Saturday night and Sunday morning.
That’s how Matt Mays describes the difference between his albums Once Upon A Hell Of A Time and the just-released Twice Upon a Hell of a Time: the former, an energetic, electric offering and the latter, its mellower acoustic twin.
“I thought these songs should have been a bit more torn-down,” says Mays of his motive behind making Twice. “The songs sounded a little happier on Once than what they really are, so Twice is truer to form, in terms of conveying its lyrics. Plus, it was fun.”
When Once was released a year ago, the 13-song effort – co-written and produced by Wintersleep’s Loel Campbell – was characterized by Mays as “a party-rock record for the broken-hearted.”
He and producer Eric Ratz (Danko Jones, Monster Magnet) strove to re-interpret Once with a much different vibe. For example, on Twice, “Perfectly Wasted” is re-cast as a piano-driven waltz. “Faint of Heart” is transformed from a pounding rocker to a wailing pedal steel ballad, and “Ola Volo” trades in its electric guitars for ukulele-driven momentum.
“It’s amazing what a tempo, or key, or vibe change will do to a song.”
“Songs are strange that way,” says the Hamilton-born, Toronto-based architect of seven albums, and a couple more with his old band The Guthries. “A lot can change if you arrange them a different way.
“Going through the acoustic versions was enjoyable because every song and lyric was already written, so it was just a matter of ensuring that each interpretation was very unexpected and different than the original album version. What I couldn’t get out on Once, I managed to shake out on Twice. Maybe that’s why I was keen to do it. I got it out of my system with both of them, that’s for sure.”
The intriguing factor regarding both albums is that many of the tunes were written acoustically, arranged as rockers for Once and then converted back to the basics for Twice.
“Half of them I had written on acoustic and some of them were not quite done, so I finished them while I was underway on Once,” says Mays. “‘Station Out Of Range,’ was written on a ukulele and then we really amped it up. Then, it was fun to take the electric riff back to the acoustic.”
Mays finds that creating dual versions of songs can yield two emotional apexes. “On ’Ola Volo,’ the guy in the first verse is in a state of distress, really needing to find somebody to help him. In the acoustic ‘happy ukulele’ version, it’s the same person, but they’re not nearly in as much trouble. They’re sort of hanging out at the beach in Hawaii, singing post-faith. That’s one of the most drastic changes. The other song is ‘Never Say Never,’ where it’s more fun, and almost too loud and fast on Once. On Twice, it ends in a state of mind that I was in when I actually wrote it: quite a bit more sad, and real, and raw.”
Whenever he writes, Mays says his instruments of choice are acoustic guitar, piano, and ukulele. “I write until the songs are what I hear in my head and I make sure they can hold up on their own,” he says.
In possession of a key to Lee Harvey Osmond member and pedal steel whiz Aaron Goldstein’s studio, Mays rises early, “before my filters start turning on, when my brain is still too tired to exhibit anything good, and before I start worrying about everything else the day has to offer” in order to work on songs.
“They’re the ones that I feel I didn’t write, but channelled: ‘A Spoonful of Sugar,’ ‘Chase the Light’ and ‘Terminal Romance’ – ones that came so fast that I don’t even feel like they’re mine. ‘Station Out of Range’ was one of them, too.”
He likes to experiment. “It’s amazing what a tempo, or key, or vibe change will do to a song,” he says. “It’s not a complete 180, but it definitely takes my mind down different roads. It paints different pictures.”
If inspiration hits when he’s not in the studio, Mays records them on his phone and strives to finish them. “If that window comes, it’s very important to stop what you’re doing, cancel any plans, and try to finish it,” he says. “Don’t put the guitar down until you’ve completely done [with] at least a version of the entire song. Sometimes I’ll get super-excited about something else, and then forget about it or leave it. But if you force yourself to finish, you’re scot-free once you get it into your voice memos.”
Mays says the Once/Twice Upon a Time albums have changed his approach to songwriting. “The older I get, I’ve learned not to write more songs, but to spend more time channeling them,” he says. “It seems the more I sit down to try to write, the fewer keepers I get. The ones that seem to resonate the most come without any real effort or planning, so I’m trying let those through more often.”