Since the formation of Australian band The Beautiful Girls in 2001, front-man Mat McHugh has fans worldwide falling in love with his sound. He has embarked on many solo endeavors including his release of Seperatista! back in 2009 along with several tour stops here in North America, overseas and back home in Australia over the past year. We sat down with Mat before his first solo show here in Toronto to ask him a few questions about his past as well as his future as he currently pieces together his second solo record.
Bestfan: Are there a lot of differences that you’ve noticed between being here in Canada in comparison to back home in Australia?
Mat: There’s not so many between Canada and Australia weirdly enough. To be quite honest I think of all the places that I go, Canada is the most similar – maybe not climate wise and geographically, but there is definitely a mentality that’s similar between the two countries and the people are very alike. It’s so strange because you cross the border from the United States to Canada and things are glaringly different.
Bestfan: Your last two visits to Toronto with The Beautiful Girls you’ve played both El Mocambo and the Horseshoe Tavern. Those venues have rich music history and have hosted artists such as U2 and Hendrix in the past. How do you feel, knowing that these iconic acts have played those stages before you?
Mat: It’s super intimidating. Coming from Australia, by the time that these big acts get there they’re always playing stadiums so you never really tread on the same stages. But in America and Canada you play these little places that The Doors and those types of bands have played at, and the first time that I experienced that it kind of freaked me out. The more times that you play those kinds of places, the more that the cool side of it comes out because you feel like you are part of a tradition in some small way which is a really good feeling.
Bestfan: You’ve had so many successes with the band The Beautiful Girls. What initially motivated you to kind of break away from the group vibe and do your own thing as a solo artist?
Mat: All it simply is, is that throughout the years these have been my songs and it has been my output for 24 hours a day 7 days a week. I don’t want to escape anything and I’m not trying to change what I do – It’s just the rearranging of the letters on the front cover of a CD. The genesis of The Beautiful Girls was when I was living in New York City. I had written demos for songs, I wanted to record a CD, and I had showed my friends, a bass player and a drummer who were the original band members my songs, and said learn these parts/lets record them. I kind of wanted to go home, renew my VISA and go back to New York but the music blew up and took off in Australia and at the time I wasn’t too comfortable being a singer/songwriter. I just called it the bands name rather than my name but increasingly over the years I’ve wanted to take ownership over my songs and my music and it frees me up because I can play acoustic shows in places where we don’t have a large following. My intention is to get back to the spot where I’m on stage with a band and I would love to play with the same guys but just as Mat McHugh. It’s hard because I think people have a perception of bands in the sense that they get together, everyone has an input, they rehearse and then record a song but you know there are varying degrees of that reality.
Bestfan: The acoustic guitar drove the albums Morning Sun and Learn Yourself. On We’re Already Gone you went electric for much of the album and then on Ziggurats and Spooks the electric guitar dominated. What made you decide to set down the electric guitar and begin to write acoustic songs again?
Mat: I think that Spooks was as far as I wanted to take it in a certain direction. I’m really proud of the record and I love it but there was a lot of time and effort that went into the intricacies of that album. I kind of just wanted to do the opposite now because with me as a person if I do the same thing all the time, it just gets boring and uninspired. Same thing with the band – when we originally became known it was for mellow, acoustic music and it wasn’t in my heart to do more of that straight after. But now I’ve fallen in love with the acoustic guitar again and the simplicity of getting a song out in a basic way can be very powerful. I won’t stay acoustic forever but for now I’m enjoying it.
Bestfan: I know The Clash and Sublime are two of your major influences. What is it about them that you are so attracted to?
Mat: Their passion for one but also their approach to music is very similar to where I come from. I grew up surrounded by all these surfer/skater guys who would give me tapes of N.W.A and Run DMC but also The Sex Pistols and Bob Dylan and I loved it all! I think with those bands they see through the categorizations of music and into the heart of it, which allows them to see the life in the style of music that they put together. I’m a huge fan of music and I don’t subscribe to the idea that because I’m a rocker I’m just going to have 15 rock songs that all sound the same. I’ll be in the car with my iPod on shuffle and listen to a Bob Dylan song and think it was the best thing ever created then a Slayer song will come on and I’ll think the same thing. That’s just me and to get that feeling across with my music is something I want to do.
