Men Without Hats’ Ivan Doroschuk is a polite, contemplative and soft-spoken Canadian, a multilingual former law student and a classically trained pianist.
He is also a punk at heart, possessing a defiant anti-authority streak that has informed both his music and a turbulent musical career that spans five decades.
Above all else however, at least in the eyes of music fans around the world, Doroschuk is the man who wrote and sang one of the most memorable, infectious and enduring pop songs in music history, “The Safety Dance.”
I caught up with him before Men Without Hats went into rehearsal for their 2017 tour; they will be one of six acts at the Retro Futura shows in New Brunswick, Aug. 9, and Atlantic City, Aug. 11. We discussed his musical beginnings, the various turns his career has taken, what fuels his songwriting, how fame affected him, and where the idea for his greatest hit — and the song’s iconic video — came from.
Q: Okay, let’s get one thing straight for everyone right at the top: You are not a one-hit wonder. “Pop Goes the World” was a Top 20 hit in seven countries, including America, and the good people at Tide laundry detergent have been keeping it alive for you as of late. You had a great quote about that …
A: “We’re the only one-hit wonder with two hits.”
Q: Yes [laughs].
A: A few years ago, Rolling Stone actually voted us the No. 1 two-hit wonder of all-time, and I thought that was wonderful. [both laugh]
Q: If you were an inventor, and you invented one thing that affected people’s lives worldwide … say, the refrigerator magnet … the public would say, “Oh look, there goes the successful guy that created the refrigerator magnet.” They wouldn’t say, “Look at that guy, he invented one tremendously successful thing that connected with people around the world, but he’s done nothing since.” Why do you think this is?
A: That’s a very interesting perspective. I never thought about it that way. I suppose that unlike inventors, we’re public figures, so our success is so visible, that we become a target in some ways.
Q: Is it hard to put yourself out there, where you can be judged like that, possibly in a harsh or ill-informed manner?
A: It’s something that I realized I would have to accept, right from the very beginning. When you’re in a band there really is no bad press. The only thing that counts is having your name in print. Outside of that, who cares what the reporters say, you know? Everybody hates the guy who writes for the newspaper anyway. [both laugh]
Q: That said, I’ve rarely heard “The Safety Dance” denigrated. People obviously have a lot of fun with it, and you license commercial interests to have fun with it, but I’ve never sensed a truly negative reaction to it, like the backlash some other massively successful pop songs receive.
A: I think the message is timeless: Do your own thing. You could be who you want to be. You can dance if you want to. It’s inclusive, and I believe it still resonates with people for that reason.
Q: The record still sounds great as well, which helps tremendously. Dance music in general is a more democratic medium than people give it credit for. From “Dancing Queen” to “Bust a Move,” people will love it for decades if it’s good.
A: Right, [legendary progressive rock guitarist] Robert Fripp said, “Dance is voting with your feet.”
Q: You certainly weren’t looking for any votes in the beginning — you were actually a punk band. A little bit of thrash too, no?
A: Yes, we started as a garage band at first, and there weren’t any keyboards in the band at all when we started. None of us had one. We were strictly a guitar, thrash, noise band playing Cramps and Contortions covers.
Q: So how do you go from a punk band that doesn’t own a synthesizer, to becoming one of the most important New Wave artists in history?
A: The two types of music were one and the same for me back then. As a punk band, we were getting booked on the same bills with New Wave bands. When you went to record shops, you’d find Depeche Mode and The Sex Pistols side by side. Even later on, I still considered us a punk band — an electronic punk band with a hit single.
Q: I caught two of your shows recently, and saw them on the heels of seeing Iggy Pop as well. I left your shows thinking, “Ivan and Iggy are distant cousins.”
A: [Iggy’s band] The Stooges were certainly an influence. I remember buying [the legendary Stooges album] Raw Power as a teenager while on a cross-country trip through America with my family. My brothers and I would buy albums and have to wait until we got to the home of the next relative we were visiting in order to hear it on their turntable. [laughs]
Q: Your performances surprised me with their energy, and for lack of a better word, aggression. In the studio and onstage, your persona barely resembles the person I have spoken with. How would you describe that dichotomy? Alter ego?
A: It’s an alter ego, and it’s a performance, and it’s my job, all wrapped up into one. I use the stage to get my point across, I suppose. There’s a parallel between the two, because our music is very friendly, and our message sometimes isn’t.
