by Sabine Clement
In this interview, Magne shows us his pensive and (very) talkative self. I had merely asked one question and the words kept coming – leaving me wondering whether I’d get to ask a second question or whether the whole interview would be made out of one single, long answer. I shouldn’t have worried; for in the end I got to ask a lot of questions – and you get to read a lot of answers! So pull up a chair, get yourself some munchies and enjoy this multi-faceted trip along a variety of topics!
After ‘Minor Earth, Major Sky’, you said that writing lyrics was a difficult way for you to express yourself. Whereas now, you say that this album marks your renaissance as a songwriter. So what brought on the change?
Magne: I think it’s because Paul and I were writing together for such a long time, that we each ended up with our own roles within the collaboration. Paul was always very good with lyrics and also very opinionated about them. So I guess that was always the one field that it felt convenient for me to leave it to Paul. But the result in the long run was that I was always dependent on him to co-write songs with me.
I’m not against that as a principle, I enjoy co-writing and I think a lot of strengths come out of it. But as Paul grew less interested in the material that I was doing and turned more toward Savoy, basically substituting my input with Lauren’s, it was not really good for me to stay in that frame of mind.
When we started working on ‘Minor Earth, Major Sky’, we talked about it beforehand. Paul and I agreed that we should co-write all the songs together. And we started doing that, with ‘Minor Earth, Major Sky’ and ‘Little Black Heart’ – which was a song that I had lying around for a long time and for which Paul wrote the middle part. So, it started out as a collaborative thing, but then gradually, throughout the album… I don’t know what happened, but it just seemed to become less of a collaborative effort and more of a struggle.
Around that time, I ended up in hospital, which forced me to make certain drastic changes in how I approach what I do and how I relate to collaboration or partners. I think naturally, as a person, I try to solve confrontations and not take them. But this time, that’s what I did. I spent my energy on writing songs and I think that a more careless attitude certainly made me able to finish a lot more work myself.
On this record, I really tried to fill in the gaps where I’d felt that I had problems in the past. One of those areas was lyric writing. Due to the respect I had for Paul’s lyric writing, I guess I never felt too self-confident about what I did myself. So this time, rather than trying to emulate his way of writing, I tried to find my own voice. And it just sort of happened naturally.
When I decided to collaborate with Morten, in a way I was not really looking forward to it, because Morten can be pretty headstrong – we all are. In the past, he and I did try to co-write a couple of times, but after so much time apart it’s hard to see ourselves in new combinations. But at the same time, I thought to myself, “If we’re gonna make new stuff together, then we better also challenge our own stereotypes and our own roles and try new things. Otherwise we can just as well celebrate the past and do like a ‘best of’ run.” And actually, that’s what brought about the renaissance in song writing for me.
With Morten, I suddenly had the opposite role in the collaboration. Rather than coming with little themes or motives and maybe a verse or a chorus or a melody line, I would take what he came with, turn it around and write lyrics to it. I would be the one to execute the final version and the final song. So in a way, it was like a role reversal. I was the one held responsible, feeling the responsibility and taking the responsibility in the end. And this, I think, also helped my own writing.
And finally, working as an artist for seven years gave me a much clearer definition of what I wanted and what I didn’t want, for myself.
I started to feel really inspired by being able to write complete stuff, like ‘Lifelines’. And then, from that, came that kind of more joyful and perhaps also a more experimental approach, also lyrically – like with ‘Oranges on Appletrees’. That lyric was actually like a version of scrambled eggs, in the sense that I was trying to write something that was sketching out the lyrics for Morten and that was definitely not meant to be used. But in the end it seemed a lyric that celebrated this pluralistic life that we are part of, these times that we are in.
It’s not a very judgemental lyric, it’s a very inclusive lyric, in the sense that it’s written from the point of view of somebody who is worrying about the times we live in – I think everybody does that, from time to time – but in the verses, there is this pessimistic view about how we’re all just gonna end. It’s almost like Noah’s Ark, there’s water everywhere and the guy is really going paranoid, and really thinking that everything is going to shit. And at the same time there are those choruses that have a complete life-affirming approach. It’s all a little ironic in a sense, like the ‘one big happy family’ line which was an ironic twist on our own situation, but it also just seemed to suggest a kind of panoramic approach, to say: it’s okay!
Our kids are growing up in a world where the borders are not as clear as they were when we grew up, and when we grew, it wasn’t as clear as when our parents grew up. And this is okay, this is fine, so let’s just celebrate the whole thing and not be so worried about it.
