Reflecting on the turn of events that has him currently touring the States with a successful debut record on Columbia, Matt Hales, a k a Aqualung, says, "It was not exactly what you'd dream of when writing your rock autobiography. You want it to be some A&R guy with a cigar walking by and hearing your music through a window and thinking how brilliant it sounds."
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Instead, Hales will have to settle for the story about how a young British lad, recovering from his pop band's getting dropped from a label, got a song on a Volkswagen commercial that was compelling enough to have people scampering for it.
It was a fluke break in a life spent in music, starting with growing up above his parents' indie record store in Southampton. He was writing songs on piano by age 4, and by 17 he conducted his first symphony with a 60-piece orchestra.
While he was studying classical composition at London's City University, he was also fronting rock 'n' roll bands with his brother Ben, starting with one that played Police covers.
"They were similarly important to me," he says of the two musical tracks. "I was always into pop music and songs and recording, and always into learning orchestration and writing string quartets and listening to Ligeti. I was always doing music in as many ways as I could."
Hales had some success in England in the mid-'90s with a band called RUTH that signed to Mercury in 2001 as The 45s.
"They were both kind of rock bands, rocking in a lame kind of English way," he says, laughing. "The preoccupation was all sorts of fast music and adrenalized pop music."
After releasing two singles, The 45s were dropped a year later, and "It was pretty grim for a weekend or so," Hales says. "When I realized I might have to get a proper job, it was kind of dispiriting. Of course, I've always been determined to make my life about music more than anything else. So there was an upside to it in terms of making music that I felt more involved in personally."
He was holed up at home working on his own project when his agent called and asked if he had anything that Volkswagen might use for a Beetle commercial. He offered up "Strange & Beautiful," a dreamy piano ballad sung in falsetto with an obvious debt to Radiohead and Coldplay.
The next thing he knew the song was getting radio play and he was at the center of a major label bidding war. After all those years of more energized pop, they wanted his weepy stuff.
"It was quite a significant change when those bands finished and I started doing Aqualung," he says. "I pranced around in those bands. Now, I was consciously wanting to make emotional music and trying to achieve beauty rather than excitement."
Although there are a few sonic tremors on "Strange & Beautiful" and a Beatlesque pop single, "Brighter Than Sunshine," the record revolves around Hales performing melancholy tunes with piano and atmosphere, including the occasional strings.
How much of his classical training does he apply to his brand of chamber pop?
"It's difficult to say where and when all that classical stuff comes into play. It's just part of me and my brain. It's not like I'm consciously thinking, 'This is like pop music crossed with classical music.' I think that would be hideous anyway. That's not what it is. It's just songs, and I don't really think about it too much. I guess there are places where it comes to arranging strings or figuring out what key to do the clarinets in that it comes in handy, but it's kind of peripheral. I don't think it's essential to it."
How it came to share the name with a classic Jethro Tull record is a whole other story.
"I wanted to give it a name as opposed to my name just to have the freedom to evolve it rather than making a big 'I'm a singer-songwriter' kind of statement. Aqualung was nice because it was an undersea, submerged kind of reference, and the sound I was making was very, um, drowned."
Somehow, he had made it this far in life -- living above a record store, no less -- unaware of the other Aqualung.
"Even though I know it was a big British band, that kind of classic rock phenomenon doesn't really happen in the UK. I never knew there was a Jethro Tull record called 'Aqualung.' Not at all, until I came here and people started going on and on and on about it. It was strange because in some ways the last thing I would expect to be associated with was some weirdo old kinda progressive rock with flutes. But it's a cross I'll have to bear."
He managed to avoid the Tull record until he came to the U.S. and did an in-store at a record shop in L.A. and they insisted on playing it for him. "I was saying I would try to go to my grave having never heard it, but I have heard it, sadly. At least now I know why people have been coming up to me and going, dunh-dunh, dunh-dunh, dunh ... dunh."
And what did he think of Jethro Tull's signature tune?
He says dryly, "I thought it sounded like perfect motivation for the punk movement."
Scott Mervis can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2576.