A-ha! It's the Eighties again

Whisper it... A-ha have just produced a really rather good new album. Glyn Brown meets the original boy band to find out what prompted their comeback
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The Independent Culture

A-ha: unexpectedly, Norway's finest are back. Perhaps more unexpectedly, their new album, Minor Earth Major Sky, is really rather good. There are swooping great numbers of filmic intensity, troubling confidences and sombre, Beatles-esque observations on loneliness and quiet desperation. There was, if you looked, always a touch of melancholy to A-ha's work; it just got smothered in their aura of being the first, ostensibly innocuous, boy band.

A-ha: unexpectedly, Norway's finest are back. Perhaps more unexpectedly, their new album, Minor Earth Major Sky, is really rather good. There are swooping great numbers of filmic intensity, troubling confidences and sombre, Beatles-esque observations on loneliness and quiet desperation. There was, if you looked, always a touch of melancholy to A-ha's work; it just got smothered in their aura of being the first, ostensibly innocuous, boy band.

Interesting things about A-ha: they named themselves after one of their songs, and were almost called A-hem; their breakthrough single, "Take On Me", had sold a measly 300 until that famous, animated pencil-sketch video; Mr Harket is now, good grief, 41; and there was a nasty upset between Harket and the band's principal songwriter, Pal Waktaar-Savoy, in 1993. Any chance for a scrum when I meet them is ruled out, however, since the lads have opted for separate interviews.

Morten Harket, the first up, is a revelation. His face has the chiselled wholesomeness of yore, untouched by time; with his glasses and cultured demeanour (son of a pathologist and a teacher), he brings to mind no one so much as Cliff Richard, and turns out to be, in his way, as evangelistic. The face, of course, has been his fortune and his downfall. His manner insists he's deeply spiritual; only he can't get much time for inspiring interaction with the world because of a small problem of being noticed. Everywhere. "I've tried going away," he grimaces. "I've been far. And it doesn't stop. The toughest experience was in the Amazon, meeting Indians. Even they were fans, they just wanted me to be a pop star."

This, you can tell, the poor chap finds terribly draining; and the only way to replace the energy of being "on" all the time is to write. Harket has two solo albums up his sleeve, and penned a couple of songs for the new A-ha outing, though the effort to be taken seriously means he also insists he doesn't listen to music ("there's so much more to life"). Apparently, the desire to write was stifled during the A-ha years, with intriguing consequences. It all came to a head during the treadmill that was 1993.

"There was one night when we did this Rock in Rio concert, which pulled a record-breaking crowd. But I felt really bad up there, because I knew I was not capable of releasing things in me in the way I should. I wasn't opening up, and I asked myself, What are you doing? Why on earth are you still here?"

The problem, as he explains it, is that he was "controlling" his life. "I needed to address the way I was dealing with things - this was a necessity if I was ever going to be able to write. I realised I had to get rid of everything, whatever I was carrying with me and anything I thought I knew, because I'd not achieved it in a pure enough state."

Hmm. Treading the edge of a breakdown? "A kind of breakdown, but one that you induce yourself, because you're not willing to carry on the way you are. I could have done, but it would be a dead end. It's not that I felt I was wearing a mask, it was just inhibition. Holding back all the time - I'd smile, but only because people wanted to see me smile." Thus, he shut himself away, ceased contact with anyone and, as he elliptically explains, "Let things fall, until at the end I could see what was left standing." A brave move.

The new ideology is not to force anything. Quite daringly, he says: "I do things now when I'm inspired, that I may not even like myself, necessarily. There are things I might prefer, but they're stale compared to the others. The older I get, the more fascinated I am by what happens by itself."

One thing that happened by itself was that in 1998, after five years apart, A-ha were asked to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and surprise at how well they got on prompted a new start. But, going into the next room, I find Waktaar-Savoy and keyboard player/writer Magne Furuholmen already looking slightly jaded. Waktaar-Savoy is cerebral and restrained; Furuholmen is the comic. His early years were spent working in a psychiatric hospital. Did that help with demented fan behaviour? "The trick with the job was to provide a normal environment and not be part of any psychosis that was going on." He grins. "Now I wonder exactly how I applied that."

The copious fan hysteria began with the "Take On Me" video, which made Morten a cartoon hero, a bit of a mythical being. Did it suit you, having him as a figurehead? "Hmm..." growls Waktaar-Savoy drily. "Morten as mythical being." Much sighing. "Magne and I had been in another band - Bridges, a garage, indie thing. We weren't massively into writing pop songs, though we felt we ought to go a bit in that direction. And then - oops. We took it one step too far."

It seemed to work out OK, didn't it? Waktaar-Savoy shrugs, returning to Harket as if he's pop personified. "You know, it's weird with the songs I write; I'm an introverted person, and I write songs that lean in that direction. To have somebody like him sing them is the opposite of what you'd think they need. Kind of bizarre, somehow."

But here comes Furuholmen, smoothing the waters. "It's possible to get too neurotic about things, and I think we got neurotic about our image being too small a suit for our musical direction. We got very hyped up about it. But when you're successful, you do the silly things they ask you to do because you feel A-ha is your only chance to be heard."

Waktaar-Savoy shuffles his feet. "Then, after about a year, you start to wonder, where the hell is this going?" (To be fair, the anxiety the promo merry-go-round caused him is clear when you hear the album track "Barely Hanging On": "Used to be so comfortable in a crowd/ Now I can't say my own name out loud".)

These days, everyone feels more in control, having established individual careers. Furuholmen has a band called Timbersound; Waktaar-Savoy's band, Savoy, did quite well with their début album, 1996's Mary Is Coming. If the title's odd, how about the song (it's no good, I can't help myself) that included veiled digs at Harket?

"Yeah, well..." Waktaar-Savoy clears his throat. "That was a long time ago." "All water under the bridge!" It's Furuholmen, laughing his head off, with a startlingly fine Basil Fawlty impression. "All good friends now, all in this together, and no need to mention the war!"

A likeable bloke and, if he seems well-adjusted, it may be because his primary pursuit now is art. His paintings are bought and shown worldwide - the Dalai Lama, in fact, is due to drop in to an exhibition in Stavanger in a month's time. Furuholmen decided to give A-ha one more go, he says, because it seemed like a challenge. And has it been?

"It's like being caught in the middle of a Buñuel movie and you've lost the script. You stand back and see yourself in this surreal scene." He looks at Waktaar-Savoy, round the room, smiles very genuinely. "But you know, I kind of enjoy that."

'Minor Earth Major Sky' is released on WEA on 29 May

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