Interview Date: 08/10/2009
Run Date: 08/18/2009
Singer/songwriter Colin Hay may still be best known for the hits he penned with Aussie pop/rock band Men at Work back in the early MTV days -- songs like “Who Can It Be Now?” “Down Under,” and “Overkill.” But what you may or may not know is that Hay has been living in Los Angeles since 1988 and has had a nice, if slightly under-the-radar, career. He’s released a few solo records, and also earned cool points with a song on the acclaimed “Garden State” soundtrack a few years ago. He also has had placements on “Scrubs.” We had a chance to speak with Hay recently about his forthcoming album, American Sunshine, on Nashville-based Compass Records.
Colin Hay: (after introductions) Do you play darts at all?
Bullz-Eye.com: Why do you ask?
CH: Well, because of the name Bullz-Eye.
BE: Ahh, gotcha. No, we are a very large online men’s magazine geared toward 18 to 34-year-old guys. It’s a lot of babes and sports and movies and stuff like that. The babes tend to drive a lot of people to our site.
CH: Well, that’s what drives a lot of people (laughs).
BE: Yes, exactly! So this is your third album on Compass?
CH: I guess, kind of. I made a record called Man at Work. And then they re-released an album called Going Somewhere, in 2005, which had originally come out in 2000. And then they released Are You Looking at Me? in 2007. So I guess technically they’ve released four, and they’re releasing basically all of my solo albums except for the two that I don’t have control over, which were the first two in the ‘80s.
BE: So is this your first official studio release with them?
CH: No, it’s the second, really.
BE: What do you feel is different about this one?
CH: It’s better (laughs). More better.
BE: Do you feel you’ve evolved as a songwriter then?
CH: Hopefully you just get better at whatever it is that you do, no matter what that is. Hopefully each record gets better. I think this is a step forward overall. I mean, I don’t think it’s got so much to do with the time that goes by. Like I’d put a song like “Overkill” up there with anything that I’ve done as far as a song goes. But I think that overall, you hopefully get better over time. It’s a tricky thing, because if you have a lot of success early on, like we did (with Men at Work), people tend to associate you with that, which is natural. But I don’t really pay that much attention to what people say so much -- I get a really good gauge of a record when I’m doing it, and when I’ve finished it. I either like it or I don’t, and then you play it for people who played on it, or for friends, and that’s the truth for me. People either like it or they don’t.
BE: I’m curious since I live in Nashville and I’m familiar with the songwriting community, and I read in your bio about how you had to scramble to find more songs with these Nashville cats that were prolific in their playing, and how you went back to your hotel to find more songs to record on the spot. Did you have those songs all written before, or did you have ideas that you had to just flesh out?
CH: I had both. I had three or four songs that I had done, but the musicians were so good that we did those songs in the first day. I went back to the hotel and I had a little mini-disc with some songs -- for a couple of them, the music was done but I hadn’t finished the lyrics for them, and then a couple of them were musical ideas that weren’t quite finished either. So I finished three or four songs that night, which was pretty good for me. And they turned out really good. And I went in the next day pretending that I had these songs all along.
BE: Right (laughs)
CH: It was quite exciting recording in Nashville for those two days.
BE: It’s amazing, isn’t it? I remember doing a co-write here, and the guy I wrote with had a publishing deal with Sony so he had access to their studio, and I went in with him when they tracked our song. They learned the song and cut it in about five minutes. It’s just amazing.
CH: Yeah, there you go. (laughs)
BE: So did you do any co-writing in Nashville for this album?
CH: No. I finished a song here that was written by Hillary Lindsey, who is a Nashville writer. I met her briefly in Santa Barbara at a songwriting conference. She had this song she thought would be good for me and she played it for me, or what she had of it. I really liked it, which was good and also unusual for me.
BE: And you recorded that one?
CH: Yeah, it’s called “I Can’t Get Up Out of This Bed.”
BE: Okay, cool. The one that I thought was my favorite was “There’s Water Over You.”
CH: Yeah, I like that one too.
BE: Now have you played any of these songs at your shows?
CH: I have, yes.
BE: And which ones have gone over the best?
