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Matt Hales (aka Aqualung)



When I first heard of the band Aqualung a couple of years ago, I’ll be the first to admit that I immediately thought of the 1971 Jethro Tull album.  Given the name, I was hesitant at first.  But the group’s CD ‘Strange and Beautiful’ was recommended to me by a friend with pretty good taste in music, so I decided to take his advice and venture into the unknown.   The conclusion:  don’t judge a band by its name. 

With a piano centered in his childhood home above his parent’s independent record store, U.K.-based Matt Hales, the creative force behind Aqualung, was surrounded by music as a young boy.  It’s no surprise that he took that early exposure and made the most of it.   By the time he was 17, Hales already had a career many musicians dream of.  He started writing songs when he was four.  He was commissioned to compose his school’s song at age 11.  Awarded a music scholarship at 16, by age 17 he'd had his first symphony performed by a 60-piece orchestra, with Matt himself conducting.  And that’s just the teen years…

Hales went on to front numerous bands, including RUTH and The 45’s.  While these incarnations failed to make him a household name, he did find success it in one of the most unlikely of places - commercial television.  After stumbling upon Hales’ album ‘Strange and Beautiful,’ an ad exec for Volkswagon heard potential in the title track.  When the song was used in the VW Beetle campaign, Hales’ music was finally being heard by millions. And four years after its initial U.K. release, ‘Strange and Beautiful’ is still going strong, even in the U.S.  Featured on the soundtrack to last summer’s Ashton Kutcher hit movie A Lot Like Love, Aqualung’s ‘Brighter The Sunshine’ has been in rotation on radio stations across the country.   And following appearances on Leno and Letterman, Hales has finally found the mainstream success that eluded him for years.

Before a recent concert in Chicago, Hales took some time to sit down with Way Cool Music to talk about his musical childhood, his achievements so far, and his desire to be a stuntman.



Way Cool: 

In reading about and attending your live shows, you talk about setting a mood and atmosphere during the show and really having an emotional feeling.  When was the first time you experienced that connection at a concert?  What did it for you?
Matt Hales:

I can remember one of the first experiences of getting really caught up in the performance.  It was when I was very young, maybe 5 or 6, and I went to see a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at the cathedral in Winchester (England) where I was born.  Amazing big space and an amazing choir and orchestra.  I can remember having that sort of spine tingling, hair on end, weeping, totally overwhelmed feeling.  It was a totally emotional thing.  It just struck a chord.  And that was just confirming for me how emotional music could be, whether it be a recording or a live event.  Music sort of is emotion, I think.



That’s quite a unique experience for a 5- or 6- year old! 



I guess so, yeah.  It just kinda happened.  And then I got really fixated on that piece for a while.  It was the first piece of music that I chose to buy; it was a cassette of that.  And maybe an ABBA album, which is the opposite of that!




You’ve been involved in many different projects over the years and have been in the music industry for a long time.  What would you consider to be your top three achievements in your music career?




Hmmm, so far…  hopefully my top achievement, if you like, is that I’ve managed to keep going up to this point.  Given from when I started in earnest in the business, when I was 19 years old, I had a whole decade of non-success, which is a hard way to spend 10 years.  No money and all that stuff.  So, in thinking in terms of things that I’m proud of, it’s mostly that I made it through that period.  And sort of miraculously, now I’ve been rewarded by becoming much more successful than I ever was before.  That’s probably Number 1.

Number 2 would be writing a couple of songs that seem like they kinda have lives of their own.  As a songwriter, you always wonder if anything you write will ever live outside of you and your own personal effort to keep it going.  With a couple of songs now, they seem to have become songs that people, some people, a small number of people, all over the world have taken ownership of, to some small extent. And I can now disappear and they would for sure carry on and maybe a few others.  That’s one of the great things about writing music.

The third… I don’t know!  In anticipation, maybe the show tonight (Chicago), if you can have a third achievement that hasn’t quite happened yet.  But in many ways it is tonight.  I think it’s sold out tonight and it’s the first time that we’ve sold more than 1,000 tickets in America, and that feels like a really big deal because it’s a long way from home.  So, that’s a good one.  I thought no one would come, so it’s a very cool thing.




I don’t know if this is a big deal for you, but a Letterman appearance is always a big deal for American artists.  Tell us a little bit about that appearance.  




It was surreal because Letterman and Leno are very famous in the UK.  I didn’t know about the other late night shows, but I knew about those two.  I knew that if you got to appear as a British artist on one of those shows, you’ve made it.  That isn’t exactly true, but it does represent that you’ve had to get some success to get on those shows.  Mostly it was odd because I think of those shows, particularly Letterman, as being American, of being so intrinsically American, that to be on the inside of the television with Letterman was sort of… I just felt sort of slightly ingested by America.  It was like being inside America’s tummy.




How did it feel?

Warm.  Actually it was cold.  He has his studio really cold.  He doesn’t like to sweat.  But they told me to bring a jumper (sweater), hence my performance wearing a scarf for the first time in my career.



