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Interview: Paul Waaktaar-Savoy (a-ha)

21 October 2022

Photo by Stian Andersen

Forty years ago, Morten Harket (vocals), Paul Waaktaar-Savoy (guitars) and Magne Furuholmen (keyboards, guitars, vocals) formed the synth-pop band a-ha in Norway and just a few short years later produced one of the most popular videos ever aired on MTV, “Take On Me,” which currently has been viewed 1.5 BILLION times on YouTube. Despite the massive success of the song and video, a-ha never broke in America the way they did around the rest of the globe (in 1991, they played in front of 198,000 people at the Rock in Rio festival in Rio de Janeiro).

In a conversation with Waaktaar-Savoy the day before a-ha’s 11th album, True North, was released, the guitarist shares his thoughts on a-ha’s decades-long career, missing out on building an audience in America, recording a new album with an orchestra, the origins of “Take On Me,” and the current relationship status of the members of the band.

Is it strange to you that new albums are released digitally at midnight on release day rather than people having to go to their local record store to pick up a copy the morning that something comes out?

PAUL: It is weird, yeah. We started with vinyl and cassettes and then CD and all the different mediums. We’ve been there for a good part of the changes in the music industry. I’m going to release a solo album and also an album with my other band, Savoy, and every time I do that, it’s like everything has changed. How do we do promotion? How do we release it? There’s always so much coming out every week, there’s a staggering amount of albums being released.

Would you have ever guessed 40 years ago that you’d be putting out a new album in 2022?

PAUL: We didn’t even think we’d be putting out an album two years after we started (laughs). We’ve had a strange career, especially coming from Norway. Nobody had really been successful coming out of that country so it was very much decided already that that was never going to happen. So, we left. After we had been going for a while, we could see there were other advantages to coming from Norway. We were popular in countries that thought it was cool that it wasn’t from America or England. It gave us a different outlook.

You had moderate success in America but never the success you’ve had elsewhere.

PAUL: Yeah, that’s always been a little bit of a thorn in our side. Since we started here in a big way with a number one song and huge excitement, I feel like we always waited for that moment to come back with another song that had the same excitement. I think we should have just kept at it and come back to the U.S. and do tours. We basically just went everywhere else but never really came back to America for something like 20 years. There were very few times we made an effort. That was a management-type decision since we were so successful somewhere else, you can go over there and play for 20,000 people or who can play for 2,000 people in the States. I always thought it was a bad decision, in a way. We just finished a tour here now and we had a great time. We did reclaim some fans.

Do you feel at this point it’s too late to make the same impact in America the way you do in other countries?

PAUL: After rescheduling so many tours the last 2 or 3 years, we finished up everything we had outstanding so it became a pretty long tour for us. It started in April and finished in August. It’s a little too soon to talk about touring, I’d like to be out of my suitcase for a while.

The new album really has some standout tracks. “Hunter in the Hills” is my current favorite but “Oh My Word” reminds me of floating in the clouds and “Forest for the Trees” is lyrically relevant to the world we’re living in. When you’re deciding to record a new album, do you and the rest of the guys sit down and say, “Okay, let’s meet next month and hammer out these ideas we’ve got” or do you write something and text the guys and say, “Here’s an idea I’ve got, what do you think?”?

PAUL: This one was very isolated in a way because they were overseas and I am in California. I was given six songs on the album and I came up with the stuff that I thought would be a cool fit for Morten and for the band. It’s really making demos and doing the string arrangements and getting everything in place. We album was just recorded over two or three weeks and we really captured a lot of it live with the extra orchestra bits. Instead of having a grueling six months in the studio kind of thing, we just wanted to see if we could capture a good moment where the song is working for everybody and it would be less sitting around and flicking on every little thing. We were just trying to capture something that felt good. It was a different type of album in that sense.

Which songs did you write?

PAUL: All the ones you named, “As If,” “Make Me Understand,” and “Bumblebees.”

With 11 albums, how do you decide what to play live? Will the new record get a fair shot or will you rely on the older songs that people know?

PAUL: I don’t think we’ve planned the tour for this album. Because it was done with 40 extra players, it’s going to be a little hard to go out there and perform without these guys unless we redo the arrangements of the songs. And because the album is sort of live, it’s sort of like you hear it already. When I see back over the years, as we get on, you see more and more selections of the same types of songs in our shows. I think we were better before spending at least half the show on the new album we were promoting but now I guess it’s always a discussion. Who’s coming to see us? Is it the people who have seen the show 100 times before and want to hear some new stuff or is it the ones who show up now and then and just want to hear the stuff they want to hear. We try to change it around in a tour just to see how new songs we haven’t played before go over. We try to squeeze in as much as we can that we think needs the attention or needs to be given a second chance.

You did an unplugged album a few years ago that had an orchestra, right?

PAUL: We had quite a big band, but it wasn’t an orchestra. It was a group of musicians. There were three string players and stuff like that. That album was recorded with the same players so we could just kind of adapt exactly what we did on the record and that would be the show.

Have you thought about a one-time only livestream show with a full orchestra that people could watch at their own homes rather than having to take a full orchestra out on the road with you for a lengthy tour?

