Photos and Article by L. Paul Mann
Colin Hay was a founding member of Men at Work, one of the most successful Australian rock bands at the forefront of the New Wave era in the early 1980s. The multitalented artist is also an accomplished actor with an impressive resume. But the first love for the former Scottish- Australian turned American citizen is music. The prolific singer-songwriter and musician has produced 13 albums during his long solo career. He is also a member of one of the most prestigious rock bands in the world, Ringo Starr’s Allstar Band. While that incredible band is taking a break until next summer, Hay is launching his most ambitious solo tour to date. The 28 stop tour begins in Santa Barbara at the historic Lobero theater on February 27th and winds up in Dallas, Texas, on May 10th. Hay recently chatted with us about his music, motivation, and his upcoming tour.
How did you get started in music?
Colin: Well, I got started in music growing up in Scotland. My mother and father owned a music shop from 1958 to 1967, and it was an amazing time for music. How could you not get involved in music when you are surrounded by it? (laughs)
My father was a great singer in a band, so it was in my blood, so to speak.
When did you move to Australia?
Colin: When I was 14. That’s when I started playing in bands and writing songs. It was about 15 years later that my efforts were getting up a head of steam.
Who were your musical influences back then?
Colin: For me, like a lot of people back then, there were probably The Beatles, and then there was everybody else. The Beatles, to me, were kind of like otherworldly. They were great musicians, singers, and writers, but there was also something else going on. Maybe it was because of where I was from. When I was taken to Australia, I was taken away from somewhere where I felt was very close to what was going on in music. Then I found myself on the other side of the world and felt very removed from that. The same year that I moved, The Beatles released the Sgt. Pepper’s album and that had a great influence on me, especially feeling so isolated from my roots in Scotland. My brother also turned me on to a lot of Black American music. I also liked great songwriters at the time, like Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. Later on, I discovered Bob Dylan, and I remember falling under his spell at some point. In English music, I liked people like John Martyn. (John Martyn, was a British singer-songwriter and guitarist. Over a 40-year career in music, he released 22 studio albums and received numerous accolades for his Progressive folk style of music.)
Nick Drake was also another very cool sort of character I admired. (Drake was a young English singer-songwriter. His music was not that well known during his lifetime. The young musician suffered from depression and performed infrequently. He rarely gave interviews and, at the age of 26, died of an antidepressant drug overdose. After his death, he gradually achieved wider recognition, mainly from other songwriters, and is now considered one of the most influential English singer-songwriters of the last 50 years.)
Other bands I loved growing up were Frank Zappa, Little Feat and their signature sound, and I loved Joes Feliciano. He was the first guy I saw when I was a kid playing solo, and it was f—-ing mind-blowing.
That was the first concert I saw in California when I first came to visit in 1975, and I would have to agree with your assessment. So what were the Men at Work era like for you personally? I remember seeing the band at the US festival in the early ’80s. That was one of the first modern-day music festivals with multiple stages organized and paid for by computer guru Steve Wozniak. Many younger fans of your music might not realize that in the ’80s, alternative music was mostly ignored by the biggest radio stations. Hairbands like Van Halen dominated the airwaves. Just a very few bands like The Police and Men at Work were the very first New Wave bands to break the glass ceiling allowing new music to be played.
Colin: Well, there are a lot of things I could talk about Men at Work. It was a huge part of my life but it would take a long time to do it any justice talking about it. But a couple of things do spring to mind. One of the things that stayed with me was when I first arrived in New York City. It is a fascinating thing to go to the city no matter where you are from. But when I arrived in New York City, everybody knew my name, which was a bizarre thing to happen to me. I would be just walking down the street or in a cab, and someone would say hey Colin. The other thing I remember was that Men at Work was done. It was really over by that point. We just didn’t really know it yet as a band. It wasn’t a happy time for us. It should have been, but the dynamics within the band were falling apart right when we reached the height of our success. So I remember it being a sad time even though we had become so successful.
