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April 24, 2007
Matt Hales, better known in the wider world as Aqualung, invested the last three years of his life developing an album that would avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. His debut, Strange and Beautiful, wowed critics and wooed fans with his Brit-lite synth arrangements and yearning melodies. How to follow up such a strong debut became a nagging question, and this past February, Memory Man became the answer, showcasing an electric, even bombastic side of Hales that was previously only hinted at. From a cell phone in North Carolina, Hales recently fielded questions from LAS staff writer Matt Conner about the distinct differences of Memory Man, translating it into a live format, and the current state of affairs in Aqualand.
---

LAS: What was the difference going into the studio this time around for Memory Man now that there is an established sound and fan base?

Matt Hales: I don't know what the most significant factors were really. It had been a long time since I'd made a completely new record. The previous release of Strange and Beautiful was really a compilation of two other records I'd made at home in the U.K. So it had been about three years since I'd set aside some time to record a whole new thing.

And that was a very significant three years. In addition to the American adventure, there had also been parenthood. Those are some remarkable events. I remember speaking to my brother just before we got started, thinking it felt like an opportunity I'd never quite had before. I felt more confident than ever before in the point, I'd call it I suppose, but a stronger sense than ever that this definitely has value, even in a small way, to some people. I felt I was justified to make another record.

So I said, Therefore, if that's the case, I think we should try our damnedest to make something that's good and also, to some extent, kind of bold.

Was there a difference, between writing just for yourself versus writing for an audience you know is already there?

That's probably in there slightly. I think it's also the thing, like, most musicians and everyone achieves it to a greater or lesser extent, but you're always kind of thinking about what your heroes did or would do. I really love it, say, when there's a new Wilco album coming out and I don't know what it's going to be like. Or wasn't it exciting when The Beatles did Revolver or whatever? Maybe it's a mistake to put yourself in the same sentence as those superstars...

But if you're going to be serious about being a musician, you're making your own little story and your own tiny, little legend - you should try to do bold and exciting things. And that was definitely there as well.

So, going back to the prep for Memory Man - this album definitely has stronger rock elements to it. Is that a part of trying to be bold?

I suppose. I felt that the challenge was to try and develop and expand the kind of territory that I was inhabiting in every dimension. So there's obvious things... like it's louder, more kind of rock-ish, if you like. There's more than that as well in terms of song structure and the shifted emphasis away from the preeminent piano. There's also the lyrical style as well. We sort of allowed things or even pushed things to be more oblique.

It's all those things that go into songwriting and record making. In our own little way, it's saying, This is what we've tended to do. What would happen if we made that now allowed or made it allowed but only did it in a way we haven't before? But one of the things I've learned while doing this is that the stuff that feels amazingly bold and courageous to you when you're doing it often doesn't read all that revolutionary when it comes out.

It's not like people who previously bought Aqualung records are going to be weeping or tearing it up or burning it because it's so incomprehensible. In some ways, it's still quite a conventional record. In order to even make a slightly more different record, you have to continue to push yourself to do what seems to be challenging.

When you came to the studio for Memory Man, did you come with several finished tracks? Did you leave quite a bit off the album?

No, I don't work like that really. It's quite concise on the whole. There were two songs we recorded fully that we didn't put on there, but by about halfway through I knew that was going to be the case. It felt like these were the cast of characters that were going to make up the story. It was just a matter of how we were gong to dress them up and what order to introduce them in.

Those two songs, will they end up B-sides or what?

I guess so. It's not like they're shit or anything. They are really part of the story and it'd be nice for people to hear them. So I guess they will be [released]. There's such a demand for bits of music out there, I'm sure they'll find their way out. I think they might even be on the Japanese [version]. But I'd love to play them. That'd be fun.

In what ways is the American market for your music different from the market in the U.K.?

I don't know. I can't tell because it doesn't feel distinctly different. I'm in D.C. right now and a few days ago I played in Manchester. It's the same really.

Even in the fan base?

The odd thing has been the unexpected level of success of Strange and Beautiful and the fact that whilst we were working on that, we didn't do anything at all in the U.K. Right now, we're slightly more successful here than at home, which is a bit odd. But that's alright.

You asked about the difference in playing to the audiences, but the similarities far outweigh any difference in them. There's a slightly different accent in the cheering. But basically once we start making our music, no matter where we are in the world, it turns that space into our territory. Everyone is a civilian in the republic of Aqualand.

Sounds like your fan club name.

[Laughs] I think you're right.

I caught your show in Indianapolis recently and it seemed that many things were added and subtracted. Is it that Memory Man is a hard album to translate into a live context?