Q: Definitely. I noticed that your lyrics often possess a duality that allows you to tackle serious matters, while the music takes the edge off the message. It’s a craft, and you’re really good at it.
A: That’s one of the things that made me make the switch from a punk band to a pop/electronic outfit. Pop music used to be one of the biggest platforms in the world for getting your point across. I realized that my message would have a much better chance of being heard if it was wrapped up in music that was friendlier to the ear.
Q: That may have been the idea, but easier said than done for most punk bands. Pop is generally more complex than punk, and in your day, it required more sophisticated musicianship.
A: I already had the preparation, as I had been a classically trained pianist for 15 years. I practiced piano an hour and a half a day for a decade, never knowing what any of that might lead to. When we made the switch I finally had my answer, and it all came together sort of effortlessly.
Q: You didn’t leave rock completely behind however, because I recently saw the Montreal date of your Freeway Tour on YouTube. This was 1985, three years after “The Safety Dance,” and you guys were an all out, muscular rock band. It was as if New Order or Depeche Mode hooked up with U2 and had a baby.
A: Well, that’s kind of what we were going for. I call it my Guns N’ Roses phase. [both laugh] We were definitely taking a turn towards rock in that period, and that particular show seems to have become immortalized on the internet. By the time we went into the studio to record our next album [Pop Goes the World], we were back in the saddle, so to speak, as far as electronics go.
Q: Was your decision to rock a business choice or an artistic one?
A: It was an artistic one. The technology for electronic music wasn’t as advanced as it is now, especially from the programming side of it. I wanted to expand a bit, but was feeling limited by electronic equipment at the time. When technology caught up to me, I was able to do our next album in a full electronic format.
Q: A while ago, someone went back and counted the number of times Sammy Hagar used the word “love” in a title or lyric of a Van Halen song. I can’t remember what the number was, but it was considerable. You use the word “dance” frequently in your catalog, and seem to lend it great importance. Am I reaching too far, or is dance something that was very important to you?
A: No, it definitely was. I was a child of the ’70s, and the disco movement was very important to me. I started hanging out in gay discos when I was about 16, purely for the music. I was very into the scene. There was an upheaval going on in culture, not just music, and it included movies, dress, art, etc. Everything was being turned on its head. It was an exciting time.
Q: You just described a cultural wave, and cultural waves are usually powered in part by music. Do you think music enjoys the same importance in society as it did when you started?
A: I think many aspects of the music scene are over. The recording arts is a thing of the past, and are going the way of the video store. Kids have so many choices now.
Q: Which originally sounded like it would be a good thing.
A: I’m glad to have lived in the golden age of recording, when I was able to work in the same studio as Bowie, Lennon and The Rolling Stones. I’m also thankful that throughout my time there I enjoyed the company of people who had been there during that period, with those artists, and shared stories about them with me. They also taught me how to do certain things in the studio. All of that is lost now, because everybody with a computer in their living room thinks they can do the same thing. Being a rock star now is much more of a business choice. Back then it was an exciting natural progression. Now it’s more like, “Do I go on tour this summer, or keep my job at McDonald’s?”
A: It’s taken the magic and the mystery out of the whole thing. And when I do listen to the radio, I feel like I hear the same song all day — everyone is using the same Auto-Tune, the same machines, the same writers, the same falsettos.
Q: Your catalog, on the other hand, was fairly unique for its day. Digging through it, I found several songs that possibly could have been successful singles. Are there any songs on those albums that you felt received short shrift from the record company or the public?
A: “I Got the Message” stands out, because it was our very first single. We put it out in Canada and nothing really happened, but we were convinced that it had all the makings of a hit record. Then, after “Safety Dance” was such a hit in the states, and the record company was contemplating what our second single in America should be, I thought “Message” was the obvious choice, and said so.
Q: But they didn’t get the message.
A: [laughs] No, they didn’t. For some reason, they didn’t want America to see us as just a pop band — they wanted to show that we had a harder edge to us. So, they made the first of many bad mistakes they would make when it comes to my career, and released “I Like” instead. It didn’t go over. It was too angry a song, had a video that was too aggressive, and was nothing like “Safety Dance.” Audiences didn’t understand it.
Q: At the time, your sound was not tested and tried and true in music history, like the blues or folk or rock. You were New Wave, and you were eclectic. So when you haven’t had a hit yet, and you release a song that the public as a whole doesn’t take to, do you fear that people may never buy into what you are doing?
