Interview: Mat McHugh at Settlers
Words & Interview by Beth Wynne.
Photos by Lauren Trickett.
Last Thursday, Mat McHugh and the Seperatista Sound System arrived in Margaret River for a show at Settlers Tavern. I met up with Mat before the show, rugged up in a hoodie he had to buy from the Tav to brave the weather. It was cold, windy and rainy, not the Margs beach weather the band had hoped for, but I sat outside with Mat and we talked music, names and being an independent artist in the industry.
You’re here touring as Mat McHugh and the Seperatista Sound System, last year was the end of an era for the name ‘The Beautiful Girls’, what brought on that change?
I don’t think it was as sudden as it seems, like I’d done a record in 2008 under my own name, and over the last couple of years I’d done probably more touring under my own name than with the band. I toured with John Butler in the states and I did a bunch of overseas solo touring and did Sublime here, so the previous couple of years had been under my name. And from the start I guess the easiest way to explain it is, the way The Beautiful Girls has always been, has been a singer/songwriter thing anyway, so it’s just been a name.
So I’ll write a bunch of songs and recently play all the instruments, and the guys that I’ve played with in ‘The Beautiful Girls’, (and there’s probably about 20 of them) including horns and keys, all those guys are my friends and I love them and respect them, but then like any business, they get paid you know, so it’s like ‘here’s my songs, lets go’ and they’re professional musicians.
So this is exactly the same, it just got to a point where I was like ‘this is my life’. 24/7 I think about this music and these songs and it just felt like I should just strip away all the kind of bullshit and just be like ‘this is where the music comes from’ if you like it and also if you hate it. I didn’t wanna hide any more basically. I mean a lot of people kinda said ‘You’re stupid, you know you built this brand up’ and all this stuff but I dunno, I don’t think about it like that really. Because I feel better now, this just feels honest and I think I can keep this up for eternity until I cant do it anymore, whereas ‘The Beautiful Girls’ I felt I cant just keep it running for the rest of my days like it has a finish line on it. But under that pseudonym we had amazing things happen and a great run but its interesting to see how many people just wanna cling on to something you know? A name, they wanna cling onto it.
Have fans reacted differently thinking you’re not going to be playing those songs anymore?
A little bit yeah, it’s amazing how much you have to explain it. You know still, on a daily basis. Like last week we were in Melbourne and I was talking to people afterwards and we just played a set that was half old music and Beautiful Girls songs which are Mat McHugh songs anyway, and half new songs, and I was talking to people afterwards and they were like ‘yeah it’s sad the band broke up’ and I was like, ‘It never really broke up’ because it was like a collective of musicians that played. It can’t break up, if I wanted to call this ‘The Beautiful Girls’ I could, and its weird cos this is more like the studio Beautiful Girls than any other band I’ve toured with.
Ian played bass on all the records, produced all of them, like he’s the most important Beautiful Girls member you know, and he’s finally come on the road so people are getting more authentic versions but they’re kind of saying that they miss it, but what they really miss is the name and the association with the name. It’s more of an experiment of how many people are hung up on a brand you know. And I get it, cos you get so used to it.
It’s like if you had a can of coke, and then coke changed their name to something else and put the same stuff in the can, it would take people a while to kind of cotton on that is was exactly the same. It’s mental conditioning, that’s what branding is you know and I’m more about music and trying to do the honest thing that I am about branding, I put more importance on that so, it’s interesting.
Your most recent album was ‘Love Come Save Me’ which you gave away for free. What made you decide to do this? How has this gone for you?
It’s gone amazingly. It’s been my most favourite thing that I’ve done in music as far as I’ve felt like this is the thing that I should be doing, I felt really connected in the whole ‘this is what needs to happen’ and I’m really proud of myself because I had to really fight for it.
Management and all these people that I kinda work with really fought against it cos people in the music business, even ones close to me, it’s all about the bottom line you know? If you’re an artist that’s the last thing you consider, and they were like ‘you should call it The Beautiful Girls, you should sell it you know, you could sell X many copies’, and just deep down in my heart felt like I didn’t wanna do that. It felt really honest to me as a record and meant a lot to me, like there’s songs in there about my family and about a lot of things that are truthful and pretty revealing about myself and I felt like I just couldn’t do it under a pseudonym, I’d be dishonouring myself.