But to go back… I’m trying to write lyrics that are full of images, because I think that’s part of my strength. Musically, I think we have a very visual style. Part of my orientation has always been that – to create paintings by sound, to work in a kind of filmatic way. There’s always been sympathy between Paul and me, in that area.
I really enjoy doing this. And I can get better. I can get more effective in trying to express what I want to express. So, it just brought along a lot of enthusiasm. Out of a potentially bad situation where we had people behaving as if they were in three different groups, I actually ended up with something inspiring and hopefully something that manages to express something real. Something that speaks to people.
The worst kind of lyrics I can imagine, are ‘The troubles of being Mags’ or ‘The troubles of being Paul’. Like “Oh, it’s such a hard life.” If you do it really well, I can get on to that kind of music about the hardship of a rock star, like – Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’. There is a sort of mythological allure to it, but I didn’t want to fall into that trap with this record. I wanted to write something that was a little bit more open, and not so complaining. I wanted to write something that was positive.
I hope to make something that is relevant to my situation. If it doesn’t grab me, I can’t see how it will grab anybody else. So the more personal you are, the better – not private, but personal. I think that by being personal, it’s possible to touch something that is universal. You tap into some kind of general vibe and you try to just write your way out of it. In everything I do, whether it is music, art or writing lyrics, whatever, I really just try to understand my own situation better.
Personal in the way that other people see it as personal for them as well?
Magne: Yeah, that’s important. That’s why you write it, rather than just say it to your friends. If you take away all the obvious differences from people’s lives, then we all have more or less the same stories to tell at the end of the day. We can be fed up with many kind of differences, but in the end, emotionally and structurally, we’re all more or less the same. (smiles)
If you let go of the idea that what you do is full of originality and you just work at expressing something from where you are standing, that in itself is of real value. Just to be able to describe things the way you see them. Because nobody has seen things the same way. They may recognize it, from what you write, something in themselves, saying “Hey, this sounds familiar?! This is something I can relate to.”
It’s very simple, you know. It’s a scale of notes, they’ve all been used before. It’s a limited amount of words, they’ve been put together before. They’ve been abused before, they’ve been wonderfully poetically used before. And all those things are in your mind when you’re working. It’s very hard not to be aware of history. Certainly as you grow older, that history can be quite something to relate to. Your own history but most importantly the history of the context that you’re working in.
There is a very strange balance between the respect and the humility on one side and the irreverence that you need to make a balanced approach to what you do, to get excited about what you do, without looking at what others do and compare yourself to them. Because it’s very easy to get cynical about your own work. And cynical work is by far the most boring work that I know.
Why do you think that it’s easy to get cynical about your own work?
Magne: You have three people, each pitching ideas, anybody’s idea is very vulnerable when you put it out there. It’s like a little baby that doesn’t even know how to feed itself, it doesn’t know how to grow. You have to help it. But it’s very easy to say: “Okay, you just leave and see if it makes it on its own” or “That baby looks like something I did ten years ago, I’m not really gonna go there.”
It’s very easy to take advantage of fragile situations and it demands a lot of respect and irreverence, because pop history is full of stuff… If you go back, if you listen to everything that is done, then it’s very hard to motivate yourself, to find something for yourself to do, something that excites you. You can always find negative things. You can listen to your own song and say: “Maybe that was a little bit like this or that was a little bit like that”, but I just don’t worry about it anymore. And then new stuff comes out.
Music can be different things. It can be art, it can be entertainment, and it can be a political tool even. What kind of music do you think that a-ha’s music is, or should be, or could be?
Magne: I think we’re a kind of serious entertainment.
I think that most of the stuff that we do has artistic ambition, aspiration and quality.
My definition of art is very simple. It has nothing to do with quality. As long as it is part of the public sphere, it is art. And then you can discuss whether it is good art or bad art; I don’t really draw the distinction between.
Entertainment is one of the major factors in art today. If you look at something like what Jeff Koons did or all those pop art artists in the eighties. This whole new trend out of the UK and the US was very much about entertaining, but in a way that it made you think. Entertaining in a way that makes you feel and reflect. I think this is what we are doing.
Our ambition is not to entertain per sé, but we are working in a form of expression where unless you entertain, there is very little mass appeal for what you do. So you have to make a decision, are you going for mass appeal or not? And a-ha has always had mass appeal, but that doesn’t make it less artistic.
