East Coast rock musician Matt Mays rolled with the punches life delivered him in the last few years. Following 2013’s Coyote the singer/guitarist coped with a breakup and the suicide of a longtime friend and bandmate Jay Smith, all while on tour in Edmonton.
But Mays, 38, persevered, using the hardships to fuel his latest album Once Upon A Hell Of A Time. It’s an album he says took some time nailing down.
“I was kind of chasing it for a while,” Mays says while mixing a new stripped-down, acoustic version of his recent studio effort. “I started working in Montreal with (producer) Loel Campbell and we just locked into the sound and started writing songs to go with it. It all happened very, very fast.”
Working “the night shift” at a Montreal studio meant leaving the studio at dawn with Campbell pushing Mays when he wasn’t pushing himself. “It was pretty testing and heavy, the songs mean a lot to me,” Mays says. “It was physically taxing and mentally taxing but we knew we were onto something so it was worth it.”
The album is consistently strong beginning with the opening track “Trust Life,” a tune inspired by the end of a relationship.
“It was a bit of a coming to the realization of real life and how we’re completely out of control,” he says. “It’s a bit of a breakup time for me when I wrote it. I was just a little bit down and powerless in having to succumb to life no matter what. It’s sort of easier to just jump in the river and go with it than to sort of fight it.”
Perhaps the album’s highlight is the heartfelt “Drunken Angels,” a song dedicated to Smith.
“’Drunken Angels’ is my song to Jay Smith, one of my best friends,” Mays says. “I didn’t really want to do a whole record about Jay. I just wanted to concentrate it into one that’s a message to him wherever he is.”
Mays kept touring with his band El Torpedo the morning of Smith’s passing because it’s what Mays felt Smith would’ve wanted. He also said it was a bittersweet, cathartic recording to finish.
“It’s just a song that I don’t give a shit if anybody likes or dislikes it doesn’t matter to me whatsoever,” he says. “It’s just between him and I. It was kind of nice to write a song where you have zero care in the world about how it’s perceived by anybody. It’s strictly a song for Jay from me to him.”
Since releasing the album Mays has been touring with the highlight being a headlining show at Massey Hall in early May, months before its extensive renovation begins. He says the butterflies went away quickly and the evening felt like a “warm hug” from the “warmest” crowd he played for.
“We did Massey Hall the other night and it was the best show of my life hands down which is nice 20 years into my career that my best show wasn’t 10 years ago but it was last Friday,” Mays says. “I was ecstatic when I heard and I’m glad I made it under the gun before the renovations. I just want it to be around for another 123 years however I’m glad when I got in because it was a classic room.”
As for the rest of the year, Mays has Twice Upon A Hell Of A Time (working title) to finish and already has another album in the can. Meanwhile touring includes summer festivals and some Stateside support dates for The Gaslight Anthem.
The touring has been eased slightly with a tour bus, a sporadic luxury after almost two decades under his belt.
“It’s been a lot of gigs, a lot of stage lights and a lot of highways,” Mays says. “Tour buses come and go, it all depends on the cash flow. But more often we’re getting on a bus and it makes it a lot easier.
“Getting crowds that have been around for a long time and know the material, making a setlist every night and having six albums to pick from instead of two, it makes it a little more doable. I know where all the best coffee is in all the different towns. Each town is a little bit homier than it used to be.”
Finally, Mays says Once Upon A Hell Of A Time would’ve definitely had one big fan in Smith.
“He would’ve told me if he didn’t like it (laughs) but I think he would’ve liked it a lot for sure,” Mays says on reflection. “He liked guitar riffs and there are a lot of guitar riffs on it so as long as he got his riffs he’d be happy. So I think he would’ve liked it a lot.”