At 35 years old, British-born Matt Hales is too old to be called a prodigy. Now he's a "musical genius." Hales' second album, Memory Man, is due to be released in March and on it he eschews his old friend the piano for a slew of new instrumentation and offers up a rich, beautiful collection of songs. Preparing for his American tour which includes opening for Pete Yorn and a handful of headlining shows, Hales--who records and performs under the stage name Aqualung--spoke to us from his home in England.
When do you leave for America?
I'm coming to you [Boise] via L.A. I'm shooting a video in L.A. and then come to you and begin the crazy journey.
What song are you shooting the video for?
"Pressure Suit." Nothing says "Here we go again" like shooting a video.
Do you have anything to do with the treatment for the video or do you turn all of that over to someone else?
With this record, particularly, from the word go, I've had quite a strong sense of the visual aspect of the album. This time around, we made sure the directors had artwork and photos for some ideas that I had. Not necessarily specific ideas, but the atmosphere of the record and where I felt that things should be placed. And they responded to that. You just get a real interesting range of things and one or two of them really jump out. In this case, one had the right combination and also the potential for me to get hurt.
[Laughing] So you'll do stunts?
I wanted to be a stuntman when I was about 11 until I was about 17. Well, clearly, I still want to be a stuntman now.
I don't really care if it's a good video or not as long as I get to do some stunts. There was actually one proposal made which was just basically a sky dive. I haven't gone for that one.
You'd sing as you're falling?
Yeah, something like that. I figured it would be quick but a little tiny bit too dangerous.
How long did you work on Memory Man?
It's been three and a half years since I made the last album [Strange and Beautiful]. So in theory, you could say I've worked on it that whole time. The whole American chapter of my career happened in that time which was like a whole extra thing and really pretty distracting, but [the album] sat in the back of my mind that whole time and in the front of my mind to some extent for about half that time.
How did you know when you were done with the album?
There was a sort of goal. It wasn't like, "Once I've got my 50 minutes, I'll stop," it was more about wanting to make a piece that had a certain feeling about it. There were aspects of what I'd done in the past that I wanted to expand upon. It was like I had to keep going and pushing until I felt like I'd really explored all the areas I wanted to and then it suddenly turned out it was finished.
So there was a point when you said, "This is it."
There were several points when I asked that question but it wasn't quite there. It's like a painting: You think it's finished and you come back the next day and realize it needs a little bit more purple. Potentially, you could go on for ever and ever. But fortunately, there was kind of a bell that sounded and it was finished.
Does any of that ever come from your two collaborators [his brother Ben Hales and his wife Kim Oliver]. Do they ever say, "You've covered everything. You've got it?"
Not really. Whilst they have a great deal to do with what goes on and a great deal of input, that particular call the "Yes, this is actually finished now," has to be mine. They're quite good at saying, "You should do that again" which has happened on many occasions. It's good it works, that kind of division of responsibilities seems to work.
Is performing under the name Aqualung like performing under an alter ego?
I think of it more as kind of a pathetic superhero. Like Clark Kent goes into the phone box and comes out as Clark Kent again except maybe with his glasses off.
So that's who Aqualung is for you?
Yeah, I think so. It's like an alter ego but not really alter.
[At this point we're both laughing. While this could be construed as a poignant statement on the human condition, it's not. It's just meant to be funny.]
There's such eclectic instrumentation on this album. Was there any instrument you'd never used before that you had to learn how to play?
Loads and loads of new things. The big thing was that I was trying to relegate the piano to much further down the list. I've always tended to kind of default to the piano. This time I was anxious to see what would happen if that was not the case. That was the main thing that led to all the other instruments being brought in. I was determined to try to keep constructing the music without resorting to what I always used to do. That pushed the arrangements and the sound into all sorts of new territory.
Do you do most of your writing at your piano at home? Do you do any writing when you're on the road?
I don't really write while I'm away. I think a lot about songs, and I kind of write in a sort of a "back of my mind" kind of way. All the writing always happens at home on the piano I've had for years and years in my home studio. I get back from touring, and I kiss my son and wife and then rush to my piano. Almost always on getting home from touring I'll write one or two songs that day or the next. For me, there's this whole thing with writing that's bound up with being at home or being somewhere familiar. I don't think it's possible for me to get to the place I need to get to in order to write if I'm not around a lot of my familiar things.
On Memory Man, was there one instrument you hadn't played much before that you found you really liked to play?
I played quite a bit of guitar on this record for the first time. I like the sound musicians make when they're playing instruments they're not familiar with. Often, I'll ask people who play with me, "What instrument can you barely play and can you bring one of those?" I don't like things to be too slick. All pianists and keyboard players secretly wish they played the guitar because it's so much cooler.
I have to get this out: The new album is really beautiful.
Good. I'm glad you feel that way. It's funny, this is actually the first interview of any kind I've done on the subject. I haven't really spoken to that many people outside my current immediate circle who've had exposure to [the album]. It will be interesting to see what it amounts to for people coming to it fresh, so I'm glad to hear that you like it.
Aqualung opens for Pete Yorn on Tuesday, Feb. 6. Show starts at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $20. The Big Easy 416 S. 9th St. in BoDo, 208-367-1212.