Still Life - New Aqualung Album Track-By-Track
In this exclusive interview, syndicated across Internet sites only, Matt Hales, also known as Aqualung, has given a detailed description of every track from his forthcoming album Still Life, which is released on 27 October. CD Times will be bringing you a review of the album prior to its release but in the meantime...
Brighter Than Sunshine
Brighter Than Sunshine is, in some ways, a dumb song. It’s the most unreserved ecstatic love song on the album, almost matched by Seven Keys. What I wanted to capture is the idea that someone’s fallen in love, and they’re taken unawares by it, that they don’t expect it, that they weren’t looking for it; that they weren’t even interested in the idea, but suddenly it’s happened, and it’s amazing and they can’t believe it.
I wanted that to be a surprised love song, to document the moment that you realise that it’s suddenly happening and it’s for real, and just as brilliant as it could possibly be. And even though you’re cynical, and remain a cynical, grown-up person, aware of the complexities of the world, you are nonetheless stupidly and madly in love. Sounds nice too.
Left Behind is like a surprise song. It was written pretty near the end of the process, and it was one I kept forgetting about when we were going through the list of all the songs, and you’d go "I’m sure there was another one," and it would turn out to be Left Behind. Because it had been left behind in my brain.
It’s a big, chunky piece of music. I like it because it’s loud and exciting without being too dimwitted. It was a nice thing because the chorus was originally part of another song, but it suddenly gave birth to the verse, and then it was clear it was going to be a whole song of its own. The verse is like a magical thing, it’s so simple, but somehow really satisfying, and it just seemed to come from nowhere. It’s very exciting when those things happen because it’s like winning a lottery, or getting the golden ticket in the bar of chocolate.
I like the fact that this was one that was recorded live with all of us. It was the first song we recorded at Real World, and the first song that we recorded on the album. It had only been written a few days before and so it was exciting thinking, as we sat down to start working it out, "wouldn’t it be amazing if this turned out to be the recording?". And with a couple of little overdubs it’s basically that, just us five playing together in the room, making a fantastic sound. I really look forward to playing it live, I think it will bring the house down.
You Turn Me Around
You Turn Me Around was the second song to be finished in the official Writing The New Album period, towards the end of last year. We played this a bit on tour this year. It’s a satisfying song - another love song, I suppose, telling a strange romantic story about these people who’ve drowned and then meet each other at the bottom of the sea and decide to live again. Obviously it’s not meant literally, but I’m happy with the poetry of it, and I’m really really pleased with the way the recording came out.
I had this idea that it might be nice to try and work out a drum part that was like ’50 ways to leave your lover’ but in 6/8. ’50 ways to leave your lover’ by Paul Simon has an amazing drum beat, played by Steve Gadd. We set ourselves this challenge, Dave (Price) and I, to make a 6/8 version of that, and we tried to get a sound that was quite similar, and it just gave this great life to the song, a little skip in the rhythm which keeps it going along. It was one of the great moments of recording, sitting next to Dave as he slowly mastered this very difficult drum part. My job was to play a very simple tambourine part. It was great to be sat close to someone playing such an amazing thing, and really enjoying the sound it was making.
I also like the ending of this one. Often when you get to the end of tracks you get little oddments of previous takes left over, and I liked them, a little tiny bit of vibes and a tiny bit of Rhodes, and I stuck in a few little noises. It seems like a really deliberate piece of production but it wasn’t like that, it’s just how it worked out. I also like letting the drums be on their own at the end so you can admire Dave’s work.
Easier To Lie
Easier To Lie was a song I always wanted to be sort of overwhelming, or grand, or something. It’s something about the sentiment and the hymn-like quality of the music. We did a version of it at Real World with two drummers, almost a Phil Spector-y version, which was kind of brilliant, but I wanted to find a simpler way to do it. The version we ended up with is nice because it’s solid and strong and there’s something very simple about the rhythm part, which works.
It’s earnest in a funny sort of way, which it should be because it’s a no-shit kind of song. I like the way the strings worked out, and I really like the backing vocals. There’s only two of them, but they sound like there’s a million of them. I don’t know how that happened. There’s lots of little details in there but I think there’s a very strong central feeling, and it’s uplifting in a questioning kind of way. I was trying to think what the right word for it was. It just seemed to me to sound - this may be an odd thing to say - but it somehow sounds ‘important’. Not that I’m important or it’s an important song, just that it sounds as big and grand as the topic requires it to be.
Another Little Hole
I’m really happy with the way this one came out. Again, we recorded a live version at Real World which was very lovely, we did it at three or four in the morning and it was very mellow, with Rhodes, very sweet, with the bowed vibraphone and a lovely feeling, but maybe a little bit too fruity, given the song’s subject. Then Ben and I worked out this other version at home, which was really spindly with a kind of ‘dulcimer’ piano and little tiny percussion, and the acoustic guitar, and that really worked. I wondered if there might be a way to mix the two up, and that’s what it is in the end, a mixture of both. But it works really well, much better than you might expect, given that they were different speeds and very different approaches.
