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Colin Hay: Man (Still) At Work (Interview)

Written by: Marshall Ward

Reggae-influenced Aussie rock band Men at Work made headlines again just last month, although not for reasons they would have wanted:  Original member Greg Ham – best known for playing the fluttering flute riff in the band’s hit Down Under - was found dead in his Australian home. (Story HERE.)

Men at Work frontman Colin Hay said of his late bandmate: “We played in a band and conquered the world together. I love him very much. The saxophone solo on Who Can it Be Now? was the rehearsal take. We kept it, that was the one.  He’s here forever. 

Just days before Ham’s death, Rock Cellar Magazine had an exclusive interview with Colin Hay in which he spoke lovingly of the band’s success and his post-Men at Work career.  In a eerie foreshadowing, Hay also talked extensively about death and dying – in his life, as well as in his songs.

With hit anthems like Who Can it Be Now? Down Under and Overkill, Men at Work sold more than 30 million albums, topping worldwide charts in the 1980s.  Although Colin Hay may have fallen off the pop-culture radar he is still very much a Man At Work:  he performs in music halls, theatres, churches and small clubs across the U.S. and is a prolific recording artist with 11 solo albums to his credit.  His acclaimed latest CD, Gathering Mercury, was released on limited edition vinyl last month.

RCM:  On your latest album there are a couple songs that explore themes of death and dying, like the title track Gathering Mercury.

Colin Hay:  These are some of the strongest songs I’ve ever written.  Gathering Mercury was inspired by a friend of mine who I went to school with, and who I still know, who has technically died twice.  He was in a coma for nine days and flatlined, and remembers going towards the white light, then remembers making a conscious decision to come back.

That’s where that song came from – this idea he told me, and how he’s now happier with the knowledge that he doesn’t understand anything – and he’s not trying to anymore.  He’s been to the point where he felt a benevolent presence and a sense of euphoria when he was close to death, or indeed technically dead.  I just found that completely fascinating in that here’s someone who technically died, left his body and came back, and now he just truly loves walking around above ground.  Because that’s all we really have, I think.

RCM: So you don’t believe in an afterlife?

CH:  People seem to hang on to this idea that in the end, everything is going to be okay. Certainly when it comes to religions, whether people are creating terror in this life or are victims of it, they hold on to this idea that in the afterlife there’s going to be somebody there to make it all right – but there probably isn’t.

I often think to myself how people say that old friends and relatives are waiting for you in the afterlife, but I ask, “Is that pre-Alzheimer’s or are they still not going to know who I am?”

That’s why I really believe that for the present to have relevance, you have to be constantly vigilant in your mind in trying to keep bringing things back to the moment you have right now.  Because nobody knows.

RCM: In the beautiful lullaby Dear Father, you lament on your father’s death: “I never got to say goodbye, I was singing on the river Clyde, and I didn’t know.”

CH: My father was very intense and our relationship was complicated. We locked horns on many, many occasions. But there was an intensity of love that ran through everything.

The last memory I have of him is standing outside a bookstore in Melbourne. I was buying a book and I looked outside to see him holding my jacket. He was doing a little dance for me, and whenever I think of him, I remember that last image I have of him dancing.

Which is what he was – a singer and a dancer. That’s the image I always see when he comes into my head – him dancing outside that bookstore – and I consider that a great gift he gave me.  Because it reminds me that’s all we’ve got. All we can do is dance, in whatever way we can.

RCM: Before you moved to Australia in 1967, your family lived in Scotland and owned a music store, right?

CH:  Yes, it was a single little shop front with a house behind and above it, where we lived on a main street in a small town in Scotland. Dad sold everything from records and guitars and strings to pianos and drums. He was a piano tuner. It was a small store but it was beautiful. It was your classic small town mom-and-pop music store, and it was the only one in town.

RCM:  What was it like moving from Scotland to Australia at the age of 14?

CH:  When I first got to Australia, it was very unsophisticated in many ways. But in other ways, it was streaks ahead. For example, in Scotland there was social entrenchment and a lot of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics. If you went to a Protestant school you got in fights with Catholics, and the whole class structure was very strong in Scotland.

When we arrived in Australia, it was what I imagined America to be, although it was probably even better than America because there were not that many people.  You could have a whole beach to yourself, there was so much space. You could walk down to the shore and there was nobody there. It was one of the most pristine, beautiful things I’d ever seen and yet it seemed like nobody was there.

RCM:  What was the Australian music scene like in the ’60s and ’70s?

CH:  The music scene was full of immigrants. A lot of the great bands, great musicians and songwriters in Australia had come from Britain, whether it was The Easybeats or The Twilights, who were a precursor to The Little River Band. And The Bee Gees lived there also. So there was this huge number of immigrants who formed bands and did really well.

Then there were a lot of Australian bands that never really got out of Australia. Cold Chisel is a great example of that, and for me at that time, a music fan in the ’70s, they were like the classic band. They had the introverted, brilliant, piano playing songwriter, an incredible guitar player who could sing, a drummer who wrote great songs, and a really solid rhythm section. It doesn’t get any better than that, y’know? And then there was Chain, an Australian blues band based on American blues. They had this wonderfully odd sound, like a marsupial influence or something, where they sounded like nothing else in the world.

RCM: The same could be said for Men at Work, with your instantly recognizable voice and reggae beats.

COLIN HAY: I remember when I first heard Sting sing, it was on the radio, and I had to pull over to the side of the road and thought, “Fuck — there’s a guy that sounds exactly like me!”

Well, not exactly, and of course they got famous first. And there’s not much you can do to change your voice, but the similarity was always there for me.

RCM: Men at Work’s sound was also distinguished by the use of woodwind and brass instruments – thanks largely to the multi-instrumental skills of Greg Ham.

