By Keith Sharp
All Ivan Doroschuk had to do was gaze out at the 16,000 fans assembled in an Ancaster, Ontario field in late August for the Festival of Friends event to justify the comeback of his Men without Hats group.
Joining forces with English prog rockers, Psychedelic Furs and fellow Montrealers, The Box, Doroschuk and fellow band members Lou Dawson, James Love and Rachel Ashmore bounced through a frenetic set of golden oldies that had the majority of the crowd, on their feet.
Electronic Dance Music may be in vogue right now but judging by Doroschuk’s energetic performance, there’s still an audience for the bands who set the stage for this current trend and there was no bigger dance hit that Men without Hat’s “Safety Dance” which dominated North American and global charts back in 1982.
“There’s nothing really complex in what we do,” explained Doroschuk on the phone from his Victoria B.C home having just returned from completing a U.S tour in Dallas. “People just love to dance and to be entertained; they realize there is nothing like a great live performance”.
Doroschuk has realized that patience is a virtue when it comes to calculating the various twists and turns in trending current music. After a disastrous attempt to associate with an emerging Seattle grunge scene with an ill-conceived, guitar-oriented `Sideways’ record in 1991, Doroschuk found himself and his band frozen out of the industry. “Record labels wanted nothing to do with anyone who had even touched a synthesizer,” bemoaned Dorschuk who even tried, unsuccessfully, to release a solo record, ‘The Spell’ in 1995. “Everything was just a mess then, it was a beginning of a new era for music, they were different times, I learned a lot of hard lessons from that experience.”
But as the musical tides turned and the advent of classic radio reflected back on golden oldies from the ‘70’s and `80’, “Safety Dance” continued to be a play list mainstay. Doroschuk decided to test the waters by issuing their first release in 12 years; ‘No Hats Beyond This Point’ in 2003 and one year later, relaunched Men Without Hats, albeit just himself and three sidemen with a 10-song performance at Victoria’s Rifflandia Festival.
“I had been a single dad for the past 10 years, my son was old enough to go to school by himself and I was itching to get back on stage, “reflected Doroschuk. “I was conscious that our music was still getting played on the radio so when I got the chance to play that festival, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Doroschuk also discovered that Men Without Hats were still strong in the U.S and their inclusion on an 80’s Retro tour featuring The Human League and B 52’s led to a writing spurt that resulted in a new MWH record, Love In The Age Of War’ “As we crisscrossed the U.S, I am sitting on the tour bus with my i Pad and I suddenly started to compose new music. I wrote something like 15 songs which was the first time I had been this creative in like 20 years.”
The album, co-produced by Skinny Puppy’s Dave Ogilvy at Vancouver’s Mushroom Studios proved to be both a critical and commercial success. “We made a record that our fans wanted to hear. They didn’t want us to make a dub style record, they wanted something in the same style as how we recorded “Safety Dance”,” noted Doroschuk.
Ironically “Safety Dance”, the band’s breakthrough hit, almost didn’t happen as virtually every record company in Canada passed on the dance-infused track. Initially formed in 1977 by three Doroschuk brothers; Ivan, Stefan and Colin along with Jeromie Arrabas, MWH was originally a punk rock band which caught on to the New Wave, New Romantics movement.
After releasing a debut EP `Folk Of The 80’s, Doroschuk ran into opposition when trying to release their first studio LP, `Rhythm of Youth’. “We didn’t get a shake from Warner Music because they initially turned it down. But when we got signed by a Warner affiliated label in Europe (Statik),, they then looked like fools when they were literally force fed it,” he reflected. “We kinda came through the back door with that record.”
Despite a continuous turnover in musicians (which included the likes of The Box’s Jean-Marc Pisapia and Rational Youth’s Tracy Howe,) MWH soldiered through the 80’s with hits like “Pop Goes the World and a cover of Abba’s “SOS” before becoming unstuck in 1991 with their ill-advised “Sideways” project.
“I had just moved back to Montreal after living in New York and I had started jamming with The Doughboys’ vocalist/guitarist John Kastner,” informed Doroschuk. “He played me a copy of Nirvana’s Bleached record and he said, “This band is going to be the biggest band in the world.”
“We had a contractual obligation for one more album with Polygram so I said to them, `we’ll take half of the allotted budget if they would allow us to do the record I wanted,” Doroschuk explained. “So we did this guitar-oriented record (Sideways) but Polygram were horrified. `Men without Hats without keyboards aren’t going to work’ they claimed and that was the end of the story with Polygram.”
But Doroschuk’s patience eventually paid off and after assembling a new band, which now features guitarist James Love and two female keyboard players; Lou Dawson and Rachel Ashmore , Men without Hats, now managed by John Kastner, are now playing countries and venues they didn’t even access during the band’s prime.
“We were just in England and I met some fans who became really emotional when they met me,” enthused Doroschuk. “Apparently, seeing Men without Hats in concert is on so many people’s bucket list! Go figure?”
Photo’s courtesy of Kris Gelder.