I don’t really know how many people know this, but one of my earliest musical obsessions, even before I dived headlong into the Beatles, was Men at Work’s Cargo. Thing is, I have no idea how I came to be obsessed with it. Was it because I, like everyone else in the early ’80s, fell in love with the videos from their first album, Business as Usual and wanted to hear what else the band had up their sleeve? Or maybe because Cargo was in stock and Business as Usual wasn’t, so I took what I could get…? I haven’t a clue. But it hardly matters: the obsession proved a long-lasting one…like, to the point where, 29 years later, it remains ongoing.
So that’s how I came to buy Colin Hay’s debut solo album, Looking for Jack (the one where he decided that he wanted to be credited with his middle name, James, as part of the package), and, indeed, why I have all of his solo albums. Is it 11? Maybe it’s 12. Again, I’m getting off track. The point is that I’ve been a devout fan of the man’s work since the very beginning, so when I found out he was coming to play at Norfolk’s Attucks Theater on April 22, you can bet I pitched The Virginian-Pilot on an interview…a pitch which, thankfully, they accepted. You’ll see my article in tomorrow’s Pulse or read it online right here, but here’s the unexpurgated transcript for your reading enjoyment.
News Reviews Interviews: I’m glad you’re coming to the Hampton Roads area. I feel like I’ve had to go on a road trip most of the times I’ve seen you.
Colin Hay: Now, where are you calling from again?
NRI: Norfolk, Virginia. You’re playing at the Attucks Theater.
CH: Oh, nice!
NRI: I may be wrong, but I think the last time I saw a full solo performance from you was at the Village Theater, in New York City.
CH: Wow, so you came to that little two-week run I had, when I was trying to go off-Broadway? [Laughs.]
NRI: Hey, it worked for me. I always tell people about how it was effectively “Colin Hay: Storytellers.” Do you keep that same format for your shows now, or do you not tell quite so many stories?
CH: It’s different all the time. I do pretty much that, but things keep on developing as you go through life.
NRI: Was the Village Theater where you first got into the habit of telling tales before your songs?
CH: No, what it was was an attempt to… I’d been doing that for many, many years, and different people had seen me do it all the time, and Fox were interested, and HBO were interested at one point, and they invited me to go to the Aspen Comedy Festival. I went there, and a producer from New York saw the show and then asked me if I would come to New York and do a couple of weeks and he would promote it and put it on and see if we could turn it into something. It was successful. It was one of the first times that I scripted the show, so that was an interesting process. I’ve done a number of things. I did something for a film company awhile ago, and interesting that you should mention the “Storytellers” thing, because I did a pilot for…well, not really a pilot. I don’t really know what you’d call it, but I did a kind of special filming in a studio with a director and so forth and took it to VH-1 and MTV and all that kind of stuff, with the idea of having anecdotes and performances. And it was before “Storytellers.” And just before “Storytellers.” [Laughs wryly.] Ultimately, MTV bought the series, but they didn’t feature me. But that was in the ‘90s, so…life goes on, y’know?
NRI: I’ve always been very impressed that you’ve continued to be so prolific with original material, because certainly a lot of your peers – and I’m not calling anyone out by name – have a tendency to fall back on live shows that are basically resuscitations of older material.
CH: Yes, well, I’d rather stay home than do that. Not that there’s anything wrong with the old material. I like the old material. But I think that… [Hesitates.] Well, look, people have to do what they’re going to do, and you’ve got to ultimately be proud of just being able to put food on the table. If you can make a living from playing music, no matter what that music is, you’re doing okay. But I’m fortunate because I’ve been able to keep moving forward, and people seem to keep on listening. So I’m lucky in that sense, that I don’t have to rely on what I did 30 years ago to move forward.
NRI: Of course, it’s been a slow, steady process building that solo fanbase.
CH: Yes, it’s been…well, those are two words that I’d use: “slow” and “steady.” [Laughs.]
NRI: As a result of having that fanbase, have you considered phasing some of the Men at Work songs out of the set, or do you just choose not to do that because that helps keep the more casual fans coming to the shows?
