The Beautiful Girls is the moniker singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer Mat McHugh has used over the last couple of decades to perform, record and release his feel-good rhythms. Occasionally, depending on his vibe, he’ll use his own name too. It’s a brand (although he wouldn’t like that term) which has seen McHugh travel the world with his mates playing to audiences from Europe to North and South America and all points in between. He’s done it totally on his own terms too as the quintessential independent artist. Twenty years down the track since he began, it was time to both reflect and celebrate. McHugh has put together Seaside Highlife, a greatest hits package on vinyl and is about to take it out on the road with an extensive Australian tour beginning on January 4, 2020. At some point near the end of the Australian tour, he’ll release yet another album. Adding to his current state of contentment and joy is the acquisition of a new Fender Ultra Series Jazzmaster, replacing his old Jazzmaster which has served him well for the last 15 years.
Mat McHugh took some time out from tour preparations to chat with Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips about his career, gear and the upcoming tour.
Where’s home these days Mat and what space have you set aside to weave your musical magic?
I live on the beach in Cronulla. I just have a room at our place dedicated to music. In the last decade all of the albums I have done have been out of the home studio. Convenience-wise it is good but probably like anyone who works from home will tell you, there is a degree of discipline required. Having everyone in the house understand that the studio is where I have to go to go to work. I think the impetus for it was that wherever I was recording at another studio, I felt this … just a weird feeling where you turn up at a studio, pay your money, it might be 11am on a Tuesday and it’s like ok, go! Then you’ve got to play the guitar, sing, perform. I felt like at least half of the time I just wasn’t in that space. I mean, it worked out but you’re kind of jumping through hoops. Whereas now when it comes the time to actually perform at home, I try to be in the moment and feel it and capture you being inside the song and being a part of it instead of just 1,2,3 go.
Has your method of writing songs changed at all over the years?
Yeah it definitely has. I have a guy Ian Pritchard, who has mixed everything I have done and I was talking with him. I was reflecting on albums I’d done this decade and the ones I’d done before. At the start of this decade it was the first time I had got my hands on a computer and tried to chop up performances and edit things together at home. I was just baffled as to how these things worked. I’d never used a DAW before. Now every record I have made since, I got so far inside that process that it got a bit crazy and recently I have let the reins off a bit. The last couple of records I was sampling my voice, making a single sound and then turning it into a synth pad and flipping this and that but now I am back to using the home studio as a tape machine basically. Switch it on, capture a performance and if you don’t get the performance right, try and do it again.
Seaside Highlife is your greatest hits collection which you’ve released in conjunction with the tour. Did you ever believe when you started out that you would have a hits collection?
Ha ha it was the furthest thing from my mind. I studied visual arts, like graphic design when I left school and I was bumming around, spent some time in India and the United States but I was always writing songs. My old man played guitar and he always wrote. When I got back to Sydney there was a girl running an open mic night down in Bondi and I was on the Northern beaches. I was like, I gotta figure out a way to hang out with this girl. I got a few guys I knew to play some of these songs that I’d written. Growing up I was in punk bands and stoner rock bands with the fuzz pedals switched on the whole time. These were more introspective and mellow songs and I showed the guys the song parts and off we went down to Bondi for the open Mic night. We got asked back and it just started getting packed every time we played. I thought we need to do a demo now and the first record cost $300 and took three hours. No song took more than two passes and that thing sold 100,000 copies. From that point every single cent made from sales was put back into making another record and touring the world. We are as independent as it gets. There was never an agenda other than saving enough to make the next. So looking back it was a struggle to whittle down the songs to fit onto a double vinyl album. I always find that the most popular songs aren’t necessarily the ones that carry the most artistic weight, not always the songs that I find the most interesting. The challenge for me was balancing it out so people might have got the songs on there that they are familiar with but I also wanted to include the ones that had a particular sense of value artistically to me. It might be a song where I turned a corner and got better at what I do. There’s 88 minutes of music, 22 minutes per side on vinyl, so there was a real cut off point to fit everything.
Do you recall any greatest hits albums that you got into growing up?
I really love that Paul Kelly one. That Songs From The South, I smashed that. I smashed that and the Bob Marley Legend one. What was great about that was it makes you go backwards, dig deep and find actual albums and then album tracks become the ones you love. Just touching on the Paul Kelly one again, it was kind of an inspiration for this thing that we are doing. His was Song from the South volume one and he brought out another one recently. I thought that’s what I want to do. I don’t want a greatest hits to be ok, here it is and ride out into the sunset. We’re really independent and to find all of our records in a store is kind of hard. If there is going to be a record in a record store, I want it to be this one and if people want to investigate further, go for it. I just wanted a solid gateway, a good body of work for people to get into the band who may not have heard of us.