CH:  We had good songs combined with Greg’s instrumentation on saxophone and flute, and a sound that connected with many different people in many different parts of the world.  Whether they spoke English or not, countries in South America and European countries picked up on the band long before America.  Israel was the first country after Australia where we had a No. 1 hit with Who Can it Be Now? before we even did the album.

RCM: You were signed by CBS to record Men at Work’s first album Business as Usual, released in Australia in ’81. But it took until April of ’82 before it was released in the U.S. Why was that?

CH: The record was rejected twice by the A&R department of CBS in America because they didn’t think there were any hits on the record – despite the fact that Who Can it Be Now? and Down Under were on it.  They were idiots.  Early on it was really quite difficult to get a release in America.

RCM: Business as Usual was huge – it topped the U.S. charts for 16 consecutive weeks, knocked off only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller. What was that first tour of North America like, opening for Fleetwood Mac?

CH:  I remember the first time we played in Canada was in Edmonton, and it was massive! We played to 13,000 people, opening for Fleetwood Mac.  Then after that tour, we went off and did our own gigs in Canada, playing to almost as many people as Fleetwood Mac were playing to in America — 13,000 to 15,000 people. I thought, “Wow! This is out of control.” Canada picked up on the band probably six months before America did. America was really the last country to discover Men at Work.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ccje03EbNtQ

RCM: The year 1982 must have been a remarkable year for you as Business as Usual went multi-platinum selling more than 10 million copies. You also went back in the studio that same year to record Men at Work’s second album, Cargo, and won a Grammy for Best New Artist.

CH:  It was quite phenomenal, but I don’t really think about it all that much.  For me, it was tinged with some mixed feelings I had about the band I was in.  We really should have made more of it.

Yes, we had massive success, but we were in a position where we really could have slammed it home in a way.  Creatively, we could have gone further and made some other great albums, but it just wasn’t in that group of people to go the distance.

RCM:  Though you stayed close with Greg Ham for the past 40 years, you had a falling out with Men at Work guitarist Ron Strykert.  It was in the news a few years ago that he was arrested for allegedly making death threats against you. Can you comment on that?

CH: Ron and me worked together as a duo for about a year before Men at Work were formed. When I knew Ron, he was a very inspirational guy and was really important for the band and for me as a songwriter and musician. He’s a beautiful guitar player and he created beautiful soundscapes. And that’s the Ron I know.

There’s really nothing else to say about Ron, because the Ron you’re talking about, I don’t know who that person is. So when I think of Ron, I think of that beautiful inspiring musician I knew who was so important for me as a songwriter.

RCM: Tell us a bit about your approach to songwriting.

CH:  I try in many ways to get out of my way. These days, that’s the thing I think about more than anything, trying not to inject myself into the songs, personal experiences and all that. There’s nothing wrong with that essentially, and there’s always going to be something that’s somewhat autobiographical because you’re the one writing the songs. But often, the songs feel like they’re coming from somewhere else and you’re grabbing them out of the air.

Photo by Marty Smith

But writing songs which are based on your mind, or personal experiences are limited by the way you’ve been living your life.  Whereas imagination by nature is limitless –  and that’s more interesting to me.  Making stuff up, and making that work.  The whole singer-songwriter genre always leaves itself open to the whole idea of, “Here’s a song about me!” and I think, “Fuck, who cares!”

RCM: Was it challenging to start a solo career and find an audience after the phenomenal success of Men at Work?

CH:  After we broke up, it became apparent to me that Men at Work didn’t build a foundational audience. That audience didn’t transition over to my solo career. Men at Work had massive radio success, but when that goes away and the band breaks up, then the audience seems to disappear as well. So it’s like starting all over again, and that’s what I did by going out on tour, trying to find my audience while earning one fan at a time by word of mouth. And the audiences weren’t very big as I’d play to a hundred people.  Sometimes less.

RCM: Your audience is growing though as you sometimes play to sold-out crowds of 500 people these days, depending on the venue.

CH:  My solo career has been building, slow and steady, for the last 16 years that I’ve been touring. I really don’t have anything to complain about as I’ve had a wonderful career and a great life. And it’s great when younger audiences discover the music of Men at Work, who weren’t old enough to remember them.

RCM: Songs like Overkill and your solo track, Waiting for My Real Life to Begin, were introduced to a whole new audience thanks to the hit TV series Scrubs, where you made a cameo. How did that come about?

CH:  It happened very organically.  Bill Lawrence, the creator of the show, came to see me play one night and he actually became a bit obsessed with the song Overkill.  So he asked me to come on the show.  And it was really good for me because Bill was somebody who didn’t really understand the music business.

When he heard the new songs he said, “Why aren’t these songs on the radio?” And I said, “That’s a good question! I don’t have an answer for that.” And he said, “That’s messed up. I’m going to use a bunch of your songs in my show and see if I can make a difference.”

And that’s what he did, he used probably seven or eight of my songs over the course of a season on Scrubs, in different episodes. He single-handedly gave me a whole new profile, a whole new awareness of me to a whole lot of younger fans. So I will forever be indebted to him for that.

RCM:  Your setlist these days features a lot of solo material, mostly from Gathering Mercury, along with big Men at Work hits. Do you ever grow tired of people yelling out for Down Under during your set?

CH:  No, I really don’t. There are certain songs that I will probably always play like Overkill and Who Can it Be Now?  But that wasn’t always the case, as I haven’t always played those songs on tour.  I’d say it’s only the last five years that I always play them, but before that, I didn’t always put them in the set. I really like them still, and I really like playing them.

I love Down Under. It’s been really good to me, and you’ve got to have respect for that, I think. I will probably always play Down Under…until they put me down under.

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