Mass appeal does not incriminate artistic ambition. But it makes it harder for certain people who have an elitist view of life to catch on to it.
You mentioned that you had a feeling that you still had a chance to get better. How important is it for you to have that feeling of gain with every album?
Magne: Yeah, you know, they say: no pain, no gain – and we’ve certainly had the pain; so there’s gotta be some gain.
‘Better’ is not the best word, because ‘better’ sounds like you’re trying to improve your performance. Of course you are. Every concert you want to make it better, in the sense of making it more of an effective vehicle to put across an emotion or an atmosphere. You can call it a message, but it doesn’t have to be defined into a slogan or propaganda. I think the message that you try to convey can be pretty vague and ambivalent. So you try to improve your skills at reaching your audience. Because you see that working.
Do you think that, from a creative point of view, it is possible to write a four-minute song with three people?
Magne: Sure, it’s possible. It’s not hard at all. It would just mean that somebody has one idea and somebody else pitches another and then the third person says, “Well, I like it, why don’t we add something like this?”
Would you like to be working that way for some songs?
Magne: Well, yeah, we’ve had a couple of occasions where we’ve done that. And there’s room for that. I guess, that taking confrontations without creating a war is an art form. This is something that we’ve all gotten better at. We no longer glare at each other if we disagree with something.
I’m too much of a busybody anyway. Whenever I see something interesting, I stick my ass in it. There’s room for that too. I worked really hard now on the Lifelines video with a Swedish director, hopefully that work will sort of be reflecting something closer to what we want.
That’s something that started with the whole comeback thing as well. For me, I wasn’t interested in having some art director making the covers or the videos and then just show up on the day of the video shoot. Now we have Lauren doing a video for one of the other songs. So there should be room for manoeuvrability, for all three of us. We don’t all have the same strengths. I can take a lot of my experiences from the art world into this, whether it’s to do with designing shirts or programs or books – stuff that I’m interested in. Whereas before, we would discuss it to death and agree to do nothing. And now it’s a little more like: “Fuck it, we just do it. I just do it.” And if it’s done, I think that we’re all kind of happier than if it wasn’t done, as it was before. I’m much happier in the band than I was before.
Yet the media seem to have replaced a-ha’s teen band image by a new one: that of the three ever-quarrelling men.
Magne: Yeah, especially in Norway. But I think we fed them that. In Norway, the reviews are very rarely about the product; it’s the band that’s being reviewed. So if you feed them stories of dissent and differences of opinion, then that’s the angle that they’re gonna write from. They’re gonna look at everything with those glasses on. Like the line: “They weren’t really that close in the studio.”
While we weren’t even in the studio together! (laughs). But that does not mean that we didn’t meet and discuss and disagree or even agree on a couple of occasions!
You have to look at it from the point of view that a lot of stuff happened on this album, internally as well. And any kind of situation like this is gonna make some people feel like they’re coming out winning and some people feel they’re coming out losing. But I think that in the end, if the band wins, everybody wins.
So I think that this new angle from the press is something that we’ve created and I think that it was unnecessary. It’s a little bit going back to what I said about “The troubles of being us”. I don’t like that approach. I think that people are simpler in their approach to things. Because why should people be interested in if I have a good day or a bad day? Why should people be interested in whether Paul and I are kissing each other or hitting each other? It only has a limited interest for the very, very dedicated followers.
What most people only care about is that you come up with music that means something to them, that you are able to make their lives a little more magical. That’s why we are in it too, to make our lives a little more magical. And if we make other people’s life a little more like walking on roses, then that’s the fulfilling part.
As for our previous image… I’ve never been a very serious person. I’ve been very serious about what I do, but I’ve never been the clown they wrote I was. Before, I didn’t want to be and now I just don’t care about it anymore. So it sort of bit itself in the tail, in the end. I came through the eighties intact.
So you don’t care too much about that new image anymore that people put on you either?
Magne: No, not really. Well, what I do care about is this: I don’t think that an image helps people to listen to the music with open minds, and that’s the most important thing for me. So that’s why I think it’s stupid of us to close people’s minds and give them a direction on how to experience something. Because then you take away their chance to experience it from themselves. When you write something, you go with it, and people don’t have to know the band’s inner workings to understand the song.
But you also have to recognize that it comes out almost naturally. And sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that a newspaper is an appropriate way for us to express our private views on ourselves. To hell with it! I hate it when people do that! That’s reality TV, to me. We express our personal emotion through our music, but to express our private views in the press, about ourselves… How interesting is that?! In my book, that’s like way down on the list.
