It’s difficult to talk about great Montreal ’80s bands without bringing Men Without Hats into the picture. With their singles “The Safety Dance” and “Pop Goes The World,” they achieved international success, even topping the Billboard Dance Chart. They are the kind of band that undeniably has that ability to get their songs hopelessly stuck in your head, no matter who you are or where you’re from. I got hold on frontman Ivan Doroschuk to discuss just how he can create such sticky songs, as well as the band’s past and future.
KL (Kyle Lapointe): Your band’s name is a reference to how you used to be fearless braving Montreal winters when you used to live here. Living on Vancouver Island now, do you find when you come back to Montreal you like to wear a hat?
ID (Ivan Doroschuk): (Laughs) The weather was one of the main reasons I moved out here. I got tired of being forced to wear a hat in Montreal. My brother Colin moved out here first, then my parents, then me. We’re all Victori-ites, or whatever you call us.
KL: What was it like having your mother as a teacher at McGill University?
ID: It was great. My mother taught there for twenty-five years. She wasn’t my teacher while I was there, though. But after I left, she started becoming my vocal coach. She was actually the one who encouraged me to go into the film and communications program there. The music faculty was giving electronic music courses with a lot of really cool teachers. The director of the program had worked with guys like Brian Eno and had a good c.v.
KL: What was it like studying at McGill back in the day?
ID: McGill was cool; it was basically where I met all the musicians who I formed Men Without Hats with. I was studying law at the University of Nice in France and decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I came back and enrolled in the brand new film program; it was the first year it was starting at McGill. VHS machines were just starting to come out.
It was late ‘70s and everyone was starting a punk band and that’s what we did. The first incarnation of the Hats was all guitars with no synths; it was a bona fide punk band. We were doing Cramps and Contortions covers.
KL: How did you guys go from punk rock to synth-based music? Did you look to other styles like progressive rock as a bridge for you?
ID: You hit the nail on the head. I was a teenager in the early ‘70s and grew up with bands like Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Yes. Then towards the end of the ‘70s disco came. I’ve always said, for me, Men Without Hats was progressive rock keyboards with a beat from disco. I was ready to do it; I had taken piano lessons all my life. I practiced and practiced and finally realized what it was all for. There wasn’t any real commercial viability to the punk thing and I decided I wanted to make a band that wrote hits.
KL: Do you think you would have necessarily found music in the same way without a musical background with your family?
ID: It’s interesting; I wouldn’t have been able to have a synth band if I hadn’t taken piano lessons. I was really surrounded by music. My dad was an amateur musician and his father was too. They had a country-western band in Northern Manitoba. When travelers would come by in those days, going town to town, they’d pick up whatever band they could find. My dad had backed up legends like Hank Snow and Hank Williams when he was a teenager, playing in his dad’s band. He had that and my mom had her classical thing. I was completely surrounded by music all the time. My parents were super encouraging too. That’s the hardest thing; deciding to become a musician and your parents telling you to get a real job. My parents were the opposite. They came to our first show.
KL: You mentioned a goal for you being writing hits. How do you approach having a successful band when what’s popular changes so quickly with time and styles come in and out?
ID: Well, I had some great teachers. I learned how to write a song from The Beatles.
KL: Those are some pretty good teachers.
ID: Oh yes they were. I was born in ’57 so the Beatles movement really impacted me. I remember walking down Saint Catherine street and seeing lines of screaming girls standing, waiting to get into the movie “Help!” or “A Hard Day’s Night.” I feel very lucky because was born at a time where I got to witness firsthand pretty much every new major musical style that got invented, you know? When I was young Elvis was big. I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan when they first came to America. I saw the creation of heavy metal, disco, punk, new wave, grunge. For someone into music, it was probably the best time to be born.
KL: Did you see your band as being part of an important movement?
ID: Oh yeah, we felt we were part of something big. We were filled with this drive that was almost self-righteous. We were on a mission. It was almost like the Blues Brothers, you know? We were the resistance, we were the underground.
This is how cross-boundaries the punk movement was — The first Men Without Hats poster was a picture with two dead babies in a coffin. We printed about a thousand in black and white and just plastered them through the whole McGill student ghetto area. We wanted to be subversive; we put out a fanzine too, called Surfin’ Bird. There were groups of people in every city starting punk bands, starting fanzines, opening boutiques with weird clothes, and opening record stores with weird records.
KL: Do you think the Internet defangs the potential of a widespread multi-media movement forming today in such a cultural explosion?
ID: Yeah, the Internet sucked the mystery right out of it. One of the cool things about rock and roll was the clothes. Not everyone could get them; you had to find them. In those days you basically had to fly to London and dig. In those days I’d fly to London with nothing, buy a big suitcase, fill it up with clothes for everybody and come back. Now, you want to look like anybody, like Justin Bieber? Here’s how you buy his hat. The guy who did his tattoos is online. We can fly you out the jeans he’s wearing. The shoes you can get down the street. There’s no mystery anymore; everybody looks like a rock star.
KL: How was touring changed for you since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s?
ID: The biggest change is that all the keys are cards now.
KL: That’s really the biggest change?
ID: Oh yeah man, when you’re sleeping in a different room every night and the room number isn’t on your card. It’s annoying.
No, I’m just joking. It really hasn’t changed that much. The crowds are the same. We play a lot of all-ages shows and Glee brought us to a new generation. It’s been going on for a while, with Beavis and Butthead and Family Guy. We’re pretty blessed to have that happen.
KL: What are the Hats most excited for with this upcoming Retro Futura tour?
ID: I’m bringing my fourteen year-old son on his first roadie experience. We’re going right across America, up and down through the summertime, to really nice venues.
KL: When you’re playing nowadays, how do you go about bringing new music to people who are all about hearing “the hits” and maybe have an ‘80s vision of you guys?
ID: Good question; we put out a record in 2012, and when we were recording I told everyone, “I want this to sound like this was made maybe a week after ‘Safety Dance.’” I don’t want to make a dubstep record or a hip-hop record. I wanted to make a record for our fans. They want Men Without Hats music. We play the songs live and people who maybe only know a couple of our songs couldn’t tell the new from the old. We recorded with all old gear and we limited ourselves to only twenty-four tracks, just like in the old days. We got all the analog keyboards. The way I wrote songs hasn’t changed dramatically.
KL: Should we expect a new album soon?
ID: If it happens it happens. I watershed, I don’t write songs every day. It bottles up inside me and one day I just have to get it out. It usually happens at a real traumatic moment in my life. The last record was all about my breakup with my second wife and our child in the middle of it all. It was pretty emotional.
KL: So we need something horrible to happen to get new music?
ID: Yeah, and my life has been going pretty good these days. I know some artists resort to singing about their castles and how long they can have sex for but I’m not there yet.