Interview with Jack Hues of the band Wang Chung

(This interview was originally published January 7, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Jack Hues. He is probably best known as the lead vocalist/guitarist of the musical group Wang Chung. Along with bassist Nick Feldman, Wang Chung enjoyed quite a bit of success during the '80s including their smash hit “Everybody Have Fun Tonight.” This song resulted in the name Wang Chung taking on a whole life of its own in pop culture demonstrated by the following entertaining video titled “Can You Tell Me What a Wang Chung Is?”…

Wang Chung is much more than a funny name. They created some great music along the way, too. You can find out all about the origination of the name and much, much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Jack Hues…

Q: How did you and Nick Feldman meet?

Jack: Nick placed an ad in 'The Melody Maker,' musicians wanted, one of the music papers of that time. I auditioned for his band The Intellektuals and got the gig. I remember he had written all these songs in a punk style but with jazz-colored harmonies. I was the only guitar player to whom he didn’t have to take ages explaining the inversions!

Q: What is the official story behind choosing Huang Chung as the name for the band? How and why was it chosen? Please confirm for us what the intended meaning of the name was. In 1982, the spelling was changed to Wang Chung. Was this simply done to match the pronunciation and remove any question about how to say it?

Jack: I found the name in Jonathon Cott’s book of Conversations with Karlheinz Stockhausen. It is a footnote to one of Karlheinz’s rants about what we now call world music. In amongst all the philosophizing, this phrase made me laugh because it did sound to me like the sound a guitar makes – like Kerrang! But the meaning in Chinese is paraphrased as Yellow (Huang) Bell (Chung), a symbolic bell that rings at the center of the universe. Our reality resonates with the frequencies of the bell and the extent to which our world is in harmony with the yellow bell is the extent to which we fulfill our destinies. When we are not in harmony with the bell things go badly – so in ancient China when the Emperor lost a battle, the first guys who got it were the court musicians for failing to produce the right harmonies.

This just happens to be what Huang Chung means in Chinese (Mandarin I think?). It is not the “reason” why we chose the name. That was more to do with it being a phrase that had no Rock n Roll connotations whatsoever. It was just a sound like a G7 chord – it doesn’t “mean” anything – it’s a label to categorize something. So changing the spelling – which was to do with making it more pronounceable, therefore less alienating – was not a big deal for us.

Q: What prompted the band’s move to the American label Geffen Records? Was it in part to focus your music more on the U.S. market? Wang Chung had the unusual achievement of being more popular in the U.S. than in your home market of the UK. How do you explain that? Was that surprising to you?

Jack: Our first album was on Arista in the UK. We felt that they didn’t really understand us! Ahh!! There was a sense then that the American market was a) more into music and b) less concerned with “fashion”. I think we were always rooted in the past. I can remember people relating us to bands like Steely Dan rather than the “New Romantic” bands around at the time. The American music business then was still into musicians making great music – David Geffen, John Kalodner at Geffen, Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker at Warner Bros – they were all into music primarily and we just wanted to make albums like the great bands from the '60s and '70s and they supported that.

The name Wang Chung says a lot – in the UK people found it alienating and couldn’t get past the fact that we seemed to be taking ourselves too seriously whereas in the U.S. people were curious about it and attracted to it as something different. Also we like American music, especially funk – like Bowie in the mid to late '70s – he was exploring all that on Young Americans and Station to Station. America has been good to us and we deeply appreciate it.

Q: You wrote and composed “Dance Hall Days” which was a pop hit. What inspired that song? How long did it take to write? What do you remember about the process of writing that fun song? What reaction did you get from Nick when you first played it for him?

Jack: I used to teach guitar in various schools in London, to high school kids. One afternoon someone didn’t show up for a lesson and I just came up with “Dance Hall Days” – it seemed to write itself. I fiddled around with it to get the lyrics right and so on but the basic ideas – the rhythm, the “take your baby by the hand” melody, the opening chords – they all came together. The essentials of the song were there in that spare 20 minutes when the kid forgot his guitar lesson! Nick says when he heard it he immediately phoned David Massey, our manager, and said, “Jack’s written a hit!!”