And then I felt like I really wanted to give something back because I’d just had 10 years of receiving like blessings of people listening to our music and supporting us independently and I just, till the day that I die have a belief that you just cannot always receive stuff, you have to give back you know and even the little things like if people buy your albums I never feel like I wanna just go home and sit back and crack a beer and take a year off because I sold some records. I wanna go home and work twice as hard and give back to them and give back to music and I just felt it was the right time to just make an offering, and because of that and because of the nature of how the songs were written and recorded and then the way it was a share, and people just shared it without worrying about ripping it off or money or nothing it was just like ‘here you go’. The way it was shared and received was beyond my wildest dreams, like 50,000 downloads or something, really great.
Obviously staying independent is important to you, and not signing to a major label, do you think that’s something you’re going to continue?
Yeah I think as my career goes on it becomes more of a clearly defined path as well, I think it was a big part of changing the name, and I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m simplifying things, stripping stuff back, I don’t need to travel around with like 12 people flying around everywhere and having light shows and all this stuff. I just wanna get a bunch of friends, play music together, release it ourselves and if we wanna release an album next month, we can.
We don’t need to line up with all these other pop acts on a label you know, I’m being quite honest, I reckon I’ve probably turned down like a million bucks worth of advertising deals too like for beer and just shitty things. You see so many bands they just wanna come out and just go for the brass ring and be super famous and get what they can get in case it falls apart tomorrow, but I never wanted to be super famous or super rich, I just like music you know?
So if you make all your decisions based on that then it seems to kind of last longer, you never get super famous but you never get super shit either, you just try and maintain that decent motivation for what you do so being independent plays a huge part in that. I don’t have some A & R dude ringing me up going ‘you need a single for commercial radio’ I mean we had a single on commercial radio as The Beautiful Girls and it was the flipside of what I just mentioned with this record, it was the opposite. I hated it, I was doing the promo trail and going into radio stations with this guy we paid to push our songs to radio independently who John Butler uses and all these independent guys use, and he was taking in like sushi platters to semi bribe the Radio Station and I just felt shit, I felt like a prostitute you know I was like ‘this sucks’, it was making me hate the song and I started noticing these weird things like people coming to the show and just talking until that song got played and then leaving, and that had never happened in our career, and it didn’t get much bigger it kinda stayed the same it just got shittier, and it was this point where I kinda went, ‘I can go down that path, now our foot’s in the door and I can write ten more of those if I want and just capitalise’, or I can go the other path and try and stick around longer, and that was a real definitive moment, it was like ‘I’m never gonna aim for that again, I’m never gonna play their game’. If someone wants to play our song on the radio that’s awesome but I’m not gonna take a sushi platter in.
How do you think the independent industry is in Australia? Do you think there are lots of Artists using that path or do you think they’re tending to go to the labels now?
I think there’s varying levels of it, there’s like truly independent artists like myself and John Butler and Jeff Lang, Blue King Brown and The Waifs, there’s a bunch that put out their own records and have their own labels and they pay for it and make the decisions themselves. Then there’s the next level that’s independent labels that are run by people that love music and they put stuff out on a small scale which is still independent and it’s the same thing and it’s awesome, and then there’s the next ones that are extensively the same but have major label distribution and it goes up and up the scale.
But I think in the world terms I think Australia’s unbelievably good for independent music, I think its due to a few factors, I think Triple J is amazing for it and community radio in Australia is really great, and it supports independent music a lot. When we started I think, the Internet, well it makes us sound old but we started before MySpace so it was just email lists. Now Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter, there’s so many ways to be independent and I think the hardest part is now finding that audience, you’ve got the tools to get it out. I think what it’s doing is making a lot of pretty amazing music being available to all of us as music fans that isn’t dictated to us by a major corporation or a major label that says ‘this is what we’re gonna throw a million bucks at, this is what you’re gonna like you know’, we get to make up our own minds and that’s, as a listener, from me I love that.
I get to surf through stuff and discover new stuff and for me, if I like it I don’t care if 3 people have bought the record, if I love it, I love it. I don’t need a label to tell me this is the cool new thing. And I feel like there’s a lot of people like me out there that do the same, so I think from travelling around the world, independent and spirit wise, the Australian Music Industry and the musicians in this country are amazing, on par if not better than anywhere in the world which is great.
Speaking of that kind of thing, you obviously write personal songs and are a real songwriter and musician, what do you think about the music that is becoming increasingly popular these days, generic pop songs and autotuned vocals. Do you think there are still gonna be fans that are looking for your kind of music?
I don’t think much about it to tell you the truth. Yeah I think the stronger that one side of an argument gets, the stronger the other side of the argument gets so firstly, I try to convince myself that it’s always been shit in the pop world. So I try and reference back to the good old days of The Monkees and the Bay City Rollers and all these kinda crappy pop bands. But I think it is actually getting worse, cos the technology is allowing people now to just put it through a cookie cutter, you know this is a popluar sound, you can hear the kick drum, you can hear a synthesizer, and an autotuned vocal, if you get that sound you’re pretty much gonna have a hit, if it’s through a label at this certain beats per minute.
