A Man Still at Work: Colin Hay
Most famous for being a member of the Aussie pop act Men at Work, singer-songwriter Colin Hay embarked on a solo career when the group flamed out after a very short but successful run. Earlier this year, he issued a new solo effort, Next Year People. It’s a collection of somber, acoustic-based songs reflecting upon his career. In support the album, last summer Hay embarked upon the Last Summer on Earth tour with Violent Femmes and Barenaked Ladies. We recently phoned him at his Los Angeles home to talk about the new album and a fall tour that brings him to the Midwest and East Coast.
Talk about Next Year People. When did you start writing the songs and what were you going for?
I keep my aspirations minimal. I just try to write better songs than the last album. That’s the only brief I give myself. I just try to make it better. Some ideas have been sitting around for a little while. The main difference was that I co-wrote several songs with Michael Georgiades, who lives just up the road from me. We had a great time coming up with these tunes and recording them. A lot of them are fairly new ideas and were written and recorded quickly.
Where did the recording take place and what were those sessions like?
Downstairs in the basement. I’m glad the stairs are involved because I think it’s important that if you have to go to work that you go down some stairs . . . or up some stairs. I think stairs are crucial.
You recorded there in the past?
I have. It’s very convenient. I like recording in other studios as well but it just takes more organizing and it’s a different kind of experience. It makes sense to record downstairs because it’s there. I started doing that when I didn’t have a deal — not that that makes a difference now. Whatever records I make now I just pay for myself because I don’t have that kind of record deal. The reason why I worked on this one is because I had to learn how to do it. There was no interest in me so I had to make it up as I went along. Rather than go to another studio and invest all that money, I just figured I would put the whole thing together myself so that at least I would have a playpen where I could mess around with things and mess things up and it didn’t matter so much.
Did you produce the album too?
Yes, but not by design. It’s really by default. The records I make don’t have budgets for producers to come in. Some people still do that. I would love to have a producer. That would be good. I have friends who are very good producers. They chastise me and are very cruel, to be honest. They tell me what I should leave off and they brutalize some of my tracks.
The title track refers to Depression-era farmers. Talk about what inspired it.
I saw a documentary about that human condition of doing the same thing every year expecting a different result and hoping the rains will come. People got mad and got ill and died. All kinds of horror went on. It’s a remarkable thing. Although my situation was nowhere near as bleak as anything like trying to make a living farming, I did find myself doing the same thing every year. I would tour every year and go out on the road. After awhile, you wonder if it’s what you are supposed to be doing or if it’s just habit and if you’re repeating yourself and hoping to get different results. All those kinds of questions. They’re sometimes tricky to answer. There’s nobody forcing you to do anything. It’s just a choice to go on the road or not. I keep doing it.
And “Waiting in the Rain” is about your childhood. What’s the story there?
I grew up in a music shop in Scotland. When I was messing around with this musical idea for the song, it reminded me of listening to records and music in my mother and father’s shop. That’s where the idea came from.
I know you were born in Scotland. Did you perform music there too?
Yes. Just before I left, I started taking guitar lessons when I was about 12. They had a shop from 1958 to 1967. It was a pretty exciting period to have a music shop.
Were you exposed to rock music?
Whatever the music was of the day was what I heard. I loved pop music at the time. That was the Beatles and the Kinks and the Rolling Stones and the Who and Elvis and Bob Dylan and everyone else in between. I loved Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves.
When you started Men at Work did you have some inkling that the band would become so successful?
Yes. It was just instinct. I didn’t know how successful it would be, but I always felt successful even when I had nothing.
Why did the band break up?
We couldn’t stand each other.
Did the success contribute to that?
It’s difficult to say. I think everything affects everything. If we hadn’t become successful, maybe it would have been shorter lived. It’s difficult to say, but I don’t think it was a band that was destined to go the distance. When you think about it, it’s dumb. It’s stupid. Why would you break up when you created all that success and a lot of income? It doesn’t make any sense. As soon as you realize there’s no sense to it, then you can be okay with it. There you go.
It would be the same if you quit a high paying job. A good income isn’t always fulfilling.
You might have just hated your boss and all the shit he comes with everyday and you just go “fuck this” and you walk.
In 2004 you contributed to the Garden State soundtrack with the solo song “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.” How’d you befriend Zach Braff?
I know Zach, and he used to come and see me play before he was on Scrubs. He was really nice. He used a couple of songs in the TV show and introduced me to Bill Lawrence, the guy who created the show. He had an album of mine, Transcendental Highway, and he liked the song “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.” When he was writing Garden State, he had a bunch of songs he would play while he was writing. That was one of the songs. It was fantastic for me because he had such a huge profile and I had no profile. People noticed me because of the song. Live audiences were increased because of that and because of the show. It was important thing that happened for me.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
I’m on tour until the end of November. I’m out for three or four weeks. It will be fabulous. I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t been across there for a while, the eastern part of the U.S. is one of my favorite places to tour.
Have you thought about the next record yet?
A little bit. I tricked myself. I’m trying not to. You try to trick yourself into getting ideas by pretending you don’t have any. I’m hoping that by doing that, I can trick myself into actually having good ideas. That’s the theory at the moment. I’m not sure how it will work out but I’m going with that.
Upcoming 2015 Shows
CLEVELAND, OH – Trinity Cathedral
MADISON, WI – Barrymore Theatre
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – Pantages Theatre
IOWA CITY, IA – The Englert Theatre
BLOOMINGTON, IN – Buskirk-Chumley Theater
MILWAUKEE, WI – Turner Hall Ballroom
CHICAGO, IL – The Vic Theatre
CINCINNATI, OH – Taft Theatre
ANN ARBOR, MI – The Ark
WEST LONG BRANCH, NJ – Pollak Auditorium
ALEXANDRIA, VA – The Birchmere
GLENSIDE, PA – Keswick Theatre
RIDGEFIELD, CT – Ridgefield Playhouse
ITHACA NY – Hangar Theatre
NEW YORK, NY – The Town Hall
CONCORD, NH – Capitol Center for the Arts
BOSTON, MA – Wilbur Theatre
HARTFORD, CT – Infinity Hall