Colin Hay has traveled the world with his music, both as a part of Men at Work and, for the last quarter century, as a solo performer. He has been in front of sold out arenas, and half-full bars, and he's been happy to have every fan sit and listen. Tonight, Hay plays in Cedar Rapids with the Violent Femmes and Barenaked Ladies, and we caught up with him to chat a little bit about his 30 years in music, the band he started with, the music he makes now, and the long journey in between.
So, the success of Men at Work was pretty mercurial.
Looking back on it, what was more surprising: how quickly it all escalated, or how quickly it all went away again?
You could ask the six people who were involved, and you'd get six different answers. It was never a very cohesive bunch of people. There was always a lot of disagreement and conflict within that band. When you say “what do you guys think”, there's always the assumption that the band thinks as a whole, and we didn't.
But it didn't seem that quick to me. I'd wanted to be in a band for a while, so I started plotting and scheming on how to do that, starting when I was 15. So it took about 15 years to get overnight success.
(debut album “Business as Usual”) grew slowly at first. It kind of hit everywhere except America, at first. America was kind of like this big, looming beast. It was very slow to get on board with the album. Once it did, of course, everything changed, but for a while, the question was sort of 'will it or won't it?'
The ending was kind of weird. It really ended before it started, when you look at the dynamics within the band. When we were touring the band in '83 (in support of their second album, “Cargo”), it was pretty much over. The dynamics within the band were strained. We weren't a happy bunch of people, and we really should have been, because we were kings of the world for a minute.
Then you guys took a break after the '83 tour to kind of do some other things
No, it was really over by then. The bass player and drummer got sacked after that tour, so it was never going to be the same, was it? After that tour, we all really just ran away home for a while. The original band was finished. There were acts that toured with the Men at Work name for a while after that, but with hindsight, I can say that the Men at Work sound was really over.
We tried to make a go with “Two Hearts” with studio musicians, but our hearts just weren't in it. In the middle of that album, (guitarist Ron Strykert) left the studio one day and said “I'm going home.” We said “are you coming back” and he said “nah.” And that was that, really. It was just me. Then there was no band for me to leave. Everyone else had gone.
Then I realized “what the fuck am I doing?” “This is ridiculous”, you know? So I started playing alone. I think my natural being is to be alone.
Which led to “Looking for Jack.”
Which led to “Looking for Jack.”
Looking back at it, did you have some expectation in mind for that album? Did you expect a certain level of success right out of the gate as a solo artist?
I think I did, but I think that coming off the success that the band had, my ideas were out of proportion a bit. (Producer) Robin Miller was under the assumption that it was going to be a Men at Work album, which I was unaware of. They just told him that he was going to be working on the band's next album, but it was never really going to be a Men at Work album. But none of us really had any name recognition outside of the band. So, in retrospect, it might have been a better idea to CALL it Men at Work, because it was a complete commercial failure. I guess I was somewhat prepared for it not to do huge business, because the third Men at Work album had stiffed, commercially. It was a weird time. I wasn't really thinking or acting rationally at that time, I don't think. People had just had their fill of Men at Work.
Then MCA dropped you from your solo contract in 1990.
Right. My first album came out on Sony, then I asked to be released by Sony because I got an offer from MCA. There had been a guy at Sony, Al Taylor was his name. He was in charge at Sony during the last two Men at Work albums, then after “Looking for Jack,” he had left and gone over to MCA. So he offered me a contract and I said yes. So Al Taylor was in charge for every non-successful album I ever had.
Was that hard? Being dropped from a contract?
Yes. But I think being dropped was a sense of relief as well. Because it freed me up to do what I want.
And ever since then, you've been living the life of an indie musician. You've been with a number of indie labels, but Compass has done your last four albums. Are you happier with the smaller labels?
It is pretty comfortable for me. I mean, I liked being on the big labels, but that deal we were on with Sony was a horrible deal. Our percentage was hideously low, even by those times. But because it was over so quickly, the only thing the major labels did for the band was put some marketing money behind us. Then when I went solo, nobody really knew what to do with me. I think that people hoped that I would go away. So eventually I did. I'm not going to say that it was easy, but I wasn't poor, I wasn't hungry.
You've produced or co-produced on each one of your solo albums. Is that by choice, or out of necessity?
Necessity. There was never any money for a producer. I would like to have a producer. I quite like having a producer. But with small, independent labels, there's not the money for that. So I produce them by default, because there's nobody else there. It's not like I can turn and say “eh, what do you think of that one?” Because there's nobody else in the fucking room.
You released your newest album, “Next Year People” in February. You worked with a number of musicians that have collaborated with your wife, Cecilia Noel, on her music.
The reality is, they were just hanging around the house a lot. Because they were working with her at the time that I was in the basement putting the album together. So I said “if you're going to hang around all day, why not play on this?” And that's what they did.
Working collaboratively with a such a rotating group of musicians, how do you know when a song is ready to take out and show to people?
It's usually ready when it's almost ready. (laughs) Because if you don't stop when it's almost ready, you run the risk of adding on something that doesn't need to be there. I'd rather have one thing maybe missing then three things that obviously aren't needed. That's another reason why having a producer is so nice. That's why I like being able to record at my house. I can just bring my wife or someone down to listen, and they will set me straight, if a song is too busy. They'll look at me and say “There's fucking four guitar tracks on this song. Why?” Then they'll strip three out, we'll play it again and it's “oh yeah, I see what you mean.”
With your solo career, you've had the chance to see your crowds evolve from people who knew you from Men at Work, to people who hear you play then find Men at Work after the fact.
Yeah. That's been interesting.
Was there a point where you finally noticed that shift?
It's been very gradual. A couple of things I discovered early on: one thing that I couldn't get away from after the band broke up, was the distinct lack of people. It would say “Colin Hay” on the marquee, and there would be 40 people. Because if it didn't say “Men at Work”, there was virtually no name recognition for me alone. I knew that if I was going to attract an audience, it was going to be on the back of good shows, and the hope that word would spread. I've grown it slowly. When I first played New York, I would play in front of 100 people. Now, I can fill a 1,500 seat theater. But that's after all this time. It was a very old fashioned approach—not without its frustrations, I might add—but I've been doing it for 24 years.