CH: No, you know, it doesn’t have so much to do with the people as it does my relationship with the songs. I mean, obviously I have a relationship with the people, but it’s not that I’m going, “What do these people want to hear?” It’s…well, it’s a combination of things, really. You’ve got to have respect for the songs, because they were big songs, and they afforded me a living and, as I say, they put food on the table and enabled me to buy guitars and to continue doing what I’m doing. The least I can do is play those songs on a nightly basis, you know? Because we’ve lived off each other for many years. Plus, there’s a certain amount of the audience that responds to those songs because they’re… I always liken it to going to a party. It’s always nice if there’s a few friends there, but it’s also nice if you meet a few new people as well.
NRI: Scrubs seemed to have been a turning point for you, as far as people realizing, “Hey, this guy actually continues to put out new material!”
CH: Yes, though, oddly enough, they used an older song to lead the way. [Laughs.] Because Bill Lawrence, who created that show, became obsessed with “Overkill” and, as a matter of fact, wrote an episode called “My Overkill” and asked me to come in and be on the show. And it was a particularly popular episode, that, so I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that, for sure.
NRI: So Bill Lawrence was how you found your way onto Scrubs, then? Because I wasn’t sure if it was through him or via the Lazlo Bane connection.
[Note: Four years before the band Lazlo Bane found fame via Scrubs using their song “Superman” as the show’s theme, Hay contributed his inimitable vocals to the band’s cover of “Overkill.”]
CH: It was really a combination of…well, it was really Chad Fischer, who is probably my oldest friend here in Los Angeles, or one of them. I’d been working with him for many years, and he introduced me to Zach Braff through another musician called Cary Brothers, who’s a friend of Zach’s. And all these guys are maybe 15, 20 years younger than me, but they were the kind of people that I was hanging around with for awhile in L.A. when I first came here. But I met Zach before he was in Scrubs, and he’d come to see a couple of shows of mine, and then when he got the gig at Scrubs, he said, “I’m gonna take your CDs into the producer and see if they’ll use some of your songs in the show.” Which is what he did. And then he brought Bill Lawrence down, and he liked the show, and…it’s been remarkably beneficial for my career, that’s for sure.
NRI: I was so glad to see “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” find a new life via the show, having been a fan of the track since it first appeared on 1994’s Topanga.
CH: Yeah, it’s not a particularly good version of the song on Topanga.
NRI: Well, I wasn’t going to say that. [Laughs.] But I do prefer the version on Man at Work, as it happens.
CH: Yeah, it was really unformed. Well, it was formed. It was definitely the song. But it hadn’t found its place yet, you know? But that’s what you do. I think that’s an interesting thing, that you write a song and you record it, and then you play it for awhile and you think, “I think I’d like to have another crack at recording that,” because sometimes you just make it better. And sometimes not. [Laughs.] But in that song’s case, definitely.
NRI: Your most recent album, Gathering Mercury, was – from what I’ve read, anyway – partially inspired by the passing of your father. Does that make the material harder to play live, because of the subject matter, or easier, since it is, in a very real sense, a tribute?
CH: Well, it’s tricky, you know? I mean, I… [Long pause.] It makes it more dense for me or something, if you know what I mean. It makes it thicker, more molasses-like or something. I don’t know how to describe it more. It’s got a heaviness to it that I quite enjoy. It’s a way to me continuing to connect with my father, and on a nightly basis as well, because whenever I play material which either I wrote for him to sing or something that talks about his life or what he did with his life, I can bring him back and I can talk to him again.
NRI: When you’re doing the Men at Work songs…as you say, you play the songs that have done right by you in the past, but do you ever venture into more obscure waters with your set lists?
CH: Yeah, sometimes. I’ve played “Down by the Sea” occasionally, and I’ll play a song called “Blue for You.” There were a few songs that I was going to pull out on this tour, which I may or may not, but…what usually happens with a tour is that I tend to play my last record that I’ve done, because that’s the latest one, and then pull from the past. But now there’s more records, and it gets trickier just to kind of give different songs a run, because there’s more and more material all the time. [Laughs.] You can only play so much! But people don’t seem to complain too much about what I play. And there’s enough songs to keep it interesting for me.
