. That’s been a sort of a given from before I could remember anything. That part was never in question. I always felt a certainty for good or bad that my kind of existence and reason for being here at all was something to do with making music, and it’s really the only kind of thing I could do really well. So even when it was tough, I just had to be flexible and think about other things in other ways I might try to make music to keep myself alive, but I never really questioned that basic factor.
R: Yeah I mean growing up above your parents’ record store, music was pretty much drilled into your brain at a young age.
M: Yeah it was just around. I think most people like music and most moms and dads like music and there’s music around us all, but maybe there was a bit more than usual around us a lot growing up. We started singing in the church choir when we were young and playing the piano and singing, and it was sort of just a thing I always associated with having a good time. Thankfully that hasn’t worn off.
R: You have this classically trained background-how do you make sure you are successful in integrating that into this successful sound today?
M: I don’t really think about it too much. The classical bit of my music experience is like everything else. Every other bit of it mixes inside of me to make me whatever kind of musician I am. There’s no conscious need to think, I know I’ll use my classical experience now to do this, apart from occasionally scoring and using other instruments. But I think in the end, I’ve come to an understanding with myself, which is that you have to, as an artist, come to accept that you’re basically you. In some ways your face is basically the same. Whatever you do, regardless of how you get your hair cut you basically always look the same and as an artist it’s that too. I think in recent years I’ve come to accept that I just am me, and all the peculiarities of my particular experiences have wound up with me being this way. I just have to kind of accept that and do whatever feels natural to me.
R: Tell me how your life changed after Volkswagen picked up your song for their advertisement in 2002.
M: It was quite dramatic, really. That project was early in its little life, and it was just sort of initially a reaction to playing in a guitar band and being tired of making this racket. I wanted to make this music that is more about stillness and emotion and atmosphere, and maybe being beautiful, but I never could have considered that was a very promising move on a career level, you know? It seemed like the opposite, really. But I was just tired and I wanted to do something else and I thought well, to be making music for myself to listen to, let’s make this kind of music. And then the ad thing happened and the revelation was really that people, in a much more widespread way than I had ever predicted, were really up for and interested in and passionate about this type of music where the emotion of it was at the fore — people really responded to that. So it was sort of getting this thing from a nice idea to turning it into a proper career, and then very swiftly into the most successful thing I had ever done. It also set me off in a really good path in the kind of music. I thought, well this is great I’ve sort of stumbled on this thing that I really think is what I want to do with myself, but by a good fortune it also seems to be something that people in the world kind of like, so let’s carry on with it.
R: Now tell me, if you were able to collaborate with two other musicians, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
M: I would go for someone who is alive first, Jeff Tweedy. For I guess pretty obvious reasons: for being one of the most interesting and excellent songwriters around I think and a sort of visionary record maker. And him and me would be an interesting combination at that. And I don’t know, maybe Allan Toussaint. Someone super funky, and then we can make a very unexpected sort of weird and funky Wilco record together.
R: So I happen to have this Magic 8 Ball in my hands right now. If you could ask it any question, what would it be?
M: Where is the peanut butter? I would really like to know because I’m starving I have bread, and I was told there was peanut butter on this bus but there isn’t. I can’t find it anywhere.
R: I can have some I can overnight it.
M: Please can you over-hour it? Is it crunchy?
M: Never mind, then.