It’s been five years since Matt Hales made an Aqualung record. You might remember two of his biggest hits, Brighter than Sunshine, and Strange and Beautiful, but there’s a lot more quality where that came from, more often heard these days through the mouths of acclaimed international artists such as Jason Mraz, Birdy, Alex Clare, and Paloma Faith, all of whom he’s been busy writing and producing music for. And it’s that train of thought that’s led to a 2015 Aqualung revival. 10 Futures is the ultimate collaboration project, which sees Hales team up with a string of cool, quirky, and experimental artists to make music, sometimes using traditional instruments, sometimes using trousers! Headliner enjoys a half-hour with this Grammy-winning maestro on his birthday, before he heads to Radio 2 for a date with Dermot O’Leary.
When Matt Hales made the decision to cross the pond to sunny Los Angeles some five years ago, it was for a change of scene, and it coincided with his new focus of doing more writing and producing for other people. Since heading Stateside, the South Londoner has enjoyed great success doing just that, and that collaborative edge has provided the inspiration for 10 Futures, a brand new Aqualung record.
“When I was first getting into producing for artists, most of the opportunities were in LA,” he recalls, “and I found myself working with British artists in LA that I couldn’t even get hold of in London, so I had a hunch it might be the place to be!”
The new record has been co- produced with Disclosure (Guy and Howard Lawrence), and it was working with the duo that gave the project the kick-start it needed.
“I was in that collaborative space, enjoying it, and then there were some weird coincidences. Guy and Howard got in touch with me at the end of 2012, just after I’d heard [their song] Latch, and I was a bit obsessed with it, but presumed I’d ever have anything to do with them, because they were so young and new,” he says. “But they wanted to work with me, and of course I said yes. Initially I was going to work on their record, but it took ages to find time, so we missed the boat there, and then I just said, ‘why not send me four bars of something?’, and they sent me this beautiful beat.
“I had something on the go at the time which was sort of the beginnings of what would become [the first single] Eggshells, and I was really inspired by it, so I quickly made the rest of the track, sent it to them, and it turned into that song. I got Lianne La Havas to sing on the second verse, and when it was done, I not only really liked it, but I realised it was the template for a new record: me collaborating with the new talent I was lucky enough to get to work with.”
When making 10 Futures, Hales had to treat himself the same way he treats the artists he works with as a producer: encourage adventure, and move away from the comfort zone.
“That’s when people are the most creative,” he insists. “If I was going to make another Aqualung record after such a long time, the last thing I wanted to do was repeat myself, and I also figured it would be more fun. And it was! It’s the most sociable record I’ve ever made.”
In his early days, Hales was all about his art (‘with a capital A’), and his material typically centred around his private musings on life, love and the universe. But that’s all changed. He likens 10 Futures to “the best dinner party imaginable”.
“It happened in bits over two years, but in terms of actual work, it was probably only a couple of weeks,” he says, explaining that pockets of studio time were taken between making records for other people. “A lot of it was done remotely, too. It was almost a consequence of having such a fertile time in terms of music making in the last five years, and new people coming into my musical life.”
Abandoning musical boundaries and making sounds out of sounds is another of Hale’s fortes. I ask him to share a couple of fun and quirky recording tales with me.
“I’ve realised in recent years that songs and tracks don’t need to originate from instruments. It can be about a sound or a texture just as much as a great chord progression or lyric, and a good example is the first song [on the album], Tape 2 Tape, which started as a conversation about cassettes,” he explains. “As a kid of the ‘80s myself, cassettes was absolutely what it was all about. As much as everyone likes to go on about vinyl, all my first recordings and even my first album was made on cassette. We were reminiscing about the sound, even that jaggedy noise when you open the little plastic box. Eject, the sound of the play button, and so on.
“So I found someone who had recorded some cassette noises, downloaded them, and then I made a beat out of all these cassette noises. I thought I’d invented multi-track recording when I was eleven, after realising I could record two things at once with two tape decks, so that was the beginning of that song, and that led to the main beat of the song, then I just improvised on melodies. It’s a little about cassettes, a little about duplication, and a little about genetics. It’s nothing to do with sitting down at a piano and playing lovely chords. It was totally inspired by sound.”
Another more off the wall story involves a particularly percussive pair of trousers...
“I like to have the mics on when I am in the studio, just in case, as you start hearing what’s going on in the ambience of the studio,” Hales continues. “I realised a great sound was happening when we were talking, and it was just trousers. Somehow or other, the combination of keys and the material of these trousers was a good, weird, creaky, shuffly, percussive thing. So I miked up the trousers, got the artist to walk in a rhythmic fashion, and it became a grainy loop that was the beginning of the track!”
He clearly had a lot of fun with the music (and trousers), but Hales points out that sounds he’s never heard before make the biggest impact.
“When that happens, you’re obliged to make something that’s new, and that’s a really important thing to be open to,” he says. “We were joking around, and I grabbed a floor tom, went outside, where there was lots of bird song and ambient sound, took a mic, and whacked the tom once. I recorded it, came back in the studio to a flabby sounding tom with a whole load of distant road noise on it, and because of the sound of the freeway, it had a pitch, and the tom had a note to it. I EQd it to bring out the note and re-pitched that hit to make some other notes, and that made a bassline, we started singing over it, and it became the basis of a whole song.
“It’s one of the wonders about making music in the future age: absolutely anything, be it the tiniest little sound or mistake or piece of broken wire or crisp packet can be transformed and made into music. I find it so fulfilling to work that way.”
So, from an audiophile perspective, is Hales concerned at the way the industry has become so digitally dependent? Not really.
“While I love the sound of the records I make, I am not someone who sort of fetishes fidelity; I don’t really care if people are listening to it on the best speakers, or at the best bit-rate, because in the end, music is just a carrier for ideas. If it’s a good one, it will be received and understood, even when it’s on a crackly little radio or an iPhone speaker; if it’s not, it doesn’t matter. And if there’s a good idea in the music, then that’s going to be preserved, either way.
“It’s a minority of people who really care about that stuff, and I sometimes think they are maybe missing the point. People are still making a bit of money, and I’m still getting sent brilliant new music all the time, and people are still re-defining music as they always have, figuring out how to get into the business, and find an audience. People talk about downloads and streaming and such, and I do slightly miss the artwork, but that’s about it. Anyone with the weird ability to turn an idea or feeling or even hunch into a piece of music and encapsulate inside that something truthful or something beautiful, has a real value in the world. I think that probably means the music business is going to be alright.”
In my humble opinion, 10 Futures is somewhat of an eclectic masterpiece, complemented by a series of unique guest performances. The production is outstanding (no surprise there), and because I’ve listened to it twice while writing this article, there may be more typos as a result. But so be it, because I’m in my new headspace, and for now, it’s all about Aqualung.