Singer continues to be a man hard at work.
Despite modern audiences mainly connecting with him through his niece Sia or his knack for soundtracking Zach Braff projects, Colin Hay is a musical legend. The lazy-eyed frontman for Men At Work, prolific solo artist, and Scrubs guest star has thirteen solo albums under his belt and a new documentary about his life making the circuit. Colin Hay: Waiting For My Real Life, a disappointingly tame Behind the Music-esque career-spanner for such an eccentric subject (Hay’s played with Ringo Starr and as the singer of a penguin-themed charity band), has been chugging slowly along the international festival scene since 2015, only recently coming stateside.
Earlier this week, I attended a screening of the doc in Chicago with Hay and director Nate Gowtham in attendance. After the credits, the duo took to the small stage for a Q&A session with a wine-drunk audience that twisted and turned before becoming an impromptu mini-concert.
NATE GOWTHAM: Thanks so much for coming out on a Monday night to see the film.
COLIN HAY: There’s not much else going on, is there?
Colin, what makes you happy? The early years or now?
CH: I’m happy to be still walking around. It’s all good, I guess.
That’s a terrible answer.
Each have their own modes of happiness. There’s nothing better than hitting a pinnacle, you know? But there’s all kinds of different pinnacles to hit. Like I played here, I play every night. That’s what you do, you look for those moments, don’t you? Playing on this stage, playing to people like yourselves who’ve come here to be entertained, you try to put out energy that becomes a current. And the best way to have that current come back is by making this connection, it’s like electricity. That’s what it’s all about, big or small.
[An audience member starts asking a question]
CH: Oh, sorry, was I looking at you? That eye’s a fucking wanderer. Pay no attention to the right eye. That eye’s ignored me my whole life.
Is there a song you’re particularly proud of from a musical craftsmanship standpoint?
CH: I like a few of the songs, yeah. I like “Overkill” for a few different reasons. When you first start writing you think to yourself “Am I any good at this?” and you keep on going. “Overkill” was the first song where I felt I was getting anywhere, so that’s a special song for me. I wrote “Looking for Jack” which I thought was a good song. Some interesting things in it. “Death Row Conversations” I like.
And uh, that’s about it. [laughs] You always like the last song you wrote. I got a new record coming out in March, but there’s lots of things and lots of records to constantly be inspired by.
Was there a particular song that you miss playing with Men At Work?
CH: The great thing about being in a band is that you have an immediate vehicle for songs. We had a great period for maybe two, three years, where we were connected and together and had a streak of writing songs. We had a great live following. The best tour we ever did was in Australia in 1981 before we became really successful. Like a lot of things, the period of ascension seems to be the most exciting part of anything ‐ when you’re about to do something.
Like you’re taking off on a plane ‐ once you’ve taken off you’re like “Eh, fuck, here we are I guess.” Taking off, now that’s the exciting part. ‘81 was the taking off part for my band.
I liked playing all sorts of songs with the band but…it was really boring as it fell apart. Six men together for six years. Men aren’t known for their communication skills, as most women can attest to, but men together when you’re in your twenties think things are important when they’re not. I think I always wanted to be on my own. It’s where I was most comfortable.
I was alone for fifteen years before the band, the band for a few years, and then everyone says “Oh fuck, you’re in a band are you?”
Then when it went bang and back I was alone, people asked “Don’t you miss playing with the band?”
I miss Greg [Ham, Men At Work flautist/saxophonist who died of a heart attack in 2012]. Greg and I used to get really stoned.
He had a bread van. A bread delivery van that he converted. We’d drive out into the country to a place called West Gippsland with beautiful rolling green hills and we’d take mushrooms. We’d get really stoned and ‐ fuck ‐ I miss those days. I always thought that maybe we’d do that once more. You know? As we got older, just get lost in the countryside. Doesn’t have to be a bread van, but a bread van would be good. See if we got frightened again from taking too much: “How are you feeling now?”
Lovely man, Gregory. What was the question?
Having gone through the peaks and valleys of life and a career, what advice do you have for us?
CH: Advice is tricky. You really just need to get on with it.
I wish I’d listened to advice when I was younger. Because people gave me advice and I took none of it. I thought I knew everything and I knew nothing. So now I know that if you give advice to someone they probably won’t listen. Sometimes you feel like it’s worth the effort, but usually people just have to find their own path. Just hack it out.
How did you get this film made?
NG: When I heard Colin’s music, the big thing was the difference between Men At Work and his solo music in the late ‘90s. It was clear he was an artist that was evolving and working on his craft. Take that with the story of massive success combined with the aftermath of finding his own path, that seemed like a story that wanted to be told.
We thought it’d be a great music doc. Funny, great music, we were surprised it hadn’t been done. And we were lucky it hadn’t. So we wrote up a treatment, scoured his website for any sort of contact info, cold-called his agent, and got together.
Colin, why did you decide to go along with this? Was it self-exploration, confession, a lesson to share?
CH: To be honest it was a friend of mine, an Australian man, who had wanted to do the same thing. We shot some stuff but we couldn’t figure it out. We had a similar idea but we had footage, that was all. When Nate came along, they had a treatment and struck me at a particular time when I thought it was an interesting story. I thought to myself “why is this interesting?” I’m just a guy that plays music. Nobody dies. There’s no, y’know, child abuse.
It’s just a guy and once he sold millions of records but now he doesn’t anymore. What’s gonna compel people about that? But the more I thought about it, it’s about being addicted to things that can kill you, like alcohol, and things that can save you, like creativity. Creativity won’t let you down if you pay attention to it.
When I was getting drunk for years with all my drunken friends ‐ who were lovely people, though a bunch of high-functioning alcoholics ‐ my guitar was in the corner gathering dust. When I picked it back up, it was still in tune. I wanted the film to reflect that journey.
Colin Hay: Waiting For My Real Life was released on VOD on January 30.