The last time we spoke to Mat McHugh, things were a little different. Firstly, the weather. Secondly, he was just about to embark on his High Up! Summer ’17 tour – a run of shows that had everyone in suspense. Now recently returning from a trip overseas to the depths of the Australian winter, the independent musician, multi-instrumentalist, producer and vocalist calls in from Sydney, gearing up for his next stint as The Beautiful Girls after a five-year absence.
“I’ve been back from overseas for about three weeks and I am just freezing,” he laughs. “That’s about all I’ve been doing, just cursing the cold. I’m trying to visualise I’m on a tropical island. My time is really spent halfway between visualising I’m somewhere warm, and cursing the fact that I’m not.”
Despite the weather, the summer-loving muso has heaps to keep him occupied with a number of projects under his belt; as Mat McHugh, as Seaside Highlife and The Beautiful Girls – the outfit who provided the means for his initial musical musings.
“I’ve kind of got three things going at the moment; I have Mat McHugh, and I always consider that to be like the singer-songwriter and the song as the primary thing, that one seems the most obvious to me. It pretty much falls down to the lyrics first, and then the music and instruments comes second,” he explains. “If it’s really personal and revealing, and singer-songwriter-ish, I fall into that camp, and then the other thing I call Seaside Highlife which is a bit more kind of progressive.
“And then The Beautiful Girls is just a band. Well essentially, as a recording act it is just me – all the three things are just me,” he laughs. “I don’t write any music for the Beautiful Girls any more actually,” he says, “there’s already so much music released under that name that it’s hard enough to pick out a setlist as it is without adding to it.
“I definitely feel like there was some special times with The Beautiful Girls, it just has a great history and achieved a lot of things under that name independently, and I’m proud of how it was done and the people I got to do it with, there’s a lot of magic involved in it and my thing is I don’t want to compromise it, and unless I have a really, really strong reason to do something else under that name then I’ll just enjoy it for what it is.”
With the concept of The Beautiful Girls initially difficult for the public to grasp, McHugh now draws a comparison to Kevin Parker’s psychedelic rock project Tame Impala, which isn’t really a band, but a solo project and the result of one person constructing a distinctive symphony of sound, alike many other artists who release music under pseudonyms.
With three extended plays and five studio albums, the folk-inflected pop act The Beautiful Girls has been drawing in crowds with a sound often compared to like-minded artists as Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, and Mason Jennings.
Spending most of the year touring as a solo artist, McHugh will now be taking it all the way back to the sonic beginning of The Beautiful Girls to celebrate the anniversaries of their two seminal releases, Morning Sun (2002) and Learn Yourself (2003), kicking it off in Europe next month with stripped back performances. That is, the striking three-piece sound which first captured the worlds attention fifteen years ago, and performing the songs the way McHugh feels they deserve to be played.
“Weirdly, I feel like the songs are really good, but the performances of those songs on those albums, I personally can’t stand them,” he laughs. “The first album we did in three hours for about $300, while the next one took about three days; so nobody knew what we were doing, we had no money, we were super lax and so everything’s really raw. I think as a listener that might be totally cool, because rawness is cool, but as a musician who wants to get better, when I go back and listen to that stuff it kind of freaks me out,” McHugh explains.
“What I do like to do, and what is going to be good about this tour to celebrate these records, is to go out and play them how we would play them now with many more years’ experience under our belts, and I feel like how we play the songs now is way better than how they were played then,” he continues, “It’s nothing radically different, I just feel like there’s a lot more iceberg under the water than there was then, it was early days and it was rough around the edges. But I feel the songs have held up, and I feel like playing them, and I feel like the lyrics and the framework of the songs are still really cool to me.”
Following his time overseas, McHugh will once again return to Australia, this time with his pioneering musical collective, and will be performing at the 21st incarnation of Queenscliff Music Festival in November, a festival renowned for appealing to music lovers of all kinds.
With this year featuring world-class performers including Xavier Rudd, Jebediah frontman Bob Evans, The Temper Trap and Bernard Fanning, among an array of Aussie and international talents, McHugh refers to the festival as one of the world’s very best.
“There’s a whole bunch of festivals that are based in the culture and the art of music. You discover so many cool, new acts and so much cool music that you may not have heard of before, and I firmly put Queenscliff Music Festival in that category, because it’s a community and you can tell with these festivals that they revolve around a love of music, as opposed to a love of money and popular culture,” he says.
“For me, particularly as a music lover and a music fan, a lot of music you can tell is made for dubious reasons, it’s made to fit in. But you go to a festival like Queenscliff, and there’s so many amazing acts who would never be on the radio right now, but would pretty much kick the ass of anybody that’s on the radio.
“There’s a bunch of these festivals around the world, but it’s so good that we have them on our doorstep, and Queenscliff has been around for a while now, it’s one of those festivals that everyone respects and sells out, and everybody has a great time. People aren’t going there to get wasted or be seen in the coolest new clothes from General Pants,” he jokes. “If you’re playing to a crowd that is there for the right reasons and it’s a music loving festival, it can be quite spiritual, it’s amazing. It’s not a game of numbers, it’s a game of spirit and intent, and everyone I know loves playing Queenscliff.”
When & Where: Queenscliff Music Festival, Queenscliff – November 24 – 26
Written by Talia Rinaldo