Colin Hay: Next Year People

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This Tuesday Colin Hay will perform at the Charleston Music Hall. The Men At Work frontman, who has gone on to enjoy a prolific solo career, released his most recent album, Next Year People, late last year. 


 

It’s one thing for a music act to go viral in today’s entertainment world. With told such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, a band can write a song, record it, shoot a video, and then put that work in front of millions of eyes almost instantly - often all on the same laptop computer. 35 years ago though, it was a bit harder to start a sensation. In 1981 MTV made its debut in a few markets, but the cable channel soon completely changed the way we consumed music. This was, of course, back when ‘Music Television’ actually played music videos by popular artists instead of showing marathons of Jersey ShoreCatfish, and other reality TV crap. Acts such as Duran Duran, Culture Club, and Michael Jackson ignited their careers largely due to the creative music videos they filmed to go with their pop songs. 

 

Another act that successfully cashed in on the music video craze of the early 1980’s was Men At Work. The jovial band of Australian musicians, led by Scottish transplant Colin Hay, released its debut album, Business As Usual, the same year that MTV went on the air. Men At Work’s music videos for songs like “Who Can It Be Now?,” “Down Under,” and “Be Good Johnny” launched the group into the pop stratosphere. The band released two more albums before calling it quits. Afterward Hay struck out on his own. He relocated to Los Angeles and started writing and releasing solo albums. Starting in 1987 with Looking For Jack, Hay has proven to be a prolific songwriter, with a dozen solo albums now under his belt. His latest effort, Next Year People, was released late last year. 

 

Hay has always been a complex songwriter, hiding deeper and sometimes darker subjects and ideas under deceptively catchy and cheerful melodies. Even back in his Men At Work days, hits such as “Overkill” and “It’s A Mistake” dealt with serious issues such as anxiety and nuclear war. Hay’s music has received some well-deserved attention thanks to TV shows like Scrubs and movies such as Garden State. As a result a new generation of fans, many of whom were not even born yet when Men At Work disbanded in 1986, have gathered at Hay’s feet to hear him sing. 

 

This Tuesday Hay will perform at the Charleston Music Hall. Charles Carmody and the crew at the CMH have been making life very good for fans of 80’s music as of late. Pop heartthrob Rick Springfield played a great show last month despite battling the flu, and just earlier this month ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons brought his side project, The BFGs, to the Music Hall for some Cuban-infused blues funk. In the coming months the CMH will feature such 80’s luminaries as Todd Rundgren (2/12) and George Thorogood & The Destroyers (3/14). I had a chance to speak to Hay a few weeks ago as he prepared for his current tour at his home in Los Angeles. Apparently the songwriter had been doing a bit of research on the Lowcountry.   

 

 


 

Colin Hay: “I was just watching the Anthony Bourdain show and he was doing a show from Charleston. He was talking with a famous chef, whose name escapes me at the moment.”

 

Charleston Grit: “Oh! Sean Brock!”

 

CH: “Sean Brock! Yeah! It was fantastic! It made you want to get on a plane and go straight to Charleston.” 

 

CG: “I hope you can eat at his restaurant, Husk, when you’re here for your show at the Charleston Music Hall.” 

 

CH: “I’m planning to!”

 

CG: “I’m really looking forward to seeing you when you come to town. I should let you know that Men At Work’s Business As Usual was the first album I ever bought with my own money.”

 

CH: “Excellent! Let me ask you though; how did you make that money?” 

 

CG: “I mowed lawns. I was 12.”

 

CH: “Oh, so it really was your own money. People love to make that distinction, don’t they?” 

 

CG: “I love the new album, especially the song ‘If I’d Been a Better Man.’ That’s an incredibly catchy tune.” 

 

CH: “Excellent. I really like it too.” 

 

CG: “You’ve done twelve solo albums since the late 1980’s. That’s a pretty impressive output.“

 

CH: ”Do you think so?” 

 

CG: “Oh yeah, I mean, there are some artists that have initial success with a band, and then when they go solo they might release an album every eight or ten years. There’s a quality to your work too. I’m a big fan of your album Are You Lookin’ At Me? which came out in 2007. When it comes to songwriting, do you write the lyrics or the music first?” 

