Face the Music Artist Interview: Colin Hay of Men at Work
MIDDLETOWN - Colin Hay is familiar to millions of music fans as the frontman, songwriter and vocalist of the sensational pop group Men at Work. Formed in Sydney in 1978 Men at Work achieved national and international success in the early 80’s with hits like “Down Under,” “It’s a Mistake,” “Overkill” and “Who Can it Be Now?”

       They were the first Australian artists to have a simultaneous number one album and single in the United States. They were chosen Best New Artist at the 1983 Grammy Awards. The group went on to sell over 30 million albums worldwide. They formally disbanded in 2002.

       Over the past decade, Hay has reinvented himself as a solo artist, regularly selling out theaters across the U.S. and around the world and introducing himself to a new generation of fans in the process. Hay released a new solo in early 2015 entitled Next Year People on Compass Records. I talked with him about that album and his past endeavors via phone from Los Angeles.


       Good afternoon, Colin, this is Joby Rogers from Face the Music. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. (Suddenly the ‘subject’ of the interview becomes the interviewer.)

       Ahh, now where is that name from? Joby?


       (I go into a short history of how there was a mixup on the birth certificate at the hospital and they combined the first two letters from my first and middle names and it just stuck.)

       That’s very interesting, fair enough. I suppose you can say it’s efficient.

       Now, you’re calling from Connecticut?


       Yes, where are you?

       Los Angeles.


       In February of this year you released Next Year People, your first studio release since Gathering Mercury in 2011. In the cut “Trying to Get to You” you talk about a world of constant danger and you sing “that tears are just not enough.” What is your general feeling about race relations outside of the music business? And, what can Artist do to help the situation?

       Wow, that’s a big question. I don’t know how you feel, or how a lot of people feel. I think that we all have a sense of impotence because of the fact that the same things keep happening. I believe we should try and move closer to a socially democratic system so that there is much better education and less social intrenchment. More mobility. That seems to be the problem with the modern world, the fact that there is a disappearing middle class and the people with a lot of money seem to hang on to it just to make more money. A lot of poor people are getting poorer and so forth. I think at local levels and community levels and government levels there could be a lot more done to quell the problems.

       I mean, how do you stop that? How do you stop people from shooting each other? It’s crazy. You talk about having much better gun laws and then people just jump up and down and say, “You can’t take our guns away from us!” America seems to be one of those countries that [people] just love their guns. There was a mass shooting in Australia a few years ago and they immediately changed the gun laws and there has been much less gun violence because of it, so it does work.

       In terms of what artists can do, all you can really do is try and put the word out there as much as you can. About how to treat each other better. But, my God, if there are people walking around who are in power and shooting people, it’s pretty tough.


       The one thing I’ve noticed is that every time there is a mass shooting here in the U.S., most recently right here in my home state of Connecticut with the Newtown Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children, immediately following an event they always say it’s time for mourning and our thoughts and prayers should go out to the families and we’ll address the gun violence issue later. In between the shooting and the time for prayer and mourning there is yet another massacre, so then we have to mourn that one. So there is never time given to address the gun violence issue because we go from one shooting to the next.

       Well it depends on what you think of that as well. Prayer? Religion is a whole other topic of madness as far as I’m concerned. People running around the world killing each other in the name of religion. There’s another problem and not an answer, as far as I’m concerned.


       I think people should stop looking up for answers and start looking at each other.

       Yes. You have to look inwards and you have to figure it out because it’s a man-made problem which has to be cured with man-made answers. It’s very very distressing. I feel for President Obama, too, because you know that every time it happens he’s just like tearing his hair out going, ‘my God, what is it gonna take to get these people to realize that you have to actually change the laws to at least try and address the problem and try and make it harder for people to get ahold of guns?’


       Another song from the current album, “Did You Just Take the Long Way Home?” deals with the absence of a lover and the trials of life on the road. How have you avoided or overcome the trappings of fame that have caused the demise of so many artists?

       I don’t really have trappings of fame anymore. I’m kind of more like a traveling salesman that traipses around the country. I don’t sell vacuum cleaners but I open up my cases of CDs and I play some tunes. I go, “Hey what do you think of these? You don’t like that? Well, then here’s another.” It’s different for everybody and it’s been a long time since I felt the trappings of fame were a problem to me. It was a problem at one point. I drank too much and had to stop that, so that was a difficult situation. Everyone’s got to figure it out for themselves. That’s the unfortunate thing. I think of people who passed, like Michael [Hutchence, lead singer of INXS, another 80’s super group from Australia], who if they just could’ve gotten through that bad bit--the bad section, that depression--and kind of gone a few more years. You’ll come out the other side of it and you’ll think it wasn’t really that important and you can get a bit more of a perspective. It’s sad that we lose people that are very talented.


