BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
Even though Men at Work are only heard on ‘80s channels and Flashback Fridays, the voice of singer Colin Hay remains one of the most distinctive in pop-rock.
Hay has, mostly quietly, engaged in a solid solo career that brought glimpses of mainstream recognition – appearances on “Scrubs” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” a contribution to the hip 2004 “Garden State” soundtrack.”
In February 2015, Hay released his 12th solo album, “Next Year People,” and he’ll bring those new songs to a solo acoustic show at Variety Playhouse Feb. 5 as part of a five-month tour that currently finds him tooling around the U.S. in a Mercedes Sprinter van.
In a thoughtful, soft-spoken tone, Hay, 62, recently chatted from a tour stop in Dallas about the new album, his relationship with those Men at Work classics and why he’s appreciative of Jimmy Fallon.
Q: Last summer you toured in bigger venues with Barenaked Ladies and Violent Femmes, but you’re back to playing intimate rooms this time. Do you have a preference?
A: (Laugh) No, I like my crowds anywhere. The Barenaked Ladies, Violent Femmes thing was really good. It was something unusual for me as I haven’t done that (type of) show for a long time. Playing those bigger places opened new audiences in a way, but I’ve more or less been playing intimate places for 20 years, like the Variety (Playhouse). I’ve been playing there a number of years. It’s a nice size room, it’s a lovely place. It’s kind of the perfect size for a solo acoustic show.
Q: I noticed that your website carries a warning that your shows contain content that might not be suitable for children. People might be surprised to hear that about a Colin Hay show.
A: I mean, I do swear (onstage) and some people bring young kids. I can understand if people want to bring their kids because they like the music and sometimes that’s a tough thing. A lot of times parents tell me their 9-year-old is crying at home because they can’t come to the show, but at the same time if a bunch of people bring kids who are 7 or 8, I have to monitor the show for that as opposed to what I normally do — there would be certain things you wouldn’t or can’t say. People still bring their kids, but not a lot. I don t encourage it. Sometimes people will bring kids who are 4 or 5 and sit up front and it’s like, why are you doing this? But they have a right to bring them, of course.
Q: You do play a couple of Men at Work songs in our set. Do you still enjoy playing them or do you do it mostly to appease the old fans?
A: (Pauses) I’m not sure about the answer. It’s not like I want to appease old fans because there was a period I didn’t play any of those old songs, when it was closer to the band breaking up. I think it’s really that I have a relationship with these songs. They’re big songs, and they’re important songs to me in my life. In a way, you’re making more of a statement if you leave them out. It’s part of my fabric in a way, it’s part of who I am. I still play ‘Overkill’ and ‘Who Can It Be Now’ and ‘Down Under’ and I like playing them because they’ve been very good to me, and I have a pretty good relationship with them. In some kind of way, you have to let a song be reborn every time. I find that when I do that it’s always a pretty joyous experience. At the end of the day, it’s about trying to create that joy.
Q: I caught your appearance on Jimmy Fallon with The Roots. Did playing with them give you an additional spark?
A: I haven t done those late night shows in quite a while. Basically, people haven’t had me on because I don t have the profile. I’m doing my thing, I don t have the big label anymore. Why would they have him on? But Jimmy has always been a fan of what I’ve done. They said they wanted to have me on, and of course they wanted (me to play) something familiar to people, so I did the new song for the (“Tonight Show”) website. The Roots came out and Questlove loves my material and the old band. It was really fun to play with that band — they’re so good.
Q: Your voice sounded really strong and you were still able to hit those high notes. Do you do anything in particular to take care of it?
A: I do exercises I’ve picked up over the years, and try to get as much sleep as I can.
Q: Do you think there are a lot of people out there who might not realize you’ve put out 12 solo albums and are an incredibly accomplished songwriter because of being synonymous with the MTV era?
A: There’s only a few people who know I’m still around at all. Most people don t care about music that much. There’s so much out there and it’s very difficult to get noticed because of hundreds of thousands of people who do what I do. I get to do what I do and people come along, but It’s been building for the last couple of decades and It’s still building and that’s quite a rare thing these days. I just carry on and forge my little path.
Q: What is the meaning of the title of your latest album, “Next Year People”?
A: It could mean many things. At the time I was watching a Ken Burns documentary and I wrote down the phrase next year people …That’s who they were, those people, through all adversity they believed in next year that everything was going to be fine. I related to that, not in as bleak a way, but I would notice myself that when I would be touring and playing to nobody I was playing for 15 years on the road without any kind of record label- — t did feel like walking in the wilderness for quite a number of years. But I always felt that the next year would be better.
Q: This is your 12th album, so what do you still want to accomplish musically?
A: You’re always trying to perhaps say more with less. I have all these ideas. These songs just sort of pop out and it’s exciting to work on music. I’m not trying to force them to happen. It’s not so much accomplishing things. I was watching (novelist) Lauren Groff on Charlie Rose’s show the other night and she said, it’s the doing of the thing – and that’s the truth of it.
Q: Your documentary recently debuted in Melbourne. How did you feel about having your life story out there?
A: It’s a good thing in a sense. The story is an obvious one, and it’s something I’d been thinking about. There is a story there. The big success and then the walking around in obscurity and then getting some kind of relative foothold. I think that’s what happens to a lot of people and in a way, it’s a common tale. It tells a good story, it’s my story.
Q: Do you think we’ll ever see it over here?
A: They’re trying to get it distributed in the U.S. and festivals, but it’s hard. I’m used to rejection. I just learned to go straight to the fans in a way, to make myself available for people to come see me play.
With Heather Maloney. 8 p.m. Feb. 5. Sold out. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.