Magnetic North – Out now!
“Well, we’ve accumulated quite a wide range of Scotch.” – Matt Hales (Aqualung), life on the road on the US
What was the catalyst that sparked the change from creating classical music to the music you create today?
Matt Hales: Well, actually there was a bit in the middle which was for a long time I thought I’d be a composer basically. You know, I went to college to study that, but I always loved recording. I was interested in the magical process of putting sounds together and making recordings. Then I formed a band with my brother, which got a good record deal at 20.
Was this the infamous 45s?
Yeah. It was like… Okay I could be in academia, or I can get in a bus with my friend and tour around the country drinking lots of beer. (laughs) So, rock & roll swayed me at that point. That band was a loud, power punk kind of a band. When that band stopped, in some ways it was going back to what I was used to do. When I was composing orchestral media I always was really inclined to try to make this heavy emotional music. The decade of power pop kind of left me a bit over trying to do fast, exciting music.
“God I would love, just love to do a project where the whole point of it was going to be about something that was kind of beautiful and emotional and not about me trying to jump up and down,” I said. I would personally sit down and sing softly, because I would just lose my voice early on. Just trying to make something that really fit with me and who I am. Yeah, it was almost like going back to making music before the band.
Do you have a preference in the type of music you are writing?
No, I don’t really. I find this world that I have made for myself where it seems to be acceptable for the music to have a level of sophistication, hopefully without being pretentious. There’s enough juice in the music for me to keep me happy. Mostly, I feel that I’ve really found my voice. It feels kind of right. Occasionally things come up where you know I’ll be asked to make music for some other thing, like a theatre piece or some film, and I’ll get the chance to exercise that moreso technical muscle of scoring and arranging. But also, on the record every now and again something will call for that, the stuff I learned in college. It’s always nice to do that.
I feel like I landed right in this place which is very much “me.” This is some of my favorite music to make.
Has your new life affected this new place you have found within yourself?
Well, every record is the productive resource of the one preceding it. Certainly Magnetic North has a certain kind of open and at peace quality which is because that’s kind of the place I got to. Compared to Memory Man, which is a very kind of paranoid and not-at-peace, restless record. That’s kind of an indication of where my head was at that time. I definitely needed to have a rest.
The reason why this new record had this kind of peaceful heart is, because I made the decision to make my priority my home again. I’m connecting back with that and I have another child now. Just kind of got myself back in equilibrium again, back in balance. Even though the songs aren’t all “cheerful” songs, there is a lot which is about dealing with some of the things that my family has been through.
What was the “last straw” that pushed you to record this album after retiring?
I said the circumstances in which the only reason I would carry on would be if I was really called to it, you know? By either by missing something about it or in this instance because of the new songs, those sort of accumulate.
You were still writing for yourself?
Yes, I was. I am, and I can’t stop making music. When I retired it wasn’t like I retired from making music. I’ve made loads of music after that. It was working for other artists, it was loads of other music. I just wanted to get off the treadmill of being an artist and everything that it entails.
You wanted to run at your own pace?
Yeah, absolutely. Just step off and step down for a moment. The songs kept whispering in my ear. And eventually I couldn’t resist.
It sounds silly but it kind of really was that. The purity of motivation also I think is audible in the record. There is no attempt to make a hit record or make a cool record. It’s just what the songs wanted to be. And by chance, I think it kind of is a cool record. But that’s neither here nor there. It just wanted to be and so we let it.
It’s nice to see how they all co-exist together. There is still that spirit from earlier albums, yet you are confident in where your work is now.
I was worried for a while it would seem like the rantings of a madman. I was so self conscious. If one song wanted to be that way, then so be it. Trying to find a way to make it into some kind of journey that would be enjoyable for a listener. I think we managed that in the end. I like the way that it has expanded my template. And in playing the show, it’s exciting. There’s kinder moments I’ve never had on stage before. Just a different sort of energy from some of these new types of songs. I feel if I can get away with that, it makes the potential next move from here feel very open and very exciting.
Has that next step been taken?
Not yet. I’m taking it easy. (laughs) I only just started this one. I’ll enjoy getting to know these songs for a while.
Does your live sound echo your studio sound?
I very rarely try to replicate the studio sound. I think playing in the studio is one thing. The live thing is completely something else. This tour particularly, I’ve designed it so that it’s basically impossible for us to replicate the record. Krista [Polvere], who’s opening, has come with her band and I just asked the band to play with me. So, they’re not my band. They don’t play my kind of music. They play their kind of music. They are bringing their style a bit to what I do. There are new interpretations of the songs. All of them change. I mean we’re 7 or 8 nights in, they are completely different now than they were three shows ago. I love that about touring, I love that kind of spirit of adventure.
Were there any strange inspirations to songs in this record?
(laughs) There’s probably a strange story for every song. You can never tell where they… it’s going to come from. I quite often write songs after dreaming. And I had a very strange dream which was a… a dream of being in a shipwreck. And I remember waking up and thinking, “Why is that so strange? I’ve had shipwreck dreams before.” It was so peculiar and it took me a while to actually wake up and realize that it had actually been playing in reverse.
I’d started under the water and I had been like… it all happened backwards. I’d come back up to the top into a lifeboat, then back to the boat… back to the sinking boat that had come back out of the sea. Next thing you know, I had gone back home. To safety. It was just a really vivid and strange story. I thought, “Here we are! There’s a song!” And that’s… That’s the song called “Reel Me In.”
Then there’s a song called “Sundowning” which came from hearing that phrase on a documentary about dementia. It’s those who become agitated with dementia as the sun goes down. It just struck me. I had never heard that word before and it’s such a beautiful word. It’s so full of poetry. It just set me off.
