If you turned on FM radio or MTV at all in the first half of the '80s, then you might have had a hard time missing Colin Hay. It was Hay's singing and songwriting voice that colored hits such as "Down Under," "Who Can It Be Now?," and "Overkill" by the Australian band Men at Work. But when the band capsized, Hay found himself forced to rebuild his career. Now he's passing through the area as he tours behind his eleventh solo album in 26 years. WFIU's John Bailey caught up with Colin Hay to discuss the spirits that haunt his latest batch of songs … and life in the shadow of tunes of the past.
JOHN BAILEY, WFIU: You've lived in Topanga Canyon in the Los Angeles area for quite some time – 20 years?
COLIN HAY: Yeah, I lived here in the same place for longer than I lived anywhere.
BAILEY: But you've also lived a good deal of time in Australia, you were born and partly raised in Scotland. Where is home for you?
HAY: Right here, where I am right now is home as anywhere, I think.
BAILEY: On your latest record, in the song "Far from Home," you sing, "Everywhere I go is someplace, and down my head I lay." Do you feel itinerant? Do you feel at home on tour?
HAY: Yeah, I've grown to, and I don't think it's particularly natural for me to be itinerant or to be on the move, but I've learned over the years to be at home with it and I've grown to like it because of the … really, it's a connecting thing more than anything else. I think when I got dropped by MCA Records I was on my own, and I think that was around '91 – when I started going out on the road it was difficult at first because the audiences are very small and I kept on questioning whether I should do something else with my life. But I persevered with it and the audiences grew but even in those days the audiences were small, it was a rewarding thing at the end of the day. It connected me to ... what I do more than anything else.
BAILEY: On the latest record, Gathering Mercury, you have a song called "Dear Father." You sing, "Dear Father, I never got to say goodbye, I was singin' on the river Clyde and I didn't know." You were referring to losing your father while you were on tour. Would you talk a little more about that time, and how that time informed your creative process in making the record?
HAY: Well, everyone can be wise in hindsight, but I was on tour when my father had a stroke, and I kept touring. I think there was some kind of element of madness, or shock you know, I really should have just flown home. It's really what I should have done. But I didn't, and I talked to my mother, and my sister, and they said, "There's nothing you can do, he's in a hospital and not conscious," you know, and "we'll keep you informed on what's going on," and so I just kept doing these gigs. I was in England, and then I was in Scotland, and the night that he died I was playing in Glasgow maybe 20 streets away from where he was born, which was very strange.
I finished the tour, and went home after that. My sister and mother took care of the funeral arrangements and all that kind of stuff. I don't know, it was a strange thing that happened where I just wasn't thinking clearly. An over-developed sense of ... an over-developed work ethic? My father would have just said, "Oh, don't worry about me, finish the shows. I'm just dying." [laughs] It was ridiculous, really.
Anyway, that's what happened, and I do wish dearly that I had not done that, that I'd just have flown down to Melbourne immediately, to say goodbye to him. It's one of the biggest regrets in my life. So when I was in the studio making the record, it didn't matter what I was doing, or what I was playing, or what I was trying to write or record. The fact that he was gone informed everything, because he loomed so large in my life – you know the fact that he was gone was ever present in my mind so it permeated everything in the studio, so I just really let it do that.
I think one of the things that happened when I was in the studio was a lot of the time it became dreamlike for me when I was down there, because a lot of the time when I was a kid I would come home – of course they had a music shop so I would come into the music shop and my father was often in there doing something like changing a violin string, or playing a record, or tuning a piano, because he was a piano tuner. … So my studio downstairs kind of became, in my own imagination, partly that as well, so my father was in the studio with me a lot of the time. I felt like we kind of made this record together in a strange kind of way.
There's nothing particularly – you know I'm not a religious person at all – there's a spiritual quality to it I suppose but it was really just a real way of me trying to bring him back, and trying to bring him back to life because I hadn't seen him pass away either, so I missed him, and so I wanted him to be around. So a lot of the songs, for example, "Family Man" was written in the first person for him to sing which is a song that was also written specifically to be – melodically and chordally - Beatles-influenced if you like, because my father played me the Beatles when I was young. He'd say, "Listen to these guys, these guys are different, they'll do well."
This was him singing the song to me, which is really what he was more than anything else, he was a family man, and just that thing at the end, where it all fades away. He's gone, and it's just the way the universe is set up is horrendous, it's terrible! The fact that you have to lose people you love. It's not a good plan at all, if it is one and I doubt that there is. So I think your question was "How did it form the record?" I mean I think it was just he was ever present during that process.
