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Thursday 14 September 2017

The Need to Strip Every Song

a-ha’s Press Conference at the Nordic Embassies in Berlin on September 12, 2017

Guest Report by Larissa Bendel

For a moment, I lost track of where I was.

I was sitting in a dark auditorium. On a large screen on the wall there was a recording of a-ha performing a concert in a very intimate setting. There were just a few hundred people in the audience. All I could focus on was the intensity with which Morten’s clear, full voice filled the room singing an almost a capella version of “Take on Me.” When he finished, I could barely repress the urge to jump up and start clapping ecstatically, as I was used to doing when I attended a-ha concerts in the past thirty years.

But, luckily, I regained my awareness in time and remembered where I was and why. What I had witnessed wasn’t a live show, but the film accompanying a-ha’s forthcoming acoustic album “Summer Solstice.”

I was at a press conference at the Nordic Embassies in Berlin where a-ha would appear in a few moments in order to kick off promotion for their new record. It wasn’t the first time the band had chosen that venue to introduce new albums. They had previously been there in 2002, 2009, and 2015. When I attended the event two years ago and wrote an article about for, I concluded the text by simply saying: “They’re back.” It was the year of their comeback, announcing a new album, “Cast in Steel”, and a tour.

Today I am about to say “They’re still here” ‒ and they are about to announce the release of something quite unusual, an acoustic album, to be followed by an acoustic tour at the beginning of 2018. But let me start from the beginning.

When I arrive at the Nordic Embassies in Berlin in the morning of September 12, some fans and journalists have already gathered in the foyer. About half an hour before the event was scheduled, we’re let into the auditorium. There are four chairs on the podium, an MTV display and an image of the album cover plus release date projected onto a large screen on the wall.

The first to welcome the band is current Norwegian ambassador in Berlin, Petter Ølberg, who says a few words about “Norway’s first international superstars.” “When ‘Take on Me’ reached the top of the Billboard 100 in October 1985, to most Norwegians it was as if something completely unreal was taking place. No Norwegian had ever been close to anything like this.” Since then, Ølberg says, the Norwegian music scene has greatly developed and is today thriving like never before. a-ha were the trailblazers, showing that something that seemed impossible was in fact possible.

After his introduction, we can plunge right into what “Summer Solstice” sounds like. The room is darkened and the concert film begins. We get to hear the band’s new single “This is Our Home,” a melodious, quiet, reflective ballad that is followed by “I’ve Been Losing You,” “The Living Daylights,” and the aforementioned “Take on Me.” Those who know me know that usually I can be somewhat skeptical when it comes to acoustic versions, as I prefer intense, edgy, more up-tempo sounds and am very picky and critical when it comes to ballads and “softer versions.” But the glimpse we get of the Giske recordings ‒ the place in Norway where they were done ‒ captivates me right away. What I am hearing is new, unknown, naked, raw, but not unfinished.

When the band enters the stage after the four tracks, I can finally release the held-back energy after listening to the songs and start clapping ‒ I can safely disguise my appreciation of the music as appreciation of the band members arriving at the press conference, or the other way around. I have the feeling I am not the only one using this opportunity.

Jo Nesbø, best-selling Norwegian author, has been chosen to host the press conference. He is not entirely new in a-ha’s surroundings: For one of the movies made of one of his books, “Headhunters” (2011), the song “Weathervane” by Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Jimmy Gnecco had been used.
After a short introduction by Nesbø, in which he  muses on why he was chosen as host and explaining that in 2015 his schedule hadn’t allowed him to do the job, he welcomes Morten Harket, Magne Furuholmen, and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy to the podium. The ensuing interview is entirely focused on the band’s music and experiences recording “Summer Solstice.”

“On a scale from 1 to 10, how do you feel now being here?” Nesbø starts off with his first question. “It’s wonderful,” Paul answers. And he goes on explaining that “Summer Solstice” has actually allowed the band to go back to their original “old school way of recording by being in the same room together.”

In June this year, a-ha did something unique in their career: In front of an audience of a few hundred people, they recorded parts of their new acoustic album live, using those versions in combination with recordings that were made at a studio in the same period in order to shape the record into what it has now become.

