Music interview – A-ha: ‘It’s like any marriage, we share this fateful bond’

A-ha are due to play at the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster.
A-ha are due to play at the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster.
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One of the biggest bands of the 80s and 90s, a-ha are touring oudoor venues in smaller towns. Duncan Seaman reports.

They were one of the biggest bands of the 1980s and even now regularly command audiences in the tens of thousands in Britain’s biggest cities.

But this month a-ha have purposefully chosen to play in smaller towns that would not normally figure on their touring itinerary.

“We’ve done our share of touring in the UK but over the last decade or so it’s always been London and the major cities, so it felt good to do this,” says Magne Furuholmen, the band’s keyboard player, explaining why they’re visiting sports stadiums in Doncaster, Darlington and Blackpool, among others.

“This whole idea of doing the outdoor gigs in the summer, hopefully the weather keeps up the way it has done.

“It’s interesting to come to new places and different places that we haven’t been before or haven’t been since way back.”

Let’s not be flippant about this, it’s a huge privilege to be able to go out and play in front of enthusiastic audiences 30 years down the line. Not a lot of artists get that opportunity.

Magne Furuholmen

Where their shows last year were acoustic – to coincide with the release of an MTV Unplugged album – these summer dates will see a return to electric instruments, along with a string section. “We’re bringing the entire band that we had for the acoustic shows, bar one person, so we’re nine people in total onstage.”

The Norwegian group have a long-standing relationship with Britain. For more than a decade, from the days before they struck pop gold with their 1985 single Take On Me right through their first flush of fame, Furuholman remembers he and bandmates Pål Waaktaar-Savoy and Morten Harket lived “all around London depending on whether we had a little money or no money or eventually quite a lot of money”.

“Looking back,” he says, “you remember it fondly. We were dedicated, we all shared a little bedsit flat before we ended up getting signed [by Warner Bros Records]. We ended up all sleeping on polystyrene sheets. Basically we did whatever it took to be close to a recording situation, whether it was having no money and having to come in during the night because the studio manager believed we had something of value and then sleeping during the day, or eventually you live this nomadic life centred around your great passion, which was music.”

During the 80s and early 90s a-ha were one of the biggest bands in the world, selling an estimated 100 million records, yet Furuholmen has admitted to frustrations that “people never saw past the cheekbones and glossy surface”.

“I think it ultimately led to the first hiatus in the 90s,” the 55-year-old says today, “thinking that you’ve just got to dismantle everything and start from scratch, do something else. I didn’t want that to be the only definition of my life. But I think part of the gratifying thing of coming back around the year 2000 was that there was a whole new generation of musicians and artists who grew up with our music and who’d seen past all that and championed our music, from really varied sources. That was one of the things that was part of the re-evaluation of our songs and our music.”

In 1987 a-ha became the only non-British or American act to record a theme song for a James Bond film. However the making of The Living Daylights with York-born composer John Barry proved to be somewhat difficult. “I think it was a little bit of a clash of egos and a little bit of a clash of musical taste but it still sounds pretty good to me today,” Furuholmen says, philosophically. “He was quite a Teutonic figure and we had very specific ideas of what we wanted to do and not do, so it was a little fraught, but good things came out of it.”

In the late 80s Furuholmen developed a keen interest in visual art. In the ensuing decades his work in ceramics, glass, paint, etching and woodcut has been exhibited around the world. He didn’t train to be an artist, he says, “but then I never trained as a musician either; for me it was passions and hobbies that ended up becoming my life and I’ve since had this dual practice of crop-rotating from music to visual art and back and enjoying that freedom that it has allowed me”.

“For the last 10 years I’ve spent more time on my visual art than music but it’s important for me to have both,” he says. “I have six full-time assistants of the art side that I’m responsible for, and their families. I have quite an organisation that I work closely with every day.”

A-ha have gone their separate ways three times in the past 35 years. Furuholmen believes their shared experience has kept bringing them back together. “It’s like any marriage, I guess,” he says. “A-ha is a huge part of our lives and we share this fateful bond, this shared history and shared memories. Let’s not be flippant about this, it’s a huge privilege to be able to go out and play in front of enthusiastic audiences 30 years down the line. Not a lot of artists get that opportunity, so we enjoy that and we feel privileged that we are able to do that.

“We’ve had sort of a stop-and-go career throughout but I think it’s important that you don’t want to fully embrace this idea of yourself as this famous person. You want to be able to get back to zero and try your hand at challenges that don’t allow you this sense of entitlement, that ‘have you no idea who I am?’ kind of thing.”

Furuholmen seems equally grateful that the band have finally been given their critical due. “I think the noise of the initial success has died down,” he says. “There were a few stereotypes there that I was very uncomfortable with, just because we were always very ambitious and we always wanted to give our music the best possible framework for people to find it. I don’t think they necessarily gave us that. The fans that have been loyal all this time championed the music, much like our peers that have since come on the scene. I’m quite happy about that side of things.”

A-ha play at Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster on Thursday June 14. a-ha.com

MTV Unplugged

A-Ha’s MTV Unplugged album “ended up being a really gratifying exercise”, Magne Furuholmen says.

“It also strangely brought the band very close together. We felt very harmonious – in the sense that we were battling with producers, fighting for what we felt was important to us, and discovering how the three of us view what is central to a-ha’s music. But also having the luxury of looking back across decades. It took us a while to get to the point of making an acoustic album but it was good to have the length of time pass because we re-examined our early days in ways I don’t think we could have done early in our career.

“It’s nice to go back after 10 albums or whatever and re-examine the first records, go back and dismantle the original recordings and start again and re-claim your own songs. For years and years they belonged to the general audience and our fans and then to go back to re-do for instance Take On Me as a ballad instead of an upbeat song was something that I think just brought us together.”