 

CH: “That’s an interesting question. The music usually comes first. What usually comes first for me is a bunch of chords, sort of a chord structure, chords that go somewhere, and then mumbles over the top of that. You might have a phrase or a title to start with, something that sticks in your mind. Lately I’ve had sets of lyrics, like on the latest album. I had a set of lyrics on Next Year People before I had the music, but it tends to be that melody and chord structure comes first.”

 

CG: “Was their a particular song on the new album that was more challenging than the others to bring to life? Maybe something that had been bouncing around in your head awhile and finally came to fruition on Next Year People?”

 

CH: “They are all pretty new songs, and I wrote a lot of them with my friend Michael Georgiadis, who lives up the road from me. I wrote six of the songs on the album with him. Those songs were mainly instigated by him. I had all of these songs that I was going to work on in my notepad and my iPhone, and he would come around and say ‘I’ve got an idea,‘ and the ideas were all really good. A lot of them were just chord sequences that I really liked, and so we would work on those, and we wrote the first song, ‘Trying to Get to You,‘ in an hour. Then we wrote ‘To There From Here.‘ That one was his idea. For Next Year People I kept trying to find the lyrics to that, and I knew it was going to be a good song, but I didn’t really push it. I’d set it aside and think about it every now and then. It was one of those orbiting songs, you know; it floats around and you can’t rush it. You just have to wait for it to come in, and then you go ‘there you are!.’” 


 

CG: “You’re originally from Scotland, and I understand your parents owned a music shop when you lived there. Were your parents musicians as well?”

 

CH: “Not formally. My father was a musician, but he didn’t fully realize it. He was a great singer, a great dancer, had a great sense of rhythm, and he could play a bit of piano, but just by ear. He was a musician, but he wouldn’t have called himself a musician, so he became a piano tuner, which is kind of related (laughs). My mother can sing too, and I was surrounded by music. It was a pretty musical upbringing.”

 

CG: “How early did you start getting into music?”

 

CH: “Well, I played piano, but I gave it up, which is probably my biggest regret in life. My parents gave me the choice; I could stop playing or keep going, but they weren’t going to force me to continue. So I stopped, and I really regret it. That was when I was 7 or 8 years old. Then I took up guitar when I was 11 or 12.”

 

CG: “Then your family moved to Australia when you were 14. What was the reason behind the family moving to Australia?”

 

CH: “A sense of pioneering spirit, and of my father wanting to go somewhere to create something better for his family. A better life.” 

 

CG: “Tell me about connecting with Zach Braff. He put a lot of your music on Scrubs, and included your song ‘I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You‘ on the soundtrack to his film Garden State.” 

 

CH: “He used to come to see shows of mine at Largo in Hollywood. I met him before he was in Scrubs. He had a couple of my CDs, and we had a couple of mutual friends. When he got the gig on Scrubs he took my CDs and played them for the producers, and they liked them so they used a bunch of the songs on the show. Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs, became a fan of my music. He became incensed that he never heard any of my new music on the radio, so he tried to do his best to play my music on his show, which was very nice of him. It got my music to thousands and thousands of people that otherwise wouldn’t have heard it.”

 

CG: “I liked too how you would occasionally pop up on Scrubs as a sort of troubadour, singing one of your songs. I know you’ve done some other small acting roles. Do you enjoy doing that?”

 

CH: “Yeah, I like it a lot. I don’t do very much of it, but I’d like to do more. I have an agent here, but I never call them and they never call me. That’s not a great recipe for getting work as an actor (laughs). Most of the work I’ve done has just come through people who know me. I’m very available, but music is the driving force.”

 

CG: “I understand your wife, Cecilia Noël, is a singer as well, and has performed on several of your albums.”

 

CH: “She has, and she has her own albums as well. She’s quite a remarkable person and musician and band leader. She’s from Peru, and she learned to lead a band when she was young. She was taught by an Italian band leader. She was signed to Epic in the 90’s. I used to take people to see her salsa-funk band, and that’s how I met her.”

 

CG: “As far as the upcoming show at the Charleston Music Hall, what can fans expect? Is it just you solo, or will you have a band?”

 

CH: “Just me by myself.”

 

CG: “I assume you’ll be playing a lot of material from your solo releases. Will we get to hear any Men At Work songs?”

 

CH: “Yeah, I always play them. I always say you should look at it as going to a party when you’re a little bit excited about it, and there will be a lot of strangers there, but there will also be a few friends that you’ve known for many years.”

