Interview: Colin Hay – ‘It became quite Spinal Tap very quickly’
Having hit the big time as part of 80s Australian rock band Men at Work, the Saltcoats lad has experienced fame's many ups and downs
If there was one animal that Colin Hay feels a kindship with, he reckons it’s the wombat. ‘I used to go into the bush a lot and you’d come across echidnas which are like porcupines; they’re pretty interesting fellas. But I do have a soft spot for wombats; I may look a little like one. It’s a cross between a bear and a rock. A black snake once rose up and was looking at me. I’m blind in my right eye and couldn’t see him at first but it’s amazing how quickly you can run when you have to. There are a lot of things in Australia that could fuck with you.’
It’s certainly a long way from the Saltcoats of his birth where the biggest threat to your health was a piece of excrement getting washed up on land: ‘the shitey shore, they called it. That was its affectionate term.’ Hay’s family moved out of Scotland when he was 13 and headed to Australia where the singer-songwriter would eventually find colossal fame with Men at Work. 'Down Under' was the band’s biggest hit, an addictive and idiosyncratic tune which topped the British charts at the beginning of 1983 and led to world tours such as supporting David Bowie on his Serious Moonlight live juggernaut. Everything might have seemed rosy in the Men at Work garden, but Hay admits the band were constantly on the cusp of imploding.
‘When we were starting to peak commercially, it was kind of over internally which is a sad thing to say. It became quite Spinal Tap very quickly; the other guitar player was very unhappy being in the band, while the drummer didn’t like the manager so got his sister, who knew nothing about rock ‘n’ roll, to manage him. I was drinking way too much which I continued to do until I finally stopped. I was probably a bit inflated as I was the guy who wrote and sang the songs, and got a lot of the attention.’
After the enormous global success of albums Business as Usual and Cargo, the inevitable break-up finally happened with Hay only staying in touch with the band’s Greg Ham, the pair working on and off together until around 2002. ‘I always had this fantasy of doing something again with Greg because he was a very talented guy but he checked out instead four years ago. It’s sad because he was one of those guys you imagined getting old with.’
While he is perfectly happy these days to perform some of the old songs (he even appeared in a lengthy dream sequence during a 2002 episode of quirky medical sitcom Scrubs, singing the band’s late-‘83 hit ‘Overkill’), Hay has 12 solo albums to call upon whenever he plays live. The most recent one, Next Year People, arrived last year.
We’re chatting backstage at the Pleasance Courtyard in April, during a pre-Fringe tour of the UK. He’s back in August with a live band (featuring his long-term drummer, his singer wife, Cecilia, and two Cuban musicians Hay says he’s stolen from his spouse’s band) and a whole heap of tales from the past as well as more recent times. The show’s title, Get Rid of the Minstrel, comes from a tale which rather neatly sums up the fickle nature of fame.
‘I was on a radio show in Albany, Western Australia, and the DJ said that in the next half hour I was going to sing a couple of songs and he was going to tell the audience how to get rid of Argentinean ants. So I played a song or two and we were chatting, and then a woman asked him when he was going to talk about the ants as it had been more than half an hour. She said, “get rid of the minstrel!”. So, you can have this massive commercial success where you’re playing to hundreds of thousands of people, and in a few short years you could be in competition for airspace with Argentinean ants.’
Among his family connections is a niece who has had little fear of playing second fiddle to a bunch of insects. As early as 11, Sia was proving to her uncle Colin that she could well have a bright future in the music business. ‘She’s always been pretty special,’ he admits with an avuncular pride. ‘There are very few people with her talents; she has an amazing melodic facility, great lyrical skills, and can put songs together very quickly. She told me a few years ago that she wasn’t keen on going out on the road because it did something strange to her so she decided to stay behind the scenes and write songs for people. She thinks what I do is probably an old-fashioned way of doing things by going out on the road to promote my music.’
Despite having all those albums to his name, Hay continues to feel energised by stepping out onto a live stage in front of brand new audiences. ‘In a way I am starting again, because you’re playing to people who might have no idea of you are. A lot of my audience is young because old people are too lazy to go out. Seeing people in the crowd in their 30s is great because if you were just playing to people of my age it would be a bit bleak.’
Colin Hay: Get Rid of the Minstrel, Gilded Balloon, Bristo Square, 15–28 Aug, 10.30pm, £12–£14 (£11–£13).