Paul explains the reason behind a-ha’s music

Interview by Sabine Clement

Halfway a-ha’s first tour leg, halfway Europe and halfway sound check and concert, I meet up with Paul Waaktaar-Savoy to discuss his activities of the recent past and the near future – and why he’s doing what he’s doing. “I’m having fun!” Paul tells me, and it shows. The tour is going smoothly, the band has a great time on stage, and the atmosphere is relaxed. It was like that at Ullevaal, for 23 people, and it was like that at Aarhus, before an audience of 800. So have they become professionals at touring, or does every concert have its intricacies?

The opening gig of this tour took place at a sold out football stadium, the other concerts were all at much smaller halls. Is there a difference?

Paul: The sound is a little more difficult [in a small venue], because Morten has such sensitive ears. He really likes to hear his voice quite loud and that’s hard when you have your head stuck between two speakers. Plus, you hear the room much more in a smaller place.
But I kinda like it, because you play in a different way. It’s a little more like a club gig so it deserves some sort of aggressiveness; it gets a little meaner.

And you have the right instrument, to be mean.

Paul: Yeah! (laughs) You can really feel the temperature rising just a little bit if you do something like that, and that’s kinda fun. But it’s still the same songs, the same band, so it’s not that different. And, of course, since we don’t play that many stadiums, that’s special too! Gives a bit more of a kick.

How did you feel about the Royal Albert Hall and some other UK venues selling out so quickly?

Paul: I don’t really spend that much time thinking about that. If you look back over the years, then it’s a never ending up and down story. If you go down here, suddenly you sell well in Brazil, or the other way around.

Still, I think that [selling out the Royal Albert Hall] was a positive thing. It’s what we needed, it happened at a good time. With the English company being what they are, we needed a little ground support. So we got that and, well, I think at least now they know that they have to do something and that they have to show it.

Do you think that the UK could be a gateway to other markets?

Paul: At least we found that Germany isn’t a gateway. The classic gateways are England and America. I think that we have to focus a little more on England and America, to get to other territories.

What does ‘focus’ stand for?

Paul: For me, it would start with the album. You can’t just make anything and say: “Oh, now we’re going to be big in England and America.” You need to have something that is right for that market. Living in the States myself, I don’t hear how we are gonna do it with a-ha there. I can’t really hear how it’s going to hit the radio. I think we have to be a little more into some American influences and such, just kind of get a little different mindset. So, I think it starts with the actual album.

Do you think that the ‘Lifelines’ album could be the one?

Paul: I don’t know. Maybe certain songs. The album is very much here and there and everywhere, you know. I think that for America, they’re thinking of combining the two [latest] albums. Just picking the stuff that would relate to an American audience. And that might be good.

And who are ‘they’?

Paul: The record company. We’re still with Warner Brothers.

How do you define success?

Paul: Uuuhhmmm… Success is keeping busy. Having a new project to work on, the moment that you have finished the previous one. Promoting is one thing, but I never think of that as success. Sure, you have to do it, but I always think of the next thing: “Okay, we’ve done this, now I can do that.” Because your main effort is to create something new. And as long as I have that rush of having new projects, of something to look forward to getting my hands on… I have that naive thing that you can keep doing that and success will follow.

So, success keeps you on a roll.

P: Yeah, it opens new opportunities. I also think that if you focus on a new thing, suddenly good happens to something you did last year, you know. Instead of sitting at home battling.

Do you feel that you’ve gained something over the years?

Paul: (laughs) I don’t know. I’m happy that we can be in this age group and still have that feeling about doing things.

And I think since we had the career we had, we kept feeling hungry because we got the image that we have. So it kept us… (thinks)

…motivated to show them wrong.

Paul: Yeah, it kept us kind of pissed off!

That’s a good basic!

Paul: Yeah! (laughs) So we have that attitude like: “Okay, fuck them!” You know! So, at least we didn’t peak when we were 23.

Maybe you should remain misunderstood!

Paul: Yeah, that’s what I think… get miserable!

Is there something with this new album, ‘Lifelines’, that you are particularly proud of?

Paul: ‘Lifelines’ was a difficult album for me. I came so late into it, and straight from Savoy, already the next day. It was a little bit too much ‘back against the wall’, having to do ten demos for a-ha in three weeks.

