By David DeRocco                   

Time has a way of softening the way we look back at different events, trends, and styles. Take the ‘80s, for example. While the ‘80s were a decade that gave us Reaganomics, the AIDS epidemic, and the rise of the Yuppie, it was also a decade that celebrated big hair, spandex, the arrival of the video music channel, and of course, New Wave Music.

The influence of ‘80s New Wave on current pop music and culture cannot be underestimated. That renewed appreciation for the decade has also opened the door for the return of many of the bands that defined the era’s music, with recent tours by Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Psychedelic Furs, The Smiths, and Canada’s own, Men Without Hats. Hailing from Montreal, Men Without Hats were a new wave synth pop band that achieved its greatest popularity in the ’80s with songs like “The Safety Dance” and “Pop Goes The World.”

Characterized by the baritone voice of lead singer Ivan Doroschuk, Men Without Hats was one of Canada’s most popular New Wave artists. The band got its name because Doroschuk and his brothers, following a self-described principle of "style before comfort", refused to wear hats during Montreal's cold winters, calling themselves "the men without hats". Although the band has had a revolving door of members and has endured long periods of inactivity, Men Without Hats has continued to tour and produce new music, including two recent studio albums, Men Without Hats Again (Parts 1 & 2), in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

Heading into Niagara Falls as part of an ‘80s tour featuring Flock of Seagulls and Honeymoon Suite, Doroschuk took time to chat with about 80s music, "The Safety Dance" as a protest song, and how a punk wound up covereing ABBA. 

GoBe: You’re on tour in the middle of a Canadian winter, rolling into Niagara Falls in the middle of February. Given the origin of the band’s name, I’m wondering – are you wearing hats yet? The cold is harder to take as we age Ivan.

IVAN: Yes, we’ll be wearing toques.

GoBe: Men Without Hats are synonymous with the 80s new wave/synth music. Why do you think that style of music has proved to be so enduring over the years and is enjoying such a resurgence in popularity?

IVAN: I think it’s because there were good songs. There were a long of melodies, a lot of sing-alongs. It’s a dance music also. That’s why disco is still around, it’s dance music. I think the 80s were happier times for a lot of people.

GoBe: That’s a definite fact considered the music that followed in the ‘90s.

IVAN: For sure. The ‘90s were kind of a downer. The 80s bring back good memories for people.

GoBe: It’s been over 40 years since Rhythm of Youth was released to unleash “The Safety Dance” on the world. What kind of expectations did you have at that debut releasing that debut album. What hopes did you have for those initial 10 tracks?

IVAN: You know, when you’re a young songwriter you think that everything you write is destined for greatness. I must admit, we weren’t fully prepared for what happened to us. I’m blessed that people are still listening to my music now. It’s great to play shows and have our original fans come to our shows and bring their kids, sometimes even their grandkids, to the concerts. It’s great that we’ve been able to cross the generations like that.

GoBe: I agree. I see the appreciation for the 80s in my own daughters who are exploring a lot of the music from that time. A lot of is really joyful.

IVAN: It’s also because a lot of the pop music of today, the contemporary pop music, is using a lot of the 80s sounds. Like the big drum sound is back, the robot voices, synthesizers, all those sounds that were sort of crafted in the 80s have made a resurgence into modern pop music. The loop is kind of closed.

GoBe: “Safety Dance” wasn’t originally a hit until it got remixed into a 12-inch dance single. Do you think people understood the song was actually written as a protest, message about nonconformity and resistance to lame clubs that wouldn’t allow slam dancing.

IVAN: The origin story for “Safety Dance” was that it was the dying days of disco and the DJs in the clubs would sometimes slip in a New Wave song, like Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” or B52s “Rock Lobster.” We’d get up and start pogoing, jumping up and down. Nobody had ever seen that before. They thought we were fighting bouncing off each other’s chest. Pogoing was kind of the precursor to slam dancing in the mosh pit, so we would get kicked out. So after a few times I went home and did something about it. I wrote this anthem to following your own drummer, following your own beat, and not following peer pressure. I think that speaks to a lot of people today when social media can exert a lot of peer pressure on people. I think it’s a message that people still want to hear.

