EXCLUSIVE: With sales of over 50 million albums, a-ha are not only one of the biggest pop bands ever to have emerged from their native Scandinavia, but the world. It all started with debut album ‘Hunting High and Low’ in 1985, and spawning the singles that would launch their career including ‘Take on Me’, the band have never looked back; that is, until now. Heading out on a world tour during which they’ll play the album in its entirety, the Norwegians are excited to get out on the road. “It’ll be a whole different show for everybody”, says instrumentalist and song writer Pal Waaktaar-Savoy. We sat down for a chat about the disc, the shows, and working with John Barry. Living a boy’s adventure tale; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Pal, how are you today?
I’m good. I just stepped off a plane, so it’s nice to stretch my legs!
You’re about to kick off the ‘Hunting High and Low’ world tour; how does it feel?
Oh, it feels great. It’s the first time we’ve done this and played the whole album. We’ve done a couple of shows like this [in 2010, the band played the album at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and also at Konserthus in Oslo] to get the feeling, but this is the first time we’ve sort of taken it to the next level, so that’s going to be great. And then with the intermission, we pick the rest of the show from our ten albums, and maybe even throw in some new songs, so we’re really looking forward to it.
It’s your debut album, your most commercially successful one, and it’s quite a complex release; so, no pressure then?
I have to say, we know all these songs so well, but of course you normally play the hits, and now we’re going to do all of them, so it’s challenging, but also it feels like we never left it, in other ways. It’s sort of feels very familiar. Some songs, you might stretch in a different direction and stuff like that, but it’s interesting to go back to hear them like that, and it’s going to be great to play and to hear them live.
Going back to the creation of the album, and you moved to London to make it before the band had even played a single gig.
Yeah, we had a band in Norway [Bridges, featuring Pal and Magne Furuholmen] for years and years, but when we left for England, then that band sort of dissolved and we met Morten [Harket, singer]. But we didn’t really have any instruments, and we booked our first recording session in a demo studio just because they had a synth and a drum machine, so it was very much by the seat of our pants! We didn’t have a work permit or anything like that, so we had to keep a very low profile in London while we went looking for a deal, or looking for something to get us going. It took a while, I mean, it took us two years to get that thing; to get a deal, to get a manager, and to have it all come together.
One of the songs to emerge from those early sessions was ‘Take on Me’, yet it took a number of attempts before it got the huge success that it went on to achieve.
It was a lot of different things with that song. Our recording contract was with Warner Bros. in the States, and the two first times that song was released on the English label, they weren’t putting that much money into it or any promotion, so we thought that it wasn’t like a proper release. It was really when we got the whole thing, that they gave us the chance to re-record it, because we weren’t happy with the first version. We also had the chance to redo the video, and of course, that also made a huge impact.
There’s quite a contrast between the relatively simplistic pop of ‘Take on Me’, and tracks like ‘Hunting High and Low’, and ‘The Sun Always Shines on T.V.’, which have more unconventional chord structures; have you always had that two-sided approach to writing?
Yeah. The way I wrote, I’ve always been attracted to that. If you heard the albums we did before [with Bridges], it was very much the same kind of thing going through that. So that was always an interest, and when we released ‘Take On Me’, the first sort of feedback that we got was; “Oh, you have to listen to it five times before you get it”, and we’ve always heard that. Whenever we release a song it’s always; “oh, it takes a while”, and then it sort of sinks in. But at the same time, it’s more interesting when you can go for the mood; you always try to bring out some sort of emotions, or that level.
‘Hunting High and Low’ is one of those emotional songs, yet it probably went through the greatest transformation from its’ initial demo.
Well, sometimes a song goes in through the weirdest thing. On the very first version of that song, it was actually a totally different song, and I needed a middle-eight, so that thing just fell out, and the middle-eight turned to be a lot better than the rest of the song! So, I turned the middle-eight into a chorus, and then that sort of set up a whole new thing, so the verse came out of that. So you never really know how, but that was sort of written as a ballad, in a way. No, actually it was written as an up-tempo number, but ended up a ballad. You sort of try out different things to see where they are happiest.
