Former Man at Work Colin Hay reveals his serious side. And, as Tim Hughes discovers, it is a million miles from Down Under
WE still know him as the voice of one of Australia’s most iconic bands – Men at Work. But Colin Hay is at pains to prove he is about way more than Down Under.
Heck, he’s not even an Aussie – he’s a Scot – and has just released his 11th solo album. And to listeners who still only know him for those feelgood blockbusters, it could come as a surprise.
The record, Gathering Mercury, is a deep and serious collection of songs, a world away from tunes like Overkill, Who Can It Be Now? or that Antipodean anthem of vegemite sandwiches, women glowing and men chundering. “These are some of the strongest songs I’ve ever written,” he says, talking from his studio in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles, where he has lived for the past 24 years.
“The loss of my father last year brought an unavoidable emotional contingent to writing and recording. I don’t have a definitive belief in an afterlife, but I do feel like I had his help when I was working on this album, especially alone late at night, in the studio.”
But while they are moving, his songs stop well short of being glum. In fact, despite their tragic inspiration, they burst with hope.
“It’s not a conscious thing and may have to do with the Scottish mentality,” he says. “We deal with darkness by shining a light on it. It doesn’t diminish the charge of the feeling, it just makes it easier to deal with.” Colin’s love of music goes right back to his childhood – as far from the Outback, in every way possible, as it’s possible to get – the sober Ayrshire market town of Kilwinning.
“I wasn’t in bands as a boy,” he says, “but I was surrounded by music. My mum and dad had a music shop, so there were instruments everywhere. The Hit Parade list came in every Monday morning, so obviously I knew the Beatles, the Kinks, The Rolling Stones, the Who, Screaming Lord Sutch, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie And The Dreamers and, of course, Cliff Richard.
I started playing guitar when I was 12.” Teaching himself the guitar, he was ready to dive into the rich music scene of Australia’s second city, when the family upped sticks and moved to Melbourne. “The late ’60s and early ’70s were remarkable, a golden age for Australian rock music,” he says.
“There were lots of places to play, fantastic bands and lots of great musicians. A lot of them never saw the light of day, but there was uniqueness and brilliance.” Among them was guitarist Ron Strykert, with whom Colin started playing and writing – eventually forming a duo.
“I’d always wanted to be in a great rock band. So, in the middle of 1979, we were joined by drummer Jerry Speiser, whom I met at university, and sax and flautist Greg Ham, whom I’d known since schooldays. Men At Work was formed, and off we went. Bass player John Rees joined a couple of months later.”
The band proved an instant hit. Their 1981 debut, Business as Usual, went five-times platinum within a year, picked up a Grammy, and topped charts all over the world, selling more than 10 million copies.
Multi-platinum follow-up Cargo was similarly successful, but there were tensions within the band and, after 1985’s Two Hearts, they called it a day. After a less successful solo rock record, Colin went back to his roots for an album of Celtic folk-inspired tunes called Wayfaring Sons.
After the dizzy heights of Men at Work, sales must have seemed disappointing, and after being dropped by his label he looked for a new direction – finding it in California. “I’d moved to the States in ’89, and soon realised I’d have to work harder for more modest returns,” he says.
“I started my own label, Lazy Eye Records, and set about building a new audience, through writing, recording and touring. It’s been hand-to-hand combat ever since, but nourishing work at the same time.”
He went from global star to little-known singer-songwriter, but over the course of his solo career has seen audiences grow. “I went from playing for 50 people a few years ago, to 500- and 1,000-seat venues.
“I’d like to speed it up a bit, because I’m running out of life,” he jokes, “But, for the most part, I’m happy to be on the road and still making music.”
Although proud of Men at Work (he teamed up with ex-bandmate Ham for a series of tours and played at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000) it is his solo work which now defines him. He may not be releasing multi-platinum albums, but he is very happy with where he’s at.
“I started off playing acoustic; it’s my natural game, if you will,” he says. “It’s the point I started from and may well be the point I end with.”
Colin Hay plays the O2 Academy Oxford tonight. Tickets are £20 from