Oh yeah. It's basically impossible, as far as I can see. I never really worry about that too much. It's such a densely layered arrangement that unless you have an orchestra or 25 players, you just couldn't do it. I've always felt that the record and the live thing are two different forms and they should have a different focus.

We're still figuring out what aspects of the Memory Man songs are the essential aspects of the songs to bring out. It's a very interesting procedure, trying to find what are the main things that really work. Sometimes it's not the bits you expect. So we'll be puzzling with that for the next few months. But hopefully we're making good racket nonetheless.

Do you enjoy that time on the road or do you prefer the studio time?

You really can't have one without the other. Touring is where you store up credits while you're away so then you can spend them to go back to the studio. That's certainly the way it felt over the last couple years touring [in the U.S.] so much. But the end goal was always to have the opportunity to make another record. I suppose if I had to choose between never touring again or never recording again, I would choose to only record. I do enjoy touring. I like the business of trying to interpret the material into the live act. You learn more about the songs that way.

The thing about recording the songs is - and this is something I've begun thinking about recently in the way I listen to other's songs - generally speaking, you're recording songs and making these definitive choices about them very near the beginning of their lives. You write them and pretty soon after that you record them. You're saying, Listen, world. This is it. This is exactly the way they are supposed to be. And it might turn out that you missed the point. Maybe two years later, you're at a gig in Glasgow and realize that song is supposed to be totally different. That's something about the live life of the songs - that they carry on living.

So if you could rerecord parts of Strange and Beautiful you would, based on the life those songs have taken on?

I don't think so, because I think that would be an amazingly tedious business. And why would anyone want it? [Laughs] It's more that the direction those songs have taken as they have grown up always gives me insight into the next chapter of Aqualung music as a whole. I don't think I'd really want to do it. And it's nice when live recordings and such document these incarnations of the songs. It's good for audiences when they continue to change, and certainly for me. I wouldn't be nearly as interested if we stuck to the same arrangement forever and ever.

Why "Pressure Suit" for your first single? Because you released a different song in the U.K., right?

We just started our campaign in the U.K. and that's starting with "Cinderella" just to confuse the hell out of everyone. [Laughs] One thing I was interested in doing on Memory Man as a challenge to myself was to write an album that was deep and detailed and serious and good but that also had a few hits on it.

"Pressure Suit" being one of those hits?

Well, it's not like "Hey Mickey". [Laughs] But that there would be some songs that would have a sort of instant effect, I suppose. But to do that in a way that was good, but not being cheap and cheerful.

Now is that easier or harder to write in that way?

Well, I didn't think, Now, I'm gonna write my hit. I just made it. It was more in my head that I made it admissible and then it just happened that way. And all the songs on that record that might be single-ish could have been recorded in such a way that they absolutely would not have been.

It seems a bit too convoluted and sort of delicate. It's quite tremulous, that song. It has some unusual time signatures and funny words. That's not the sort of thing that radio normally plays. Even the fact that it's called "Pressure Suit" is quite strange in that world. As that recording came together, it was clearly a song that was one of my favorites. And then the label latched onto it as a place to start, not because it's an easy sell in terms of radio. But it felt like a good representation of the new record and I was really pleased they chose that one. There are other songs that are more single-ish I think, so to go with something more challenging and sophisticated was the right thing to do.

Is it hard for you in some way to release your artwork to the world?

It is a bit like someone shuffling from behind a screen and whipping it away and standing there naked going, Look at my balls. And then people cry, Aw, they're awful. Misshapen. Bizarrely hairless. [Laughs] There is a risk. But you know, I could be a crab fisherman, the most dangerous occupation in the world. So it's not really a risk. But if you're gonna be an artist, you've got to be prepared to be scrutinized of your most intimate parts. I think that's part of the bargain.

How aware are you of that criticism?

Well, I don't spend all my time perceiving everything that everyone is saying about every aspect of what I'm doing. Most of it is really boring. But I am aware. Some artists like to pretend they don't care or don't read. But I do care. I am pleased when someone seems to like it. I am interested in how they think it relates to them or what other things I've done. And then, inevitably, I'm also disgruntled when someone says, This is absolute shit. Do not buy it. I worked terribly hard to make something that wasn't shit.

Either way, It doesn't make me think I'm the greatest human alive or that I should go and hide away forever. Fortunately, in myself, I'm very happy. I know I've done it for the right reasons and there has been no compromise along the way. So I feel fairly invulnerable in the essential way. Some people always call everything shit. Other people always love an album even if it's shit. So it really cancels the other ones out, even the good reviews, unfortunately.

SEE ALSO: www.aqualung.net

--
Matt Conner
A contributing writer, Matt Conner lives in Anderson, Indiana.

See other articles by Matt Conner.

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