There’s lots of things about the stuff that goes on in my life and in friends’ lives and around me.
Your music is not centered on you?
Oh no. I would hate if people just think this record is all me, they would be worried about me. Some of it is, lot of it isn’t you know… it’s other people’s stories, people close to me, people I don’t know at all, things I read and stories I hear… You just don’t know. When something starts, it won’t leave you alone. Just like that word, “sundowning,” I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, and that inevitably showed itself in a song.
And there’s one called “Hummingbird” which is specifically about my daughter. If she was not a little girl, she would be a hummingbird. And I really wanted, because she’s new to the family, I wanted her to sort of “feature” in the record.
Songs like “New Friend” I have absolutely no idea what they are about. I like the idea, it sounds like it’s definitely about something. We’re already trying to guess theories what it’s about… it’s ranged from anything from my kids to the iPhone to being about Obama, you know? And it’s hilarious because I don’t know!
You really don’t know?
One day, someone will create some idea that is so cool, and I’m going to claim it’s about that. Wait for the coolest idea and say, “Yeah! You got it. What you said.”
In your time away from Aqualung, what music did you focus on?
I wrote some music for TV, a film, and I also wrote songs for other artists. I also produced a couple of albums. Produced an album for Brooklyn band called Kaiser Cartel who I highly recommend. Great production, obviously. (laughs)
I saw that you co-wrote with Leona Lewis. Was the writing process different than writing with your wife or brother?
Well not particularly. Leona Lewis, while an extrodinary singer, is a sort of new songwriter. It was a bit of me helping to articulate what she wanted to write and leading a bit. It was an interesting use of my skills.
So you played a more teaching-type role with those co-writes?
A little bit, yeah. I’ve written a lot more songs than she has, and that was why I was there. I was one whose music she really liked, but also someone who’s experienced enough to help her find what she wanted to do. It was really, really enjoyable. It’s basically like a treat to write a song and have an amazing world class vocalist sing it. It’s kind of fantastic.
Are you currently writing with your wife and brother?
Yeah, but this album has a few extra faces. The most significant friend Matt Vincent-Brown, the drummer in The 45s. We got back together and wrote a song. We always used to write and we would make music to an extent, but we lost touch for a while. It was one of the comforting things of being home and staying home. When we got back together as friends, it led to us writing a song together.
And then my hero, Paul Buchanan, who I sort of magically became friends with. Paul sang on a song on Memory Man. We got together to write, the idea was to write a song for him actually. But, by the time it was finished Paul kind of accurately said, “This is a song for you, isn’t it?”
I was pretending that it wasn’t, but it kind of was, but he’s a significant writer and that was an amazing treat.
In all of your history of co-writing, is it difficult to discern your work from others?
When I write something, there is a kind of tone there or something that seems to be “my thing.” I don’t know if I could be the one to identify what it was. It’s like trying to describe your own face. You can’t do it. It just looks like “me.” In my songs or my music, it has a kind of “me-ness” about it. Even in combination with other artists the “me-ness” is still there. Little habits and a little feeling, a thing I’m after. I want every song to hit a mark emotionally. I can’t tell really. I know there has to be a bell that goes off inside of me. That says, “That’s it. Like that!”
What is the furthest you have been from your “me” writing style? Any Country? Electronic hits in the making?
Oh god. I wrote a sort of “disco” like a Daft Punk disco song that got cut by a French artist and was #1 in France for a while. It was called “Heartbox.” I love all kinds of music, you know. It just has to have a kind of “rightness” about it that pleases me. I really liked that song. It’s nothing like anything I’ve ever written before. Even though I sang the demo and I loved it with all the “Michael Jackson” action… It was surprisingly enjoyable.
Has your label ever pushed you in a direction you weren’t comfortable in pursuing?
I am very fortunate. The labels didn’t expect to have much of an input and that’s good to me. They were very understanding of that and comforting that I needed my space artistically. A suggestion here or there which have been helpful.
Do you record all your records in a “live” style?
Not all the time. This record? Yes, but I have done it every different way. This time around, I wanted the heart of it to be us playing together, really listening and singing as well. It was good to sing this time. Everything was bearing in mind to the song. Again, that led to some natural feelings in these recordings.
There are a lot of contemporary artists who are moving in that direction nowadays. What is it specifically about recording in that way that you like to capture?
I like the combination of a very natural performance captured, and then a layer which is messed around with and then processed. It’s the juxtaposition of those layers that is sort of pleasing to me. This record is definitely one where I can say that’s it’s supposed to be so easy somehow. One thing just lead to another. We made the recordings very fast, and it was sort of like, “If it feels great, then do it. Even if it really feels like a bad idea on paper, let’s just do it anyway!”
We had a song where the drums were actually played on a music stand, and we played a violin with a metal stick and the guitar with a brush, you know? It just sounded cool, so fine. Let’s do it. We were working fast; we didn’t analyze. There’s a lot to be said for that.
I read in an 2007 interview that you wanted to work with Japanese producer Cornelius? Did that amazing collaboration ever happen?
Nope, I never got to play with him. I met him in Tokyo. And it’s one of the only times I’ve ever been dumbstruck with “fan-dom.” I knew he was around, but I was suddenly introduced to him. I was like… (blabbering).
We had a mutual friend (a Japanese artist who I had been doing some work with), and we talked about my stuff with him. Cornelius said very graciously that he enjoyed it and maybe we should try to work together sometime. Of course I’m like melting.
And so it’s in the air. Maybe one day I can pursue that, I just haven’t been back to Japan since then. It should happen, I think. It should happen.