I like the way it gives that track a sense of evolution from one mood to another. I love the sound of the bowed vibes – it sounds like nothing else really. I really like the fact that Kim is singing on it. Because of the subject of the song, lyrically, it feels very right for it to be a duet between a man and a woman, though it’s not a love song … well, it is a love song, it’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s two people facing up to the fact that they will be parted one day, either by bad luck or the natural end of their lives. It’s about facing up to that, which is something you do have to face up to, cos it’s true. So it’s nice to have my own actual wife with me singing on it, cos, sad though it is to think that the song refers to us two, it sort of does. And I particularly like, even though Kim’s not that happy with it, the fact that there’s one line at the end which she sings on her own, which seems really right.
I was going to have this as number seven, but then it would have said ’7 7 keys’, which is not right.
This is one that I really messed around with when I got it back home. The version we recorded was really joyful, we had this ‘vegas’ drum sound, and it started with a ridiculous drum fill. It felt like I should be coming up on a riser in a white suit with showgirls around me and golden confetti coming down… and a glitter ball … it was great, but it felt a bit overdone, and you couldn’t really have it all the way through like that. Then Kim said that she always thought the song would creep in quietly, and that set me off on a train of thought.
I was very happy with the way it worked out, because when the drums do come in you get a bit of the vegas feeling, and the way the bridge is really works, but it starts off with a much more delicate and pretty collection of sounds which I made by messing around with bits and pieces of the original recordings. The surf sound, the quiet sea sound I put in because I had a weird feeling about this song, and I couldn’t think what it was, but then I realised that it reminded me of a Beach Boys from Smiley Smile called Little Pad, which is sort of pretend Hawaiian, and the ‘saw’ and the sea sound seemed to suit the peaceful mood of the song, then once the trombones come in you know you’re going to have a good time. The bit in the second half bridge where the trombones and the bass comes back in is one of my most favourite moments because for a second it sounds like it could be a record from 1968 or something.
This was the last song that I wrote to be included. I think I was just in a bad mood and I wrote a song. I wasn’t sure whether to put it on or not, but in the end I felt like, in the overall complexion of the album, it was good to have it there. The version that’s there now is pretty much just piano and vocal. There’s another version which is longer, which has a load of percussion and strange sounds on it, but I thought it got a bit overwrought.
The harpsichord at the beginning was because I went and recorded a harpsichord version of it – I liked the idea of having real harpsichord, and I’d never played one - so I went to a strange but lovely man called Alexander who lives in Islington who has a front room full of harpsichords, and spent an afternoon recording this song. But in then end it turns out that a whole four-minute track of harpsichord starts to feel like someone’s banging you in the head with a screwdriver, so I decided to have just the bit at the beginning, because after the peaceful end of Seven keys it was like an alarm, and kind of freshens your palate and sets it up for when the piano comes in.
Breaking My Heart
Breaking My Heart was the second to last song to be written. I wrote it when we were at Real World. Most of the other guys had gone home and I was just finishing off and transferring all the files and things, and I was shown around a bit more of the studio, and I found this little piano room with this beautiful Bosendorfer which turned out to be Peter Gabriel’s piano. I stole a few moments to play on it, and it felt like you were playing a chocolate piano, it was really really really rich and lovely and warm. It suddenly inspired me to finish off a song I’d been playing around with, and the chorus of Breaking my heart came along there, and I rushed downstairs and got them to record a demo of it, and then rushed upstairs to start throwing up for twelve hours because I’d got gastric flu. So that song will always be inextricably connected with the sense of impending vomit.
Take Me Home
Take Me Home seemed to be a bit of a nothing song for a while, I wasn’t sure what it was going to amount to, until an early session where I got together with Kerry, Ben, Dave and Jim in a rehearsal room and tried out some sounds, and the song suddenly took on this amazing life with the percussion and the guitar part, and it seemed like a substantial and rich and beautiful song. And of course Dave’s amazing pink stick, which is called a vibratone which makes the ‘wah-wah’ sound all the way through, which was magically in the right key, and that was just a sign from above that this was going to work out.
I’m really happy with this. The last thing to be added was the cello, and once it was on there it was like you couldn’t ever imagine it without cello – it seemed like the perfect finishing touch.
I’m really happy with the space, and this rumble, which you need to have some decent speakers to hear, which was Dave playing a 40-inch orchestral bass drum with very soft beaters. It’s an extraordinary sound, and there’s a line in the lyrics about dark clouds gathering, and there’s a sense of threat, and the characters in the song are deeply troubled and trying to find some sanctuary with each other, and that sound really sums that up. It’s quite theatrical, the arrangement, quite dramatic and filmic and I’m very happy with that.
If you listen carefully there’s a sigh right at the very end, which was me as I was sat in the room with Dave with all the lights off as he was playing the orchestral bass drum, which was in real life an even more amazing sound, and that sigh is me sighing at the wonder of being next to such a sound.
The last song is Good Goodnight, which was the first song to be finished that I knew was going to be on the album. Pretty soon after writing it I’d decided that it should be the last song because it’s got a lullaby quality and a lovely feeling about it, and it seemed like a great way to end an album. Once Ben had written the words, which really captured that lullaby feeling, it was certain that it had to be the last song.
This was pretty much recorded live at Real World, again late at night, with candles and everyone listening very carefully, trying to feel the music and the flow of it. I’m really happy with the dynamics and the way it’s played – it’s almost like a Classical performance, very musical, and a lovely performance from everyone.