Colin Hay, Still Working After All These Years

In another day and age, it would not be hard to imagine singer/songwriter Colin Hay as a traveling minstrel, a jester cutting ‘em up in the King’s court and then closing with a tune that would bring a tear or two to the eyes of the Queen. Recently, I was fortunate enough to catch his act, in a packed but still intimate setting in Arizona, and this was the thought I found myself returning to several times throughout the course of the evening.

When Hay first took the stage he didn’t open with a big “remember when” hit, as some might expect. He didn’t open with a jaunty track from his latest release, as many of us are accustomed to seeing, but rather he opened with a casual and very funny five minute monologue which eventually segued into his beautiful a cappella pop madrigal “I Don’t Know Why.” From that moment on all bets were off and in an instant it had become clear, this wasn’t going to be your typical singer/songwriter show but rather one you’d remember, quite possibly, for years to come, as I’m certain I will.

Most of you will remember Colin Hay as the frontman and main songwriter of Men at Work, the iconic Australian rock band that dominated video channels and the radio in the 80s. To this day they are the only Australian act to have a simultaneous #1 album and #1 single in the United States (BUSINESS AS USUAL and “Down Under” respectively). They won the 1983 Grammy Award for Best New Artist and sold over 30 million albums worldwide. Men at Work’s greatest hits include: “Who Can it Be Now?,” “Down Under,” “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive,” “Be Good Johnny,” “It’s a Mistake” and “Overkill,” which was featured most recently in one of the more memorable episodes of the hit series SCRUBS.

Since the break up of Men at Work Colin has been writing, recording and touring as a solo act for the last several years and has developed a very loyal and dedicated fan base. His albums have garnered largely solid reviews and his songs have been featured in commercials as well as the soundtracks to SCRUBS and the multi-platinum selling GARDEN STATE, which went on to win the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Media.

Pop Bitez: So you’ve been traveling light these last few years and, with the exception of the few dates you have with your full band, it looks like the bulk of your tour is just you, your guitar and the open road. In your five minute autobiography, specifically the tune “Are You Lookin’ At Me?,” you make the reference, more than once, to living the life of a cowboy, is that how you feel traveling cross country by yourself like this?

Colin Hay: (laughing) No, I don’t really feel much like a cowboy, I don’t think I’d make a good cowboy actually. No, I have a band with me part of the time but the solo thing is the main thing. It’s really been circumstantial more than anything else. When the band broke up [Men at Work] people would make offers for me to come and play but the offers weren’t really much so I couldn’t really afford to take a band, otherwise I would have. So I started playing solo, many years ago, twenty years actually, and people seemed to respond to that. They really liked it so I just kept doing it and it’s been building ever since, it’s been building quite slowly, slowly but surely, and I’ve been gathering bigger and bigger audiences. It also helped to get my songs on the television shows.

PB: Right, SCRUBS in particular, how exactly did that all come about?

CH: Well actually that came from playing the live shows and Zach Braff and myself have a mutual friend. I didn’t know Zach very well but I’d see him occasionally at my friend’s house, before he was on SCRUBS actually, and he had my CDs and came to a couple of shows and then, when he got the role on SCRUBS he took my CDs to the producer and creator of the show, Bill Lawrence, and he came down to see me play and he asked me “Why aren’t these songs on the radio?” and I said, “That’s a good question, I don’t really have an answer for that” and he said “Well I’m going to use a bunch of your songs on my television show and we’ll see if it makes a difference because I think they should be heard,” and so that’s what he did.

PB: And it worked out well.

CH: Yes, it did.

PB: I was reading your bio and you list a lot of different musicians as influences, but you’ve also got Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in there. How exactly do they figure into the Colin Hay mix?

CH: Oh yeah, they were fantastic. There was a show on when I was growing up in Scotland called NOT ONLY BUT ALSO. It was one of the original sketch comedy shows on television and there was some really fantastic writing. I think Cook may have written a lot of that, and then Dudley would play piano as well and they’d always have a musical act and it was always someone great like early Joe Cocker and all that kind of stuff. It was fantastic.

PB: Humor also seemed to play a big part in your early music videos as well.

CH: Yeah, sure, as far as Men At Work are concerned. Greg Ham and I grew up on Monty Python and the Beatles and there was a lot of irreverence and humor in that era, so I think that influenced us in not taking it all too seriously….though we were quite serious about it.

PB: In reading some of the message boards and reviews regarding your current tour, I was surprised to discover one of the big topics of discussion is your sense of humor and storytelling, it actually sounds like the humor is as much a part of the show as the music, is that right?

