For the better part of two decades, Colin Hay was a man at work.
More precisely, he was the leader and principal songwriter of Men At Work, the 1980s video-favorite Australian pop-rock band that topped the charts with the songs “Down Under,” “Who Can It Be Now” and others.
But as he chats over the telephone recently, he’s a man at rest outside his Los Angeles home, watching “dappled sunlight through the gum tree in my yard.”
But don’t mistake that for being a man out of work.
These days, Hay’s employment profile is clearly on the upswing.
After years of relative inattention, his newer solo songs have found an audience through their use in the hip 2004 indie movie Garden State and on the NBC-TV show Scrubs, which used his tunes in at least six episodes, including the second season premiere and finale. He was even on one episode.
And last week, Hay released Are You Looking At Me? (Compass Records), an evocative and bittersweet collection of contemplations on life, love, maturity and perseverance that is his first album of new songs in more than five years.
“To be honest with you, it’s been growing steadily over the last decade, and that’s very meaningful for me because it’s real, you know?” says Hay, 53. “People are coming in response to what I’m doing now and not necessarily just in response to what I did 25 years ago.”
That’s more than wishful thinking on Hay’s part. For example, on the popular video Web site YouTube, a clip of him performing his “Beautiful World,” first released in 2000 but included on the 2003 Scrubs soundtrack, drew rave comments by viewers who apparently have no idea he was in Men At Work.
“I think that for a long time Men At Work was the plot of my story and the solo career was the subplot. Now it seems to be the other way around, where Men At Work is the subplot now, which is not something that I’m really that much in control of. It’s a factor of time going by. And also, what’s been very helpful for me is things like the Scrubs television show and Garden State. ... They really revitalized my solo career, which opened up a much younger audience for me.”
But Hay is realistic about the long shadow Men At Work casts on his career, and with good reason.
The band burst out of Australia in 1982 with its album Business As Usual and the hits “Who Can It Be Now,” “Down Under” and “Be Good Johnny.” The disc sold 10 million copies—the biggest debut album in 15 years—and topped the charts for a then-record 15 weeks.
Men At Work became the first Australians to win a Grammy Award (for Best New Artist) and still are the only Australian act to top both American and England charts (with “Down Under.”)
The band also benefited immeasurably from the dawn of MTV, which featured their silly videos in constant rotation and made Hay’s lazy eye an icon.
A second album, Cargo, in 1983 also hit No. 1 and had more hits—“Overkill,” “It’s a Mistake” and “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive.” But by 1985’s Two Hearts, half the band, and the listening public, had moved on. Hay eventually did, too.
He released five solo albums over a decade with limited success, then took a second shot at Men At Work.
He and keyboardist/saxophone player Greg Ham revived the group from 1996 to 2002, even releasing greatest-hits and live albums and playing to a TV audience of three billion at the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
But Hay says he tired of being an oldies act.
“When you play as Men At Work and you only have that material, the old material, to draw from, it becomes time-sensitive,” Hay says. “It’s a show about nostalgia. It’s a show about where they were at a particular time when a record was released, who they were with—were they with their friends, were they with their first girlfriend—whatever it is, they try to recapture a moment which is frozen in time for them.
“And that’s fine; I can appreciate that ... and it was exciting for a little while because Greg and I hadn’t worked together for 11 years. But after a few years we’d originally planned to do something new—thought maybe we’d do a new Men At Work album—but we never really did, we never wrote together during that time. ... So after a few years of doing it, to be honest, I just got a little bit bored.”
It was about that time that Hay’s songs started being used on Scrubs. Star Zach Braff had seen him perform at the hot Hollywood club Cafe Largo. Braff also tapped Hay’s music for Garden State, which he wrote and starred in.
The Garden State soundtrack went platinum and won a Grammy. Singer-songwriter John Mayer in Esquire magazine called Hay’s “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” his favorite song of the year.
Poised for a solo comeback, Hay self-produced an album, Company of Strangers, in 2002 and tried to find a label for it. But “I didn’t try very hard, I must say,” he says, laughing, and instead released it through his Web site.
“I was operating quite inefficiently, as I had been for a decade or so,” he says.
It was then his booking agent hooked him up with the Nashville-based Compass Records. But rather than put out Company of Strangers, the label sought to reintroduce Hay to the public with a solo acoustic retrospective of his Men At Work material.
“So we went down the really obvious road and called it Man At Work, ” he says. “It was like a calling card, really ... just to kind of let people know that I was still around.”
Then the label re-issued his 2000 disc Going Somewhere to capitalize on songs used on Scrubs and added “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” as a bonus track.
In 2003, he also joined Ringo Starr’s “All-Starr Band” tour, and suddenly it was five years between albums of new material, he says.
“I planned to have a brand new album made in 2005 but ... I didn’t really have the record ready that I wanted,” he says. By the time he finished Are You Looking At Me in late 2006, the label asked him to hold it for a spring release.
“So that’s why it’s taken really this long to get it out,” he says. “But I dare say it won’t be five years between this one and the next one.”
Hay says he still performs Men At Work hits “because, really, the most exciting things for me are playing the songs. ... they still speak to me and they still have a relevance. So I get to play them, and I play songs from all the solo albums and I play new songs.
“I’m completely in love with what Men At Work did and I loved being in that band and I love the songs and that whole period,” he says. “It’s not like I’m really trying to run away from it. It’s just that it must have its place, because you can’t just have an existence which is defined by a particular period in your life. Otherwise, I think you just go mad.”
Hay says his place these days is far from the mad days of Men At Work’s fame or the maddening chase to reclaim it.
“It’s a combination of actually having some gratitude for what you have, not what you once had or what you want to have in the future,” he says. “I think to myself, `Well, it’s unbelievable.’ I’m not coming home with limbs lost from a far-off country that we have no quarrel with. ... You know, and I have my health and all those cliches that your parents said when you were young that used to be annoying,” he says, laughing.
“On a more kind of an ego-driven level, of course, we all still want to have ambition and otherwise I wouldn’t bother doing what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s always nice to try and increase your audience. It’s just part of who we are. But I hit such a high mark early on in my career that I made up my mind that you can’t really try and top that. All you can really do is think, `Well, I did it. I’ve gone through that; it was incredible.’
“What’s important, what’s really important, is enjoying every day you have above the ground and trying to be as creative as you can. And in that is where I find the joy. It truly is. I have a studio. I go downstairs and play guitar and write songs and that’s what I do for a living. It’s fantastic. You know, I’ve got no complaints, really.”