LARGO – He comes from a land down under – sort of. Colin Hay, former lead vocalist of the Australian band Men At Work, performs Tuesday, Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m., at Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive.
Sure, Hay is probably best known as the lead singer for Men At Work, the platinum selling Australian band that topped worldwide charts in the 1980s with anthems like “Down Under,” “Overkill” and “Who Can It Be Now?” It was Men At Work that introduced Americans to the Aussie food paste and sandwich spread Vegemite. The group won a Grammy in 1983 for Best New Artist, beating out Asia, Jennifer Holliday, The Human League and Stray Cats.
After three studio albums, Men At Work broke up in 1986.
By that time, Hay was already hard at work on his first solo project, “Looking for Jack.”
“I made a solo rock album for Columbia called ‘Looking for Jack’ in 1987,” Hay said in his biography provided by Compass Records Group. “When it wasn't commercially successful, I got the feeling that Columbia didn't know what to do with me, so I took up an offer from MCA Records, and Columbia let me go.”
Hay went back to his original musical inspirations for “Wayfaring Sons,” an album with Celtic folk influences for the MCA record. They dropped him soon after.
“I’d moved to the States in ’89, and soon realized I’d have to work harder for more modest returns,” Hay said. “I started my own label, Lazy Eye Records, and set about building a new audience, through writing, recording and touring. It's been hand-to-hand combat ever since, but nourishing work at the same time."
Hay’s musical background
Though most people immediately think of Hay as Australian, he was actually born in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, Scotland.
“I wasn’t in bands as a boy, but I was surrounded by music,” Hay said. “My mom and dad had a music shop, so there were instruments everywhere. The Hit Parade list came in every Monday morning, so obviously I knew The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Screaming Lord Sutch, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie And The Dreamers and, of course, Cliff Richard. I started playing guitar when I was 12.”
Hay taught himself to play guitar.
In the late 1960s, he immigrated to Australia with his parents. At 14 years old, he found himself in the middle of a thriving musical community in Melbourne.
“The late ’60s and early ’70s were remarkable, a golden age for Australian rock music,” Hay said. “There were lots of places to play, fantastic bands and lots of great musicians. A lot of them never saw the light of day, but there was uniqueness and brilliance.”
One of those musicians was guitarist Ron Strykert.
Hay was impressed by his musicality and technique. The two started playing as an acoustic duo and Hay began writing songs.
“We liked all kinds of musicians and writers, like Ry Cooder, John Martyn, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and the Beatles obviously, the reggae of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff to name a few,” Hay said. “I'd always wanted to be in a great rock band. So, in the middle of 1979, we were joined by drummer Jerry Speiser, whom I met at university, and sax and flautist Greg Ham, whom I'd known since schooldays.”
That combination of musicians – along with bass player John Rees – became Men At Work.
Men At Work released three studio albums, including “Business as Usual” (1981), “Cargo” (1983) and “Two Hearts” (1985). The band broke up in 1986, but Hay reunited with Ham in 1996 to tour South America. Boasting a new lineup, Hay and Ham continued touring under the Men At Work moniker through 2000. The band even performed “Down Under” at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Men At Work performed infrequently after 2000, with one of the last reunions of Hay and Ham taking place in 2009 when they performed “Down Under” at the Australia Unites Victorian Bushfire Appeal Telethon.
Sadly, Ham passed away in 2012.
Recently, Hay celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Men at Work hit “Down Under” from chart-topping “Business As Usual” by releasing “Down Under 2012,” a re-recorded version of the No. 1 single. Marketing executives at Telstra, an Australian network provider, chose to use the new version of “Down Under” as the theme for their Olympic games advertising campaign in London.
Hay is obviously proud of his place in pop history, but since moving to Los Angeles in 1989, he’s recorded 11 solo albums and is confident that his most recent release, “Gathering Mercury,” is the best of the lot.
In 2011, Colin Hay released his critically acclaimed album “Gathering Mercury” on 18-gram vinyl, followed by multiple performances at the hugely popular Bonnaroo Music Festival.
Hay recorded and produced the ten songs on “Gathering Mercury” in his home studio in the hills of Topanga Canyon, with the help of drummer Randy Cooke, bassist Joe Karnes and guitarist Sean Woostenhulme, from his touring band; and friends like bass player Jimmy Earl and pianist Jeff Babko from Jimmy Kimmel’s band, drummer Charlie Paxson, Cuban percussionist Luis Conte and his wife Cecilia Noel on backing vocals. The arrangements feature Hay’s quizzical, instantly recognizable tenor supported by acoustic instruments and melodic electric guitar accents. The album was beautifully mixed by long time friend and composer/producer Chad Fischer.
“These are some of the strongest songs I’ve ever written,” Hay said. “The loss of my father last year brought an unavoidable emotional contingent to writing and recording. I don’t have a definitive belief in an afterlife, but I do feel like I had his help when I was working on this album, especially alone late at night, in the studio."
“Send Somebody,” the album’s first single, was co-written with guitarist/songwriter Michael Georgiades, who provides not only the main chord structure, but the understated solo that sets up the song’s touching bridge. The hypnotic pop melody is augmented by Chad Fisher’s work on piano, xylophone and drums. The tune was inspired by a late night phone conversation.
“You call tech support one night around midnight and actually get a human being on the line,” Hay said. “The unexpected connection with a stranger is often easier to make than one with people you know. It brings up the longing for connection we all feel.”
“Dear Father” is a poignant Celtic folk-like tune with Hay’s 12-string guitar and melancholy vocal taking center stage. Cellist Oliver Kraus overdubbed the burnished string section.
“This song was written and recorded almost instantaneously, a gift from beyond, if you will,” Hay said. “The night my father died, I was in Glasgow on the river Clyde, about 20 streets away from where he was born. There’s some kind of bleak poetry in that, very bleak.”
Other “Gathering Mercury” standouts include Michael Georgiades’ “Half a Million Angels,” with sublime performances by all; the darkly humorous “A Simple Song,” which deals with the complexities of long term relationships with Hay on mandola and the buoyant vaudeville tune “Where the Sky Is Blue,” a song Hay imagined his father singing to his mother before they married.
Despite the often-serious subject matter of songs featured on “Gathering Mercury,” they’re full of optimism.
“It’s not a conscious thing and may have to do with the Scottish mentality,” Hay said. “We deal with darkness by shining a light on it. It doesn’t diminish the charge of the feeling, it just makes it easier to deal with.”
Tampa Bay area fans will have an opportunity to hear some of the deeply affecting tunes Hay recorded for “Gathering Mercury” played live on Sept. 24 at Largo Cultural Center.
Hay is equally at home in the studio or on stage, playing with either his band or solo acoustic.
“I started off playing acoustic; it’s my natural game, if you will,” he said. “It’s the point I started from and may well be the point I end with. It’s always what I return to.”