In 1983, the band released their first album since changing the spelling of their name and changing labels. The album, Points on the Curve, was recorded at Abbey Road Studios and included their first big hit “Dance Hall Days”. The single would peak at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100, but reach #1 on the Dance/Disco chart. Here is the video for “Dance Hall Days” by Wang Chung…

Q: Did you feel you had something special there back then when you recorded “Dance Hall Days”? Could you have ever anticipated the worldwide success it would have?

Jack: In that little practice room, no, I had no idea what would come of this little song. But it changed everything for us – it cemented the deal with Geffen – I could sense that everyone was much nicer to us after they heard that song!

Q: How did the opportunity come your way to work on the soundtrack for William Friedkin’s 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A.?

Jack: Bill Friedkin was a fan of 'Points on the Curve' and particularly loved the song “Wait”. He was using that as a temp track while editing 'To Live and Die' and he got the idea to have us write more music like that to score the movie. He called me at a friend’s house – I had quite a long phone conversation with him and I got a strong sense of what he wanted. I had some ideas like “Wait” that I was working on and I took them into the studio with Nick and we banged out all the music in about 7 days. We didn’t see the movie until some rushes arrived late on in the week – no internet in those days to ping stuff over – but somehow Billy had downloaded all we needed to know in that conversation – it was a very creative time. We were not working to picture as I’ve said, so Bill did all the editing, sometimes editing the picture to the music. That opening title sequence with the money being printed – that was all Billy’s skillful editing. You would think the music was written to the tempo of that machine, but it was a coincidence that they match!! Amazing when I think back on it.

In a quote from Friedkin himself, he states that the main reason he chose Wang Chung to compose the soundtrack was because the band “stands out from the rest of contemporary music… What they finally recorded has not only enhanced the film, it has given it a deeper, more powerful dimension.” Here is the video for the title track “To Live and Die in L.A.” by Wang Chung…

Q: How did your song “Fire in the Twilight” end up in John Hughes’ 1985 film The Breakfast Club? Did you ever have any interaction with Hughes yourself?

Jack: Sadly we didn’t meet John Hughes. I think we were invited as one of a number of contemporary bands to do one of the songs. We worked with Keith Forsey, Billy Idol’s producer, on that project and with David Anderle at A&M. They were great people.

Q: Then came the Mosaic album in 1986. This included the hit single “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” which I certainly consider one of the most iconic songs of the decade. You and Nick are both credited with writing this one. What inspired the song? What do you remember about the process of writing that fun song? Did you feel you had a potential hit song and something special when you recorded it?

Jack: Nick and I used to get together at his flat on Finchley Road in London and play each other ideas. Nick had this chorus idea of “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” which I loved, but I heard it as deeply ironic and heard a song a bit like “Hey Jude” – slowish, long chorus fade out, sort of whimsical. I wrote the version which Nick and I worked on together and demo’d at his house – we put out that version on one of the Greatest Hits albums – “Fun Tonight: The Early Years”. When we worked with Peter Wolf, he told us to ditch the irony and make a party record and really play up the “Everybody Have Fun/Everybody Wang Chung” line. We had decided we wanted a hit record, so we did as we were told for once!!

The result was a song that most people either loved or hated. Fortunately for the band, it seems more people loved it. It stayed near the top of the charts peaking at #2 and spawning an outstanding music video. Here is that video for “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung…

Q: This single seemed to take Wang Chung to a whole next level. How did things change for you each personally and for Wang Chung as a group, both good and bad, after the incredible success of “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”?

Jack: I remember one interviewer saying to me that he heard “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” and felt sad because he realized that a whole bunch of people who didn’t care about Wang Chung were going to like it and sort of gatecrash his private party. And in a way, that is what happened. For us it meant mainstream commercial success which is what we wanted and needed – but it was not a record that people who loved To Live And Die In L.A., for instance, would necessarily like. So it made the business people happy but created a fissure in our identity. Were we a serious Art-Rock band or a party band? Truth is we were neither and both at the same time – as musicians we could embrace all of what we did, but the business now had a whole raft of expectations around us that we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, live up to. It was a very interesting time in retrospect, but stressful at the time. I’m very grateful for the success and the way people embraced the song and how it has become part of the culture.

