No relationship has the same significance as the first….the first boyfriend, first girlfriend, first time you go to the movies without your parents, first apartment, first first first, nothing beats the first. In 1985 I was eleven years old, and a-ha was my first favorite band, and although I’ve had many other favorite bands since then, none holds quite the same spot in my heart. “Hunting High and Low” wasn’t my first album, that honor belongs to the soundtrack from “Flashdance.” And seeing them in 1986 at the Hammersmith Odeon wasn’t my first concert, that was Johnny Cash at a rodeo in Albuquerque when I was eight years old. And “Take On Me” wasn’t even my first favorite song, that was Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” But seeing the video for “Take On Me” for the first time was like a sucker punch to my cerebral cortex, and shortly thereafter I listened to nothing but a-ha’s first album, “Hunting High and Low” from start to finish, on repeat for over a year.
It was the album that taught me the significance of albums, the sequence of the songs, the different moods on A & B sides and a large part of the reason I remain a music snob and an album snob to this day. It was the album for which I had to buy a never-ending supply of AA batteries for my yellow Sony Walkman. The band never quite made it as big as that first album, but for those of us who bought the second and third albums, who followed the band after that, for those of us who had the posters on our walls and knew all the words to all the songs, for all of us, a-ha is making one more trip around the world to say goodbye as a band.
On the eve of the first of their farewell performances in NYC [SEE PHOTOS], I had the chance to sit down and talk to a-ha’s Magne Furuholmen about the frustration being considered a one-hit wonder after selling more than 35 million albums worldwide, hysterical fans, viral videos and passing the baton to up-and-coming Norwegian acts. For me the interview was tinged with a little bit of Mr Rourke’s magic on Fantasy Island, and I wish that all of our childhood heroes could age as gracefully.
The band is currently midway through their global “Ending on a High Note” farewell tour that spans four continents and fifteen countries, ending with three dates in their native Oslo in December 2010. In June Rhino will be re-issuing a-ha’s first two albums, “Hunting High and Low” and “Scoundrel Days.”
I have to start out by saying that you guys were my first favorite band. I grew up in London and I remember watching one of those Saturday morning music shows for kids—it might have been Mark Curry’s show on the BBC—and seeing the “world premiere” of the ‘Take On Me’ video and my jaw just dropped to the floor and I was totally hooked. I have your first three albums on vinyl and on tape, all the formats I could get my hands on.
Wow! Thank you.
It’s been over 20 years since you’ve played in the States.
No, we did one show at Irving Plaza maybe 2 years ago, kind of a one off.
Yeah I think it was 2 years ago – [asks the tour manager for the dates… “2004!”] – six years ago. Ouch.
How did I not know about this? Actually, I’m noticing a pattern, I was trying to buy albums of yours, some of the later ones, on iTunes, and they just aren’t available in the United States.
I know. For some reason, and it’s always kind of been a… a… a thorn in our side, the fact that we were signed to [an American label] but we kind of lost our footing after the second album. I think we just moved on too quickly from ‘Take On Me.’ We started as an American success, and then very quickly moved on and became a worldwide success. I think we probably didn’t do enough here to satisfy the record company. I think there was a general feeling that we were not the easiest band to work with. We didn’t want to record a second ‘Take On Me,’ we didn’t want to try and piggyback on our old success with another video. We were sort of awkwardly taking charge of our own destiny and fucking up all by ourselves.
If you look at a band like OK Go whose success on YouTube has come from the fact that they keep topping themselves with their low budget DIY videos, and it’s like they’ve set the bar for themselves…
Who are they?
OK Go? They’re the guys who do the treadmill video…
Oh right! Fantastic!
That was actually their second viral video success. The first video they did they taped themselves in their backyard rehearsing some dance moves…
…and it looked funny…
…right, and so they put it on YouTube and all their fans started to emulate it. And they had to top that…
…and these are the guys who did this Rube Goldberg video with the paint?
It’s AMAZING. I mean, these guys are great. This is the future of—I think—exciting pop music. All these viral things that weren’t there when we started out. The money’s gone out of the big corporation budgets and bands and artists are finding new ways of inventing themselves. It’s very exciting.
So do you think things would have gone differently for you guys in the ‘80’s if there had been the same instant gratification culture that we’re living in now.
Of course. But for better or worse we were part of that time, part of defining that time. And to be quite honest, we’ve been blessed with a pretty decent career. Albeit in America, we couldn’t get arrested here, but we were selling out stadium shows in Europe and the rest of the world. Our route has been what it is. I don’t regret anything, although I have to admit that mid-career there was a lot of frustration that we couldn’t get any support for our projects in America. We knew we had fans, we knew we had people who were interested, we just couldn’t communicate it to them.
Now there are all these tools being launched, things like Kickstarter online, where you can conceptualize a project and try to generate grass roots funding. A lot of people are trying to finance albums using fan investment. It’s such a different time right now.
It is. It’s very exciting. One of the things we’ve done as an important part of this farewell tour is we’ve set up an a-ha grant in Norway where we’re giving away the equivalent of $800K to four different artists. So we’re going to have a kind of voting system and we have a jury put together of people we know in the industry that we trust, who have long experience of dealing with international success.
