In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Rick Astley was an innocuous figure in the transition period between Aqua Netted hair metal bands and lumberjack flannel-wearing grungsters.
His deep, soulful voice belied his cherubic looks, and even when he was hip-shimmying through synth-pop gold such as “Together Forever,” “She Wants to Dance With Me” or the inescapable disco ball thumper “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a serious English singer lurked.
Last summer, Astley returned with “50,” his first new U.S. album in more than a decade. A sprinkling of complementary tour dates returned him to stages in cities he hadn’t visited since 1989, and now he’s in the midst of an 18-show run that comes to Center Stage on Feb. 9.
In a phone conversation from Los Angeles, a few weeks before his tour kickoff in Las Vegas in January, the affable Astley — who yes, recently turned 50 — chatted about the new album and tour and how “rickrolling” (surprise appearances by his classic-cheese ‘80s video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” in other online videos) has introduced him to a new generation.
Q: It’s been a really, really long time since we’ve seen you in America.
A: I’ve actually never played Atlanta before. Up until last year, I hadn’t played in America for years and years. I’ve been (back) doing gigs about 10 years now and it started off in Japan. I had offers to sing my old tunes and I just didn’t want it, but my wife and daughter found out about the Japan offer and said, “You’re going!” and I rather enjoyed it. … But the only place I’ve been in Georgia was Athens. I remember we pull in there and I know it’s a big college town and I open the window in the car and we can hear someone singing R.E.M. at a karaoke bar! But I am aware of the fact that Atlanta blew up with R&B and hip-hop. America is very diverse. It’s so big and you think my God, just down the road it really, really changes. In the U.K., we don’t really have that.
Q: What can you tell us about the live show?
A: We have a fairly small band — drums, bass, keyboards, guitar and a backing singer in the U.S. — cost is one of the reasons. Over the years, we worked out that the main thing is, you’ve actually got to be able to get on with one another. Being on stage and being an amazing musician is great, but it’s all the other stuff (offstage). We’re a tight little unit and we have a good laugh — there’s no hang-ups with the guys.
Q: “Cry for Help” was always my favorite song of yours — is that still in the set?
A: Really, if I had a hit with a song, I play it. I know the average fan is going to know the hits and a few others. I see people on Facebook saying, “Play this song, track five from album three.” But does everyone want to hear that? Obviously we’re going to do three or four songs from the new record. We’re a bit spoiled because in the U.K. we’ve had four songs hammered on Radio 2 — that’s been amazing, the reception we’ve had from them.
Q: After seeing the positive feedback you’ve received in the States, is there any regret that you waited 25 years to come back?
A: I’m not one of those people who has regrets. I believe everything you do leads you to where you are today, good or bad. I realize how lucky I am and have been and I had some success in the late ‘80s. It was pop music. It wasn’t going to change the world, but it was a nice part of my life. Leaving (the music industry) when I did, when I was kind of young, I was 27. I was a dad by then. In my opinion, I was rich and I retired. Unless you win the lottery, who the hell does that happen to? Not just finances, but it leads to a less stressful life. My wife and I pinch ourselves all the time.
Q: Are you absolutely sick of “rickrolling” and being asked about it — as I now ask you about it?
A: I’m all right with it, I totally get it. It will be odd when someone doesn’t ask me about it! To be honest, I don’t take it personally. They chose that song because it’s a cheesy video from the ‘80s and that’s the way I’ve treated it. It’s probably been really good to me. I’ve tried to just let it be its own thing. It’s weird that we did a couple of festivals (last) year and Justin Bieber and Rihanna were headlining. It was a much younger audience — the V Festival. I’m a granddad on that show, and that’s fine. But what was weird was that the people in the audience in their teens and 20s, they’re singing along to “Never Gonna Give You Up,” but what’s really weird is that they sang along to “Together Forever” and some of the others as well. When something like a rickrolling happens, before they know what they’re doing, the next song is playing (online) and they know that song, too. I’m not fooling myself that I have a whole new audience out there, but the name recognition has done me a lot of good.
8 p.m. Feb. 9. $35. Center Stage, 1374 W. Peachtree St., Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.