Steve Cooper, CooperTalk
Interview with Colin Hay on CooperTalk
Colin Hay, best known as the singer for the 80s sensation Men at Work has created a life for himself after that group broke up. During their tenure, they recorded three albums with their debut “Business as Usual” topping the charts in the U.S. and five other countries. Recently he released “Now and the Evermore” (his 15th solo project), finished a cross-country solo tour and hit the road with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. This summer he will be on a bill with Rick Springfield and John Waite that will be at the Borgata Event Center on August 19. I recently had a chat with him on my podcast “CooperTalk.” You can find the complete interview online at coopertalk.net.
Q: What is it like for you now after playing all those solo shows and telling stories to be playing in a band with Ringo Starr?
A: You have to adapt if it’s a whole different thing. You’re really there to support him more than anything and you’re a side guy for everyone else, so you have to make sure your can figure out the parts to play and add to what has already been hits for other people, whether it be Edgar Winter or Steve Lukather or Hamish Stewart or Ringo. So you find your place within that group of people. It comes together pretty quickly and it’s starting to really sound like a band which is really cool. It’s a different thing because it’s really all about Ringo. You turn around and Ringo is playing the drums and that really never gets old.
Q: How did Men At Work form?
A: I always wanted to have a successful band. I always wanted to have a band that could have success internationally, and I don’t know why that was important to me, but it always was. I started trying to put together something around 1973, and it didn’t work too well so I dropped out of that band and then I got a letter from university saying that I could go back to school. So that’s what I did. It was a great experience and during that time I met really important people like Jerry (Speiser), who became the drummer for Men At Work and Guy Russell who became the manager. I also met Ron Strykert who became the other guitarist for the band and we started working together as an acoustic duet and decided to write songs. We wrote “Down Under” and a bunch of other stuff. Then Jerry joined us and we were three piece for a minute, and Greg (Ham) had been a friend so I I asked him to join the band and then we were a four piece and then it was somewhat incomplete because Ron was playing bass so Ron switched back to switch to lead guitar and John Rees was a friend of Jerry’s so he asked him. In the course of about two or three months over the winter of 1979 the band was formed and we were off and running. We had quite a lot of songs to play and we were writing. And then I had a band, so that was a great vehicle for the songs. I would write one on Tuesday and then you could take it to the band in rehearsal and play it on Tuesday night. You know, it was very immediate and we were much more of a jam band.
Q: What was it like to get that major success?
A: It sounds arrogant in a way but I really accepted the success we had because in a way I expected it and because I could sense it. I could sense it by the excitement of the audiences that would come and see us. They kind of knew what was going to happen in a way and that’s what happened all over the world. It’s just one of those things that you thought I’m not really in control of. This is happening because of me but it’s also happening to me. This is gonna break. This is gonna be huge. And you just have to try to stay on the board and not fall off for as long as you can. Turns out we didn’t really stay on the board for all that long, you know, but that’s OK. We had it for around four years, and it was, extraordinarily successful. And then it went away, and then it was done.
Q: Tell me about the song “Overkill”? Where did it come from?
A: I think that it is a combination of a couple of ideas. Lyrically, I think that one idea was that “I’m diving into deep” was that feeling you had of wanting to have this success, really having great ambition and then achieving it and then realizing that this is in fact going to happen. And making the choice I’m going to just dive in head first and know that things were never going to be the same. Even just walking down the street wasn’t gonna be the same. You don’t have the same level of anonymity. Everything is different. The external world treats you in a different fashion. So you have to be prepared for that. The other idea that possibly was there was my increasing realization that I was probably an alcoholic. And I think they were the ghosts that I was trying to deal with and the demons that I was trying to deal with at the time where the depressive state that happens through alcohol abuse or any kind of abuse really. I didn’t really want to accept or believe that I was probably drinking too much, but I was. And it took me about seven or eight years after that to finally stop. I think that looking back on it, yeah, I didn’t really think about that at the time, but I think that that’s probably what I was trying to express that was happening internally. Musically, I think it’s interesting. I think that there’s a haunting quality to the chords. It’s simple yet if you want to call it the chorus, the b section of the song goes to a couple of interesting places and I don’t know how to explain it but it touches people in a certain way. It gets in there and you can’t really plan for that. It either happens or it doesn’t. I’m just grateful that people respond to the song in such a way.
Q: At what point did you start putting stories into your solo act and noticing that people were enjoying it?
A: The best things happen often by circumstance as opposed to design. When I started to play live in the early 90s hardly anyone was coming to the shows. There might be 40 or 50 people in these rooms and sometimes they were quarter full. I noticed that people were a little embarrassed for me, almost like, why is this guy doing this? You know, he doesn’t have to do this. He was a big famous rock star. Why is he in these small rooms playing? And to be honest, I didn’t really know myself particularly, but it was just something that I knew I could do. I knew that I could play a few songs and sing and so what I started to do, because it was quite a small room, it seemed almost like a lounge so I just started to tell people what happened to me and as I did that, I noticed that people would lean a little closer and they they wanted to know about those kinds of things. And so it became almost conspiratorial between myself and the audience. It then became a little secret and people would tell other people. People would tell their friends “you have to go see this guy because he does this and he does that.” And after a little while I kind of realized that. People wanted to come and see me and they didn’t want to because they were people just coming to hear the song “Down Under. They were people who were coming because they wanted to. They wanted to receive something from me that maybe they didn’t even know what it was, but after a little while I realized that they wanted it. They wanted you to tell them something about themselves almost because we all suffer. We all have these peaks and valleys that we’re all trying to figure out and how to make sense of being alive. And so this was my way of doing it. This getting up on the stage was my way of trying to deal with the fact that I wasn’t that guy anymore. I didn’t have huge commercial success and I wasn’t having number one hits. This is my life now, you know. And then I started to realize that at first I was probably using it as an interim thing where I thought I’d actually get the big deal and I’d get back to those lofty peaks again of superstardom. But then I realized this is actually what I’m supposed to do. This is my place.