Near the start of his U.S. tour, Matt Hales, a.k.a. Aqualung, sat down with QRO. Between playing Tonight Show with Jay Leno (QRO Indie on Late Night TV) and Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge, Hales discussed his tour (and tour bus), his new record Magnetic North (QRO review), why he retired & why he came back, his children’s musical inclinations, dancing & crying, freezing & starving in Sweden, and much more…
QRO: This is the first week of the tour. How’s it going so far?
Matt Hales: So far, pretty good. I haven’t been on tour for quite a long time. And I particularly haven’t been on tour in a tour bus for a long time and, um, nothing says, "I’m on tour" like being on a tour bus. There’s a particular smell, particularly weird sensation in the bunks, and all the many musicians who’ve also lain in those bunks so it’s funny. On one hand, on one level it’s really, really familiar and on another hand I feel like I’ve never done it before.
And the show is like that too, because in my usual perverse fashion I’ve set the tour up so that I don’t really know what’s going to happen. And I’m playing with musicians who I don’t know and we literally met two days before the tour. It’s very, it’s designed to be very active, like as for me to have to be very much engaged and involved in it to make it happen. So
So, it gives an interesting sensation.
QRO: Any shenanigans so far?
MH: There hasn’t really been any time for shenanigans. There’s a certain amount of shenanigans built into the show, as you’ll see, and it has been fun ‘cause some of the new material is unusually lively, and there’s definitely a lot more dancing at the Aqualung shows lately, which is not normally characteristic of the Aqua show, more just crying. Whereas now there’s been dancing and crying.
QRO: Putting the razor blades away.
MH: Just for a second. A little groove and then… [motions slitting his wrist]
QRO: I believe that the last time you came through Portland from Seattle, the tour bus broke down.
MH: Oh, yes of course.
QRO: That was a highlight, I’m sure.
QRO: I was wondering if you would share your best tour horror story.
MH: I haven’t had any really awful things happen. Mostly, they just kind of fall into the category of being stranded in some amazingly horrible little truck stop.
We did have one where for whatever reason we had to, we were obliged to spend two whole days, like 48 hours in a Swedish truck stop in the middle of absolutely nowhere and we didn’t have… we ran out of food on the bus and there was, we hoped there would be like a supermarket and there wasn’t, it was just a petrol station and a weird hotel with no restaurant and we kept, we were told that you could walk. The bus had run out of power… that was it… so we were in the dark and the cold. We couldn’t get in the hotel cause it was full. They said, there are restaurants a few miles up the road but it was completely pitch black, and there was no light, no street lights; we felt like it was an exploratory mission to try but we were too frightened and lost. We came back to the dark bus and thought, "Okay, well at least we all noticed that they had some hot dogs at the petrol station." As we got to the petrol station tired, exhausted and cold, they closed the petrol station. And so we just went back and just shivered hungry and cold.
QRO: I thought you were going to say you had to eat lutefisk.
MH: It didn’t get, come quite to that. But we did eat the bass player.
QRO: I heard that you nearly left the music business.
QRO: I was wondering how you are feeling about your decision to give it another go?
MH: To nearly return to the music business.
QRO: You have returned.
MH: I suppose I must’ve. Um, it’s quite good to retire. I’d recommend it. If anyone’s been doing anything for any length of time, I would recommend retiring for a while. It’s good. It gives you a good perspective on what you’ve done, and what you might want to do.
I wouldn’t be here doing this and having put out a new record if it hadn’t been prompted and motivated by the most kind of, purest of motivations, which was the songs. I didn’t have any… I wasn’t missing being looked at. And I wasn’t missing being talked to. I wasn’t missing much about the business. But the songs were kind of just bugging me. And in the end I just sort of had to go, "Alright, if it will shut you up, let’s do this." But it was, I was really encouraged because there was no doubt about it. It was the right reason to do it again – and obviously I knew that if I made a record and put it out, then it would lead to this. All this horror, talking to you – so unpleasant. But it’s like funded and driven by this kind of really good energy. I feel sort of insulated against the unpleasant aspects of it. It feels, it’s fine, ‘cause I want to talk about it. I actually really want to sing the songs, I want people to hear it because I really sort of love it, and um, I feel weirdly like I’ve never done it before. It sort of feels surprisingly like my first ever record, and my first ever tour and that kind of return to a sort of pre-professional state. It’s probably the only way I can come back. It’s very nice.
QRO: That’s it. I’m retiring.
MH: Do it! Retire. Everyone should retire. Do it today.
Aqualung playing "Good Times Gonna Come" live at Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, OR on April 30th, 2010:
QRO: What are you most proud of, musically speaking?
MH: On this album? Well, what I really like about the way this record came out was it is very quiet, very gently quite eccentric and there’s lots of things about the way it’s put together that are not regular. But it sort of wears its strangeness so very lightly that I don’t think you really even notice.
But I think that as time goes on, people will have the record and spend a bit of time with it or enjoy finding out and going, "Oh I see, that’s a bit strange there’s no snare drum on this record" or whatever the things are that they’re… so that’s what I really like. That sort of feels like an achievement creatively. To have made something which has a little slight world all of it’s own.
And, I’m really proud of the, I feel like it has a real kind of a life in it, in the recording somehow. They feel very alive; that’s quite hard to get in recordings cause it’s sort of a, it’s a fixing process and it kind of flatten things down, like you know, flowers in a book. And, um, these really feel like they are somehow three dimensional or alive in some way, so that’s good.
