Rare Birds

It's safe to dance! Groundbreaking hardcore electronic punk band finds love in an age of war

It's safe to dance! Groundbreaking hardcore electronic punk band finds love in an age of war

Men Without Hats, Chris Becker, Rare Birds
Love in the Age of War
Chris Becker, Rare Birds, July 2012, Men Without Hats
Men Without Hats Courtesy Photo
Men Without Hats, Chris Becker, Rare Birds
Chris Becker, Rare Birds, July 2012, Men Without Hats

"My son found out about us through the Disney channel," says Men Without Hats lead singer and conceptualist Ivan Doroschuk. "That's how he found out who I was!"

For those of you reading this born after 1980, you may only know the one Men Without Hats song — "The Safety Dance" — thanks to the episode of Glee when nerdy Artie Abrams sings and dances to the hit song in a dream where he is free from the confines of his wheelchair.

Those of you a bit older, especially those who lived in Canada in the late '70s and early '80s and witnessed the rise of a wildly creative Canadian-grown new wave music scene, may know Men Without Hats as one of the premier "hardcore electronic punk" bands of our time, albeit a punk band that has had at least one, no make that two (the eco-friendly "Pop Goes The World" as well), international hits.

 "I think people need to hear they can dance if they want to." 

Houston by way of Canada electronic artist and Brave New Waves curator Paul Connolly tells me he always considered "The Safety Dance" "an avenue into even stronger work."

Men Without Hats' newest album Love In The Age Of War (produced by Dave "Rave" Ogilvie of Skinny Puppy) dropped in May, and the band is getting ready for a West Coast to Canada to East Coast tour that begins in September (Come on guys! Houston needs to know it's safe to dance!). Love In The Age Of War leaps out of your speakers with a sound that could have come straight out of 1983, and yet feels eerily in sync with our times.

Lead singer Ivan Doroschuk recently took time out to talk about Montreal's new wave history, where Men Without Hats fits in the current, dance-centric pop musical landscape, and love in the age of war.

CultureMap: In Montreal during the late '70s and early '80s, was Men Without Hats part of a larger musical scene?

Ivan Doroschuk: Yes. Montreal has a big history for that kind of music, actually. For me, new wave is prog-rock with a disco beat. Montreal was a very big disco town, it was probably the second biggest disco town after New York City. A lot of big disco bands come from Montreal too.

The new wave scene was kind of like a fringe thing at the beginning. So much so that our manager had to sort of create little new wave festivals that we'd be able to appear at with other bands. It was pretty much a DIY scene anywhere you went.

CM: Was there also the influence of England at that time?

ID: Yeah. There was always a big European connection with Montreal, music-wise. It's a predominately French city with a lot of European bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis (coming through). Genesis would come through Montreal in the early 70s and play hockey arenas and then go to New York and play The Bottom Line, you know? So they were a lot bigger in Montreal.

CM: Were Men Without Hats sort of the odd men out among your musical peers?

ID: It was pretty much like in the record stores, there was always a section: "punk/new wave," you know? So we always got stuck (on festivals) with a lot of bands that we really didn't have anything to do with except nobody else wanted to book them.

That was kind of where the scene was at. It was a time of great experimentation. Visual arts were sort of being experimented with at the same time.

CM: In the early days of the group, there was a whole conceptual thing going on. I am right in saying that?

ID: Oh, totally. The whole scene was like that too. The clothes, the sort of new wave outfits we were wearing — everybody sort of considered their bodies as canvases in those days. There was a lot of experimentation in the clothes, in the hair.

It was all a reaction to the excesses of what had gone on before, the sort of dinosaur bands, heavy metal, or whatever.

CM: I wonder if new wave music might have been a reaction to punk rock, which sort of flushed the pipes as it were, but stylistically and musically was a dead end.

ID: That's what I always thought. I always had an affinity to the punk scene, and I always considered Men Without Hats to be sort of a hardcore electronic pop band. We were ridiculing the same things as the punk people.

We were just doing it in a way that was more accessible, whereas the punk scene kind of closed in on itself. But right from the beginning, I was out for Top 40!

And that was one of the things about the punk new wave scene, there was a political component to it that was undeniable. That's where the whole Folk of the 80s (Men Without Hats' second album) concept came from. New wave was the new folk music. We were the new Bob Dylans and Joan Baezs. The instruments had changed, but the message was the same.

CM: Yet you guys have changed over the years in your sound and presentation. Do you feel your audience has hung in there with you expecting the unexpected?

ID: Well, I don't know. For Love In The Age Of War, we went in consciously trying to make a record that sounded like it was made right after "The Safety Dance" record. One of the things I had done throughout our career is change every time we made a record. The last sort of official Men Without Hats record was Sideways and there were no keyboards on it at all.

But I was always wondering what would have happened if I kept true to the original sound, and just kept in that vein all the time, the way that a lot of other bands do. So that's what we did on this record. I just wrote it in the spirit of being back there with the same gear . . . not to recapture it, but to just continue with it.

And the reaction we're getting is good! People are really happy we did that. And it was something that happened very naturally.

CM: I was wondering how you felt about some of the newer bands that are very consciously adopting musically elements that Men Without Hats originated?

ID: I think it's great! That’s one of the things that encouraged me to make the record and come back on tour. Because in the '90s and at the turn of the millennium, keyboards were almost a bad word. It was a whole different ballgame; the '80s were kind of wiped out!

So hearing these (new) bands on the radio, the sounds, synths being used all over the place, big drums coming back, having a dance beat on the radio again . . . there was a lot of doom and gloom for awhile, and now it's getting back to what it used to be.

For me, the music that will stick around is the music that people can dance to. People need to dance. Everything else kind of falls away.

CM: In every video I checked out of Men Without Hats playing live something I took note of, which won't be news to you, is that at every performance, including the most recent gigs, everybody in the audience is dancing their ass off. That must be exciting to see from the stage.

ID: It's great. Last year when we did South by Southwest the whole crowd was in their twenties and everybody was just having a great time. A lot of them knew the words, and people were coming up to me afterwards and were really interested in the sounds. They could relate to the sounds and they were really relating to the themes of the songs too. I think people need to hear they can dance if they want to.

So I'm really glad when I hear about things like Glee and all this cross-generational stuff is really exciting to me. I'm really touched!

CM: Going back to the political, I can't help but think about the student strikes that went down in Quebec and I guess are slated to begin again when school starts. What's your take on what's going on right now in that part of the country?

ID: It's funny because I live on the West Coast now, but I just got back from Montreal. I did a series of interviews on the circuit throughout French Canada. And the marches were going on while I was there. And it was really like a happy coincidence for me, because it was kind of what I was trying to convey with Love In The Age Of War.

There's this kind of discontent all over the place. People are looking for something else. They're not buying it anymore, you know? There's some kind of malaise going on, all over the place. For sure it's spurred on by the economic crisis and the multiple wars.

The student thing in Montreal went a step further. It wasn't just students anymore. It was their parents, their grandparents, their brothers and sisters, families — they're out there every night! It just reminded me that was it.

That was exactly what I was trying to say with the new album. We're looking for love in the age of war.

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