Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An interview with Colin Hay

photo: Sebastian Smith
Back in the Eighties, when Colin Hay led Men at Work, the Australian band’s music videos for chart topping pop singles like “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now” were filled with humorous antics.

That sensibility still infuses Hay’s modern-day concerts, which tend to open with a comedic banter with the crowd.

The practice began after the Scottish-born singer/guitarist first played solo gigs and discovered the old fan base had disappeared.

“Hardly anybody was there and they seemed to be a little embarrassed for me,” said Hay, 64, in a recent phone interview. “So I would start talking to the audience because it was like they were just in this room with me. The divide between performer and audience seemed to be broken down.”

Following a move to LA’s Topanga Canyon in the early ‘90s, the intimate club Largo helped Hay regain career momentum.

“Without a stretch of the imagination, it really saved my life and sanity,” he admitted. “Everything was falling away. I didn’t have a record deal, a booking agent or management - none of the industry trappings I’d had for over a decade. Largo was a stabilizing thing. It gave me focus and a place to try out new ideas and songs. Then people started to come.”

During the 2000s, TV producer Bill Lawrence and actor Zach Braff saw Hay perform at the venue. Both were so impressed that the musician/occasional actor was given a few cameos on their NBC series “Scrubs.” Braff later placed “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” in his feature film “Garden State,” whose Grammy-winning soundtrack went platinum.

“Waiting for My Real Life” – the insightful, award-winning documentary named after a 1994 Hay song and released earlier this year on DVD, download and streaming platforms - recounts Hay’s professional highs and lows. Sia, System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, Mick Fleetwood, Hugh Jackman, Guy Pearce and others provide observations.

Hay felt the “Waiting” directors did a good job and really appreciated Fleetwood’s comments because Men at Work’s stint as Fleetwood Mac tour opener in ‘82 “was a very important period and really helpful for us at the time.”

Soon the veteran musician will embark on his biggest SoCal tour in many years to support excellent 13th studio album “Fierce Mercy.” Unlike 2015’s spare, folk-leaning “Next Year People,” Hay took a more expansive approach by utilizing a live string section, guest rappers (“I’m Walking Here,” inspired by the Trayvon Martin killing) and then delving into Americana (“Come Tumblin’ Down,” “Blue Bay Moon”), sophisticated rock a la Crowded House (“The Last to Know,” “The Best in Me,” “I’m Inside Outside In”) and dramatic 1960s-styled pop (“Secret Love”).

The latter standout tune is a rare opportunity to hear Hay belt out a vocal.

“I was watching [The Late Show with] David Letterman one night. I had a melodic idea and structure that reminded me of Roy Orbison’s operatic approach. When I grew up in Scotland in the music shop my mother and father ran, you’d listen to a Gene Pitney or Righteous Brothers song and there was always this dramatic element to the production and melody. For me, especially if you lived a long way [from America], it had a real magical, otherworldly quality to it. Which never really leaves you.

“It’s mysterious and exciting, like hearing a Fender amp with reverb played in a ballroom. That sound is like the first time you heard the Beatles, [The Beach Boys’] “Good Vibrations” or “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” You just think, ‘Wow, that’s a world I want to belong to.’”

Speaking of the Beatles, Hay performed with one as a two-time touring member of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. And with the 50th Anniversary reissue of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” last month, Hay relayed what the landmark LP meant to him as a teenager.

“Two things happened to me in 1967 that were monumental: “Sgt. Pepper’s” came out and I moved from Scotland to Australia. I always associate that album from when I first arrived. Where you are geographically can really have an effect on how you listen to music.

“I remember listening to “A Day in the Life” and getting it straight away,” he continued. “The way John and Paul would interact was intriguing. They definitely brought out the best in each other.”

Hay also revisits that pivotal year in the new whimsical ballad “I’m Going to Get You Stoned,” inspired by young hippies who’d ask him about living in the Sixties (the musician has admitted to writing Men at Work songs on marijuana). 

In concert with his band today, Hay does reworked versions of the hits off Men at Work’s multi-platinum, No. 1 album “Business as Usual,” which came out 25 years ago in America. Since the Grammy-winning quintet didn’t succumb to many of the era’s sonic trappings, it doesn’t sound dated. Hay agreed.

“I listened to the record again [recently] for the first time in years,” he said. “As a whole, it’s all strong and not just the hits. It was spare and the whole thing has a very organic quality which stands the test of time so well.”

Upcoming shows: 

6 p.m. July 28, Wiens Family Cellars, 35055 Via Del Ponte, Temecula, $55-$99,; 7 p.m. July 29 at ‘80s Weekend #4, with OMD, Belinda Carlisle, Psychedelic Furs, The Fixx and Berlin, Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, Los Angeles, $62-$500,

Latest Colin Hay music video “Secret Love”

Trailer for Colin Hay documentary “Waiting for My Real Life”

Classic Men at Work music video “Down Under”

Men at Work’s “I Can See it in Your Eyes” (US Festival 1983)

A version of my feature originally ran in Southern California News Group publications.

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