I didn’t know that you had moved to Topanga, California, back in 1989. Actually, one of your solo albums is named Topanga. Is that when you met Ringo?
Colin: Well, I didn’t meet Ringo at first. I got a phone call and was asked to play in his band by his manager? Well, you take about one second to think about it and say yes (laughs).
You played in three different line ups of Ringo’s band, including the most recent. I saw your last show at The Greek Theater in Los Angeles last fall. What is it like playing in one of the most talented classic rock bands in the world?
Colin: That was a good show at The Greek. I am thrilled to be in that band to be a sideman for so many great musicians. I get to play a couple of my own songs. Gregg Rolie (Keyboardist) was in Santana! He played at Woodstock! Steve Lukather (Toto) an astonishing guitar player! I love Hamish, a great musician, great singer. (Hamish Stuart is a Scottish guitarist, bassist, singer, composer, and record producer. He was an original member of the Average White Band. He plays bass in Ringo’s band.) We have that Geographical connection as well, with both of us originally from Scotland. Gregg Bissonette is one of the greatest drummers! Warren Ham is a fantastic musician and a complete professional! (Ham is a vocalist, saxophonist, flutist, and percussionist in Ringo’s band.) And then there’s Ringo! There’s nobody like Ringo. He just loves playing. He loves the soundcheck, loves the fans.
Are you planning another tour with Ringo? You wrote the title track, “What’s My Name?” on Ringo’s new album?
Colin: Yeah, I wrote a song called Ringo (laughs). We might be going on tour again towards the end of the year.
You have 13 solo albums to your credit, as well as all the material you wrote for Men at Work. When you are on tour, how do you decide what you are going to play out of so much music?
Colin: That’s tricky stuff, you know. What I do is put a setlist together of about 40 songs. You can only play about 15 to 17 a night. So I just play whatever seems appropriate for a particular audience.
You have done many amazing collaborations. My wife, Carly, actually discovered your music through a collaboration with The Barenaked Ladies on their Red Rocks live release. Her parents owned a record store for 40 years in Carmel, California, called Do Re Mi. The Barenaked Ladies played a showcase there when Carly was in high school and became a fan for life. Then she became a great fan of yours after your tour with them. What was that tour like for you?
Colin: That was a completely lovely tour, and again one of the best things is that people find out about your music. Fans of the Barenaked Ladies or the Violent Femmes may have heard my music for the first time. You pick up a bunch of new fans, it’s great. It was also a great tour because I opened and only played half an hour. Then I had a whole night free. I had a tour bus to myself with just my manager and myself. So once I was done, I could play a little guitar, practice, write songs, and relax. I really enjoyed it.
Your biggest solo tour to date begins in Santa Barbara on February 27th. You are doing special meet and greets at many of the shows, including opening night. The money raised for the meet and greets will be donated to disaster relief in Australia. We have all heard the horror stories about the fires. Do you think Australia might be the canary in a coal mine, so to speak, and this might be a wake-up call for all of us regarding global warming and it’s ramifications?
Colin: Yes, unless humanity wants to be a footnote in history, it is time to take action. We need to all come together with a visionary long-lasting policy change. I fear we are very, very close to irreversible devastation if the industrialized countries don’t make a change. When I moved from Scotland to Australia, what I fell in love with more than anything else was the vastness of the place. You find yourself on some sort of a piece of empty coastline, and you think to yourself, my lord, this is a good as it gets. Do you wonder what it takes to wake people up to a global crisis?
I think maybe burning Koala Bears and Wallabys?
Colin: Is that what it takes? I don’t know. Not that the arctic is melting or that Miami is sinking? If it takes a burning f—king Koala, we are in bad shape, man. But this our big challenge ahead. Do we survive or not? I don’t think anything is more real than that fact. The money from the meet and greets is going to a charity to help rebuild the town of Cobargo, near where I used to have property. Since I know the area, I have a personal connection to the people, and virtually the whole town burned down. It’s helping on a grassroots level.