|photo: Sebastian Smith|
Q: During Men at Work’s 1980s heyday, the band played the Universal Amphitheater and the US Festival near San Bernardino. Over the years, do any SoCal concerts stick out as particularly memorable?
A: The whole Men at Work experience stands out. The US Festival was a huge thing for us and a lot of people because it was one of the first of the mega festivals where you fly in and there’s just a sea of people. There was Woodstock, but that was unpredictable - the people that came to that. The thing that I remember more than anything was the little gigs we did before people really knew who we were. We did a show at the Hollywood Palladium. Lots of different people turned up. It’s that kind of excitement before something happens, which is usually the most exciting thing, isn’t it? Once something is happening, it’s exciting, but you’re up and running and you’re riding the wave. The period of ascension – the takeoff, if you like, was the most exciting time.
Q: When you first moved out to LA in the '90s, you began playing the original Largo in LA on a regular basis. Did you immediately fit in among the close-knit musicians who appeared on a regular basis, like Jon Brion, Grant-Lee Phillips, Aimee Mann, etc.?
A: I would play on a Saturday night and Jon would come down. He’d just arrived from New Haven. He was this fresh-faced, cherub, rosy-cheeked [guy]. Most nights when I played, he would join me. He would play behind me whatever he felt like. Sometimes on the vibes, drums, guitar. It was really, still to this day, some of the most magical nights I’ve ever had. I was like a tree in the middle of the stage, playing and singing the songs. Jon would give it flight. It was amazing. Then people like Elliott Smith would play. It was incredible. Then there would be the comedy nights with Zach Galifianakis and Sarah Silverman, Louis CK. It was a very inspiring place to be a part of – still is.
Q: Many heritage acts that came to fame in the ‘80s are weary of including much new material in their sets, but you’re just the opposite. Is that because you know your longtime fans really want to hear it?
A: I’m still trying to get my head around the term ‘heritage act.’
Q: You’re very prolific and tend to put out a new album every 2-3 years, while others will go 10+ years. I think your fans expect to hear what you’re doing musically now. Do you think that’s the difference?
A: Very much. I would be very depressed if that wasn’t the case. I think I would probably think of something else to do. I love the fact that I have old songs, mainly because they sit within the context of new songs. Or you could look at it the other way as well: the new songs have the context of the old songs. They all seem to co-habitate quite easily together. I think because of the fact that when I started to play solo shows, the people who came weren’t coming to see me because they had a passing interest in music or in a casual basis. They came to see me because they were real fans. They’d taken the time to go, ‘that’s that guy from that band, but it’s not that band, it’s that guy. So we’ll go and see what he’s about.’ I developed an audience that was interested in what I was doing from the start. So that’s grown in the last 25 years. And yes, you’re right, they seem to expect that I will continue to make hopefully better records and there will hopefully be something different about each record that I do. And hopefully they will get better over time, which I like to think that they have.
Q: ‘Fierce Mercy’ is really a high-water mark album for you. Once you were done with it, did you think, ‘this is one of my stronger collections of songs?’
A: I definitely thought it was the best record that I’ve done, song wise and production-wise, as a piece of work. I co-write a lot of songs with my friend Michael G. that lives up the road. That was also different from the past as well. I think it was a well put together record. That’s the thing: the frustrating aspect of everything is to try and get it noticed, which is very difficult to do. At least they exist. It was like when I made a record in the ‘90s called ‘Transcendental Highway.’ I had that song “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Get Over You,” which I always thought was a strong song. I thought, ‘probably no one’s going to ever hear this.’ There’s something depressing about that, but you just carry on. Then 10 years later, Zach Braff had the song for quite a long time and told me he liked it. Then he was in the position to actually do something about it with that film he did [Garden State]. Then all the sudden, it’s part of a record a lot of people hear. So sometimes songs do get a chance at the big time.
Q: On “Secret Love” and other new songs, you use actual string players as opposed to just utilizing keyboards. Was that important to you?
A: What happened was when I’d finished the songs in the studio, everything sounded so great and organic to my ears that we thought, ‘the last touch to make this complete would be to have real strings.’ I think we were right. So we went to Nashville and got a nine-piece section. I’d only done that before on one other album, where I sat in the studio and [watched] these beautiful players. It’s like heaven. It’s one of the most joyous experiences I’ve ever had. Listening to a string section coming in and playing on your song is just magic.
Q: A couple upbeat songs, like “Best in Me,” and “I’m Inside Out Outside In,” have an exquisite quality that reminds me of Mitchell Froom’s work with Crowded House in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Were you a fan of their work at all?
A: Oh yeah. I thought that was a good pairing, a very organic pairing of talent for sure.
Q: There's a refreshing country-styled vibe on “Come Tumblin’ Down.”
A: Audley Freed plays a B-bender tele. That’s why it sounds country. If that wasn’t there, it probably wouldn’t sound country. It’s like having a touch of Nashville, which kind of takes it into that realm. It’s a nice taste indeed.
Q: I was just re-listening to Men at Work's successful debut LP ‘Business as Usual’ again and found that it still sounds fresh. And a song like “Underground,” with its social-political lyrics, could even be relevant today.
A: We were very concerned with climate change back in the late ‘70s and the political elite. We were always left of center and probably always will be. So we always had great suspicion of the landed gentry or the ruling class of Conservatives. I think you’re right. A song like “It’s a Mistake” was the same way. Very much inspired by “Dr. Strangelove.” Interesting, isn’t it, how Oliver Stone sat down with Vlad and made him watch “Dr. Strangelove” [in the recent HBO documentary]. That was a very funny moment. Such a bizarre scene.
Colin Hay plays Wiens Family Cellars in Temecula and '80s Weekend 4 at Microsoft Theater in LA on Saturday.