And I always wanted that [continuity] and I was happy with the songs that I came up with, but I wasn’t happy with the help that I got from the producers. That was my main problem. I got kind of stuck with Ian Caple, who is more of an engineer than a producer. I think he spent a lot of time just fixing up my demos that I’d done in a couple of weeks. Suddenly, a month was spent on a thing that I did in one day, just to fix up little things. So, that was a little frustrating. But, as I said, I’m happy with some of the songs that I delivered.

I think I learned a lot with this album. Working with all these different people, you learn it the hard way. You pick up a lot of things that you wanna stay clear of, with the new stuff that we are working on now.

You said that one day, you were working on Savoy, and then the next day, it was a-ha. Is it like a click in your head?

Paul: I would have liked to have a little more time to focus on a-ha. In a way, that deadline was put ahead of time, they said: “We’re gonna come out with this album then.” While I prefer to do that when are already working on the album and you start to see it coming. But it is a rich meal, there is a lot of stuff on the album.

Would you consider producing an a-ha album yourself, or maybe only your own songs?

Paul: Well, since I produce Savoy’s albums, it’s hard for me to take a step back. And that’s what I did on this a-ha album. I sat back and said: “Here’s my song. Produce it.” Normally, I’m pretty aggressive in the studio, but it’s hard to set the limit of “How much do I push it?” How much is too much? Of course you hire somebody to get their best out. So if you just totally roll over them, then you’re not gonna get anything back. It’s a very fine line to let them do their stuff.
So this time, I tried to sit back and said to myself: “Okay, let them. Don’t be your bossy self.” And I let them. And then at the end of the day, you may find out that “Oh shit, I should have pushed!” That’s hard. I think that on the next album, I’m pushing. (laughs)

And what is the talent then, that you are looking for in a producer?

Paul: I think that when you write a song, record it and semi-produce it, you get a little lost. Your ears should be going for the whole picture of the song instead of to every little detail. And that’s where production goes wrong, when some of those details don’t deliver what they should be delivering. The foundations start to crumble a little bit and you don’t know what it is. It’s the right part, but for some reason, there’s no gelling the way you want it. It’s so easy to screw up something, so easy… And then, after a long day, you think: “What happened to this, it sounded great yesterday?!”

So you should keep everything?

Paul: Yeah, but that’s the worst thing too, because with Pro Tools and all this computer stuff, you do keep everything. Whereas in the old days, when you had four track, you had to make a decision. So I think that you were much more focused then on what was the right decision. It was “Do I, or don’t I?” and you died every time you did it. Now it’s a bit like: keep everything, and you end up with five thousand tracks just for a simple song.

On stage, the three of you together really seem to be having a good time. Would you also like to be in the studio together again?

Paul: Yeah, we keep trying, you know. For the last album, we weren’t that much together in the studio, but I think we have to come to a point where we pull in the same direction. Often that’s when you get the best results.

Is it easier to pull in the same direction on stage than in the studio?

Paul: It’s hard to do it whenever we all want to have a certain share of the project. When everyone hopes to deliver something for the album.

I think that either we make albums a little faster, so we don’t have to be so precious about our songs, because you deliver more anyway.

Or, that we all have different projects to put our songs into, so that you don’t have to fight for them.

Is it actually possible, from a creative point of view, to write a song with three people?

Paul: Yeah, it’s very possible, and we’ve done that in the past. But normally, for me, I get a song – it sort of arrives – and I finish it, before the others can even get to hear it. So it’s really hard for me to say: “Oh, here’s the beginning of a song, stop writing it! Show it to Mags and Morten, maybe they come up with something!”(laughs)

What kind of music is a-ha’s?

Paul: (thinks long) I think we can arrive at something which is still very catchy but which is uniquely us. Now and then, we do a certain song that no other band can do. For me, it really is the combination of a kind of moody, miserable song, and Morten’s voice which manages to put a whole different spin on it. When you give this to another singer, it becomes heavy-hearted but when Morten sings it, it becomes kind of light. These are the songs that have wings, songs that really seem to be a little… elevated(laughs)

Is the objective then to touch people?

Paul: Oh, it’s all about ego. (laughs)

Of course. Why did I even ask.

Paul: It’s to touch you and it’s to touch us. That’s the kick!

So, it’s important to still have fun yourself.

Paul: Oh yeah, it’s fun doing it! I’m having fun!

I have this feeling that, while recording, you allow things to slip in; things that just happen.

