Mat McHugh on remaining independent and keeping Beautiful Girls fans guessing

CRUISING: Mat McHugh, far right, says he now feels comfortable using The Beautiful Girls moniker if that's what fans prefer.
CRUISING: Mat McHugh, far right, says he now feels comfortable using The Beautiful Girls moniker if that's what fans prefer.

A DECADE ago Mat McHugh could easily have heard one of his Beautiful Girls songs every time he switched on the cricket.

McHugh could have provided summer’s soundtrack, be it on some beer or KFC commercial - where ironically fit and healthy people dig into buckets of the Colonel’s finest.

But McHugh always pushed against commercial overtures. Even in the mid-2000s when surf-folk exploded, The Beautiful Girls refused to forgo their independence.

“For a period there we had pretty lucrative offers from every single major record label, internationally as well,” McHugh says.

“We also had all this advertising money from beer companies, crazy crazy money, because that scene was happening and they wanted something that sounded like summer or the beach.

“We got all these crazy offers to be on beer commercials or KFC. We just said no to all of it. Music is important to me and I never sit down and write any of these songs with selling them in mind.

“If you believe in a song and the next minute you hear it on a KFC ad, it’s very hard to believe in that song anymore.”

The Beautiful Girls are revisiting their earliest songs this summer for the true believers. 

To celebrate 15 years since the release of their seminal debut album Learn Yourself, The Beautiful Girls are hitting the road to perform many of the album’s cruisy acoustic tracks like Music and La Mar (The Ocean).

The sets will also include cuts from their 2002 debut EP Morning Son, like Periscopes

The records rode a new wave in music. Following a decade where Australia’s music scene was dominated by alternative rock, McHugh craved something more mellow and rootsy.

“I’d grown up being in heavier stoner rock or punk bands, but every venue would only give you gigs if you were a rock band,” he says.

“I found it frustrating and felt it was stale. All these bands sounded the same and I thought there’s gotta be a breath of fresh air.”

The fresh air blew loud and clear. For several years in the mid-2000s folk and roots acts like the John Butler Trio, The Cat Empire, Ben Harper and The Beautiful Girls dominated.

“It certainly blew up for a minute, it was huge,” McHugh says. “Like any scene, you get the high tide mark where the scene gets so big and all these bands follow through in the next wave that sound like it. The wave reaches the shore and just recedes and it’s uncool then because it’s everywhere.

The Beautiful Girls - Music

“For a new scene to flourish, an old scene has to be uncool. But there are always the ones who were there at the start, the legitimate ones, who hang around once the scene dies.”

The Beautiful Girls’ longevity is due to constant reinvention. At the height of surf-folk’s popularity in 2005 they began moving to a darker blues sound.

Change continued on Ziggurats (2007), Spooks (2010) and finally Dancehall Days (2014), which moved completely away from The Beautiful Girls’ acoustic roots by incorporating electronic beats and calypso.

McHugh admits the constant shape-shifting did alienate some fans, but it also attracted new ones. 

“When you look back on it, it seems like that was a smart move,” he says.

“We didn’t end up in this one particular box. That was the end result I wanted to have, but at the time each and every single record was like going to war.”

For a time McHugh wanted to leave The Beautiful Girls behind. From 2005’s We’re Already Gone onwards, The Beautiful Girls were essentially McHugh.

Much like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, McHugh writes and records the albums and then reunites with live members Paulie Bromley (bass) and Paul Derricott (drums) for tours.

After spending four years using his real name for records, McHugh decided to relaunch The Beautiful Girls with Dancehall Days.

“I intended to that and not do new Beautiful Girls material, but a lot of people know the Beautiful Girls name,” he says. “They’re the same thing.

“Either way I don’t really mind. I’m just trying to write music and if people get to hear it and like it, I’m not pedantic.

The Beautiful Girls - La Mar (The Ocean)

“I usually make the decision in a 24-hour period after I’ve recorded a record. I do it and then decide if I’m going to call it Beautiful Girls or Mat McHugh.”

Away from music the past two years have been among McHugh’s most challenging. In October 2015, just days after a solo show at Lizotte’s, he was hospitalised with a ruptured disc and a chipped bone in his back.

It was a result of long-term damage caused by a motorcycle accident two years earlier that fractured several vertebrate. McHugh refused medical advice to undergo surgery and slowly rebuilt his body through a healthier lifestyle that involved cutting out alcohol, coffee and sugar.

“I tried to heal myself and it didn’t feel like there was much healing going on,” he says. 

“I had paralysis of the right arm, I couldn’t lift or use it. I was in heavy pain and really struggling and that was the period where I gave all that stuff up.

“So I almost didn’t notice because I was so down a rabbit hole in dealing with this injury that I didn’t really notice the no coffee or anything.

“By the time I was feeling healthier I didn’t miss it at all because it was already out of my system.”

The Beautiful Girls perform at the Cambridge Hotel on January 7.