Still, I cannot stop Morten and Paul talking about how they experienced making the album, and I cannot stop myself from saying things either. Even though I think that my opinions are not worth much in the end. I think the music has to speak for itself, and that’s it.
How important is the role of spontaneity in song writing or recording.
Magne: Well, spontaneity has never been one of a-ha’s fortes. I wanted to make an album that was less guarded, less strategic, less catering for the music police, less careful in a way. So I guess that my main ambition was to transfer the energy of the whole tour and the whole comeback vibe and just use it on the new record. I wanted to let it go on its own way and just follow it.
But I think that once you get a little burnt, like a-ha did, you can get too careful. With the history that we had, there is the danger of catering too much to the fear of being pulled back in into an image that you don’t want. We did all those videos, we did ‘Touchy!’, ‘You are the one’ and all those corny things, but when you look back on it, those are not the things that you’re gonna be judged by. You’re gonna be judged by everything that you did and whatever people pick up from it.
Did you succeed in being more spontaneous, on ‘Lifelines’?
Magne: For me, it worked. I do think that it is a much more colourful album. I always saw this record as a tapestry of ideas, like patchwork, like a collage. A less tight-knotted record. Paul talked a bit about the worry that it would sound too much like two different albums. I wasn’t too worried about that. I was thinking “Well, if it does, let it do so. Let it be a document of the time that we’re in, and let it show people what and when we are.” It’s not as if I have anything to hide anything from anybody.
Do you care about reviews, both by the media and by fans?
Magne: To a certain degree. Sometimes you get surprised when people review things more thoroughly than you had expected. Most of the time you expect reviews to be quite superficial, rendering what you spent a year doing. It takes only a day or two days to write a review, at best. It takes a year to make a record. So in a way you have to look at it in that perspective. But at the same time, if reviews are written in a reflective way, then sure. Whether they’re good or bad then, you’re tempted to look at them.
I’m personally not one who spends a lot of time thinking about a project once it’s done. I’m on to the next thing very quickly. And then bad reviews only get in my way, while good reviews… I take them a little bit as a kind pat on the shoulder, but nothing more serious than that.
But when you read how people react to what you’ve done, on a listening level – not writing for their newspaper to satisfy their own status – then it means more. I read all the stuff that people have written about ‘Lifelines’ on a-ha.com, out of curiosity. In a way, reviews from people that are positive to begin with could very easily make you self-sufficient. But I think that it’s just interesting to see what people have picked up or how they have reacted. It certainly gives you the feeling that the nights you spent on your own in the dark basement, hammering your head against the wall, were not in vain. It tells you “Okay, message delivered and message received.” To know that you’ve succeeded with what you’ve been trying to do is always a welcome thing.
Would you consider producing songs yourself, maybe even a whole album?
Magne: I think that to a certain degree, we do – in a way that a producer is someone you use as an intermediate, like a referee. I think that all three of us felt that it was a bit messy to have so many people around. Maybe we should just agree on one guy and trash it out in one studio, doing it one way, next time and see how it goes. Because this was a bit ridiculous in the end; it was a very expensive album to make.
I think that this record shows the different producers. If you took away all the names, you could see the different elements. Stephen Hague likes to program things. Clive Alan likes to have people play it. Ian Caple is somewhere in between, and so is Nåid. Tor Johansen does everything himself. ‘Did anyone approach you’ came back like it is. I don’t remember putting anything down on that one. He took Paul’s demo and he just kind of tore it to pieces and came back with this kind of disco track that we all loved. We thought it was great.
Of the cover of ‘Minor Earth, Major Sky’, you said that there was a symbolic relationship between the plane wing against the blue sky and the stranded cockpit. What is the story behind the ‘Lifelines’ album cover?
Magne: I started with one photographer and one designer exploring the idea of the literal translation of the word ‘lifelines’, with the hands and the close-ups of the faces. My idea was based on where we are now with a-ha. I wanted to take an ironic approach to the way we had recorded the album and take individual shots of us, and then stitch them together – almost like a grandmother who stitches your socks, trying to help you and make your day a little better. That kind of tender approach to try something that’s almost impossible, like you’ve been out drinking all night and you’re a wreck, but she’s still making your socks looking perfect before you go to work.
