You can almost feel the sweet, melodic tranquillity rolling off Mat McHugh as he speaks about The Beautiful Girls.
The frontman turned solo-star is currently in Europe, riding the success of his latest adventure. 2015 brought ‘Waves’ to Australian shores, his third, solo, studio album, and while Mat says he has no plans to return to the studio with The Beautiful Girls, it’s clear he’s still full of heavenly wisdom, artistic aesthetic and elegant ideas. “Neither one is more valid than the other, I just think that they’re both important things for me to experience,” he says.
Mat is unique in that he decided to share ‘Waves’ with his fans for free. “I did it with the last few records. I do feel like there always has to be balance with things, and I do feel like… I’m friends with a lot of musicians; a lot of amazing, amazing musicians, and they haven’t been fortunate enough to have the success that I’ve had, so I feel like I’ve won the lottery in a lot of ways.
“We had huge success with The Beautiful Girls, and even Mat McHugh stuff is being downloaded a ton of times, and shows will sell out, you know I’m just super grateful for all that stuff. And the fact that I feel like I’m improving the music and the shows so they’re better, and that I’m on this path and there’s so much to be grateful for.
“I think when that happens it’s important to give back, to address the balance. I just don’t think you can take all the time. I don’t think you can receive all the time, because the balance is lost, so I think you’ve gotta pay back some dues. And I think giving away things is important to address that. It addresses your motivations and why you’re doing it, and it puts love and good vibes into the world. And I think even more so than that, the things that you hold the closest and the things you work the hardest on, are the most important things to hand away.”
Mat says he worked harder on ‘Waves’ than any other record. “I am more proud of that record than any record. I got to the point where I thought: ‘That’s why it’s the most important one to give away’, because I put so much of myself into it, and then when you give it away it becomes a devotion and a gift. So it becomes a devotion as far as kind of giving back to the spirit and the energy of the music, for just a small percentage of what it’s given to me, and the gift is a gift. It’s a thank you to everyone whose been supportive of me, and has come to the shows: the things that have allowed me to do what I’ve done. It addresses the balance.”
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have the love for The Beautiful Girls. “Meeting new people is good, and meeting old people is good, but I think a lot of the music, a lot of what people see when they go and see a show, the hour or an hour and a half on stage, that makes up the minority. So if I’m back on tour with The Beautiful Girls it’s a whole different experience to be with these guys, 'cause we’re like family.
“It’s good for all of us to be together and hang out, you know, the whole experience for us is what it is, and the stage thing is kind of the culmination of the day,” Matt says. “Again, it’s a different experience now that I’m over here [in Europe]. I’m meeting new friends and pushing new boundaries and doing new things, and the experience of each day is what counts, and again, you play the show, and it’s the culmination of everybody’s efforts for the day. It’s all about experiencing life. The show is just a flash of life. But it’s the process, and it’s the living it, it’s the being in it that’s important, and I think it’s important to remember for myself.”
Life wouldn’t be the same for Mat if he didn’t appreciate touring with The Beautiful Girls. “I’d be sad if I didn’t tour with them, and just let the day go pass. Think about it: you’d just be thinking about jumping on the stage, and before you know it every day has gone, and your career has finished, and you never actually had fun because you were worried about jumping on stage and having people clap for you. You’ve gotta find the joy in joyful things.”
Mat says most Australian musicians end up touring Europe and America. Something happens on the Australian music front that turns all of UK and Europe upside down. And it’s not just Mat who’s found the secrets of success with his free music. Many other artists realise that to make it to the top, you’ve got to spread your wings and try new things. “It's funny, because that’s the kind of perspective I look at it from,” he says, “but if you look at it from a commercial reality… you get treated like a leper.
“In Australia we released a really strong album that stands against any other album we’ve released in Australia – I absolutely still feel that way – but I don’t think it got a single review anywhere, in any of the press, in any of the country. If it doesn’t feed into the commercial system, if it doesn’t start putting dollars into the ‘music industry’, it gets treated like it doesn’t exist, like it’s not even a thing. But I think the complete opposite. I think if you pour your heart and soul into it and you give it away, because of the right motivations, music becomes extremely valuable. But it depends on what side of the looking glass you’re peering through.”
Travelling has been a big part of Mat’s life since he was young. “I’ve travelled since I’ve left school,” Mat says, “and I don’t think I’d be the same person or had written the same things if I didn’t travel. I think travel is amazing. I have a child now, I have a five-year old, and my first advice to him for when he’s old enough is just to get out there and travel. He travels with us everywhere.
“I think the people who become fearful and hateful and naïve always tend to be the people who haven’t travelled much. You need to see different cultures, talk to different people, and put yourself in different situations. People get cloistered in their little world and they’re afraid of the big, bad world out there, and all these people and things you don’t understand, and then you lash out and become angry and spiteful. And I see a lot of this.