Q: The song had a memorable video that I feel is one of the best of the '80s. Who came up with the concept for the video? What do you remember about filming that video?

Jack: The video that everybody loved at that time was Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” – so we wanted to do something with stop-frame animation. Godley and Creme, as the leading video directors at that time, were brought in to work on it and they took our suggestions and came up with the wooden box location, the “serious” expressions to contrast with the party song, and everybody in black – making the whole thing quite austere. We really enjoyed working with them. The shoot was easy as I just stood as still as I could and sang the song to the camera 10 times. Nick did the same and then some poor guy edited the takes frame by frame!! In those days, it was film and scissors – God knows how they had the patience to do it!

Q: This video, as did the video for “Dance Hall Days”, received a lot of play on MTV. Please discuss the power that MTV had back in the '80s to make a song successful. And also on how important “image” became in addition to the music in that regard.

Jack: MTV was incredibly important. That is one of the main reasons why Wang Chung is a household name in the U.S. and not in the UK – there was no MTV in the UK until much later. The “advertising”-style imaging of bands was then, as now, very effective. Having a video in heavy rotation on MTV was like free TV advertising – and there is no more effective way to market something. Rather like the albums, we approached each video as a different set of challenges so our “image” never really stabilized.

Q: When you have mega hit songs like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it? What are your feelings about those songs today?

Jack: I don’t get sick of either of those songs. When we play them, they get such a huge enthusiastic response – how can you get sick of that?? And I think they are both good songs, interesting to perform – we develop them live all the time.

Q: What is your personal favorite of the Wang Chung hit songs? Are there any lesser known songs that you have always particularly enjoyed or wished would’ve become hit singles?

Jack: I probably like “Dance Hall Days” best out of the hits. I always thought “Eyes of the Girl” was a good song and could have been a hit.

“Eyes of the Girl” was on the Mosaic album, but was never released as a single. That album did include the song “Let’s Go!” which would be the band’s final top 10 single. It was released in January of 1987 and would peak at #9 in April of that year. Here’s the video for “Let’s Go!” by Wang Chung…

Q: Your follow up 1989 album, The Warmer Side of Cool, was not a commercial success. Did this surprise you at the time? Do you feel there is any other explanation other than changing musical tastes?

Jack: Nick and I were not seeing eye-to-eye on Warmer Side. I wanted to make arty, progressive type songs – Geffen wanted a follow up to “Everybody Have Fun” and Nick was into making more of a mainstream Rock album! So the album lurches from one thing to another. I like the title track and there are certain things we were attempting to get that are admirable. I guess I felt very burnt out by the time we had finished that album. The lack of success, I guess it was a surprise if I’m honest. I think I expected everything to just sort of carry on regardless of what we released. I didn’t realize that it was all a game and you had to play by the rules – or write your own rules – but you couldn’t just do what you liked.

Q: Please describe the circumstances surrounding the (temporary) break up of Wang Chung in 1990.

Jack: It was inevitable that we should split at that time. We wanted different things and also our manager David Massey wanted to do something different. Wang Chung was really the three of us and all the time we were riding in the same direction it was working, but by 1990 everything was changing, so it was a good time to split.

Q: Then please discuss the circumstances surrounding the decision to reunite again. How is your relationship with Nick now? What goals did you have for the group this time around?

Jack: Nick and I worked together quite a bit in the mid to late '90s. Nick was in A&R and I produced a few of his bands. So after a break of a couple of years, Nick and I were already working together. Getting Wang Chung together again was a combination of Nick leaving his A&R work therefore having enough time to devote to it; doing the TV show 'Hit Me, Baby One More Time' and really enjoying it; doing a new publishing deal with Spirit Music – and thinking that Wang Chung was a good vehicle to use to put out the songs we were writing.