NRI: Are you going to be performing with a band this time, or will it be acoustic?
CH: No, it’s just me. All these tours are all solo at the moment. It seems like the solo tours are what people seem to want. Promoters want them. And it’s harder and harder for me to put band tours together. I keep on trying to do it, and it doesn’t seem to come together too well with a band. I’d like to do one at some point in the near future, but I dunno when that will be. I might even just try and do something where I play here locally, without even going on tour, because putting band tours together is just…it’s so much involved, you know? Just even putting the right band together, because everyone I like playing with is doing other things, and then some of them can make it, some of them can’t make it, and then they have to pull out. It’s just a real logistical nightmare sometimes, you know? [Laughs.] If you don’t have a permanent band, it’s just like I’m trying to pick up players who are not working. I mean, I have great musicians that I work with, but because they’re great musicians, they’re in demand.
NRI: You’ve got enough friends in L.A. You should do a Largo residency.
CH: Well, I did that for a long time, yeah, and I might get back to that as well.
NRI: Given that you are touring solo, does that limit you from playing certain selections from the albums?
CH: Not really. It just means that…some songs lend themselves to acoustic interpretation more than others. But most of them sound okay with just a guitar and voice.
NRI: I was selfishly thinking in terms of “Lose to Win,” from 2007’s Are You Lookin’ At Me? I wasn’t sure if you could manage to switch over to kazoo quickly enough to perform it.
CH: Well, if Cecilia, my wife, comes out and sings with me, she’s usually in charge of the kazoo. [Laughs.]
NRI: Obviously none of your solo albums have been hugely high-profile, but is there a particular album in your back catalog that you consider to be particularly underrated that people should check out?
CH: It’s a funny thing, that “underrated.” Apparently, I’ve been underrated for the last 30 years. I mean, I don’t underrate them. [Laughs.] I think they’re all fabulous! I leave all the underrating to other people. I don’t know who they are, but I wish they’d stop underrating them.
NRI: It seems to me that I told you that I thought Looking for Jack was underrated, and you said that, at the very least, it was overproduced.
[Note: Since I can’t find the interview in question, it’s possible I’m remembering incorrectly. But one part of the conversation that I remember quite distinctly, owing to the fact that it took place approximately a year after Columbia reissued Men at Work’s Business as Usual and Cargo, was that Hay had a great deal to say about the continued unavailability of his solo debut, Looking for Jack, and Men at Work’s Two Hearts. Apparently I could still find the 2004 interview when I talked to him in 2007, since I quoted directly from it, but back then, his official stance on Columbia reissuing the out-of-print material was, “They haven’t done anything about it, ‘cos it’s fucking hopeless,” adding that it was “frustrating, because it’s dead product.” He’s apparently mellowed on his position a bit since then, based on the ’07 interview, but it’s still got to rankle him a bit that both of those albums remain unavailable in the States even now. You’d think they’d at least have offered them up digitally.]
CH: Did I say that? Well, there’s some good things on the record, for sure, and, you know, it’s a good production. It’s funny, though, when you just listen back to something that you’ve done. It’s one of the first recordings that was done on a full digital recorder, and…it sounds good. It’s got kind of a…oh, I don’t even know what the word is. But it’s very clean-sounding, anyway.
NRI: You’ve been on a schedule of a new album every two years for the last three releases. Are you planning to stick to that in the future, or are you considering winding down somewhat?