What was the reaction of your fans and newcomers to the performance?




You can always gauge the impact on these things from the usual channels.  People online and friends and random family members have seen it.  It’s obviously a big thing and had a big effect.  We noticed a big effect on sales of the CD as well, so it was clearly a good thing to do.




Who were the other people that night?

I can’t remember who it was.  I remember when we did Leno it was Dan Akroyd, which was quite something.  Or was it Conan (O’Brien)?  It was one of those.  It was odd because at the end of my performance, I was invited over to sit on the “couch of fame” next to Dan Akroyd.  I thought, “What am I doing here?”  I can’t remember whom Letterman was with, though.  It was someone who meant more to Americans than me.  I wasn’t able to be that overwrought, but I was suitably freaked out by just being there.
WC: We saw you last year in Milwaukee and the theater inspired you to do The Muppet Show theme song.  So, we need to know, who’s your favorite muppet and why?


Well, my relationship with The Muppet Show has changed recently because I have a son who has now become fixated on Sesame Street, which is sort of training for The Muppet Show.  So, where as before, I was child of Kermit and Fozzie, Gonzo was my favorite because he was a stuntman and I wanted to be stuntman, too.





And did you have a thing for chickens?




Well, I’d rather not get into that!  Certain legal things won’t let me answer that!  So now I have a lot more time being exposed Sesame Street, which is also brilliant. I used to watch it as a kid.  My son is really keen on Ernie.  It started with Elmo, but now it’s matured into Ernie.




How old is he?




He’s nearly two.  He’s very into Ernie.  He doesn’t really seem to care about Bert too much.  He sort of mentions Bert now and then, but if he sees Bert, he’s excited because it means that Ernie’s coming on.  He sings the ‘Rubber Duckie’ song and he has a great voice.  He’s an amazing little musician already! 




We’ve heard that there’s a story about some red-headed sluts in Nashville that you might want to talk about.  Do you care to elaborate?



Oh, good.  I’m so excited that’s coming out.  We just played in Nashville and I suppose we did play a song entitled ‘Red-Headed Sluts,’ so I guess it’s passing into legend. 

I’m not a particularly crazed rock ‘n’ roll type.  Every now and then, I get this urge, having been fairly well restrained, to just go and get quite fucked up.  When we first played Nashville, it was a great show and it was great to be in that legendary town and our drummer was leaving to go on tour in Russia. There were all sorts of reasons why it was a bit of special night.  We went, in a kind of lame touristy way, to Broadway and some honky-tonk bars.  We ended up in Tootsies next to the Grand Ole Opry.  It was brilliant and there was a great honky-tonk band playing and loads of people and it was exciting we were having these small drinks and it got even more exciting.  Then people started buying me these drinks called red-headed sluts which are absolutely foul and taste like medicine, but they don’t make you feel any better! 

And at some point, it all just got very ugly.  I heard tell afterwards that they brought out another round of these little drinks.  When they came along, I chuckled in an evil fashion and (flipped over the tray they were on).  And in a crowded bar, I didn’t make any friends.  I had to get out of there!  My friends who were looking out for me rushed me out before I got killed.  And then I spent some time throwing up on myself by way of punishment.  Then I had to get on the radio live very early the next morning.  They’ve never seen a greener or grayer individual in their life.  I was very close to throwing up on live radio.

In a nutshell, that’s the story.  Be careful with those sluts.




Tell us a little bit about Jason (Kanakis) and the ice.




Sure.  I don’t really know what to say about Jason and the ice.  It’s very possible that Jason has primed you on this.  I think that Jason just likes to be mentioned.  I’ll just say, yes, Jason was there.  Jason is excellent.  He’s a slightly odd combination of blond Greek bonhomie and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  If he’s not being the life of the party, he’s cleaning up the residue of the party. (During our recent tour) It became really important to him that the bus and the cooler were well stocked with ice so the beer could be chilled.  You’d know the night was coming to an end when he’d struggle on with a giant bucket.  He’d tip some of it in the cooler and more of it on the floor.  That may be the story he’s referring to.





7 Questions




What's the worst job you've ever had? 


Selling kitchens to worried old ladies.


What's your favorite movie quote or song lyric? 


“Love is a scar on a scar on a scar.”  That’s by my friend Duke Special.



Who would you want to star in the movie of your life? 


Dan Akroyd.



What's your favorite TV theme song? 


I really do like The Muppet Show theme.  But, these days, I’m really into the Sesame Street song, which may be the most cheerful song ever written.



If you were a superhero, what would your name be? 


Almost, but not quite, Man.



What do you want to be when you grow up? 


I don’t know.  I think it’s still stuntman.  I think that’s what all this is leading me to.  A remake of The Fallguy, starring me and singing my own theme song..



Finally, why are there so many songs about rainbows? 


Are there?  I only know one song about a rainbow and it’s fucking annoying!



WC: Thanks so much for your time!


To find out more information about Matt Hales, visit his website at www.aqualung.net.