CH: Well, my father was a funny man and, you know, humor’s a big part of being human I think, and then Scotland’s full of funny people but, of course, taking it onstage is a whole other thing. When the band first broke up I went from playing to a lot of people back to virtually hardly playing to anybody and in some ways I felt an explanation was necessary, (laughs) there was something conspiratorial about it, I would talk to the audience and say, “yeah, wow, I’ll tell ya what happened to me..” and because maybe there were fifty people in the room, and a year or two before that I was playing to 150,000 people for example, there was a story to be told. You know you can look at like I had a fall from grace or you can just think “well..that’s just what happened to me.” You know I was back to playing to small audiences, so that’s where it started really, I just started to tell people about situations I’d been in and characters that I’d met and it was funny and hopefully somewhat interesting to people. So they started to laugh and of course there’s nothing more encouraging than getting a laugh, so I just kept it going and that’s pretty much what my show is now, it’s basically a document of what’s going on with me and other people that I see and some of it’s based on truth and some of it’s just a pack of lies, but it’s up to people to figure that out. (laughs) I’m not really going to tell you which is which and sometimes I can’t even remember myself; it all gets a bit blurry after awhile.

PB: Is it just me or does it seem like pop music has lost a bit of it’s sense of humor over the years?

CH: I don’t know, there seems to be a different attitude towards humor these days. If you say something funny now to someone they may say “that’s funny” but they might forget to laugh. (laughs) Everyone’s so busy, they move on quicker. I know what you mean, it does seem to be a bit of a serious affair. Maybe it’s just darker times that we’re in right now, it certainly seems that way.

PB: Your latest album AMERICAN SUNSHINE, feels very open, sort of like you wrote it all under a big sky while traveling from town to town. Do you do a lot of your writing on the road?

CH: Well, I try to write songs wherever they strike and sometimes you get germs of songs no matter where you are, like when you’re driving on a long stretch say from Florida up the east coast of the states and there’s often these quite bizarre sayings on billboards, you know, like “Liquor and Fireworks!” I don’t know why they’d put them together really. It’s like, “Oh, I’m all out, I might as well stop off and pick up some liquor that’ll kill me and just before I go I’ll set off a few rockets!”

PB: (laughing) And you can’t make that stuff up.

CH: Well, that’s the interesting thing about going to different places and being exposed to people’s perspectives which are somewhat different from your own. The Beatles got “Happiness is a Warm Gun” like that I think, from a sign or a billboard.

PB: Now with this latest record I understand you actually collaborated on a few tracks, is that right?

CH: Yeah, the first two tracks on AMERICAN SUNSHINE, “Oh California” and “Prison Time,” were written with a friend of mine, Michael Georgiades who lives up the road from me in Topanga. He’s a great songwriter and in a lot of ways he kind of opened a door for me in songwriting. You know I write a lot of songs by myself and I like doing that and I will keep doing that but I think, in my life, I’ve met two or three people that I have a songwriting connection with and he’s one of those people. He’s a little bit older than me but he’s a Californian and I’m fascinated by the way he was brought up and that time, you know. He was around at the same time the Beach Boys were around and he was friends with the Eagles and was in a band that opened for The Doors in 1968. He has a lot of California history. I really like writing with him because he has that perspective I don’t have.

PB: And, of course, your perspective comes from being born in Scotland and then spending most of your youth in Australia.

CH: Right.

PB: And you’ve been living mostly in America for the last twenty years or so, what made you decide to settle in the states?

CH: I like it here.

PB: Well sure, there’s a lot to like, I can see that, but I’m a native, I guess the real question is, what exactly makes a Scotsman from “Down Under” plant himself in Topanga Canyon, California?

CH: Well, when I first came it wasn’t so much I was coming TO America, I was really running AWAY from Australia because I was having problems there. I had a drinking problem, I was getting a divorce and I had a record deal based in L.A. and everything was pointing away from Melbourne, at that particular time, and everything was pointing towards Los Angeles in a way, and that’s where I found myself. I liked it and everyone I seemed to meet was in some sort of process of recovery, and I know there’s a satirical element to that, everyone winding up in AA meetings as a means to socially network or pick up meetings, but when I went to them I really needed to go and being in Los Angeles wiped the slate clean and helped me start again.

PB: Lately, quite a few of your contemporaries have been writing for the stage, Bono and The Edge have SPIDERMAN coming to Broadway next month and Green Day have AMERICAN IDIOT on the boards right now, is writing for the stage something you’ve ever considered?

