A confession: I had no idea who Aqualung was when I first agreed to do this piece. For a while, I thought it was some sort of Jethro Tull cover band, and I was getting ready to snark on a pack of classic rockers. When Aqualung turned out to be a sweet, soft-spoken British lad who resembles a wind-swept Banana Republic ad, I was surprised. Then I heard his song, and I was totally floored -- I'd heard it approximately eight zillion times without having any clue who sang it.
Chances are you've heard Aqualung's hit too. "Brighter Than Sunshine" is a soaring love ballad that was damn near omnipresent in 2005. First featured in the film A Lot Like Love, the song went on to back up soft-focus romance scenes on The O.C., Scrubs, and a plethora of TV commercials. It turns out that this wasn't the first time one of Aqualung's songs had been broken by the media.
"The week of the VW ad was the most remarkable week of my life," says Matt Hales, the man behind Aqualung. "I had been working on some new songs in my hallway, because I had no money to afford a studio and no room to record in my tiny apartment. I was just messing around, trying out a new sound, when my friend who worked for an ad agency called me. He knew I needed some money and told me to send some tracks in to see if he could place them in a commercial." Hales sent over a new song, "Strange and Beautiful (I'll Put a Spell on You)," although he didn't have much hope that the song would be a success. "A few weeks later, my friend called and told me it would be in a Volkswagen ad, and my first response was 'Thank God for the money, because I need to make rent. Then the ad took off."
In the wake of the ad, Aqualung was touted as an overnight success. But in reality, Hales had been making music for decades. At age 16 (round about 1988), he was awarded a scholarship to study music composition at Winchester College; he wrote his first symphony, entitled "Life Cycle," at 17. He also started a rock band, which went through several name changes but never found critical success and only released one record before disbanding. In 1990, he moved to London, and formed a band that would eventually be known as the 45s. They put out a record on Mercury, then were summarily dropped and split up.
"I've been through a lot of deals and two albums," says Hales. "I always knew music would be my life, but I didn't know if I'd ever make money doing it. I'm still amazed that the song I thought was the least commercial thing I had ever done ended up making me huge."
In the wake of the hit, Hales released a second record in the U.K., 2003's Still Life. The record was critically praised, but the public's short attention span was a liability, and sales were slow. Two years later, he released his U.S. debut, Strange and Beautiful, and "Brighter Than Sunshine" hit the airwaves. Hales flew to the States to tour, an experience he describes as "intriguing." "America is slightly fictional to me," he says, "I'm excited to go back just to prove America still exists."
What should those American audiences expect from the new Aqualung record? "It's a death-metal record," says Hales dryly. Then he gets a little more serious: "I tried to make sure it was a step forward. I had spent so much time touring and playing the songs from the previous records, and I was ready try something a little different. I knew there was so much more I could do musically, and I tried to push it. I didn't want people to think it was a different band, though -- I wanted to make sure that it still sounded like Aqualung."
"People associate Aqualung with very slow, atmospheric music," continues Hales. "I wanted to do something that was a little faster, more aggressive and loud. I'm not trying to be the Sex Pistols, but I wanted an edge. So far, people have responded well to me pushing myself. There is still a huge emphasis on feeling and emotion, but this just has a little more... muscle."
As for his chances of a new hit, Hales is dubious. "I don't know if any of the songs on the new record will break," he says. "I wasn't really looking to write singles -- I was more interested in writing a record that you could listen to from beginning to end. I wanted to evoke a cinematic feeling and tell a story. It should be more then just a collection of songs.
"I'd rather read a novel than short stories," he says. "I guess people who just listen to the record on their iPods or just listen to the singles are doing the same thing as someone who opens a book and skips right to chapter eight to read the sexy bits. I do think you get extra value when you listen from beginning to end."
Bold words, especially coming from Britain, where the local music press is known for fetishizing the single. "Most of the U.K. music press are foaming-at-the-mouth teenage dogs," Hales jokes. "I mean, I had my two weeks, and it was great. But the British music press still don't understand that being young and fashionable doesn't mean that you make a significant musical contribution."
Hales isn't young, and while his press photos show a stylish lad, he certainly isn't going to be given NME's "next big thing" crown soon. He's in that terrible spot that seems to befall so many hit-makers: His songs are bigger than his personality. Here's hoping that Hales lands on American soil and makes a name for himself.
Aqualung with Charlotte Martin at Bourbon Street restaurant on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $15. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.