A: No, I remained confident. Even though it wasn’t a big hit, it snuck onto the Top 50 charts in Canada, and that led our record company to give us money to make a second record. That was great. We were ecstatic. We thought we were making it, you know?
Q: You eventually did make it for real, after the release of your 1982 album Rhythm of Youth, and your face was suddenly on televisions all over the world. What was the biggest adjustment you had to make to your everyday life?
A: I had come to the realization that I was going to be recognized, but the high visibility from MTV still greatly impacted my life. That was something many recording artists hadn’t experienced so completely before — the effect of having everyone, everywhere, know what you look like.
Q: You also became of a bit of a sex symbol, right?
A: [reluctantly and humbly] Yeah, sure.
Q: Did you wear it well, or were you uncomfortable with it?
A: It was certainly flattering to your ego and all of that. It was good. It’s why guys like me do this — there’s a part of my personality that needs that kind of thing. Part of me is a musician that has to get my music out, and there’s yet another part of me that enjoys — that has to enjoy — the celebrity.
Q: It surprises me to hear you say that, because you were famously reluctant to engage in any of that when you first became big.
A: I had to come to terms with it, and it was very difficult. I was a punk rocker who was against doing anything at all that had to do with selling music, period. I didn’t even want my picture taken. After the “Safety Dance” era, I made a decision to change everything — the members of the band, labels, management, etc. Then I decided that I was going to change, by selling myself in promotion of Pop Goes the World.
Q: I saw an appearance you made on a Canadian music channel from that period, where the host, who clearly had known you for a while, seemed amazed that you were engaging her so openly. She said, “Ivan, what happened to you?”
A: [laughs] Everyone was saying that at the time. “On the last album you didn’t want to talk to us, Ivan, now you’re begging to talk to us!”
Q: Pop Goes the World was your return to form, so to speak, after the rock phase. In the ensuing years you released some interesting work, including a solo album, and took considerable time off to be a stay-at-home father. It was your most recent return that made the big waves, however, as you wrote and recorded an album [2012’s Love in the Age of War] that sounds like it came from a vault that had been sealed since the early ’80s. Your fans consider it a minor miracle. How did you do this?
A: I found a producer [Dave Ogilvie] who I really connected with, and I told him that I wanted to use the same keyboards and all the same instruments that we used back then. I didn’t want to have any Auto-Tune, and I didn’t want it to sound like dubstep either. My goal was to record an album that sounded like it came out a week after “Safety Dance.” I wanted to make a vintage Men Without Hats record.
Q: Mission accomplished.
A: It’s what I should have done all along. I used Men Without Hats to explore too much over the years. I should have kept Hats what it was, and used a side project to try everything else — including the Guns N’ Roses phase we were talking about. It took me a little too long to realize, but Love in the Age of War was the type of album I should have done much earlier.
Q: Was it hard to get back into the classic Men Without Hats mindset after all that time?
A: It honestly wasn’t. It’s funny, because I don’t write all year like some people do. I generally just hang out until inspiration arrives, and then I’ll write 12 songs in a day. I wrote much of that album on the back of a tour bus, while we were on the road with the Human League. I hadn’t been immersed in the world of bands and touring and electronic music for 23 years, and then to be exposed to all of that again? The record came to me all at once.
Q: Love in the Age of War made listeners think about the early ’80s again, and now I’m going to ask you to do the same. How did Men Without Hats get their name?
A: My brother and I refused to wear a hat during the freezing winters in Montreal. We basically believed that style came before comfort, so we never wore them. We proudly called ourselves the men without hats.
Q: What is the Safety Dance?
A: I wrote it during the early days of punk/new wave, when the popular dance form was The Pogo — jumping straight up and down. It was a precursor to slam dancing. When we used to go to dance clubs, it was the late ’70s and they were still playing disco music, but every now and then, they would slip in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” or The B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” and we would rush the dance floor and start jumping up and down like crazy, bouncing off of each other, like slam dancing, or a mosh pit. They kept kicking us out for it, so the song is a protest of that, and a call for freedom of expression.
Q: What does “Take a look at your hands” mean?
A: That was a reference to vogueing. We would see it in the discos in the mid- to late-’70s, and that’s what the dancers were doing. Posing, looking at their hands.
Q: What’s the story behind the [extended] version of “The Safety Dance,” when you spell out the letters “S-A-F-E-T-Y …”?