PAUL: We’ve talked about that. We’ve done some stuff like that. This album also comes with a film so you can see the actual recording. It’s shot by Stian Andersen who’s done a lot of our pictures over the last 20 years. He’s a super cool photographer and film guy. Some of it is shot on film and some of it was shot in northern Norway where the light and everything is really special. It’ll be streaming somewhere soon.

What do you miss about the “old days”?

PAUL: There’s a lot of things I miss in a way. We were signed to Warner Brothers. We were signed by the guy who also signed Joni Mitchell. He had a very keen ear, he was a really great A&R guy. I miss working with a producer like we did in the day, now we just produce ourselves most of the time. Our first manager was also an A&R guy with EMI Records and he had a long 20 years of picking really cool bands. I miss being surrounded by people who I really respected and their tastes. Of course, the budgets back then … they were tight, everything was so expensive in the ’80s, the studios cost a fortune. There was a lot of pressure to get it done in whatever weeks you had in the studio. That also gave it an energy. You really had to think pretty hard about what you wanted to achieve. And you would be pretty intent on getting there. You’d be totally exhausted by the time it was finished. But I recognize that rush and the panic you have that the song might go sideways. It gave it a nervous energy that I think benefited us.

Were you making money in those early days or did all the money the label gave you go towards videos and other expenses?

PAUL: The very first deal we signed, we hired a lawyer for just one day and he said, “You have nothing to bargain with, you might as well just sign.” The good thing about being successful is you can renegotiate and you can extend your deal and get a better deal. It’s been a process where we’re just chipping away. At least we didn’t sign the first contract for more than two or three albums. After that, you could sign really short deals where the material always comes back to you. I think it was only the first two albums where we didn’t get back our money. We did okay though. We paid for the half the videos and you did pay for all the recording and everything. It took us quite a few years to figure out what was happening with our finances. It’s very easy to end up not making money. Another thing was the control. We were thinking, “Should we sign with another major or should we do it ourselves?” When you do have more control, you can release more singles and do the whole thing more to your own liking.

I just discovered that “Take On Me” started off as a different song by your previous band.

PAUL: I wrote the first part of that song when I was super young. Before we ended up with the a-ha version, it was at least two or three or maybe even four different lyrics. I had a chorus in the beginning, it took me a long time to get rid of it. It was really just a throwaway chorus and it was making the song go around itself and biting it’s own tail. The last piece of the puzzle was to come up with that chorus before we did our thing. Of course, Magne came up with a cool riff. It was just one of those puzzles.

Do you ever feel trapped by “Take On Me”? It was a song that you wrote when you were so young and you’ve done so many other albums but that’s the song they know you for or is it a blessing?

PAUL: It’s both. I’ve gone through periods where I’m over it for a bit. We came from Norway, we were playing long pieces of music and I didn’t really think about choruses and verses. We didn’t think of it in that kind of way. When we came to England, every place we went, it was pop music coming out of every speaker. We got competitive, it was like, “Okay, let’s see what we can do.” We had a period where we really tried to be as catchy as we possibly could. It was the same way the Beatles could do very poppy songs and then two years later could do something totally different. We had the same sort of thing. We just needed something to break open the door so we can show people the whole selection. We came right at the time when music videos exploded. Up until that point, it would take you a couple of years to become successful but we were one of those bands that became super successful in just a few weeks. There was very little time to mold our career or guide it in any way possible. We just became that overnight and then had to deal with it.

Even today, the video has cultural significance. There’s a TikTok filter that let’s people shoot their own videos with the “Take On Me” look. You must see stuff all the time that references the original video.

PAUL: That’s just fun, you know? You hear the production in quite a few other singles. For what it is, it’s a genuine song. It’s not something we fabricated. And it’s typical us, in a way. I think we surprise people when we play the unplugged version. You can see how the song was written with just an acoustic guitar. It does have this tinge of something else but it’s wrapped up in a poppy outfit. There’s other elements in that melody, like the bridge part. You could have done it in a different way. The first song we recorded, before a-ha, was like a punk song. You can push it in any direction you want.

a-ha also did the theme song for The Living Daylights. Were you big James Bond fans at the time and was this a dream come true?

PAUL: Yeah, that was a big thrill. They had a lot of drama. It was a competition and we knew other bands would be asked to provide a suggestion for the track. I was super happy to hear the title of the movie because I loved that right away. That melody just popped up the second I heard the title. It was a bit of a process to see if we would get it but then we heard that the producer, Mr. Broccoli, was a super fan of our song so we ended up getting it.

I know a-ha has broken up and reunited a few times over the last 40 years. Do you feel like you’re in a good place now?

PAUL: Yes. We had a great tour and that was really good. The album recording went well. I think we’re in a fairly good place. We always compare ourselves to the beginning, the first five or six years when we lived in the same country, in the same town, on the same street and sometimes the same flat. It’s very hard to regain the same kind of vibe you had back then where everybody was in synch, where everybody was listening to the same music. It was all firing in the same direction. I think a lot of the albums in the last 20 years, it’s hard to get that same focus. There are albums that go in lots of different directions and you can dig out which parts you like. I do miss the days where were a little more on the same page.