The following is a fan report by Larissa Bendel from a-ha’s Press Conference at the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin on March 25, 2015.
Numbers, T-shirts, and spelling games on sound equipment ‒ in the months after the announcement that a-ha will celebrate the band’s as well as the festival’s 30th anniversary by playing a concert at “Rock in Rio” in September this year, hints as to what this seemingly singular decision might actually entail have been less and less hidden. Still, the extent of these hints has only become clear in the past days ‒ in a totally unexpected swirl of revelations that, despite those hints, still caught most people in surprise, I would dare to maintain.
Finally, Thursday last week, German magazine MusikExpress posted an online article referring to a press conference to be held in Berlin and scheduled for March 25, an event cryptically headlined “a-ha has something to say”. At the end of the article, the rather helpless-sounding appeal was made: “The editors of the magazine would be thankful for more detailed information as we don’t know much so far.” The link to this website was endlessly multiplied within hours, causing a considerable stir in the a-ha fan community and a hectic exchange of email and phone messages all around the world. But one thing seemed already certain at that point: a-ha was about to reunite, just the whats, whens, and whys temporarily remained a mystery. Then, two days after MusikExpress posted said statement, the Norwegian paper Dagbladet featured a several pages long article about and interview with a-ha in their weekend edition in which it was confirmed: Yes, there is gonna be a band called a-ha again.
As a longtime follower of a-ha’s, both in a professional as well as in a personal way, I really wanted to go to Berlin to attend the band’s press conference at the Norwegian Embassy. So, I eagerly watched my email account: Would the mail containing an invitation to the event come or not? It did. There was a seat reserved for me and I would travel to Germany’s capital. Wow.
The day couldn’t have been more perfectly chosen: When I got off the train at Berlin main station, the city welcomed me with the best version of what early spring in Germany has to offer: blue sunny skies, pleasant temperatures and a bustling, nevertheless calm and relaxed city life. When I got off at the bus stop “Nordische Botschaften” (Nordic Embassies), I immediately saw the building housing the Norwegian Embassy ‒ firstly, because it’s large and impressive, and, secondly, because the “buzz” seeming to emanate from the house and definitely emanating from the crowd of the 25-30 people ‒ a-ha fans, unmistakably ‒ standing in front of it couldn’t be missed.
Inside, in the foyer, there was an international murmur of voices mainly of journalists, mostly from Germany and Norway, exchanging small talk with their colleagues as well as the eager conversations among the fans who had been given an invitation to the press conference by a-ha.com and who thus had secured themselves one of the precious seats at the event.
Coffee and pastries were served to the waiting crowd which, at some point, was told to hush as there was a choir having a concert upstairs that was disturbed by the talking going on in the lobby. It felt strange listening to the trained voices resonating though the building while the fidgety crowd was doing its best to repress its excitement of the occasion: In less than an hour, one of the most influential pop groups of the 80s and beyond would be there announcing their comeback after almost four and a half years.
The doors opened at 1 p.m., and everybody quickly streamed into the auditorium where the press conference was to be held. The many photographers that were accredited immediately raced into the first row, refusing to give up their seats to the a-ha.com winners for whom these places were actually reserved. But, luckily, a compromise was made: That after the photo call at the beginning of the event, the photographers would quickly retreat, handing over their seats to the ones they belonged to…
The room was built like an amphitheater, the rows of seats steeply rising; on all the seats “reserved” signs were posted containing the names of the people and the medium they worked for. In the front, there was a podium, the wall behind of which was lined with a greyish banner containing the logo of a-ha and the font of Cast in Steel.
At the beginning of the event, Norwegian ambassador Elisabeth Walaas gave a-ha a very warm welcome, proudly introducing the three Norwegians that haven’t just been world famous musicians but who have also successfully served as ambassadors for their home country in their 30-year career. She also emphasized that it wasn’t the band’s first visit to the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin but that, for example, in 2002 they already paid them a visit.
