A garrulous guy who retains a Scottish accent though he’s lived in Los Angeles for the past 25 years, singer-songwriter Colin Hay clams up a bit when we start to prod him about Men at Work, the Australian pop group that became a global sensation (and introduced the world to the Aussie delicacy known as “Vegemite”) back in the ’80s. But when we ask about the group’s initial break-up, which occurred in 1986, a mere six years after the band formed, he becomes a bit more forthcoming.
“We couldn’t stand each other,” he says via phone from his L.A. home. “It’s difficult to say [if the overnight success contributed to the breakup]. I think everything affects everything. If we hadn’t become successful, maybe it would have been shorter lived. I don’t think it was a band that was destined to go the distance. When you think about it, it’s dumb. It’s stupid. Why would you break up when you created all that success and a lot of income? It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no sense to it. As soon as you realize there’s no sense to it, then you can be okay with it. There you go. Most bands do break up because of one reason or another. Anytime you have men — it’s usually men — together for a period of time, that tends to happen. They’re idiots.”
While Men at Work might not have been “destined to go the distance,” the second chapter of Hay’s career certainly looks to be. It includes 12 solo albums (his latest, Next Year People
, was released in February on Compass Records), variety of acting gig and multiple appearances on the TV show Scrubs. He’s toured his ass off all the while. Following the success of the Last Summer on Earth outing with Barenaked Ladies and Violent Femmes that brought him to town this past summer, Hay will launch a solo excursion across the Midwest and Northeast starting on Oct. 29 in Cleveland.
Major contributors to the record include young Cuban emigres San Miguel Perez and Yosmel Montejo, pianist Larry Goldings, pianist/Hammond player Jeff Babko (Jimmy Kimmel), drummer Charlie Paxson and Colin’s wife, vocalist Cecilia Noël. Long-time friend Michael Georgiades co-wrote six of the album’s 12 tracks and contributed guitar and backing vocals.
“I keep my aspirations minimal,” says Hay when asked about his approach to the initial songwriting sessions. “I just try to write better songs than the last album. That’s the only brief I give myself. I just try to make it better. Some ideas have been sitting around for a little while. The main difference was that I co-wrote several songs with Michael Georgiades, who lives just up the road from me. That was different from the past records. I think I did a couple with him one record before. On this record, we had a lot of fun. We had a great time coming up with these tunes and recording them. A lot of them are fairly new ideas and were written and recorded quickly.”
One of the reasons why the songs were written so quickly has to do with the fact that Hay has a studio in his home.
“My studio is downstairs in the basement,” he says before poking fun at the situation. “I’m glad the stairs are involved because I think it’s important that if you have to go to work, to go down some stairs. Or up some stairs. But I think stairs are crucial.”
He says he’s not opposed to using other studios. He just prefers working from home.
“I like recording in other studios as well but it just takes more organizing, and it’s a different kind of experience,” he says. “It makes sense to record downstairs because it’s there. I started doing that when I didn’t have a deal — not that that makes a difference now. Whatever records I make now I just pay for myself because I don’t have that kind of record deal. The reason why I worked on this one is because I had to learn how to do it. There was no interest in me so I had to make it up as I went along. Rather than go to another studio and invest all that money, I just figured I would put the whole thing together myself so that at least I would have a playpen where I could mess around with things and fuck up things and it doesn’t matter so much.”
Hay wrote the title song, a somber acoustic number that borrows from Woody Guthrie and sounds a bit like the quieter side of Richard Thompson, from the perspective of farmers struggling to survive the Depression and Dust Bowl droughts.
“I saw a documentary about that human condition of doing the same thing every year expecting a different result and hoping the rains will come,” he says. “People got mad and got ill and died. All kinds of horror went on. It’s a remarkable thing. People will persevere. Although my situation was nowhere near as bleak as anything like trying to make a living farming, I did find myself doing the same thing every year. I would tour every year and go out on the road. After awhile, you wonder if it’s what you are supposed to be doing or if it’s just habit and if you’re repeating yourself and hoping to get different results. All those kinds of questions. They’re sometimes tricky to answer. There’s nobody forcing you to do anything. It’s just a choice to go on the road or not. I keep doing it.”
The autobiographical “Waiting in the Rain” references Hay’s childhood in Scotland prior to moving to Australia with his family when he was 14. The song starts with only vocals and acoustic guitar but finishes with a flourish of keyboards and cooing backing vocals.
“I grew up in a music shop in Scotland,” he says. “When I was messing around with this musical idea for the song, it reminded me of listening to records and music in my mother and father’s shop. That’s where the idea came from. Just before I left, I started taking guitar lessons when I was about 12. They had a shop from 1958 to 1967. It was a pretty exciting period to have a music shop. Whatever the music was of the day was what I heard. I loved pop music at the time. That was the Beatles and the Kinks and the Rolling Stones and the Who and Elvis and Bob Dylan and everyone else in between. I loved Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves.”
Hay’s solo career has included several forays into film and TV; Scrubs creator and longtime fan Zach Braff included Hay’s “I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You” on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the film Garden State. Hay’s “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” can be heard on the soundtrack to the film Words and Pictures. He also voiced a character in the animated film The Wild
. Hay is also the subject of the documentary Colin Hay: Waiting for My Real Life
; the movie recently made its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
The current tour will extend into November; then, Hay will begin to start thinking about the next solo album.
“I’m trying not to be because you try to trick yourself into getting ideas because you pretend you don’t have any,” he I’m hoping that by doing that, I can trick myself into actually having good ideas. That’s the theory at the moment. I’m not sure how it will work out but I’m going with that.”
Colin Hay, 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, 2230 Euclid Ave., 866-468-3401. Tickets: $40, trinitycleveland.org.