I agree to meet Mat McHugh for an early morning surf but immediately it’s a mistake. I don’t surf or get up early and as he greases, or waxes, or does something to his board, I stand awkwardly, eyeing off the café opening in the distance.
Ironically, there are no Beautiful Girls on the beach, which seems fitting, as Mat temporarily distances himself from his band, to focus on his solo album.
“Well it was always on the agenda, since the Beautiful Girls started I was toying with the idea of using that as a solo project back in the day, because the way it operated is similar to the way it operates now.”
When people are on a good thing they tend to stay put, so why did Mat choose to give his Beautiful Girls a hiatus, I yell this question at him as we paddle out, him streaking ahead and me puffing behind him.
“I think that singer songwriters tend to stay around a bit more then bands, like Nick Cave and Springsteen, they seem to, morph a little bit, more freedom, and the playing field is a bit wider or more varied. What I didn’t want to do, was what happens to a lot of bands, where they just fade out or people don’t give a shit about the band anymore. I still love where the Beautiful Girls are at, but I just wanted to prove I could do it alone.”
Going it alone is something the singer is used to. A stopover in India turned into a yearlong stay, living in an Ashram, and trying to find the elusive secrets of life.
“I went and lived in an Ashram, tried to get inside my head, trying to find the motivation for my life as a human being. Where did my happiness come from, why did I play music, what did I have to get out of it. I wanted to clear those questions up.”
The trip not only taught him that his future lay in music, but also malaria drugs can trip you out when used consistently.
“I was taking a lot of malaria medication at the time, you have to in India, it gives you really trippy nightmares, and every single day this massive Blackbird would come and land on the balcony and start crowing at 4 am, which I thought was weird, but I felt like it was trying to teach me some lessons.”
I’m not surprised by Mat’s close relationship with the bird. He seems at one with nature, stroking the waves as if they are his lover, while I look out for jellyfish, certain I’m allergic.
He tells me to relax, ensuring me the water holds a message for all of us. Is it, ‘I can kill you at any second?’ I ask.
“No, no, it’s just serene. In India there was a peaceful river. Like I thought about how the bird would come down to the river and drink, and the whole country could pour there love and sorrow into the river and the bird would drink it up and take it away. I thought it was a pretty cool analogy, about where I wanted to come from with my music.”
We’re silent, and I understand that words aren’t needed now. We’re in the moment, just us and ocean. This is all well and good until I see a fin pierce the water. Shark, I’m not sure if I say the word or just think it, but Mat turns my way.
“Yeah dude, there are so many in the industry. Trying to run an independent business in a room full of sharks, you can lose your mind. It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable doing a solo record, putting myself out there. There is no support network to push the envelope in Australia, and if you do then you’re in a niche market, and that doesn’t work over here.”
I nod, doing my best to look interested, but I’m frantically trying to recall everything I learnt from Jaws. Mat seems unfazed by it’s presence, while I deal with my increased hear rate. It is this relaxed attitude that has allowed him to navigate the world of commercial music, and come out alive.
“I think if you’re a band or an artist don’t buy into the expectations, work hard, and just make music and that’s it. There are so many people swimming around, trying to get a piece. Play because you love it, not because people tell you you’re going to be a star.”
We’re safely on shore, and I ask Matt about fear, a subject I’ve become well acquainted with. Was it hard to move away from his renowned band, and their sound?
“I’m comfortable with who I am as an artist and as a person. I’m a mellow guy, so I guess that I like things minimalist. I stripped it back in the solo stuff. I didn’t feel the need to over produce every song. The album is minimal in places, but there are horns and keys. Something for everyone.”
We shake hands, and Mat says ‘let’s do this again sometime.’ I say ‘Sure”, comfortable in the knowledge the next time I see him will be at one of his upcoming gigs, in a dimly lit club, far away from the horrors of the ocean.