I liked that approach but the photo material just didn’t click for me. It seemed too heavy-laden. And then I tried to do the same with butterflies and birds and stitching their wings to the paper. And that kind of looked interesting for a while, but then two other albums came out with a big butterfly on the cover – a greatest hits from Talk Talk and then Alanis’ live release – so that idea flew out as well.
Then we went to Cuba [to film the ‘Forever Not Yours’ video] and took a photographer with us, Andreas Frank. I saw some of the stuff that he’d done and I thought that he was good! So I suggested to him “Why don’t you shoot some architectural details from Cuba?” because I felt that ‘Lifelines’ as a title needed some kind of an abstract entry point, visually. So the idea with the Oscar Niemeyer-like details was just right for that.
The first time I saw the image, I was in Florida. [Our tour manager] Ylva said that she had some great new cover suggestions from Andreas. Now, when people say that “It’s great”, I’m always sceptical. But I remember sitting at an Internet cafe and getting those pictures transferred, and the minute the roof came up, it had such a visual power! A mix of a kind of aggressiveness and tristesse. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and it seemed to be an interesting and intriguing image for the album. So it was very clear: “This has gotta be it.” And then other things fell in place around that; we started to add more architectural stuff and used the idea of lines, lifelines, in a less symbolic and more literal sense.
The typical length of a pop song is four minutes. Does that feel as a restriction, or is it a relief that it’s not an average of ten minutes.
Magne: To me, the idea of writing a three or four minute pop song is a real challenge, a really creative opportunity this time around. I don’t see it as restriction.
In a way, I believe in restriction because it is the opposite of self-indulgence. It’s the same when I work with art. If you make such rules for yourself, like “I’m not gonna paint any other picture than this exact size”, “I’m not gonna use my left hand, I’m gonna use my right hand” or “I’m gonna get totally drunk before I make any picture” then you’re restricting. But by restricting you’re creating a very clear window of opportunity for expressing something quite specific. And that’s how I start to get creative, by taking away possibilities, not adding to them.
If you want to do everything in one song, then you get paralysed by your own inability. That’s the artist’s biggest enemy, I think – to get too idealistic about one’s own work. If you do that, then you see the gap between what you would like to do and what you can actually do.
If you’re a Rembrandt fan and you want to paint like him but you can’t do it, you get discouraged because of the gap. But if you look at Rembrandt and you say “That’s fantastic, I need to do something with the same kind of control or the same kind finesse”, then you can cultivate your own style.
I think the main problem is that you very easily get a fear of heights. If you look at your work and you want every song to be a first single, then it won’t work. I think that Morten struggled a bit with this. He was never happy unless all the full potential of the song was realized. To set yourself the ultimate goal is to kill your mind. You see that goal, like a fata morgana of what you want it to be, but when you start to make it happen, it doesn’t happen. And that makes you insecure and paralysed.
Whereas if you have worked with many different things, songs, pictures, film, then you come to realize that the most important thing is to do something the best you can. After that, you do something else, which is perhaps better, or different, but at least you move in a different direction.
You have to start enjoying what you do at every level. Otherwise, you’re going to get totally paralysed. And when that happens, then you fall into the trap of doing what you do well and you stop challenging yourself. You start writing the same lyric but with different words, you start writing the same song just with different rhythm. You start repeating yourself, because you know what you can do. I’m not interested in what I can do, I’m interested in what I cannot do.
Are nonsensical lyrics something for a-ha?
Magne: We’ve had nonsensical lyrics. For good and bad, we’ve had terribly nonsensical lyrics on some songs. Even on songs that perhaps deserved other lyrics. But there is a craft in making happy song lyrics, if you look at the Beach Boys, the Beatles, if you look at great, simple pop lyrics, there’s definitely craft in doing that.
But that’s not our best stuff. I think that the best stuff that we’ve done is a little more pensive, a little more reflective, and a little more melancholic. So the irony is that we are so known for our upbeat songs. But even a song like ‘Take On Me’ is a minor song; everything is in minor. But there are other songs, like ‘Stay on these roads’, which had completely nonsensical lyrics, and which would perhaps have benefited if they had been more worked-through…? But even lyrics like that have their own kind of magic, as they happened there and then. And they’re not meaningless, they’re just cryptic or even us playing weird. But weird is good, weird is pretty good.
Talking about weird: I have one last question. What would you get when a bird mates with a bumblebee?
Magne: In biological terms, you would probably get… a serious problem! I think that if you mate a bird with a bumblebee, you either get a very bad-stinging bird or a very good singing bee.