Matt Mays risks his sanity to tell the story of a dude on a quest

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Matt Mays is going insane. Or if not insane, then the guitarist-singer-songwriter is very close to unravelling. To do justice to ”¦When the Angels Make Contact —a sprawling, genre-crossing record originally intended to be the soundtrack to a movie Mays shot last summer—the musician is assembling a nine-piece band and incorporating film footage into the stage show. When reached at the Marquee Club in Halifax during rehearsals a few days before the first date of the tour, the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, native sounds more than a little flustered.

“I’m losing my mind here,” Mays says. “We’re just putting this whole live show together and it’s nuts. The record damn near killed me, it took so long, and I was really exerting myself in too many ways. We finally finished it, and then there was the whole movie that kind of came during that process, and that was a whole other can of worms. Now, for some reason, I’ve decided to put a live show together in the same vein as the movie and the album.”

The project began with a bunch of songs, some of which he’s been working on for four years. “I thought I’d put them on a record,” says Mays, for whom career strategizing seems to be an afterthought. “Then, in the studio, I had an idea to do an all-nighter–themed record—the first song is the sun going down and the last song is the sun coming up. I started writing songs to that, and then I came up with a theme and a story line. And then I thought, ”˜Hey man, maybe I should film it.’ Mistake number one.”

The film still languishes in post-production limbo, but the album made it out of the studio fully formed. To tell the story of the movie’s protagonist J. J. Carver, a motorcyle-riding dude on a quest, Mays assembled song fragments, wide-screen instrumentals, and snippets of dialogue, along with tunes that will remind fans of his successful 2005 album, Matt Mays & El Torpedo . That record’s “Cocaine Cowgirl” was a hit on Canadian radio and MuchMusic, and helped Mays and his band snag a few Juno nominations and several East Coast Music Awards. A number of Angels songs, including the loping “The Past” and the darkly melodic “Spoonful of Sugar”, deliver the same roots-rock/Neil Young goods found on the group’s breakthrough album. Things eventually get weird, however, as the album touches on raw, Stooges-style rock (“850 Commando”), synth-pop (“Midnight Is the Time”), industrial grime (“You’ll Never Come Back”), spaghetti-Western motifs (“J. J.’s Theme”), and night-shrouded trip-hop (“Under My Senses”).

The actual story line remains a mystery. But from stills, the film trailer (viewable on the record’s Web site), and the dialogue and lyrics included on the record, it’s safe to say Mays is no stranger to the works of David Lynch.

“Yeah, Drew [Lightfoot, director] and I definitely threw his name around a bit. We watched Blue Velvet not too long before we did the movie. That’s the kind of vibe I wanted to go for, a strange-but-normal kind of thing—you don’t know why it’s weird, but it is.”

At first, it seems that releasing ”¦When the Angels Make Contact as a follow-up to his more straightforward effort with El Torpedo might lose Mays some of the momentum he gained last year. But in another way it works, because the previous disc has just been released in the U.S. And, says the 27-year-old, he’s just “trying to do things in an old-school sort of way. If I was pumping out the same stuff all the time, it wouldn’t make that much sense. But putting out albums that are different from each other makes a lot of sense to me.”

Matt Mays plays Richard’s on Richards on Wednesday (January 31).