GoBe: When you can get a message across while still having people smile and dance that’s a pretty good song.

IVAN: We did that with “Pop Goes the World” too. The same type of thing. It was about watching out for Mother Earth. We better take care of her or she’s going to blow up. That’s another message that still resonates with people today. The green movement is still a concern among people today. I think that’s one of the reasons people still listen to it.

GoBe: The official video for “Safety Dance” kind of drifts off into a pseudo medieval village scene full of dancing little people and children. Who presented that idea and what do you remember most about the filming of that chaos.

IVAN: That was shot over in England. Before we shot it, the video producer Tim Pope and I – it was before the internet – communicated by writing letters to each other. Our letters crossed the ocean at the same time and we realized we had both put the same scenario, same script together, a kind of Pied Piper thing that we wanted to do. We had great great fun making that video. All the extras were people from the little village we shot it in. The two days we shot there everybody got more into it. At the end it was huge village party. It was a lot of fun.

GoBe: I want to touch on your roots a little bit. Original punk music was a sort of response to bloated tired arena rock and the perceived pretentiousness of prog rock. It was almost anti-synth. So how did a punker decide to incorporate synthesizers and electronic processing into your music, eventually even recording an ABBA cover.

IVAN: My mother was a music teacher so I grew up by taking piano lessons. After being in a punk band for a couple months I realized going more pop and going more with the modern sound would reach more people. That’s what we decided to do. I’ve always said New Wave music is a combination of two ‘70s influences that I had which were prog rock and disco. That’s what New Wave was to me. It was kind of dance music with synthesizers, prog rock music that you could dance to. So, the ABBA cover came because I was a huge ABBA fan too. ABBA were great songwriters. I’ve always appreciated great songs. I come from the Beatles school of songwriting. They just wrote great songs.

GoBe: You’re definitely right. It’ was hard to dance to Emerson Lake and Palmer.

IVAN: Exactly.

GoBe: You’ve been productive in the COVID years, releasing Men without Hats Again Part 1 And 2. The first one had some unique covers, including The Hip, Lou Reed, Bowie, even the stones. What lead to that rather interesting track list?

IVAN: We just wanted to show people what our influences were. I’m a child of the ‘70s. That’s the music I grew up with, listening to Bowie and Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople and The Rolling Stones. That’s where I come from. We wanted to share that with our fans and tell them what our roots were.

GoBe: Getting back into the studio and recording Part 2, released in March 2022, recording over 20 songs. What kind of experience was that for you and the collective of musicians that joined you on the recordings?

IVAN: It was great. We made that record kind of an old school way. We went and rented a house in the middle of the forest on top of a hill and we just isolated ourselves for almost a whole year. We recorded it the old way they used to make records. We’d get up in the morning, we built a little studio inside the place and recorded from morning till night. We had a great time and it shows. When you have fun recording a record it kind of translates into the music.

GoBe: Here we are in 2024, you’re back on tour. What are you enjoying most at this stage of your career in Men Without Hats.

IVAN: Well, I used to think that touring was kind of a competition. Being in a band I used to liken it to being on a hockey team, travelling around the country, competing against other teams. That’s kind of what being in a young band used to be like. There’s only so many places to play, so many people to interview you, only so many places on the top 40 chart. It was kind of a competition going on. Now days it’s a lot more fun. Everyone who’s out on the road playing the ‘80s circuit is doing it because they love to do it. They’re not doing it for any other reason. There’s no competition anymore. It’s just a big bunch of friends out there playing together. What I enjoy most is seeing the smiles on peoples faces that bring them back to the ‘80s and bring back their memories. That to me is the greatest joy.

GoBe: So for this show with Flock of Seagulls/Honeymoon Suite, what is the configuration. Who’s on stage wit you.

IVAN: Right now I have my niece Sahara Sloan who’s playing keyboards. She’s filling in for her dad Colin who was in the band up until recently. There’s Sahara on keyboards, Sho Murray from the band ShoCore, Adrian White on drums. He’s played with a lot of bands. It’s a good group of people.


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