“You are a band of the 80s,” Nesbø says. “How natural does it feel to you now, as a group of that time usually using electronic equipment, to go back to using acoustic guitars and other instruments?”

“It’s a bit like talking about your children,” Magne says. “You never grow tired of it. You try to protect and portray your children in the best possible light. And,” he adds, “before a-ha, we actually started recording on acoustic instruments. And then, when we went to England to become a-ha, we discovered a whole new scene that was fond of electronica, and we were part of that first wave. And we started incorporating that into our music. But all along, we added acoustic instruments. So it is not really something new in that regard." 

"What is new about it is, as Paul said, to go back into a room we hadn’t visited in many, many years, sitting together and really sensing what is key about this collaboration and how the songs can be done in different ways. To take something that has been given a certain shape, for which ‘Take on Me’ is an obvious example. We have performed this song for 25 years with minor variations. How can we now make this song sound totally different? I guess it takes a bit of a distance in time to get there. Now it felt like a really good time to do that. In a way, it was a bit like returning to the origins of how we used to do things.”

“What song actually surprised you the most in this process?” Nesbø wants to know.

“We have done the songs for so many years, so that they have kind of gotten into a straitjacket regarding the arrangements,” Paul says. “Therefore, it’s cool to hear songs away from their original dress-up. Some of the super pop-arrangements that we ended up with take away a lot of attention from the lyrics,” he continues. “They just become part of the whole machinery. So in this acoustic setting you obviously have to listen more closely to every single word.”

"On “Summer Solstice” there are various guest musicians performing together with a-ha. What did one have to do to qualify to be part of the album?” Nesbø wants to know.

Magne: “The guests we have on the record are a slightly eclectic mix of influential people we listened to when we went to England, such as Echo & the Bunnymen, whom we had known before, or Alison Moyet, as well as some young and new artists such as Ingrid Håvik from Highasakite, who has a very strong characteristic voice. We tried to make a blend of people that we used to listen to back in the day and people who used to listened to us back in the day.”

But recording “Summer Solstice” hasn’t just been a musical journey of discovery. It has also done something unusual to the band’s “group dynamics”: Jo Nesbø describes the band members as “three strong wills with medium-plus egos.” “How does it feel when you’re presenting songs and you realize that Magne has written a track that may be a better one than one of your songs, Paul?” he asks.

“It was much easier before, when we were living in the same street or the same apartment,” Paul answers. “Then it was natural and we would automatically listen to what the other one was working on. It meant living with the song for a while, and in collaborating you could stumble upon things, discuss them. That part of song writing is much harder now. And that was exactly what was so great with this album, as we were all three together and could easily exchange thoughts and opinions. We had lost that instinct a little bit after the beginning when we knew intuitively what was working and what wasn’t.”

“Summer Solstice” was produced by Norwegian Lars Horntveth, a prolific and respected musician and composer in Norway’s contemporary music scene. “What was it like for him being up against three strong-willed individuals? How did he feel after the recoding process? Who won ‒ he or you?” Nesbø wants to know.

“He won, because we won,” Morten states. “Lars is a stubborn guy, who’s a strong character himself. And we need somebody who is strong and one-track-minded enough to stand up for what he thinks is right. He was commissioned by us to attack the songs freely without any directions given by us, because we needed to strip every song. We needed to reset everything in order to rediscover the songs, to sort of resurrect them again from nothing. And Lars attacked the music so that we had something to respond to. Which we did: We hated what he did. And that was great, because we needed to react." 

"The interesting thing that came from his side is that we recognized and realized for the first time in a very long period how much we, the three of us, have in common in how we responded to what Lars was doing. There are limitless ways to arrange music. But for us the question would be: What is true to a-ha’s identity? And that’s what we were looking for: To resurrect the song, but at the same time maintain its integrity. And that means attacking things that have partly become iconic. During the process we realized that certain things don’t come out in a song if you pull them apart, while other parts can actually be taken off and done something else with. So it was a real battle, sometimes a fight even, but through that, coming from each our individual spot, we re-bonded as a band.”

Magne, stepping in, acknowledges one of Lars Horntveth’s achievements in that he put the band together in a totally different scenario than they had been in before. “And this new scenario, including the different musicians that we worked with, again fostered new creativity in how we approached the songs. So when the three of us got together in a room to try to work on a new approach, it started new ways of rewriting and writing in things. You know, it was like ‒ with so many Indians in the room, it was three cowboys circling the wagon and taking the core values of what we feel a-ha is. And that was a very instinctual process. And we found a common denominator in that room.”

One thing really becomes clear during the talk with the band: a-ha seem to have grown closer together again as a group. They have rediscovered what it is like to work on songs together, to be in the same studio at the same time and let the creative process take its course. Just from the short glimpse I got at “Summer Solstice,” this seems to be mirrored in the songs. Even after 30 years, this recording process has brought out new, unknown, hitherto hidden layers in tracks that I seem to have known inside-out.

Performing music is also one of the topics that were touched upon: Given that a-ha have become part of Norway’s musical heritage, Jo Nesbø wonders if the band has given up ownership of the songs they are playing, so that these tracks now belong to the people coming to the shows instead? In short: “How much are you doing that ‒ playing concerts ‒ for yourself and your own bank account, and how much are you doing it for the people?”

“I can’t do it for people, if I don’t do it for myself,” Morten replies. “I’d let people down. In order to have a good conscience, it has to come from me, otherwise it wouldn’t be me standing there, and it would feel fake. That is a strict law: I have to be personally invested.” “It also has to do with rediscovering songs,” Paul says. “You discover that there are tracks that should have been given more attention. And we have been talking about it for so many years, that we should do something like this. It’s a step into something new, to strip the music down to something very basic.”

“But, if you play songs, that you wrote in the 80es,” Jo Nesbø steps in, “do you still feel that these are your songs?”

“Some of them feel as if they almost play themselves, they do their thing and we just hang along. They do what they do, no matter what we do,” Paul continues. “In a way, they have a sort of detached feeling. It’s not the same as if you’re trying to present something new and fragile. They have left their mark.”

“From the song’s perspective,” Morten answers, “the song belongs to us up until it is released. From then on, it is free, and it belongs to anybody and everyone. It’s a release, a true release in the sense of the word.”

Magne comments: “It’s an interesting point, if you’re in a concert situation: Are you performing the song for yourself? It rather feels like as if you’re performing the audience’s song for them. But you also lose yourself; that’s what music does. When you’re performing, you’re not on autopilot thinking ‘I’m doing this for someone else,’ but you lose yourself in it. So in the moment, it feels completely connected. But from a conceptual point of view, there are songs that belong to the audience and you are performing them for them. You strike a balance by writing new songs and introducing them. And that always feels the same. It always feels like you’re bringing something into the world that needs nurturing and protecting and careful handling. You keep that balance of reconnecting with the old songs by just being in the moment, on stage. But the excitement is in writing new stuff. That is the most exciting thing, to be there when that happens.”

The setting in which the live-recording part of “Summer Solstice” went on was a very intimate setting with a small audience. I have been wondering where the challenge might lie in transferring this intimacy into the large arenas a-ha are going to play at the beginning of 2018. During the Q&A part of the press conference I actually have the opportunity to ask that question to which Magne responds:

“It is something we have talked about and thought about: How can we make that bigger setting somehow be in line with the versions of the songs? But, to be honest, I think that you can see an acoustic concert with a large group of people and make it feel intimate without losing its core values. It’s not really about the number of people, it’s about what you make happen in that room at that moment. And you try to scale down and change the way you look at the production and try to suit it to this format. It will be strange to go from a 300 audience to a 10,000 audience or whatever, but we are used to that format too. So I think the challenge is that we have to make sure not to slip into trying to change the musical content out of panic, thinking ‘Ten thousand people will get bored shitless...’ We have to stick to the plan and try to make everything be about that idea. And I think it is completely possible. I mean, if you’re in the audience with a good artist, you feel like you’re the only one this artist is communicating with, and that happens whether you are in a small theater or a big arena. You just try to trust the instinct of the songs.”

When a-ha have left the stage, there is no doubt: Yes, they are back. I know that for sure when I leave the auditorium after more than an hour. They’re back. And they’re still here. And after what I’ve heard, they will be here for a while longer, because the magic in music still prevails.

Photo: Larissa Bendel


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