It’s kind of a symbolic relay baton that we’re kind of giving on. We’re saying we really want to help, and our experience in the Norwegian setting is pretty unique. There have been Norwegian bands who have made a mark internationally, but none have sold millions of records and been at the top of the charts. So we’re still pretty unique in that respect.
How did you pick Sondre Lerche to open for you?
He’s worked with us before. He did a few songs a long time ago, when he was just a kid starting out in Norway.
He stills seems like just a kid, with that boyish face?
I’m not sure he can stay like that his whole life and retain that same up-and-coming boyish charm. He’s got to grow out of that at some point. He’s one of the [Norwegian] people who’s gotten a foothold for himself internationally. From a Norwegian perspective, we are like the national team. There are still players on other teams, but we still have the feeling that we’ve got the flag on our backs when we’re out there.
And, it just feels nice to show that we want to reinvest in something in the future, especially for Norway. In this country you’re used to cultivating, to planting and cultivating international stars, and in Norway there’s no tradition for that. The a-ha story is that we went abroad, we got signed to America we had an English record company, so Norway basically had a place in the VIP area waving the flags, but they weren’t part of the investment. As a country there are a lot of exciting Norwegian acts, and one of the reasons they are exciting is that they have been left alone; they don’t belong to the huge machinery of getting upstreamed. There’s a kind of an innocence there that is really valid, that I think may have the chance to translate to a larger audience.
Your music always seemed a lot sweeter—in a brooding and melancholic way—than a lot of the real brooders who were your contemporaries. The Smiths, Joy Divisions, Depeche Modes, The Cure….
England is a harsh place. A lot of these bands come out of a lot more desolate situations, and some of that fantastic talent comes from precisely because the kind of pressure they feel to get out of a no hope situation. I think in our case, we come from middle class academic families; all we had was this intense yearning to turn our voices into music somehow. To follow that dream of making the music that mattered to us, and having that kind of exchange.
We weren’t complete ingénues—although we may have looked like naïve idiots from most of the photo shoots from that time, probably most of the interviews too—there was more of a Norwegian politeness that meant that we would say yes to things to things we probably wouldn’t have if we had come from a different country. We would not really differentiate between cool stuff and not cool stuff. It also makes for a less cynical approach, and I hate to see that turn into cynicism, I’d like to think that we have retained some of that ability to believe that you don’t have to be cynical.
You don’t have to live in squalor in your mind…
When we came to London we did.
There was that famous cartoon in Smash Hits when “Take On Me” first came out with you guys living in a one-room wooden shack with a single light bulb.
Yeah, we did that of our own choosing. And that’s a huge difference. I wouldn’t pretend to know what it’s like to grow up in an industrial town north of London, and I don’t think I should even endeavor to try, although the music that comes out of it is oftentimes incredibly beautiful, and incredibly vulnerable, and incredibly important, but I think we brought our own lives to this and we did OK. We obviously brought something for others too. There are still people who come and see us play and have fond memories. That’s a fantastic thing to walk away with.
What is it like to have that responsibility? Like I mentioned in the beginning, you guys were my first favorite band, which is a really important first musical relationship, and for a lot of my friends it was the same thing. I even got together with all my friends from London on Facebook and asked them for ideas on what they would like me to ask you. The questions were terrible, and too embarrassing to even to bring to the table (Edit: Which one of us would you have snogged in the ‘80’s? Will you marry me? Can I touch your bum?). What is it like to deal with that level of almost Beatlemania around you?
It’s definitely paled from the 80’s, even gone away and then come back again almost more so. I feel completely at ease if it’s there or it’s not there. At this point in my life it’s not like I miss it when it’s not there, and it’s not like I don’t deal with it when it’s there. And a certain part of me looks at it more as you say, as a responsibility. It finally clicked, walking back in to a-ha in 1999 and 2000, walking on stage again—because I’d spent the interim years from 1993/94 to 2000 just as a visual artist, just working and exhibiting, pretty much alone – and then realizing, “Do I really want to go back into this?” and I did.
And I realized that if I do, then I have to start feeding off the situation, I have to be able to receive, not only to give. So I really try to take something away from it for me, it was a sudden realization that I really want this, so I should stop behaving as if I don’t, and I should stop trying to protect me from this, I should actually enjoy it. And that’s been a godsend for me to have that enjoyment. I look at Morten sometimes, and I feel that he’s not doing that, he’s not getting that enjoyment out of it, and that breaks my heart because I know that if you’re not getting that from this, that means you’re stuck in a kind of impossible perspective. Whereas I feel I can honestly say that once I walk off stage for the last time I’m going to be completely happy with what I’ve contributed. I feel that today, if I get struck by lightning tomorrow, I’ve had a good life. There’s nothing that irks me about my history, there’s nothing I feel embittered or bad about, like “I should have had more success in America,” all that stuff’s in the past. Having said that, we’ve always been very competitive as a band, for me it’s changed over the years and I just feel privileged and lucky to be able to celebrate the end, instead of suffering through the demise.
It’s a graceful way to go.
I think so, and it’s the intelligent way to go. And I think in the end it’s going to be the best way to go for everyone.
Photo by Gabi Porter