I think, some pop music I don’t mind, but as a whole, as a culture and as an art form coming from a music lover it’s a tragedy, it’s so bad. I appreciate a good pop song, I just think its meaningless, it doesn’t contribute spiritually, or like any degree of positivity, its certainly not Bob Dylan or Bob Marley or The Beatles, it’s singing about clubs, it’s just shitty but I think the shittier it gets and the more that you eat junk food and eat junk food and eat junk food, unless you’re crazy, you either drop dead or you realise ‘hey I’m gonna stop eating junk food cos this stuff’s making me sick’, and listening to too much of that crap and watching too much of that crap on the television, it makes your brain sick. You’ve gotta nourish yourself and I think there’s a lot of people out there that want that, they read books and they listen to good music, they search for it and they watch good music so for every poison there’s an antidote and I think I take solace in that fact.
I just think that’s another universe, you guys can market that to 12 year old girls, but when the girls turn 20, they’re gonna go ‘I cant believe I listened to that’ and go through the archives and find a Leonard Cohen record or a Joni Mitchell record and there’s a difference. One’s art and one’s a cheeseburger, everyone’s had a cheeseburger probably in their life but you just grow out of it.
So who were some of your inspirations growing up and growing through the industry with writing songs?
Well I guess, my Dad played guitar and sung, he was a musician so I was surrounded by music and he got me into it. He died when I was pretty young so I continued on as a kind of connection to him. What I grew up on, the first singer I used to sing along with was Willie Nelson pretty much and then Johnny Cash, he was a country guy my dad, listened to a lot of that stuff and a lot of crooning singers like Bing Crosby and Sinatra and stuff so that whole style of laid back singing and crooning, I grew up with that.
I played music my whole life, and then I went through a Punk Rock stage pretty heavy, and then I got right into Hip Hop, I really like music when it’s brand new as a style, so when Hip Hop first started, nobody knew the rules or what they were doing. They’d just chop up some records and do some stuff over the top and it was super fresh and cool, same with Dub music, same with Punk Rock, before it becomes a product you know? I just think once an art form like music or whatever becomes a product it just gets shitty, it’s like once everyone realised ‘hey they’re the rules for Punk/Rock and Punk/Rock’s selling some records now, lets be a Punk/Rock band’ then by that stage it’s like Fonzy’s already jumped over the shark, just forget it. So I think I still find inspiration there, I still think there’s a freshness in all that stuff that’s why I still listen to early Dub and Hip Hop and stuff.
You’re touring at the moment around Australia, are you just planning to keep writing and touring this year and see what happens?
Definitely, I mean I’m in it now, I’m a musician and I’ve been doing it for so long its like I don’t even know what I’d do, work in a shoe store or something I don’t know. But I feel like now more than ever there’s a point to prove, I feel like I’m really kinda confident in what we’re good at and what I’m good at as a songwriter and what I wanna get across, strip away all the bullshit and I think over 10 years, I’ve spent a lot of time touring, I’ve paid a lot of dues starting from coffee shops up to big theatres and I feel like now I’ve gotta connect with all these people again and say ‘look it’s the same thing it’s just me now’ and that’s been working, that’s our mission right now to keep writing songs and show that we’re getting better and more into it than ever before.
We’ve got a live record that’s about to come out, we’re gonna do more touring in Australia, we’re gonna go back to Brazil and America and Canada and just being an independent musician its not ever this thing of ‘I just wanna have a hit record and retire’ its kind of like ‘lets go play music’ it’s what we like to do, we like hanging out with people, we’ve got a bunch of friends around the world and just kind of enjoying living that life cos that’s what we chose to do. It has its moments where you miss people and whatever, but its kind of like, it’s your path so you’ve just gotta keep doing it and I’ll just keep doing it until I can’t do it, until I’m physically unable to do it any more. There might only be 2 people in the crowd and I’ll be like ‘please give me 5 bucks’ but I’ll still be there, I’ll still be playing the guitar and singing.
This interview was a great insight into the life of a real musician, songwriter and genuine guy who is passionate about what he does and the path he’s on. The show later that evening showcased Mat and his band’s talents, even though part of the crowd weren’t the best, the guys still delivered an honest, fun and ‘all about the music’ performance, how it should be.
See more of Beth’s music blog at Songbird – The Music in Margs.
And Lauren’s images at Backroom Media and on facebook.