       Touring can be challenging. What draws you to the road and motivates you at this point?

       It’s just part of what I have to do to promote the records, you know? I do three things, really. I write songs and record them and then I go out and reproduce them on the road. That’s my work. I don’t have any big corporate structures behind me so I have to actually find my audience and take it to them instead of letting them find me. I mean they can find you a bit on the Internet and so forth, but you still have got to go out there and play as a way to promote the record. It’s part of your job description, really. It’s not for everyone. I mean, I could stay home and not do that and do something else, you know maybe try and write songs for film and television like a lot of my friends do, but they say, “No don’t do that just keep doing what you’re doing.” I’m not sure if they actually just don’t want the competition or whether they know there are problems with that. Dealing with middle executives that come in and just kind of take over. I quite like performing. I like doing it most of the time. I’ll probably just do it until, well it’s probably just too late to stop now really, ya know?


       “Next Year People” and “To There From Here” seem to be from the point of view of a man in search of direction and reason. Are any of those songs autobiographical?

       They probably are to some degree, I would think, because they come from you and even if you’re writing about something there’s always elements of yourself in there. Sometimes there are other characters and observations you make. I co-wrote a lot of songs on the record with a friend of mine. We’d be sitting around at that point in our lives where we can see the finish line. A certain amount of melancholy always creeps in and you do things differently from when you’re 28 then when you are in your 60s.


       “If I Had Been a Better Man” and “Lived in Vain” touch on regret and a desire for second chances. What advice would you give your younger self about getting into the business? Would you do anything differently?

       I never really thought about it as a business, that’s the thing. I still don’t know really what the music business is. I think I wouldn’t give myself any advice because I never took advice when I was young. I’ll tell you what I would do. I would say, “Take some advice.” Cause I never did.


       “Mr. Grogan” is about a dark and complicated soul. Is the character based on a real life person?

       No. Completely fictitious. 


       What song of yours from Next Year People are you most proud of?

       I quite like a few. I like “Long Way Home” because it holds certain meanings to me that perhaps are not that obvious. I like “Next Year People.”


       Which cut was your favorite to record?

       Probably “To There From Here.”


       Is there a song you have written that seemed to come out of nowhere already complete?

       Yeah, yeah. I had a few of them. You know you just write it down. There’s a song called “Maggie” that I wrote years ago that just wrote itself. “Overkill” was a bit like that back in the old days. Even “Next Year People,” not the music but the lyrics.


       How do you approach songwriting?

       From the side. I come in from the side door. I do! (laughs) I try and trick myself. I try and pretend I’m not going to write a song and try and trick my subconscious so I can get into the room before it realizes I’m there.


       What do you think of the theory that great art or songwriting comes from hunger and pain?

       There’s probably something to it. I would think it comes from all different areas. You also have your own imagination. You can imagine hunger, you can imagine pain. That’s the great thing about artistic endeavor. You have that to draw on as well which is limitless. 


       Next Year People includes contributions from two young Cuban musicians, San Miguel Perez and Yosmel Montejo, both of whom recently emigrated from Havana. Have you given any thought to being the first or one of the first music artist to perform in Cuba now that the restrictions are lifted?

       Well Cecelia [Noël], my wife, has already done that in the 90s and she’s really the first one to do that in Cuba. She made a record called Havana Rocks. So she’s beat me to it. She’s the one who discovered those musicians and got them over to LA.


       You’ve performed in Ringo Starr’s eighth and 10th All-Starr Bands. What was it like working with and sharing the stage with a Beatle?

       Fantastic! It was a great, great, great experience. Loved every minute of it.


       Was there any other one person or artist you’ve met or worked with where you pinched yourself and thought, “Oh My God, I can’t believe this is happening?”

       I did that with Sir Paul McCartney. He came to see a show of mine years ago and stayed the whole night and then came to another show and I got to know him a little bit so that was exciting.


       After listening to the new LP, I believe there are some strong moments there that should be recognized. Which songs do you perform or plan on performing from Next Year People on this current tour?

       I’m doing a bunch of songs from it. I do “Next Year People,” “Trying to Get to You,” “If Had Been a Better Man” and “Long Way Home.” I do a bunch of songs from that record.


       You’ve appeared in numerous cult movies and on prime time television shows including Modern Family, JAG and What About Brian, with your last appearance being in 2012. Do you plan on making a return to television or film any time soon?