“You see people voting for Donald Trump in America and a lot of those people wouldn’t have been outside their country, they wouldn’t have been through Europe or The Middle East, Asia, or any developing countries or anything. You’re coming from a place of ignorance when you have no experience, so I think travel in life enlightens people. I think it enlightens everybody and it opens your eyes to other cultures and the beauty of the unknown.
“And if everybody had that point of view, I think the world would be a lot mellower, and a lot nicer of a place, because it’d have a level of understanding that isn’t there right now. For me, travel is wrapped up in who I am. I can’t imagine a day when I’m not travelling. There’s too much beauty and amazing things and people to see in the world, amazing things to do. Staying home for your whole life doesn’t… I don’t know, I don’t understand it.”
Mat says travelling opens up people’s minds to the truth, and makes you realise what you think is the truth is only your point of view. “Because you go to radically different cultures and see people with radically different lives, their view of the world is equally valid as yours. The thing in this world, with all of us, our cultural differences and our different perspectives, we all have to share this world while keeping all those things intact. You don’t want to try to stamp out things, or go to a country and make that country devoid of all its own culture, and make it be like a second America.
"All these cultures and all of these views and all of these religions can exist together on this planet, and they have to. And to go out and experience them is key, and it really does make you see that you’re just one piece of the puzzle. You’re not the entire puzzle.”
As a multi-instrumentalist performer, Mat’s musical pathway has been full of winding roads and whirlwind adventures. “Most people I’ve met have a similar viewpoint of ‘let’s all be together in this’. Other people have travelled around and have an enlightened perspective, and people who think the opposite are people who just stay at home and watch the news every night on TV and believe the fear and the atrocity that is shoved in their faces every single second of every single day. So, you have a choice of which one of those people you want to be.”
Mat says travelling has allowed to develop a deeper appreciation of the making of music itself. “I think in America, and also Europe and Australia, as musicians get further into their career, it kind of gets looked upon like art, and it really should age like fine wine, get better with age, and more interesting,” he says.
“Bob Dylan’s a good example. But in Australia it’s a bit different. You’ve got youth networks, Triple J, and there’s a giant gap between commercial radio and oldies radio, like people who hang around RSLs. It’s a strange place for music and culture and art in Australia in many ways. There’s freshness, but the freshness gets turned over constantly, and the mission of these stations, particularly Triple J, is focussing on that new, fresh thing.
“I don’t think it’s too hard to create new sounds,” he adds. “I think that’s the fun part. It’s like ordering a new item from the McDonald’s menu. People drive past the drive through and they get all excited when they see a new hamburger they’ve put out. That’s the nature of people. It doesn’t mean a dish in a fine dining restaurant gets any worse, does it?”
The future is often seen as an unpredictable place, and with all the changes, the fears, the worries in the world, it’s not always clear what will happen. However, Mat is a strong and effortlessly intriguing person, and his pathway is clear. “The focus for me for the next couple of years is doing the Mat McHugh stuff. I’m going to come back here to Europe in November and do summer shows as Mat McHugh, as a two or three piece… more focusing on the songwriting and electronic aspect. And it’s different to the songwriter-electric thing that’s popular. Mine is more heavy vibes, heavy-dubbed bass, I guess the stuff I liked listening to growing up… so it’ got a different slant to it. But I’m going to focus on that.
“The Beautiful Girl’s stuff is mainly festivals, things where there’s a celebration of the music that we’ve put out over the years, a setlist where we can just have a good night. Have a whole bunch of songs people recognise. And it’s a good balance. I do far more Mat McHugh shows than I do Beautiful Girls, there’s only probably a handful of Beautiful Girl’s shows I’ll do in a year, and I see it probably staying that way for the foreseeable future.
“I’m not interested in recording any new Beautiful Girl’s records at this stage. I may never again, maybe two a year. But at this stage I don’t have any plans for that. I’m focused on promoting Mat McHugh overseas and in Europe.”
While Mat’s focus is on his solo music, he still has total love and respect for The Beautiful Girls. “I’ve done so much with that band, and I’m so thankful for the connection everybody has,” he says. “I’m completely respectful of that, and so the shows that we do – because they’re not as common – they’re really important. They’re a great chance to catch up with the guys and because it’s not as frequent as they were, it kind of in a way makes them more special.
“It’s really a good feeling… if you only do half a dozen a year… instead of grinding out a hundred a year. Those shows are really important, and a great thing to be a part of. It’s all done for the right reason. It’s super fun to play these songs with the guys and it’s great to share those songs, to be in a great venue, and have a great time. So anytime that happens, it’s special for not only me, but all of us.”The Beautiful Girls headline Sweet Vibes Festival at Titanium Security Arena (Adelaide) 5 November. [Update 4 October, 2016: Sweet Vibes Festival has been cancelled]