The actual press conference, then, was divided into three parts: a photo call, an interview of the band done by Tom Bromley, a British writer who, for example, collaborated with Maajid Nawaz on his autobiography Radical, the book Morten Harket claimed inspired him to write his song “Brother”, and a Q&A.
When, shortly after 1:30 p.m., the door to the left side of the stage finally opened and the band members walked in, they received a very warm and friendly welcome from the journalists and fans present. It was ‒ and this is both my professional as well as my private self speaking ‒ indeed good to see the three of them, Morten Harket, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, and Magne Furuholmen, together again, entering the podium as “a-ha”. On the other hand ‒ and this again from both sides of my personality ‒ I had actually regarded the band’s split-up in 2010 as final, so that for me, there was a slight anachronistic feeling to the moment, a hint of incredulity in seeing all three of them, a flash of un-reality, of being suspended in time.
Therefore, the photo call that started right away was probably the best measure to snap me out of that limbo ‒ and landing me right in some setting that eerily reminded me of a wrestling match or a show of domesticated creatures: While the flashes of the many photo cameras seemed to be shot at the a-ha members like hundreds of relentless tiny hits ‒ Magne stated after some time: “Now we’re officially blind” ‒ photographers also started shouting at the three men: “Left, Paul!”, “Look right, Magne!”, “Over here, please!”, “Get on your knees!”, “To the right side, Morten!”, “Left, guys!”
After some minutes, the spectacle being over, a-ha temporarily left the stage so that the chairs, table and water glasses could be moved there to start part two of the press conference. But one thing is certain: The photo call definitely managed to loosen up the atmosphere, like a warm-up exercise in fitness classes, and, somehow, due to its slightly hysterical procedure, made it unmistakably clear: The media are still interested in a-ha, and despite the objectifying photo call, they still belong to the group of first-class musicians and stars.
When a-ha and Tom Bromley sat down to talk, it was noticeable that all the band members seemed very relaxed, content and somewhat eager to share what they have discovered in the past years: that their creativity as a band hasn’t dried up, that being together again isn’t as unthinkable any longer as it might have seemed in 2010, and that sometimes taking a break from something definitely does open new ways and possibilities.
Asked how the band have been in the last years, they emphasized that the break did them good and that it has actually been important; Paul jokingly said: “I’ve been super busy. I mean, in the last five years, I’ve released one song.” But right afterwards he stated that “We’ve sort of run ourselves through the wringer. When we get together we always need to step back. It seems to do our career a lot of good. We have to go away to get bigger,” showing how beneficial breaks can be to the band. Magne later confirmed this point by saying that “All the stuff that we have done outside [a-ha] has really affected the band’s legacy in many ways.”
The talk then continued to progress about the inter-wovenness of the need to work together as a band, but then again take a step back and do something else. That, their answers imply, has allowed them to let the forthcoming album develop in the way they are obviously content with. Paul said: “I feel now with this album, there’re so many ways to make music now. You can make a very professional product quite simple, just a computer or whatever. For me it was very important to step away from that and make everything handmade. There is nothing on this album that is from a drum library or a preset, everything is made from scratch.”
Their new collaboration also seems to have made them more comfortable again with the way they have already worked on albums in the past when they sometimes separately wrote and recorded music and vocals, which has repeatedly caused speculation about conflicts among the three musicians. Magne said: “We’ve worked in very different ways, which is not something that’s new to us. We have made quite a few albums like this, where we are based in different places, working on our own material – but with a-ha as the kind of overriding factor. I think the main difference now is that Morten, through his work over the last few years, has found a center for his creativity – mainly in Stockholm, I would say. So we’ve had three camps shaping an album, where the left hand hasn’t really known what the right hand has been doing – which isn’t new, but which has been embraced slightly different this time. I think there are colours and differences on this album that may not necessarily fall into that warm, handmade version. I certainly have to own up to using some presets and drum machines on this one! But I think to a certain degree, it’s the type of album we can make at this point, for all the romance of harking back to the beginnings, I think. Part of the reality is that we live very different and very separate lives. But a-ha is a legacy that we have together, it’s a common fate. And we can run as far away from it as we want to, but it’s always there. Every day you’re reminded of it.”
