Metal Without Hats: When Voivod Did The Safety Dance

Men Without Hats were one of the biggest pop bands of the early to mid-80s. And “The Safety Dance” was one of the biggest songs of the decade, and continues to resonate. People never stopped doing “The Safety Dance.” Remixes show up every week, including a metal version (more about that below). The Saturday night featured program on the SiriusXM new wave channel is called? You got it: The Safety Dance.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Men Without Hats are from Montreal, home to a very close-knit musical community. One of the most intriguing partnerships to emerge in the early 90s was the musical bond between Voivod founder/drummer Michel “Away” Langevin and Men Without Hats founder and songwriter Ivan Doroschuk.

The partnership goes both ways; Langevin appeared on the little heard Hats album Sideways and joined the band on tour and Doroschuk contributed to the wildly inventive Voivod albums Angel Rat and Phobos. We tracked down Doroschuk and talked about the shared ties between a legendary metal band and a global hitmaker.

How did you and Michel meet?

John Kastner (from a Canadian punk band called Doughboys) introduced us. We just started jamming together. After the bars would close in Montreal at 3 or 4 a.m. we’d go to the Voivod jam space for a few hours. I was writing the last Men Without Hats record of the 20th century Sideways. It was a departure – a guitar album. I basically put the Sideways album together jamming with Michel and Kastner and another guitar player. We recorded Sideways in upstate New York and Michel was there with me. And he came on a cross-Canada tour.

The album, well, people just didn’t know what to think of it. A guitar record from Men Without Hats? It was only released in Canada and has become a curious record for our fan club. I’d just moved back from New York. I had one record left on my contract and had an obligation. We just started jamming and Michel – he’s the most musical drummer I’ve ever worked with. He would follow every move. So he inspired me and I started writing all of these songs. I never really thought it would be a Men Without Hats record but I had enough songs. Nirvana hadn’t happened yet so they (the label) were like, o.k., we’ll do it for half the budget. I remember every record I’ve made and my state of mind and that was just fun with no pressure. We knew the fans and the record company wouldn’t understand it.

Michel and I have been in touch ever since. Michel was recording Angel Rat at the time of Sideways so I played keyboards and programmed a few songs. As far as the lyrics go all I did was proofread. There was no collaboration. I just read his lyrics to make sure there were no mistakes. Michel and I are both into comics and drawings and into flying saucers. I’m actually doing the same thing with him now; he is working on an online comic book on UFOs and I proofread it.

What did you think of the Angel Rat material? That’s almost like your Sideways record in that people don’t know what to do with it.

I’m not sure if it was Blacky’s last record with the band for a while. It led to Snake leaving the band, too. It was a weird time for Voivod.

On its face a collaboration between Men Without Hats and Voivod doesn’t seem like a fit but if I look back at your music Rhythm Of Youth had protest songs wrapped in pop music.

That was the idea. I always considered us a punk band with a hit single. I thought of Men Without Hats as a hardcore pop band.

Do you have any memories of your time in the studio for Angel Rat?

We did it in Toronto. For me, it was just part of hanging out with them. I also got along with Piggy, too. Michel and I are really very close. And I was really close with Piggy.

Was it tough to work on heavy metal music or did you always have a diverse approach?

I was always into it. Piggy and I were the closest in age and we both grew up on progressive rock. So I always liked heavier stuff. And times were changing. The musical landscape in the 1990s was different. It was almost as interesting as the new wave thing. There really haven’t been many big musical movements since then.

Did you ever talk to Voivod about your success in the 80s or were you happy to just work on something else?

I tell you, there was just a lot of laughing going on. It was a big laugh-a-thon. At one point later Michel and I worked together on a video game soundtrack. Michel had a cousin who worked at a big digital company in Montreal. These guys had startup money and they hired Michel, Piggy and me to do a theme for their demo. I had a mobile studio and we moved it into the place. It was one of the last things I worked on with Piggy. I don’t think the game came out.

You are also credited as a guest on Phobos, which featured Jason Newsted and Karyn Crisis.

I had some vintage synths from the early Hats days. We made some sounds and Michel sampled them and used them as percussion and rhythm stuff as part of his drum kit. I think that was Phobos.

Both Men With Hats and Voivod have tremendous longevity with some hiccups. Your most recent record was well received and Voivod is on a huge tour package now. Do you share something in terms of your journey?

Montreal is a cool place to come from. It’s like a little slice of Europe in North America and we still communicate in French. And I think music is all Michel and I know how to do (laughs).

Have you seen the metal version of “The Safety Dance”?

It’s awesome. I thought it was great. That guy is so talented.

How many remixes have there been of “The Safety Dance” over three plus decades?

There seems to be a new one every couple of weeks. That’s one of the reasons we can keep on the road; people still listen to the songs. And people still listen to Voivod. Michel did a logo for Men Without Hats for the last European tour. People totally knew who did it – a lot of our fans are big Voivod fans and a lot of people want the tee shirt.

There’s another metal connection; Dave Ogilvie, who produced “Love In The Age Of War,” also produced Marilyn Manson and Skinny Puppy.

We sort of led parallel lives. He’s from around where we grew up in Montreal. On the record (released in 2012) he basically made it sound like it was recorded in the 80s but it has a bite. It has a vintage sound that is somehow up to date. He made everything rock. It was one of the last records made at Mushroom Studios and we brought all the vintage synths we could find.

What’s it like to write a song I think you can safely say has been heard by a billion people?

(laughs) I feel lucky and blessed. Listen, if I didn’t think every song I wrote was going to be a hit I wouldn’t be in this business. It wasn’t our first release and we didn’t think it was the hottest song. I just think people never tire of hearing the message. It’s empowering.