By larry may
Colin Hay made a name for himself as front man of Men at Work, prompting many American teenagers to look up the meaning of a vegemite sandwich. The Aussie Men ripped a hole in U.S. record stores charts with “Land Down Under” and followed up with “Who Can It Be Now?” The band followed up with other notable singles full of quirky lyrics and unconventional woodwinds and also other full-length releases. They eventually sold 30 million albums.
For many artists, that would have been satisfactory. There is much to be said for resting on laurels and aging comfortably. Chasing hit records is a younger artist’s dream and living on tour buses can be gruesome. Past glory has another side, not nearly as desirable. Playing state fairs and running old hits around muddy fields to assorted old farts can be soul-sucking employment, at times being both ego crushing and poorly compensated.
The lesser known and harder attained alternative is to introduce oneself to a younger demographic with new songs and dynamic stage shows. Colin Hay has somehow stashed the genie back in the bottle and continues to issue new albums and schedule annual treks across the country.
On March 29, Hay will put out his newest CD, “Gathering Mercury”, a showcase of songs that offer insight into the relationship between sons and fathers, and the inevitable collapse and hopeful perspective that are gained through the death of a parent. His beautifully crafted tunes carry emotional weight and serve as catharsis both for Colin and hopefully his beloved father. Subject matter as heavy as losing one’s dad can be difficult to navigate and harder still to do with tenderness and reserve. “Gathering Mercury” is a definite homerun and could serve as a template for handling loss with grace and the search for mercy.
SIL. Some of the songs on this record are about the passing of your father.
CH. I started writing this one about a year after my father died. He’s all over the record.
SIL. I love the line “in 1934, he came banging on the backstage door”. Is that about him?
CH. In the first part, that’s my father singing it. He’s talking about his own father, who he did not along with very well. When he used to play, his dad would come backstage and take his money.
SIL. So your father was a professional musician?
CH. Yes, he was a singer in a band. So whatever I got, I got it from him. He stopped performing when he was a teenager and went into the world of piano tuning. So it’s in the DNA.
SIL. Was your mother a musician?
CH. Not in a professional sense. She could certainly hold a tune.
SIL. Since they were both musicians, what was your parent’s reaction when you got a huge hit in the U.S.?
CH. It wasn’t just the U.S., it was all over the world. The U.S. was actually the last ones to pick up on the band. They didn’t really care about America so much, not anymore than anywhere else. They were just as proud that it did well in Australia. They were pretty cool about the whole thing. They were happy for me that I was working. They were proud that I was making a living from it. They came from very humble beginnings and were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make a living from it.
SIL. What about the title track, “Gathering Mercury”?
CH. It’s very difficult, for one thing. The idea behind it is that the more we learn, the more multi-layered things seem to be. The more you learn, even more seems to slip between your fingers. The term came from an old friend of mine that had a multitude of health issues and actually died a couple of times. He told me about it and that’s where it started. He explained about dying and coming back to life.
SIL. “Dear Father” is my favorite track on the record. Do you have plans for it beyond just releasing it as a radio single? You’ve done movie soundtracks and been featured on some TV shows.
CH. Not yet. There are lots of other people trying to do the same thing. I think there is a lot of material that does lend itself to sort of thing. It’s very difficult to get played on the radio, and movies are a great way to get your music exposed. But I do hope for the best.
SIL. It’s a great song that highlights the dynamics of fathers and sons. When I hear it, I wonder how my son will feel when I pass away.
CH. We all have a father. Some have a close relationship with their fathers, and others don’t. Not matter the relationship, there is an effect when it happens. It’s big stuff.
SIL. Anything you like to do when you play in Birmingham?
CH. I don’t really have time to get out when I’m there. It’s a light operation. There is a tour manager and a sound guy that travel with me. We get to town, sound check, play and drive to the next town and do the same thing. We move pretty quick. But I do like to play at Workplay. They have a chef there, Cliff, who always makes me a fantastic meal when I play there. He has a restaurant in town that the name escapes me, but he grows his own vegetables and things like that.
SIL. You introduced a whole generation of American kids to vegemite sandwiches. Are there any American dishes that you really like?
CH. I do have a fondness for apple pie with a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream.
SIL. Any other plans besides music right now?
CH. I don’t know. I really like being in the studio and creating music. I could envision doing other things there in the studio, and helping different people. Maybe a full time producer, but something would have to really catch my ear. The big challenge is having time to do stuff. For now, all of my time is taken up making records and touring them.
SIL. You mentioned driving with a few people and doing things on a smaller scale. How different is that as opposed to working on a major label and all the things that go along with it?
CH. I never felt any pressure from record labels. The experience with the bigger labels really didn’t last that long. Once Men at Work was over, I made two solo albums that weren’t really commercial successes. My days with major labels were very numbered.
If I could do it over, there are things I would have and would not have done. At the time, you think you’re making the right moves. We had our own plane, which made it very efficient to get around. But I really do enjoy the way we get around now, I really do. The shows now are very fun and seem to be picking up momentum.
SIL. I’ve had friends see you at Workplay in the past, and they rave about your performance.
CH. That seems to be the consensus. People enjoy the shows and bring back other people. In some markets, a thousand people come to see me and the last time I was there, it was only two hundred.