       JAG! (laughs) My God, that was 25 years ago. If someone offers me a job, sure. Yeah, but nobody offers me any jobs. I have an agent that never calls me, so it’s hopeless, really, isn’t it? So now the only gigs I get are people who are like, yeah, yeah he’d be good for that, he’s got a good head. If it happens it happens. It’s not something I actively pursue.


       What did you do before becoming a musician/entertainer? What would you be doing if you weren’t a musician?

       I dreamt about becoming a musician. I did a lot of things. I worked a lot of jobs just so I could buy a Stratocaster. So, I drove trucks and I worked for the city. Whatever I had to do just to make some money. 


       What was your family’s initial reaction to you when you decided to enter show business and be a professional musician?

       My mother and father were upset about it because they didn’t think it was going to lead to anything. But at the same time, you know, they paid for singing lessons. So I think on some level they recognized that that was what I wanted to do. I think they were just worried for me. Maybe it wasn’t going to happen for me, but once I expressed the interest that that was really what I wanted to do and it was clearly what I was going to do, they were fine with it after that.


       What was it about music that wanted to make you reach beyond someone just listening or dancing to it to be an actual performer?

       Well it’s not something I ever really consciously decided. It’s like a path that was there in front of you. Ever since I was 12 or 13 years old I wanted to write songs and sing songs and that’s really what just interested me and excited me so that’s just what I did. I followed that path. So it wasn’t something that I feel I was in control of or making a conscious decision about it. It was there to do and I followed it.


       Speaking of family, Sia Furler, AKA “Sia,” considers you an uncle of some sort, correct? Sia is one of the biggest songwriters in the industry who has penned hits for Beyonce, Rihanna and Britney Spears. Have you ever worked with her or are there any plans on a collaboration?

       She’s not actually blood, but I’ve known here since she was born. No, I’ve never worked with her. No plans as far as I know.


       Could you shed some light on why she refuses to show her face?

       No, you’ll have to ask her that (laughs). I can shed no light on that whatsoever.  I have no idea.


       In their heyday Men at Work was an international sensation, playing stadiums and arenas worldwide. Did you have to develop different techniques to connect with a smaller room, on smaller stages and with more intimate crowds?

       No, I pretend they’re all Madison Square Garden (laughs).


       Which song is your favorite to perform on stage and why?

       I like playing “Overkill.” I like playing a song called “Down By the Sea.” I like playing all of them. They’ve been very good to me, those songs. I have a great love for them all.


       How well do you remember your first arena crowd? How did you cope with your first real blast of superstardom?

       Well, the first time I was confronted with that was when we opened up for Fleetwood Mac in the states. They were big crowds but they were really there to see Fleetwood Mac. So we were lucky, in a sense. We’d just play for half an hour. But then during the tour towards the end, we played our own show in Edmonton, Can., and it was about 13,000 people. And that was a big show. That was very, very exciting because they were there for us and that was the shape of things to come. A big moment for me.


       What are some of your personal attributes that you’ve brought to the table in order to succeed as an artist in this business?

       Well, I think I have a good sense of melody and I can sing. I can put a song together pretty well and I have good instincts. I’m a good facilitator. Yeah, how’s that? (laughs)


       How do you plan on carrying the heritage and legacy of Men at Work forward and keep it fresh and relevant for yourself as well as new fans you’ve connected with along the way?

       That’s what I thought I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. I think I’m already doing it. You have to keep doing it, that’s really all you can do. Keep playing the songs and keep writing new songs then the old songs have a much better context because they’re living with lots of new friends


       What is the greatest opening lyric of all time?

       Hmm. “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” (Bob Dylan)


       What other passions do you have besides music?

       None. I’m pretty one-dimensional in that sense. No, I like lots of things. I like cooking food, soccer. fast cars, all those stupid things you discover when you’re 14 that never seem to leave you. I used to play soccer but I can’t now, my knees are gone.


       Cooking, eh? What is your go-to meal?

       Probably something with a piece of grilled fish because it’s something good for me these days. Some greens. Something exciting. It’s a grounding thing for me. I like going to the store and buying ingredients and bringing them home and figuring out what I can do with them. It’s a simple thing but it seems to connect me to wherever I am. I like to cook wherever for whoever’s in the room.


       Do you make a Vegemite sandwich? (A well-known lyric from Men At Work’s hit “Down Under”)

       I can if you really want one. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but if someone came in and they said they wanted a Vegemite sandwich, I can make one. (laughs).


       For more information on Colin Hay, please visit www.colinhay.com