Morten added: “As you may understand, the album, Cast In Steel, is being molded today – as we speak. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out either. There’s a lot of songs to look into, and productions and directions to sort of taste your way through. So it’s very much still in the mold. But it’s also taking shape. We know very well what we’re sitting on, but we’re curious as to where it’s gonna land.”
One other important aspect that they discussed is that these days, a lot of successful bands that became famous at around the same time of a-ha live on their musical heritage rather than working on new music and projects. In this context, Tom Bromley asked what it was about the quality of a-ha’s songwriting that it seems to endure. “I think we’re hard-nosed enough as characters, maybe,” Morten answered. “We’re still doing this because there is magic to music, if you kind of hold on to that and know that and not get fazed by everything else that this industry and business is full of. And those are the things that wear you out. But the music itself doesn’t.” Magne added to this by saying that getting excited about new material is the main motivational force for continuing and working together again.
The talk between Tom Bromley and a-ha lasted about twenty-five minutes, before the journalists in the audience were invited to ask questions. Here, again a shift in mood and a shift in the kinds of questions took place, pushing the conversation away from its former reflective, philosophical, musing nature to more basic aspects: There were questions about focusing their forthcoming shows first on Germany, about the venue in Berlin; and one journalist asked provocatively, what the band prefers, saying goodbye or saying hello? Another one wanted to know: “What was the point of breaking up in the first place? Breaking up bands doesn’t seem to mean much anymore?!” In their reply, a-ha came back to their initial focus and once again emphasized the often productive nature of stepping back, the need of taking breaks if a situation turns into a stalemate or becomes unproductive. But Paul also made clear that he himself felt that breaking up in 2010 was a forced decision and that if a band has more to say there is no need to stop.
After a-ha had left the auditorium and gone upstairs in the embassy to do some more individual press calls, most of the journalists left, but several dozen fans still stayed inside and in front of the embassy to wait for the group.
It actually felt a little like being catapulted back into the 1980s. When a-ha finally came down the scenes what I witnessed reminded me of what I had repeatedly seen in my teenage years. The three band members were each surrounded by a flock of admirers and also some journalists that had remained; the fans pushed memorabilia into Morten, Magne and Paul’s faces to get their autographs, they squeezed in next to them to get what used to be called a picture and what is now mostly referred to as a selfie, and many just held up their phones and cameras high up in the air in order to get a shot from above of one of the band members. Slowly but steadily the three crowds moved closer to the three black cars waiting to haul the band members off.
As always after an event so deeply charged with excitement, eagerness and emotions, the place seems almost dejectedly empty and sad, left alone, when all the scurrying and scuttling is over, the excited and nervous talk; when the remaining few gather their bags that they put aside to have their hands free, when just some addresses and phone numbers remain to be exchanged in order to stay in touch or send each other pictures and recordings; when the last ones still there recap the event they just participated in, when they stretch and shake their stiff limbs from the long hours of standing and waiting, while Morten, Magne and Paul are already heading to an unknown destination.
March 25. Almost four years and four months after it rained ribbons in blue, red, and white from the ceiling after a-ha’s very last concert at Oslo “Spektrum” concert hall on December 4, 2010, there is a band called a-ha again. Weirdly, somehow it feels as if they have never been gone. I remembered the projects in between which the individual band members dedicated themselves to, and which will, in some form or another, also find their way into the history of a-ha: Morten’s two albums, Paul’s single “Manmade Lake” and his work for the movie Headhunters, Magne’s band Apparatjik and a lot of art. At the same time, everything seems different, not lastly because both the band members as well as their admirers have become visibly older, because “life” has been there for all of us in the meantime, because all our experiences have continued to shape who we are.
The ending of 2010 wasn’t an ending, after all, things are in flux, and very much so, and this is life. But one thing seems to be cast in steel, even after all this time: the band members’ passion and eagerness to continue to make music and to be creative, now again as a-ha, and our willingness to listen. They’re back.
Tags: Berlin, Cast In Steel, Germany, Press Conference