Colin Hay on His Former Band, Men at Work: "What Comes Back to You Are the Songs"
Colin Hay answers the phone, sounding remarkably cheery for a conversation that’s taking place relatively early, at least by rock-star standards. Then again, as a musician whose career has found him playing the role of a perennial journeyman, he’s made a point of always being on the move, regardless of the time of day.
It's been more than three decades since the break-up of Men at Work, the band that brought Hay global fame and a formidable stash of hits. The band's quirky new-wave panache and goofy MTV videos aside, it was Hay’s spunky vocals that formed the core of its signature sound. Yet in the years since, Hay has released nearly a dozen albums under his own aegis, including his latest, the reflective and semi-autobiographical Next Year’s People. In the process, he’s literally rebooted his career.
This is, after all, the same individual who penned a song called “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin.”
“I never really thought about that,” Hay insists. “I never thought that I was going through some kind of reinvention process. All I did was be myself. I was a solo artist before I was with the band, so all I did was strap on another guitar and kept playing songs. Sometimes I played in a band and sometimes I played solo, but whatever it is, it’s essentially the same. I stand on a stage and do my job; that is, to entertain the people and try to make it a great experience for everybody, on and off the stage.”
As to whether he feels an obligation to stick to his hits, “I never really paid much attention to what the audience wanted,” Hay laughs, his trademark humor obviously intact. “I say that partly as a joke. When I first went out, there would be maybe 40 or 50 people in the audience. It was very challenging, because I had come from playing for an average of 20,000 people a night. Now I’m used to touring solo. I’ve been doing it 30 years on my own, after all. The Men at Work thing was really a benefit, because people would go, ‘Oh, that’s the guy from Men at Work!’ They may have an attitude about that, but at least they know who you are.”
Indeed, these days, Hay’s only interested in etching his own identity. The reggae lilt and easy embrace that characterized the band’s hits have been replaced by an emphasis on weathered narratives and emotional reflection. “Nowadays, there might be a thousand people in the room who are there for very different reasons. So those people who are coming because I’m the guy from Men at Work are pretty much the minority," Hay suggests. “If they’re in the room and I’m playing to them, I don’t care why they’re there. By the end of the night, I’ll get them. They can’t escape. They’ve been corralled.”
Not surprising, then, Hay’s solo efforts often come across as autobiographical, reflecting the journeyman stance that’s taken him from Down Under to the top of his game. That’s especially true of the albums released since his signing with Nashville indie label Compass Records in 2003. “I’m making up for lost time in a way,” Hay chuckles. “After the band broke up, I was on my own for nearly 13 years, and I think I was very inefficient. I didn’t have a record deal, I didn’t have an agent… so I was doing everything pretty much myself and not doing it particularly well. Once I got to work with the label, things were better from that point on."
Still, he’s never turned his back on his past entirely. There was talk about putting the old band back together at one point, and he and former band mate and saxophonist/flautist/keyboardist Greg Ham briefly toured under the band’s banner. Plans to retool Men at Work never materialized, though, and this April will mark three years since Ham passed away. And then a pair of tours with Ringo Starr’s
“You can try to turn your back on it all you want, but you’re never going to be able to,” he concedes. “You can’t help but be affected by momentous events like that. You don’t have a couple of records that sold millions of copies and play to ridiculous amounts of people and not have that affect you for the rest of your life. In the ’80s, I had this emotional reaction like, ‘Oh, the band broke up,’ and you want to distance yourself from that, because it causes a certain amount of pain. And then you realize that what comes back to you are the songs. You say, ‘The songs are great,’ and you start playing them again.”
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Consequently, Hay has been able to put things in perspective. “There is a certain part of you that says, ‘Wow, I had that incredible success. I want that again.’ Of course you do. You’d be crazy not to admit that a part of you wants that to happen again. But the thing for me is to not go insane if I don’t have it. The thing for me is always to write better songs and to make the best records I can and then go out and play them for the audience. That’s all I’m really concerned with.”
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