You’ve recently got your hands on a new Fender Ultra Jazzmaster. Were you a big fan of the Jazzmaster model in general beforehand?
I only played a Jazzmaster for around 15 years. I had a few other guitars but got a Mexican Jazzmaster 15 years ago and just loved it. When I first started I played resonators, then acoustic. After a while I thought I don’t really want to do this acoustic thing, it was a pain in the bum to play live with it. I didn’t want to get lumped in with this acoustic movement because I didn’t really feel like I was that. I wanted to get back to what I grew up doing and wanted to find an electric guitar. I think I tried a Tele and a Jazzmaster and I just thought the Jazzmaster was amazing and it’s the only guitar I have played on stage for the last 15 years. It’s just been like putting on an old pair of jeans.
When you picked up the new Ultra Jazzmaster, what were your first thoughts?
Many things but the first thing I noticed was … my guitar was a bit of an old clunker, an old jeep. This new one looks like a Bentley. That was the very first thing, the look of it, the finish, the build was amazing. What was weird about it … I’m pretty much a staunch vintage enthusiastic. I just play into an old Blackface, Deluxe or Twin with hardly anything in between. I love vintage stuff so I went into it thinking, I’m not sure if I am going to like this! I knew that it was a modern spec guitar so I was skeptical. I appreciate people that are into the newer stuff but I didn’t think it was going to be for me. When I got it into my hands, it looked and felt vintage but an easy to play vintage without the hangups. I went into Fender and played it, then went home and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I went in again and had another play and probably annoyed them going in there for days having a go. I think what is so amazing about it is that all of the little hang ups I had about a Jazzmaster, it addresses them. It is the first modern Jazzmaster that they have done but still feels and looks vintage. Also I use to hear the term noiseless pickups and shudder, I’m philosophically against it. I’d played friends guitars with early versions of noiseless pickups and I wasn’t into it but with the Ultra, they sound vintage.
The thing that I really love though, more than any other Jazzmaster I have had in the past is the switching options. Usually you’d have this rhythm circuit that just darkened it up, which was nice but the way that I approach guitar, I use it more as an atmospheric thing or to fill up or surround the vocal. I don’t approach it like The Rolling Stones or AC/DC, I am more along the lines of jazz or James Brown, where the bass is the harmonic road map. The bass and melody and hi-hats are the poles in the ground of the song for me. The guitar is like a paint brush putting details in and darting in and out and it needs to occupy a certain frequency and just play that role. There’s a switching thing on the new Jazzmaster where you can switch it out of phase, which is cool but historically out of phase for me is a strong statement and can sound super thin, super wirey and almost too small. The genius point I am getting to is that on the new one, the rollers on the top switch, they roll in the amount of each of the pickups you want for the out of phase thing. So you can have an out of phase sound but not overwhelmingly so, it sits exactly where you want it. I don’t need to set up an EQ pedal or anything now. I get that for some people that wouldn’t mean much but for me it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever found on an electric guitar.
Which colour did you go for?
I went for the same colour as my trusty old one which is just the the three tone burst, so it looks like my old one but way more handsome. I am a bit of a traditionalist but I did see that mocha burst in there at Fender on a Tele, so I have put an order in for one of those too. So if it comes in time I will be taking those two guitars on the tour.
You have this greatest hits tour at the beginning of the year, then what for the remainder of 2020?
Leading up to the end of this year I have been recording a new record that is almost ready to go. I never know what I am going to release them as up until about a week before release. I make the records first then decide whether to put them out under Beautiful Girls or my name or whatever. It’s a three piece record with maybe more guitar than I have ever done before. About half of the record is the new Jazzmaster. It came in toward the end of the process. I will release that toward the end of the Australian tour then do a bunch of dates in Europe and America and back to oz for next summer.
What are you most proud of in your music career?
I have always just tried to get better and write decent music that has some value to me. I never thought of it in terms of what can this generate for me. I just wanted to express myself and try to get to a place where it was original, honest and truthful and I can hear that when I listen back to it and I can hear the improvement over the years too. Maybe the main thing is the way I’ve gone about it. It is an industry of so much smoke and mirrors and bullshit and so many people making empty promises. It is a weird place. I have always remained staunchly independent, not pretend independent where you’re with major label but act independent but truly independent. In that time I turned down hundreds of thousands or even millions in advertising by beer companies and this, that and the other. The only agenda has been just keeping it only about music, making decent music and not selling it out or sell out the people who listen to it and that’s it. That’s been maintained for nearly twenty years now. In this world I feel like that’s something to be proud of. I would feel the same way if I was a baker, shoe repairman or plumber, same thing just not bow down to the dark arts, fight the good fight and that is what I am most proud of.