If anyone can claim to have had their career choice in some way chosen for them, it’s Aqualung’s Matt Hales; born above his parents Southampton independent record store, with a piano dominating the front room, he was writing songs by the age of 4. By 11 he’d been commissioned to compose his school Song (the melody stolen, he confesses without a hint of shame, from Howard Jones’ “Humans Lib” album), by 14 he was co-writing with his brother a clutch of “songs about road safety”. Awarded a scholarship at 16 to study composition in Winchester, by 17 he’d had his first symphony “Life Cycle” performed by a 60-piece orchestra, with Matt himself conducting. No ordinary childhood. No ordinary child.
After a decade in a rock band Matt Hales has become Agualung—one of the brightest stars in music today. We talk to him!
You seem to be getting off as another Coldplay wanna-be. Has that pissed you off a bit?
You have to ignore it. You have to make a decision at some point. Either you believe everything that is written which means you take the pleasure in the nice reviews and get sad about the bad ones or you ignore it all. I’ve taken that view so I wouldn’t drive myself crazy. I don’t think I’m Coldplay so…
What sold me was “Brighter Than Sunshine.” You can’t be a wanna-be and write a great song without getting credit. I heard it in the bathroom and it still sounded great—I figure that means something.
(Laughs) That’s the measure. (Laughs)
Did you write it and know it was going to be great?
I don’t know really. When you write it’s about a feeling I get when I have something and I feel like its going to be worth it. You just keep asking yourself throughout if it’s actually good or will it get behind. It doesn’t get to the end of the process if I don’t believe in it. Sometimes you are inside it a lot and you don’t realize what you are doing. Sometimes you have to leave it a bit to see if it’s good. Recently I’ve heard it so much and I hear it and I’m glad I wrote that one.
I know journalists, because I think I am one, we only get a few listens and then on to the next thing. I wonder if this isn’t a record that needs more time and it wasn’t given it. I think they had one listen and went on and wrote you off as Coldplay.
Of course they did. That’s what you do. But then again there were plenty of people who saw through it and realized it wasn’t this wanna-be thing. You have to trust in the end those people that it will appeal to are going to hear it. Those who like it really like it.
There was such a glut of bands who wanted to capture that Coldplay thing.
I think the best thing to do is just wait and see who is still making music years after. It’s no surprise and unfortunately you guys are so busy and lazy. (We both laugh) I think people got the music and saw it was an English guy, has a nice musical voice and whatever.
It does bug me because I often wonder what gems I missed out on.
You are bound to. You were absolutely right to not give those other artists notice but there are some worth the time.
I read about your background as a classical musician but how do you make it a pop song in the sense of timing and length? These songs seem very natural.
It’s a weird business. It’s partly being raised on this four minute thing. It’s in your head and you can’t get it out. You have a sense when a song has to be wrapped up. When you do a painting you have a canvas and you have to have a parameter.
You have a different style with the verses and when the choruses arrive…
That’s how it should be. I just have a sort of thing I like and if you like your stuff—it’s down to taste. It just felt right.
You are either born with it or not.
I guess. I don’t know if I was born with it but it wasn’t long after I was born. It was a channel that has never closed down. Fortunately it was allowed to develop.
It’s a tender record. “Breaking My Heart,” for instance, is very touching.
That’s kind. What I was thinking about with the whole Aqualung thing is that it shouldn’t be affected. It should just be genuine. It’s not a cool word, but it’s valued. If it isn’t real then there is no point. That what might be what you notice.
This record has a mellow style. Did you set out for that or was it the place you were at while making it?
I’ve been in a rock band for a decade and wanted to do something else. I wanted it to be about the piano and music sound. It wasn’t about rocking anyone’s world. It was about music and atmosphere.
Did you want a change of pace?
I’m getting to old for that shit.
Exactly. We were doing an up-tempo pop thing. It was a bit noisy but it was a young person’s thing. All the while I loved complex grown up music and fate conspired to give me the opportunity to do something else. When I had that chance I knew this would be the opportunity to do what I’ve wanted. There is just so much happening in the world and I was in a place to speak about these things.
I think with “Brighter Than Sunshine” you have a song with meaning and a hit.
One of my favorite songs is “God Only Knows.” It’s fucking brilliant. It combined meaning and was still a hit single. It’s amazing that he was able to put those two things together. It’d be mind-blowing if that would happen—its one thing I’ve hoped to pull off before I die.
“God Only Knows” is great. You could have a huge hit on your hands, too. It seems like you spent ten years chasing that hit and now it comes.
It’s weird because writing a good song isn’t hard. Part of it is just doing what I love and just playing and singing. The first time I was writing that song magically the verse kind of leapt into the chorus I was excited as you could imagine. I had shivers down my spine. I was fortunate.
+ Charlie Craine