I don’t know… It’s just, it’s just and I also feel like it doesn’t have anything to do with anyone’s music apart from my own. It sort of feels like maybe at this point it’s album five or whatever, but the sort of style or something has kind of matured to a point where it’s really, it’s just sort of my thing. Well, it’s always been sort of reminiscent of many other people’s things. I feel like it’s more, more definitely it’s own kind of thing than previous records, which is nice to feel, and I sort of feel like maybe
That would be the answer to your question, anyway – there you are.
QRO: What I found to be interesting on the album is that you had not one, but three female artists backing you up throughout the record.
QRO: I don’t really know of anyone who has done that.
MH: Well that was a really, really nice development on this record. I had to have that idea as a concept because certain songs were pas de deux. They were, there were just two characters and they were often sort of head to head; it was kind of conversational and very candid, and it felt like there should be two people in the songs, in the scenes sort of thing and, so that was part of it and having had experimented with the idea all around of having a different vocalist come in and sing part of a song, and how dramatic that was, how interesting, how that shift of the, of the protagonist sort of thing cast really on my part of the song and on the words and everything. I really thought that was really rich, and I wanted to do more of that. And it was lovely. And also it was just great singers.
QRO: But three? You didn’t stick with one.
MH: No. Well because it was casting. You know, I had to cast Kelly Sweet for "Sundowning" because it needed to be this like, um, flat dispassionate depressed sounding lady, you know? Cool and removed – that’s the right character for that job and she has that voice. This lovely sound, very even and very sort of flat. And then like for "New Friend" it had to be this kind of bounding, kind of outrageous gospel singer and so there had to be LeAnn because that’s what she does and she’s fantastic. And then for "Remember Us" it had to be, I don’t know, it had to be a sort of tender… It had to be a friend of mine, sort of thing. You needed somebody who really needed to know something about me to understand how to sing that song. To bring the right level of sort of sad tenderness to it and Sara (Bareilles), us being friends, her having I think a real insight as to what my music means to me was exactly the right… her, the way she sings it, the way her voice as is familiar to most people, wasn’t going to be exactly right for that song but she understood that she needed to sort of take on a character for that performance and she did, she found this lovely kind of frail, she’s just such a big singer, but she found this great slightly broken frail voice that was just so, so good. And it was, um, it really completed the song conceptually as well as musically.
And then the record because it’s all about, I was sort of saying jokingly, it’s like my Updike album sort of thing. It’s all this kind of relationship songs. They’re all, there’s no, there’s hardly anything about new love, it’s all about the third stage and fourth stage of relationship when things start to sag or things start to break apart or it seemed like it was all going to go to hell and then it didn’t. All that stuff and they have to be couples you know. I should have called it "Couples". Oh well.
Aqualung playing "Thin Air" live at Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, OR on April 30th, 2010:
QRO: What’s next for you?
MH: Well, the rest of the tour obviously. Then go to Europe and do the album, will come out there and play a bit more. And just see the album out safely into the world and then I’ll be back home to my new home in California and carry on with my, taking the kids to school and writing songs with other people and producing records for other people, which is my new sort of hobby, and we’ll just see.
The most significant thing for me that’s happened and it’s quite wonderful really, is that I’ve gone from being confident that I didn’t want to do this anymore, to being confident that this was going to be my last record, to now being confident that I want to find a way to carry on making music and doing my thing because it turns out I still really love it.
QRO: Are your kids showing musical inclinations?
MH: Yes. Indeed they are. Well, Kofi is on the album; that’s him shouting at the end of the first track and he’s singing on that song. And Gia isn’t, she’s two. She didn’t make it onto the record but we did write a song about her. The two of them really are quite hilariously musically inclined. Who knows? Kofi is writing songs, very strange songs "There Once Was a Boy Who Turned Into a Stick". That’s one of his, I think that’s his hit so far and now I’m obviously grooming him for superstardom. And Gia wants to play the guitar. We were rehearsing with the band at my house just before the L.A. show, she was listening and she came back in with her ukulele and just sat down like with the band and said, "OK when do I come in?" She’s two, so it was pretty cute. So we’ll see. There could be quite a band brewing there.
QRO: Who have you been listening to lately?
MH: Lately who have I been listening to… like all of the world, I’ve been listening to that Phoenix record [Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - QRO album review] a lot because it’s ever so good. Like less of the world I’ve been listening to, I’ve sort of discovered this Milton Nascimento, not really an artist from the ‘70s, he’s still going now but his first two records are quite extraordinary and um, he’s got this very pure sound. That was a big reference point for my album was his sound. I’ve been enjoying that a lot.
There were some Brazilian people at the show last night at Vancouver they were claiming that there would be some interest in me going to play in Central America. I don’t know… I’d quite like to.
QRO: Where have you not toured before that is of interest to you?
MH: I haven’t gone south of Arizona. I would love to go play in Mexico; there’s extraordinary music cultures as a musician I feel I need to be there to feel it. I’d like to go to, I’ve been to Japan a lot. But I’ve never been to China. I haven’t been to Taiwan, and I haven’t been to Thailand. I did play some music in Bali once, which was very nice, with some local musicians, which was excellent; I wouldn’t mind doing that again.
Um, but everywhere else I think, so yeah, I wouldn’t mind so maybe as part this next phase of continuing my peculiar adventure it would be nice to go and make some music in some of those other places and check them off, and see what they have to say for themselves.
Video interview of Matt Hales: