Four decades on, A-ha are commanding respect: 'We don’t want to be judged by our cheekbones'
Keyboardist Magne Furuholmen talks to Saeed Saeed about how the Norwegian pop group found respect late in their careers
After almost four decades of producing music, A-ha have a very important message they’d like to share. “We don’t want to be judged by our cheekbones, but the music that we do.”
That dry Nordic wit is so natural to A-ha keyboardist and chief songwriter Magne Furuholmen, now 57. But he is serious about being taken seriously
– a perceived lack of respect has been an irritant for Furuholmen, since most of the attention the band has received throughout the years has focused on their pop idol status. “It was the 1980s and everyone was just focusing on how we felt about our posters being stuck in bedrooms all around the world,” he recalls. “While we are grateful, that was the least interesting aspect of that time, but that was what people wanted to push on with.”
UAE audiences will experience A-ha’s shimmering pop when the band perform two shows at Dubai Opera today and tomorrow. It will be a show packed with the band’s ebullient hits such as Take on Me and The Sun Always Shines, as well as the stately ballads Stay on These Roads and Manhattan Skyline.
One reason for this latest world tour, Furuholmen explains, is not only that it ties in with the 35th anniversary of their stellar debut album Hunting High and Low, but also that he senses a general reappraisal of their body of work by a new generation of fans – A-ha sold out their first Dubai date, so a second was added owing to the demand.
The band have played with various sounds throughout their career, such as the dark and ambient undertones that hide underneath their soaring melodies. That vibe is all over Hunting High and Low, which offers 10 songs full of dramatic, widescreen pop, with nods to mankind (Train of Thought) and nature (The Blue Sky). When I share my surprise at how that album sonically holds up today, compared to works by A-ha’s peers, Furuholmen agrees.
“It was an expensive album to make because we were using all this new technology for the first time. We were playing with synclaviers [digital synthesisers] and all this new gear in a big studio,” he says. “Because it all costs a lot of money, there was time pressure from the label and that made us focus. You can hear that we wanted our songs to have a lot to say.”
A key example is their chart-topping 1985 debut single Take on Me. “It is quite a dark song,” Furuholmen says, despite its sprightly sound. “If you really analyse that song, it is similar in style to many of our tracks in that it is dramatic and it has a real melancholy nature to it, but we did it in an up-tempo manner.”
The reason that aspect of the song wasn’t highlighted at the time was down to a marketing decision. “It was our first song and the record label thought, ‘Well, here is a handsome singer and two decent-looking guys from Norway,’ and they packaged us as that,” Furuholmen says. “We, perhaps naively, thought we should take our shot, and that once we became big, we would be lauded for our music.”
That kudos eventually came a little more than three decades later. After racking up more than 50 million albums in sales and going on hiatus twice, A-ha re-emerged in 2017 with a special televised concert shot in a hall on the remote Norwegian island of Giske. No phones were allowed in for the MTV-produced “An Acoustic evening with A-ha”, for which the band performed intimate and powerful takes of their favourite tunes. Stripped of its quivering synths, Take on Me was revealed as the longing ballad that it truly is, and that version played a key part in a dramatic scene in 2018 action movie Deadpool 2.
“That whole album [MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice] was an important experience for the band,” Furuholmen says. “We were on a break a few years before that, so the distance allowed us to revisit the songs in a new way and take it in new directions. We hadn’t had as much fun creating music since the 1980s and people responded to that.”
Backed by a new legion of bands, such as Coldplay, Weezer and Keane (who have all spoken unabashedly about their fandom for the group), A-ha, says Furuholmen, have now finally achieved the critical acclaim they had been striving for. With that done, surely the next step is to record a new album. “Don’t hold your breath on that,” Furuholmen says, with a laugh. “I am super-happy with what A-ha have achieved and we enjoy playing live now and visiting new countries, such as the UAE and New Zealand. If a meteor falls on my head tomorrow I won’t leave this world feeling that there is anything missing. I think we have done our bit.”
With the imminent release of Billie Eilish’s much-anticipated theme song for the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, one band happy not to be a part of all that secrecy is A-ha. At the peak of their fame, the Norwegian synth pop group were tapped to compose the song for the 1987 Bond film The Living Daylights, with Welsh actor Timothy Dalton as 007 for the first time.
Arguably, like the film itself, composing the song was something Furuholmen found forgettable. “It was a lot of pressure generally,” he says. “We were busy as a band, and then we recorded the song. Then when it was about to come out the producers of the film wanted us to return from Japan to the States to promote it. The problem was, we were in the middle of a world tour, and in the end we decided to stick by our fans. The producers were not happy and that kind of marred the whole thing. Still, it is a pretty good song, though.”
A-ha perform at Dubai Opera, Downtown Dubai, Monday and Tuesday. Tickets from Dh250 are available at www.dubaiopera.com
Updated: February 9, 2020 08:35 PM