Ahead of the game

Ahead of the game

Former Men at Work singer Colin Hay rocks Luckman for Levitt Pavilion benefit Saturday

By Carl Kozlowski 10/23/2013

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As the lead singer and songwriter of the hugely popular 1980s band Men at Work, Colin Hay made the world groove to his band’s tunes while making them laugh with his archly humorous lyrics and music videos. But in the past 28 years since the band broke up after two smash hit albums in 1985, he has developed a distinctly different musical career as an introspective singer-songwriter who has drawn acclaim for his thoughtful songs about distinctly personal matters. 

In fact, his 11th and most recent solo CD, “Gathering Mercury,” was largely inspired by the death of his beloved father, a piano tuner who raised Hay in a home filled with music. But Hay still hasn’t lost his ability to entertain a crowd, as attested to by the fact he’s wrapping up two years of touring the US with a show this Saturday at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State Los Angeles to benefit Pasadena’s hub of free summer music, the Levitt Pavilion.

“Pasadena has been in our consciousness in the ’60s, since a couple family friends were in Pasadena and I always heard the Beach Boys on the radio with ‘Little Old Lady from Pasadena,’” recalls Hay. “Plus, my wife [singer Cecilia Noel] has performed at the Levitt and loved it.” 

Hay was born in Scotland but moved with his family to Australia when he was 14. The family was in search of “more opportunity, plus some sun and surf,” he says. Hay grew up listening to both British and Scottish rock and pop performers, as well as an Australian rock scene that was booming at the time, and taught himself how to play guitar.

The Melbourne musical community that his family had moved near was packed with great venues and talented musicians, giving Hay plenty of performers to choose from when he decided to try being a professional musician. Teaming with guitarist Ron Strykert,  drummer Jerry Speiser, bass player John Rees and saxophonist and flautist Greg Ham , the band Men at Work was launched in 1979 and within two years unleashed its debut album “Business as Usual” upon the world. 

The results, driven by  No. 1 hits “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under,” were spectacular: “Business” sold 10 million copies worldwide, and its follow-up “Cargo” sold another five million before creative rifts led to a flop third album and breakup in 1985.  Looking back, Hay says that despite the group’s savvy use of humor in its videos, its music had a lot more depth than they were given credit for. 

“I think that’s a common misperception, that Men at Work wasn’t that serious,” says Hay. “I think a lot of times when you have some sort of personality as the band did, we’d shroud it in humor but there’s a lot more there. I don’t know if I’ve changed all that much as I write. Maybe as you get older, you get more confident and secure, trying out different things in songwriting. I reject the idea that my solo work is more serious than Men at Work. It’s placed in a more solitary light and is a little starker you know.”

It appears that Hay’s humble childhood roots have served him well throughout his life. While he and his wife don’t have kids of their own, he looks back fondly on the strength he drew from having a tight-knit family in his youth. 

That closeness meant that Hay took his father’s death a few years ago very hard. But ultimately, he honored his legacy by writing some powerful songs about his loss. 

“It was a very heavy time, because I’d never had any real tragedy in my life before,” says Hay. “It was my first head-on collision with mortality. My family was like a gang because we could bicker and fight between ourselves, but if anyone else bothered from outside we would circle the wagons. It was a very tight group of people, so to lose someone so important was a real loss. 

“I wasn’t trying to write a song about it but that was the obvious thing, I couldn’t get away from it,” he says. “I was downstairs in the studio and he was with me all the time. I could think about his life and the decisions he made. It was pretty powerful.” 

But just as it would be wrong to think that Men at Work was just a funny band, it’s just as inaccurate to think that Hay is a morose musician. Before signing off on the phone, he shared a life philosophy that, while profane, is downright joyful. 

“I’ve been on my own since 1985, nearly 30 years, trying to figure out how to make a living from music,” says Hay. “I don’t have a boss, don’t have to show up at a certain time to listen to a guy fuck off about shit I don’t want to hear. I get up in the morning and do whatever the fuck I want whenever I want to do it, so I’m ahead of the game as far as I’m concerned.”

Colin Hay performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State Los Angeles, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles. Tickets are $39 to $49. Call (323)343-6600 or visit luckmanarts.org/events

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