 

CG: “Do you find that, given the amount of time that has passed since Men At Work was  together, do you find that there is a group of younger fans who might know you better for your solo albums and appearances on Scrubs?”

 

CH: “Indeed. It’s not that people are coming along just on the strength of Men At Work. They come along because they know what the show is, and while they know I was in that band, but it’s a very wide-ranging age group of people and it’s lovely. The other night at a show there was a couple with a 9 year old daughter, not that I’d recommend that because in my show I swear and so forth, but the girl had apparently insisted that her parents bring her to hear me play. The parents had never heard of me. I don’t know how she’d heard my music - I assume it was through Scrubs, but that’s beautiful. Really fantastic. Folks in their 20’s and 30‘s who come are kind of aware of Men At Work, but they’re more aware of what I’ve done since then. But all the songs live quite happily together. I play ‘Who Can It Be Now,‘ and then play the last song I’ve ever written next to it, and they all live together happily on the stage.”

 

CG: “As a teenager in the 1980’s I was a big fan of Men At Work, and while the band started in Australia, it seemed like once America caught wind of the band it went from not ever having heard of Men At Work to seeing the album atop the charts and your music videos playing on MTV every hour. What was that ride like when things started happening back then? You were really a pop sensation.”

 

CH: “Yes, indeed. That’s exactly what we were called. ’80’s hit-making pop sensation’ (laughs). It was incredible. Truly phenomenal. For me it was more like a slow build before that. I always tell people that you start working on being an overnight success about fifteen years before it happens. I started working on music when I was about 14 or 15, and by the time I was 27 or 28 I was getting somewhere with it. It took a long time to germinate and marinate, but it’s almost like slow combustion heat. It gets hotter and hotter and suddenly it goes pow and it just takes, and then it was unstoppable. It was quite a remarkable, extraordinary experience, and I’m glad I had that experience, and in a way for the rest of your life the dust is still settling. It never really goes away. Music is a great thing. If you play a song, it’s almost like you’ve never played it before if you give it the respect it deserves.”

 

CG: “You guys looked like you had a lot of fun shooting the videos for those Men At Work hits back in the 80’s.” 

 

CH: “That was an enormous amount of fun. Greg Ham, who sadly isn’t with us anymore,  he and I used to kind of devise the videos with the director and cinematographer. There were a coupe of people who did a lot of those early videos. Those videos cost three or four grand to make. They were made for nothing, so what we’d try to do is find some sort of cool location and then try to find interesting things to do. We couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.”

 

CG: “It looked like you and Ham were always having the most fun out of anyone in the group. Like in the video for “Down Under” you guys are out in the desert and the band is doing some kind of synchronized digging in the sand and you’re dancing a jig while another band member is juggling. As a teenager who watched MTV for hours a day and saw artist after artist looking serious and angst-ridden in their videos, it was fun to see guys like you goofing off.” 

 

CH: “Yeah, I think so too. There was also a lot of dimension there too that I think people didn’t really get. In that same video, at the end, we’re all walking through the desert with that big road case, which represented the coffin that, in our eyes, was the demise of the spirit of our country that we lived in. Australia seemed, at least to us, to be becoming over-developed, very corporatized, and we were basically a bunch of hippies. We were hoping that Australia wasn’t going to go the way of the rest of the world. Even with songs like ‘It’s A Mistake,‘ which is about Dr. Strangelove and pressing the wrong button and causing a nuclear apocalypse, we shrouded a lot of things with humor, but there was quite a lot of depth and intensity there if you looked for it.”

 

CG: “Last summer you toured with The Violent Femmes and Barenaked Ladies. Had you toured with either band prior to that?”

 

CH: “No, I’d never met any of them before. It was quite a wonderful experience for me. I went on first and only had to play for a half-hour, so my job was pretty easy. It was a lovely way to spend the summer for sure.”

 

CG: “You’re also the subject of a documentary Colin Hay: Waiting For My Real Life, which made its debut at a film festival in Australia this past fall.”

 

CH: “I don’t even think it’s been officially released yet. They guys ho made it are still trying to get a deal going. So it’s threatening to get released (laughs).”

 

CG: “Have you had a chance to see it?”

 

CH: “I’ve seen it a couple of times. I think its a good piece, an interesting piece.”            


 

Colin Hay performs Tuesday February 2 at 8pm at the Charleston Music Hall. Tickets are $35 and $29.50 and can be purchased at etix.com or at the Charleston Music Hall box office.