CH: Well, it’s difficult to tell. The audiences take them all and they like them all. They really like “Oh California,” and they like “I Came Into Your Store,” and they also like “There’s Water Over You.” There’s quite a few that they like. When people hear a song for the first time -- that’s one of the exciting things about the few gigs we’ve done so far, is we have had a lot of songs to choose from, so we’re still kind of experimenting with what we play and where we play it.
BE: And what do you hope to accomplish with this record?
CH: Oh, massive, huge, heaving success, like I always hope for.
BE: Right on!
BE: You’ve been in L.A. for 20 years now. What made you decide to move to the states, and what made you decide you wanted to stay here, and in L.A.?
CH: Well it wasn’t really a conscious decision to move to the states initially. I came here because I had a record deal with MCA Records in the late ‘80s. I used to be on Columbia but got off Columbia and went to MCA, which was in retrospect not a particularly smart idea, but at the time it seemed like the thing to do. So I came here in 1988, because they suggested that I meet the record company and say hello and hang out and stuff like that. So I came over here, and I ended up making the record here. And then things were pointing away from Australia at that particular time, so I just stayed. And I’m still here, really. I like it -- I like Los Angeles.
BE: Do you miss Australia much?
CH: Well, I go there often. So it’s not like I don’t ever go there. I’m there a couple times a year at least. So whenever I start to miss it, I find myself on a plane going there.
BE: It’s awesome that you have been selling out shows the way you have. Do you attribute that to your constant touring and work ethic?
CH: I think it’s a combination of tenacity and (having songs on) “Scrubs.”
BE: Right, and you also had a song on the “Garden State” soundtrack.
CH: Yeah, and constant touring. I’ve been touring for the last 15 years and it’s been building and building over the years. But with “Scrubs” and having some other songs on television has certainly helped.
BE: Right, as well as Men at Work.
CH: Yeah, but the Men at Work thing doesn’t really get people out of the house by itself. Because it’s not Men At Work, you know what I mean? If it said Men at Work, you’d get a certain kind of person that would come out. The people that come and see me play, there has to be something else. Maybe there are some people that want to hear Men at Work songs, and that’s cool. There’s nothing wrong with that. But for the last decade or so, the people that come to see me tend to not mind the Men at Work songs, but they tend to want to hear new things.
BE: Sure, so do you have more of a younger fan base too because of “Scrubs” and stuff like that?
CH: Yeah, and that’s been very rewarding, you know? It’s also crucial in some ways because those are the people who go out. The people in their 40s don’t go out anymore because they have kids. To have an audience that’s primarily in their 20s has been fantastic.
BE: Very cool. So what’s your favorite American city to tour in and what is your least favorite?
CH: Well, the least favorite I don’t tend to really think about because I tend to forget them when I’m leaving. Every place has something that’s good about it. I like lots of places for different reasons. I like the Northwest a lot and the Northeast as well. I like Portland and all those hippie towns. Seattle’s great, and I love Chicago and New York.
BE: Who are your main influences as a songwriter?
CH: Well, apart from the Beatles, really -- probably Randy Newman. He’s my favorite.
BE: That’s a good one, maybe an underrated songwriter. So are you able to find Vegemite in the states, or do you not need to if you’re going back home often?
CH: Well, if you really want it, you can find anything in the states. But it’s not something I go out of my way to find. And I don’t eat it except for when I’m in Australia.
BE: What are your favorite American type foods that you can’t find over there?
CH: I never look for anything over there that’s from here (laughs).
BE: And lastly, has there been any talk of a Men at Work reunion?
CH: Well, I guess some people might talk about it, but I don’t talk about it much (laughs).
BE: You seem to be having a pretty successful solo career, so I guess there’s not much need for a reunion?
CH: No, and it wasn’t really much fun at the time. I mean toward the end it wasn’t. It’s not something I’m even particularly against, but I know the people. I know the people who were in the band, and to say, “What about a reunion?” I say go talk to those people, and then get back to me.
BE: So are they all still playing music?
CH: Ah, I have no idea.
BE: Well that’s about it. I wish you a lot of success with the record.
CH: Thanks man.