CH: Yeah, well, some musicals are OK but, traditionally I’ve never been a huge fan of that format…. but I do like theater…. I like curtains….. I like when they draw the curtains….. it’s a nice thespian experience (laughs). I actually did try to do my own show a few years ago in an off-Broadway theater. A New York producer liked my show and said “Look, this should be seen by a lot more people” but it didn’t turn into the huge, massive, heaving success he was hoping it was going to be. It was anecdotal performance and it was a theater piece and that’s actually what I’m trying to move towards now, definitely, I’m doing that at the moment actually, I’m working on shaping it all and I’m going to try and put my show into small theaters in the coming year I think.

PB: My column, Pop Bitez, is built around all things “pop” so I’m going to throw a few of those obligatory questions at you now. First, do you have any pop culture guilty pleasures you’d care to share?

CH: A guilty pleasure..hmmm…I don’t really feel guilty about it but, I do find a couple of songs by Miley Cyrus quite appealing.

PB: OK, you’re stranded on a desert island, what are the five albums you’d want to have with you?

CH: Must they be albums? Can I not take women instead? I’d much rather have women than albums.

PB: And you could make your own beautiful music together!

CH: Exactly! Alright, I would take ABBEY ROAD, I would take an album called DIRT FLOOR by Chris Whitley, I would take THE BEST OF OTIS REDDING, Stevie Wonder’s SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE and a box set of Joni Mitchell.

PB: Do you still keep in touch with any of the guys from Men At Work?

CH: Yeah, I still see Greg Ham when I go back to Melbourne, that’s pretty much it.

PB: Looking back on the Men At Work days, what would you say is your fondest memory from that time?

CH: I have a lot of great memories of that whole experience. More than specific memories there are periods of time that really stick out in my mind, like when we started to come up with “a sound” and I seemed to be writing a lot of songs that I liked, like “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake” that just sort of started popping out. And then we did a tour in 1981, before we took off for America and other parts of the world, we did a tour up the coast of Australia. It was so amazing and I still remember it as being my favorite Men At Work tour because it was before we got famous and people seemed to know what was going to happen to us and, you know, it was that period of ascension which is often the most exciting part of anything.

PB: The journey as opposed to the arrival…

CH: Right. One of the other great memories I have is playing at The Apollo Theater in Glasgow, which actually isn’t there anymore, because it was sort of a homecoming for me and I hadn’t been back to Scotland since I’d left when I was 14 and I went back sixteen years later and I remember walking out on the stage and, you know, the crowd were kind of going wild and I walked out and they kinda got quiet and I said, “Well, it’s nice to be home” and the crowd practically took the roof off, it was a pretty exciting moment. The Grammy experience was a pretty exciting moment as well, you know, but even more than that I think the first time we appeared on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. We were number three on the charts that Friday and then we went on the telly that Saturday and the next Friday we went number one, that was pretty exciting, plus people like Eddie Murphy were on the show at that time.

PB: If I can reference your tune “Are You Looking At Me” once more, in the last verse you say, “I know more than one thing, but not more than two or three and I’ll tell you if you’ll listen, and I’ll tell you for free,” and this brings me to my final question, what do you know? Do you have a mantra or a life’s philosophy that you’d like to share?

CH: (laughs) I don’t really have a mantra exactly. I don’t know, sometimes I find myself mumbling “live forever” when I’m exercising or trying to run a little farther than the day before. I’ll tell ya what I’ve been thinking lately, I’ve been trying to grasp the idea of multiple universes as opposed to just this one. I just started reading THE GRAND DESIGN by Stephen Hawking and I’m trying to make sense of what he’s putting forward in that book and I just keep getting blown away by how little I know about anything. (laughs) But I find great joy in that. In a lot of ways I find great peace in the fact that I know virtually nothing about anything. These days everyone claims to know everything and they claim to know what’s going to happen after you die and I have no fucking idea whatsoever what’s going to happen next week or even in the next few seconds and I certainly don’t claim to know what’s going to happen after we go. As far as I can tell, no one has come back to let us know, so it’s all a big mystery to me and I suppose that’s what I take delight in because it tends to bring you back to the present. All we really have is the moment.

AMERICAN SUNSHINE is currently available at Amazon.com and iTunes and his new DVD, COLIN HAY LIVE AT THE CORNER is available through Amazon and at his website http://www.colinhay.com/

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