Hit Me, Baby One More Time was a 2005 reality series competition where each week former pop stars would perform one of their biggest hits and a cover of a contemporary hit. In a June episode, Wang Chung reunited and competed. The reaction they received from fans on this performance really inspired Hues and Feldman to give Wang Chung another chance. Here is the performance from that 2005 episode of Hit Me, Baby One More Time

Q: Wang Chung was part of the 2009 Regeneration Tour and there appeared to be the opportunity to just be satisfied making a living playing the old favorites. What inspired you to actually attempt to record NEW music as Wang Chung with the new EP Abducted in the 80s? Is there more new Wang Chung music to come?

Jack: I guess when you don’t have success any more, as with The Warmer Side of Cool, you either give up and feel bitter about it or, if you are a real musician, you get up and dust yourself down and just keep going. I think that’s what I did – I kept writing, started co-producing with my dear friend Chris Hughes (we did an album with The Definition of Sound together), worked with Tony Banks (of Genesis) on his solo album Strictly Incognito and then producing for Nick on his A&R projects. I’m a musician – I write all the time – it just comes out and there is a lot of stuff still on the shelf that I hope will come out over the next few years together with songs that I am working on right now.

Abducted in the 80s EP is available for sale and download on the band’s official website. It includes their three biggest hits plus a great acoustic version of “To Live and Die in L.A.” It also includes a new song called “Rent Free” which I like quite a bit along with a couple other new tracks.

Q: Some '80s pop superstars “run away” from the '80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. How do you personally deal with and keep the '80s alive and in perspective?

Jack: I see the '80s as a specific time in the history of pop music. The upside was that bands were embracing the new technology of drum machines, synthesizers and the early samplers – The Fairlight and Synclavier. Also everybody had a lot of respect for the craft of songwriting – even if you weren’t very good at it! People wanted to write good songs and there was a feeling that it was possible to make a “definitive” statement with an album. That, in the studio, it was possible to make a perfect record if you could just spend enough time on it! I guess that’s why our albums took a year in the studio (with the exception of To Live and Die in L.A.).

Q: After over three decades in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time?

Jack: It’s changed a huge amount. When I was a kid, music was it! Nothing else mattered and becoming a musician, figuring out how to play those songs, write my own songs – that was my focus from the age of 8, and it has really gotten stronger and stronger as I’ve gotten older. I’m still obsessed with music and with exploring new music and bringing it into my own musical world. I still listen to a lot of Classical Music, to Jazz and some “popular music” – a lot more pop/rock than I listened to back in the 80s, but it’s Classical and Jazz that I devote most listening time to. It’s an essay to cover all the changes – as I’ve said before, the upside is that everything is open and possible and anybody can do it. The downside is that everything is open and possible and anybody can do it.

But the change I regret most is the marginalization of music. It used to be central in youth culture and that carried on into people’s adult lives. Now it is one of a number of commodities that you can have or not have, mostly in the background as some sort of soundtrack to the feature-length movie that you are starring in called “My Life”. That seems a waste to me – there is so much to learn from sitting down and listening to music, giving it your full attention. It’s no good putting it on and then doing something else.

Q: How did your song “Space Junk” end up being used in the first episode of AMC series The Walking Dead?

Jack: Apparently the director, Frank Darabont, always wanted “Space Junk” to end the first episode of the series. He loved the tune and felt a specific kind of emotion from it, I guess. We’re very grateful to him.

Q: What else is Jack Hues up to now? Musically and otherwise?

Jack: Wang Chung takes up quite a bit of time now – that’s nice. I also teach song writing on an undergraduate degree at Christ Church University, Canterbury and I have a jazz project. The band is called The Quartet – we have gigged locally and in London and some other parts of the UK, and we have recorded and released 2 albums with Chris Hughes for his Helium Record Label and plan to record a third. I hope we will make some progress on that this year, together with releasing more new Wang Chung material, hopefully a full album, some time this coming year.

I am ecstatic that Jack took the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. Be sure to follow Jack and Wang Chung on Facebook and the official website. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Jack Hues for the amazing music and contributions to '80s pop culture through Wang Chung and for reminiscing with us for a little while here as well. Now go do as they say, “Everybody have fun tonight. Everybody Wang Chung tonight.”

Follow @OldSchool80s on Twitter for a daily dose of  '80s nostalgia and read more Retro Interviews on RD80s.

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