BAILEY: On the general topic of long-term relationships, a number of the songs for which a lot of people know you best, and I'm thinking of the early Men At Work hits –"Down Under," "Who Can it Be Now?" – are at this point in the neighborhood of 30 years old. How would you characterize your relationship with those songs now?
HAY: My relationship with those songs has never really – I mean it's always been very close because I don't really think of those songs – I mean, I know they're that old, I know they were written "back then" but for me personally they're just present, because I play them every night, and they're with me every night. They're like dear friends, the best of friends, that come with me everywhere, and never ever let me down.
BAILEY: Has your feeling changed about "Down Under," which has been enmeshed in some vexing and tragic elements in the last few years?
HAY: Well, I love it more, because the song is completely innocent, it's the greed of human nature that's disappointing, which it was the litigation was based on. It's opportunism and greed at the end of the day, that's really what it was. I think that the litigation itself – the idea that the flute line that Greg [Ham] played was based on a silly nursery rhyme came out on a television show. Someone from Larrikin Publishing was watching the show and decided to litigate. If I'm going to step outside the thing for a moment and say, "Well, OK, I understand why they said, OK, we're going to litigate because there's two bars of 'Kookaburra' which were appropriated." Even if it was unconscious, they were still appropriated and that's 25 percent of that song. Fifty percent of the music is what they were saying, so that, according to them, was a substantial amount and amounted to infringement. So whilst I can understand them initiating proceedings, the fact that they wanted 60 percent of "Down Under" will tell you what the litigation was really about. That's what I think of more than anything when I think of the litigation but as far as the song is concerned, the song and me – our relationship is intact, no problem.
BAILEY: You're quite some time removed from your Men at Work days, you couldn't reunite all the old mates from the band if you wanted to, you're not selling millions of records anymore, generally not playing massive venues ... but what is better for you now?
HAY: I don't know that anything is really "better" than anything else, it's just a different moment. I don't really compare times, or epochs, or the past from the present. I think that you have this moment right now – and that's a cliché in a sense but it's very true. I had a fabulous time with Men at Work; I think that especially the ascension towards commercial success that we had was very exciting. As you get older, things break down. My knees don't work as well as they should, things like that. I feel quite happy, I suppose I feel quite well within myself and I'm reasonably healthy. I've turned 60 so I feel reasonably healthy if I think about that.
But in terms of what's better I think the music that I make is – I wouldn't say that it's "better" – I mean, generally I feel better about it because I'm older I feel like I'm getting better as a writer. But then again I would put sort of "Overkill" or "Who Could it Be Now?" or "Down Under" up there with anything I've written lately and say they stand tall amongst those songs. I think personally that I'm getting somewhere as a songwriter. At least I'm not scratching the surface anymore, but finding my feet with it, getting the hang of it a little bit. Not totally, but I'm enjoying it and I'm enjoying the challenge of coming up with songs and I'm excited by the idea of it so I think that's a cool thing. In terms of what's "better" I try to make every day better because really, that's all we have. We don't have what happened last week. Actually I do have what happened 30 years ago; I made money, I have the memories, and I have the songs which – the dust is still in the air, it hasn't settled from that explosive thing that happened so I'm very very fortunate in that sense, you know.
BAILEY: It seemed like a great deal of change for some young men in a very short time. What would you change, if you could, about that time?
HAY: Well, firstly, it wasn't really that short a time. It always appears from the outside to be a short time, but – you know you're usually planning these things for 10 or 15 years which is what I was you know so you're trying to figure out your moves, you're trying to figure out how to do things, how to make things work, how to be successful here and there. I started playing music in folk clubs and community halls when I was 14 years old so it never felt to me like it was a short period of time. It felt like it was most of my life I'd been planning to have some kind of successful music career. I think that when it did happen there was a quickening and an explosive thing that happened, so it was really just quite simply the personnel in that band were not really destined to be together for a long period of time.
Maybe if I could change something I would change everyone's attitudes, and make people realize somehow that what had happened to us was in the area of the extraordinary and the miraculous, and we should recognize that and act accordingly instead of keeping a huge thing small by the smallness of our perceptions, you know. I wouldn't change that, that's just what it was. In many ways when the band broke up and I was on my own I was happy; it never bothered me being on my own. I love playing with different musicians and being in bands and so forth, but if Men at Work had been destined to go the distance it would have, but it didn't, so I fully accept that and I have no regrets about that.