Paul: Yeah… You have a song, you write it, you hear it in your head, and you know that you have a certain amount of time to hook it in the studio. And then you screw it up. Then you have to stop, because you can’t just continue building on it and hope that it gets right again.

So you need to be reckless and at the same time, you know where you should go. But if you try to mathematically arrive at that point, then it’s not gonna work. You have to go in there with a reckless attitude, throw things in and hope that it will get you there. It’s such a long and narrow road to land a song and we tried every possible way to get there.

But yes, when you can perform it sort of free, that’s when the best things come. Another trick is to make it as simple as can be. Then you probably wouldn’t screw up so many songs.

Do you get writer’s block at times?

Paul: Writer’s block is something I haven’t had for a long time. In a way, I get the opposite. I write a lot of songs and then I’m like “Oh, God, all that work recording those songs! When am I going to do that! It’s like, Jeeesus.” At the same time, this is what you live for. I have a month off now, in July, and I’m thinking: “My God, that’s gonna be a busy month!” You find yourself thinking that every time: “How can I get that more simple. How can I do it?” (laughs)

If you’re so inspired, do you sometimes regret that a typical pop song lasts for four minutes?

Paul: Well, it used to be three minutes (laughs)

No, I don’t regret it. With [Savoy’s latest album] ‘Mountains of Time’, I really got into editing stuff. Most of the songs on that one were like 4.5 to 5.5 minutes at first. Then I chopped off at least a minute on each of them, and they just felt better. So I think there’s definitely a limit. Certain songs need more time, but then you make a point of that. Normally, the more condensed, the better.
When you’d write something really long, then it’s constructed. It becomes a design job, because nobody writes melody lines that long. It’s more like a puzzle, with different pieces put together. Not like a classical piece, because they normally just have a couple of themes with all types of variations – which is also like a construction to me.

In a way, I like it that a pop song has got rid of all that. Where you have to deliver in (snaps fingers), without all the decoration.

You have to prove it in four minutes.

Paul: Yeah! (laughs) The pressure! But I enjoy doing longer songs like ‘Cold as Stone’ , which is really like trying to beat the horse, you know. That’s just saying, “Okay, this is roughly the song and now we’re gonna jam.”

Like a solo at a concert. “Yes! More!”

Paul: It’s fun to have that! When you feel that a piece hasn’t been played like that before, that’s a nice feeling. So every concert is cool that way. If we’re having a rough time, we only wait for that one moment that we play something we’ve never played before, and then we can say: “Okay, now we’re there!”

All a-ha songs are in English, is it an unwritten rule?

Paul: It’s just something that we’ve done since we were kids. And now that I’ve been living abroad since like forever, it comes naturally. Lauren and Augie and I speak English, so everything is in English. I did try to write some Norwegian songs in the beginning, but then I got better. (laughs)
It’s just something about Norwegian. Either you have to go for the slang way – and that’s a heavy slang – or you have to be really wordy, and then you start sounding a little pompous. There are people in Norway who do that very well, but it’s tricky.

Another lyric question. With the new a-ha albums, and also with Savoy, you seem to be telling little stories within the songs. They are not just some loose lyrics anymore.

Paul: I did those loose lyrics so much in the earlier days, and I got kind of tired of it myself. I think that there are some beautiful lines there, but I was never interested in making it too straight, or too easy, for the listener to get into it. I went for a few sentences that really made you feel something, but I didn’t get all the pieces. Whereas now, I find that if the lyrics don’t speak to you right away, I get annoyed.

I got so jealous of Lauren being able to write the lyrics at the same time as she wrote the song, whereas I would spend the next four months doing that. In the past, I was so excited when I wrote the song, that I just went out for a walk or something. But then you have to wait for it all to come back again, and it becomes a different type of lyrics. So I found that when you have that first rush of seeing the song coming through, and you spend the next hour working on the lyrics, then you can probably get ninety percent of them as well. So that’s kinda cool. Like with ‘Afternoon High’ – as the song came out, the lyrics came out.

I also found that you don’t get so worked up about it when you’re just running along an old childhood memory or so. Then it’s so easy. At the moment, it feels like you just jotted it down, but when you look at it and wait, then you’re like “Oh, I’m really happy with that!” The more you wait, the more it looks like a masterpiece.

All pictures by Sabine Clement, except picture no.2 by Koen Clement

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