A: At one point, the record company told us that we needed two things. One was a video, and we said, “What was that?” [both laugh] Another was an extended mix, but we knew what that was. I went into the studio and just created it on the spot. By talking and spelling it out, I was trying to emulate Grandmaster Flash.
A: No joke. And I still remember playing Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and a Jersey Shore girl coming up to me, saying, “I almost didn’t come to see you guys because I thought you were black.” That was kind of heavy to hear all those years ago, but now I take it as a compliment. I was definitely channeling Grandmaster Flash.
Q: And how about the cool synthesizer intro that only appears on the [extended version]? I remember the World Wrestling Federation using it over action highlights as they went to commercial. It sounds like a buildup to something.
A: I wrote that on the spot as well. There was a song being played on Quebec radio at the time that sounded like an alarm going off. You’re right, that’s what I was going for. You know, ” ‘The Safety Dance’ is coming!”
Q: It definitely was, because radio played that extended version every hour, unless they were pressed for time. Then, they would admit defeat and play the regular version. [both laugh]
A: It actually went to No. 1 on the Billboard dance charts, without us having a record deal in America. We were in the studio in Montreal and suddenly had to drop what we were doing, sign an American deal, and get out there right away [to promote the song].
Q: The video was a big part of the song’s success, to say the least. It is undoubtedly one of the most memorable from MTV’s classic period, and one of the most unique as well. Most videos in the ’80s attempted to make the artists look cool, or sexy, or tough. Being dressed like a court jester, in a medieval setting, while dancing with a midget, didn’t seem to check any of those boxes.
Q: Considering that your career could have gone either way at this point, I see that video as a pretty brave artistic choice.
A: I didn’t really consider it brave. To be honest, I didn’t really consider it too much at all. Just as I didn’t take into account that I had long hair in a genre where no one else did. It never occurred to me. People were expecting to see us with spiked hair and zippers and the like, and I came out looking like Peter Pan.
Q: [laughs] How did you come up with the idea for the video?
A: The director and I conceived of the idea at a time when the internet didn’t exist, and long distance calls were cost prohibitive. Instead, we were told to submit our ideas in writing as to what the video should be, and send them to each other in a letter. Our letters crossed the ocean simultaneously, we received them at at about the same time, and immediately discovered that we had both come up with the same idea. The pied piper concept.
Q: That’s incredible, considering the fairly obscure premise.
A: It was. When we finally met, we got along great, as you could imagine. He later married my first wife’s best friend, and went on to direct all of our videos.
Q: Between that video and your pronunciation of “dance,” I had the impression that you were a European band. I think most of America did too.
A: I was born in America and lived in Canada, but I did all of my schooling in France. That lent a unique flavor to some of the things we did as a band. We recorded some songs completely in French, threw French words into others, and our learned fans knew that we were living in a French culture in Montreal. I consider myself at least half French, and sent my son to a French school here in Canada so that we could fully communicate, and he could get to know me as a person, completely.
Q: You are a man who is from “everywhere,” and have been in increasingly high demand “everywhere,” touring the world again with Men Without Hats. Was it difficult to come back to something you hadn’t done in so long?
A: It wasn’t at all. It was like riding a bicycle. When I was side stage, about to go on for the first time in 30 years, I wasn’t feeling nervous. I just felt like, “This is it. This is what I do.” I remember way back to my beginnings, opening for XTC in Montreal and looking out at about 1,000 people in the crowd, calmly saying to myself, “Yeah, I could do this.” I’ve always been really comfortable with live performance.
Q: You mentioned your learned fans. I’ve met some of them in a group setting, and whatever they call themselves, “Army” needs to be on the end of it. [both laugh] They’re a very informed and passionate fan base, and their love for Men Without Hats, aka Ivan Doroschuk, cannot be measured.
A: Our fans are definitely very intense. A lot of them know the entire catalogue, and rue the fact that many people are only aware of “The Safety Dance.” The extreme level of happiness that people are showing me is what’s surprising me. I never realized, until now, how many people’s bucket lists I’m on. It’s very meaningful.
Men Without Hats is performing on the Retro Futura Tour, also featuring Howard Jones, The English Beat, Modern English, Paul Young and Katrina (of Katrina and the Waves). There will be shows at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Aug. 9 at 7 p.m.; and the Event Center at Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, Aug. 11 at 8 p.m.
This article originally appeared on Robert Ferraro’s web site, Of Personal Interest.
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