CH: No, I don’t plan to stick to a schedule or start winding down. I’m excited about writing songs. I write songs by myself, and there’s a friend of mine up here in Topanga who lives up the road from me that I really like working with, a fella named Michael Georgiades, who’s a great songwriter. We’ve been getting a few ideas together, so I dare say that there’ll be songs in the studio. It depends, really, on how much time we have, you know? I just have to not be doing other stuff. Because other stuff always come in. I have to get off the road and stay off the road for awhile, not just do shows because they get offered, and trick myself into not thinking that I have to write material and go down to the studio and just pretend that I’m not going to do anything. And then I can allow myself to fail, and then sometimes good ideas pop up, you know? If you’re safe and comfortable and there’s no pressure. Sometime’s pressure’s good. I’m kind of joking. But I have a studio downstairs, and it’s my favorite place to be, really. But lately I haven’t had much time to spend there, because either I’ve been on the road or down in Melbourne sort of hanging with my family. Since my father’s gone, I go down and spend as much time with my mom as I can.
NRI: What’s your profile like in Australia as a solo artist? Men at Work’s profile, I suppose, is still substantial, but…
CH: Well, it’s not really substantial. It’s a funny thing in your home country…or it’s as much of a home country as anywhere, I suppose. You know, I’m pretty anonymous down there, really, in terms of…I don’t really have much of a career in Australia. Because I haven’t lived there for over 20 years, and I left there because people weren’t particularly interested in what I was doing. So I left and came to America, where…I mean, I don’t think people were much more interested here than they were down there, but I thought, “Well, I’ll come here, because there’s still a bit of a lot of singer-songwriters, and I can make a living from playing, and it’s just a bigger environment.” And I had the opportunity to come here, which not many people do, so I took the opportunity and I did that. But in Australia…you know, it’s been very difficult to even get records released there and to get anyone to pay any attention. Basically, no one really pays much attention to what I’m doing. I mean, it’s true! It’s not really a complaint, it’s just an observation. I go down there and I play, and…it’s gotten better over the years. It’s the same as here, really. I played in Melbourne the last time I was there, and I played to maybe 800 people. That’s about what I can do there. That’s not so bad, you know? Actually, that’s pretty good. That’s what it’s built up to over the course of the past five or ten years. And, you know, Men at Work is just one of those things where people go, “Oh, yeah, they had that song that did well,” and that’s it. I don’t think people really think too much about it.
NRI: Lastly, more out of curiosity than anything else, I was wondering if you anticipated any future collaboration between yourself and Greg Ham, since you and he had revived the Men at Work name for several years, at least as a touring entity.
CH: Well, I mean, I don’t rule it out by any means. That was the whole idea of going on tour from ’96 until 2002, when we did those Men at Work tours to Brazil and different parts of the world. We decided to do that because Greg’s a friend of mine, and we hadn’t played together for 11 years when we decided to go on tour. And part of the idea for that was so that we could perhaps tour and come up with a band and do some recording of all-new material, maybe even do another Men at Work record at some point. That was the idea back then, in ’96. But it never happened. All we ended up doing was going on tour, and we never wrote anything. I mean, I wrote songs, but we never really got together creatively. We never collaborated on anything. Which was kind of sad in a way, but then I kind of thought about it, and I thought, “Well, hang on a minute: that’s what it was always like!” [Laughs.] That’s how it was the first time around as well. So I don’t know why I was so surprised that we never collaborated on anything collaboratively, because we almost never did that in the first place. I mean, we wrote one song together, Greg and I (“Be Good Johnny”), but apart from that, I pretty much wrote by myself and presented songs to the band.
So after about five or six years, in 2002, it just got boring for me, and so I just didn’t really want to do it anymore. I didn’t really want to be in a nostalgia act. It would’ve been better if we had been creative and writing new material and it felt like it was going somewhere, but it wasn’t. It was just kind of the law of diminishing returns. So I decided that I didn’t really want to do it anymore, and I’ve been kind of happier ever since, just going along this sort of solitary path. It feels much more natural to me. I mean, people always ask about the whole reunion thing, and I’ve got nothing against it, but you always have to think to yourself, “Well, why would you do it, and who does it benefit? Why would you do something like that?” Because, you know, you had these hits back then, and that was a period of time, and…why not just leave it alone? It was great then, but it was 30 years ago. What are you trying to do? What are you trying to prove? It’s, like, do you hang around with guys now that you hung around with 30 years ago? I doubt that most people do. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, and I’ve got no kind of malice toward it. It’s just…there’s no point! [Laughs.]