Bestfan: I read somewhere about your blackbird experience when you lived in India. Could you elaborate on that story a little?
Mat: People have been asking me about that a lot lately because I have a flag on stage with the bird on it and my stickers are the same. I always have the bird on things because when I was staying in India it was a really soul searching time in my life. I was just into my twenties and I was staying in an ashram, which is pretty much a prison cell with a straw mattress and concrete walls and the malaria medication that I was taking gave me crazy dreams. I would wake up every single morning around 4AM and this one bird would come and sit on the railing outside of where I was staying. I would go outside and talk to it and I felt like it was telling me stuff like connecting all these dreams that I was having and helping me try to find something in the universe. Not only was ‘Blackbird’ one of the first Beautiful Girls songs but also I like to keep the bird symbol around to keep me connected to what I like to do and my motivations.
Bestfan: In your opinion, where is the best surf?
Mat: In the North Pacific near Guam. You travel North from Sydney about 28 hours to this little island chain which is near some of the deepest trenches on Earth. The waves come out of really deep water and hit shallow coral atolls and there’s no one around – it’s amazing.
Bestfan: You’ve been through a lot in the last few years. From a motorcycle accident and near-death experiences on the road to getting skin cancer cut out of your face and the passing of a friend, Andy Irons. How do you feel these events have impacted you?
Mat: Well everybody goes through stuff you know – that’s part of the whole deal. Your born, then you stumble around a little and then you die. You hit a few bumps along the way but those things have an affect on your inspirations and they put things into a sharper focus especially when death or near death experiences happen. It makes you reconsider what is important and you ask yourself “do I really care about that?” or “is this feud that I’m having with someone worth it?” and most times it’s not. I think those moments are pretty important creatively because for me they steer me back to every move I make and I try and make each moment important.
Bestfan: What can we expect from your second solo record?
Mat: With Seperatista! most of the songs started as baselines and grooves and I built songs from that layer up. But this time I’m going back to the old way of having a song work on the acoustic guitar first and then I want to get the drums and the bass to be really heavy. It’s all pretty spacious and acoustic so for fans of the old Beautiful Girls stuff you’ll probably like it but I’m hoping people that like hip-hop and dub will enjoy it too. I have the songs and I have the lyrics and everything ready, but I have to go home and piece it all together. I think it will be good – I’m pretty psyched about it but I don’t want to touch wood (laughs).
Most played song on your iPod right now: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have a specific song but I’ve been listening to a lot of The XX. They did a remix of Gill Scott-Herons record I’m New Here and called it We’re New Here and it’s insane. Since I got it that whole record has been getting endlessly repeated.
First celebrity crush: Olivia Newton John. I first saw Grease when I was a little tiny kid and I so badly wanted to marry her. I think even if I saw her today I would cry – she’s like my bieber fever (laughs).
Go-to karaoke song: I tend to play it safe because I have a deep-ish voice so my favourite is probably Suspicious Minds by Elvis. I also like All Night Long by Lionel Richie. Psychologically, your go to karaoke song says a lot.
Past or Present, which artist would you love to work with: On a respect level and trying to get some of the magic rubbed off on me I’d probably choose Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash just to see how they did what they did.
Do you have a pre-show ritual: Nah – I started playing the harmonica a couple weeks ago and for a few days I practiced before I played but that’s about it. I gave that up now though because I think once you become too attached to something it becomes a superstition and a ritual and that’s danger because you’re relying on a set of circumstances conspiring for your benefit. So sometimes I’ll warm up – tonight there’s no dressing room so I pretty much just walk on stage, take my shoes off and start playing.
What do you want the world to know about Mat McHugh: I’d just like everyone to think of me the same as they think of everyone else. We’re all just human beings and we all have the same concerns deep down in the pit of our hearts. My thing artistically and where I come from is that I don’t want to set myself apart from anyone. I think all of my songs are concerned with that and I think the sooner people realize that we’re all the same, the better everyone in the world will be. There’s nothing to know about me that doesn’t exist in you.
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