Another song that went through a transformation from its’ demo stage was ‘Train of Thought’.
Well, that first version, Morten was very into David Bowie and stuff like that, and he really wanted to do a song in that lower register of his voice. It was based around a guitar riff that we skipped for the final version of that song that made it much more of- I don’t know if ‘dance’ is the right word, but it was much more up-tempo, and like you say, trying to underline the lyric more.
On the other side of things, ‘Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale’ is achingly melancholic; where did that one come from?
Ah, I know the title came from actually a dull place, but those chords, I can’t really remember where that song came from. It was an early favourite of ours as well. When we started playing it to people when we got our contract, that was the one they were most excited about. So it’s always felt like a very important song for a-ha. It sums up a lot of stuff that we do.
Some of the tracks such as ‘The Blue Sky’, and ‘I Dream Myself Alive’ have only been performed a small number of times; is it a challenge to do those?
You know, the songs, you can do them in a lot of different way, so the question for us now is how closely we want to get onto the absolute original arrangement of it, or if we can add stuff to it, stuff like this. It’s sort of like we’ve been tweaking each song a little bit; some are more true to their original recording, and other stuff might pull a little into a different space. It’s not challenging more than that; it’s like a feel thing; you’ve just got to try it out and see how you feel when you hear it.
The album closes with ‘Here I Stand and Face the Rain’, which is has a nice balance of acoustic guitar and keys.
Yeah that’s a song I remember, that one. We were doing stuff, and we didn’t really analyse what we were doing, and I remember when we recorded it, the guy [producer] said; “hey, there’s something wrong with the song here; it doesn’t work”. It turned out it was like 6/4 beat, and they guy had never used 6/4 on his Fairlight [synthesiser] or whatever, so it took him half a day just to find that setting on it! *Laughing* But yeah, that song also is fun to play. We’ve done that a few times, and I think we did it on the last tour when we had the strings with us. That’s something that we really like to play, so I think that’s going to be quite the number on this show.
As the primary songwriter on the album, how did it feel when you finally had the finished product in your hands, back in 1985?
Yeah, it was a long road. We ran out of money in the middle of it, and we weren’t sure whether we could get more to finish it. It was a close call in many ways, and then on top of that, people had been telling you for years that; “you are going to start happening very soon”, so we were sort of at the end of our… We were hanging on, but something needed to happen, so when it finally was finished and we got a bit of feedback from everywhere that there were good vibes coming back, it felt like it was a huge relief.
Moving away from that album, and it’s been said that recording with John Barry for ‘The Living Daylights’ was a tense experience; was it?
Well, it’s sort of blown up [out of proportion] a little bit and we did have a disagreement in the end, but I mean, we had a good time recording the basic tracks and stuff, and I think he did a great job with the string arrangements; he really didn’t want to have too many frills in the strings. He made a whole lot of moving cellos, stuff like that, which I really like, and I thought it really suited the song. There were a few sort of… I think what really cheesed him off in the end was, there was a couple of chords we had – some of those chords you mentioned, that I was very fond of - and some of those strings rolled right over it, so we sort of tweaked it, his score, and changed it and got it back to where we had it, and I think that sort of... “nobody touches my score!” He got a little bit ancy with that!
Plus, we had a tour already booked, so we couldn’t be there for the premiere, which also was awkward. It was kind of silly things like that in a way, but I think he did a great job. But he was used to having a little more of a party time when he was recording, I think, and with us, we had to really get down to business because that tour was waiting. It was probably less fun than when he made it with Duran Duran, or whatever he did.
Going back to your use of more unconventional chord structures, and ‘Scoundrel Days’ is another fantastic example of that.
Well that’s one of my favourite songs that Magne and I did together. The verse was actually, we had that as a sort of a punk song in the band before. Magne had the riff there, and I loved it, and I when we started the second album, that was in the back of my mind that we have to use that. Then we had another song that I had, which the chorus there really fit together with the chords of the verse. So it’s one of those; stick it together, and suddenly you’ve got this whole new song that gives it a totally different feeling.
Finally, are you looking forward to seeing the fans’ reactions playing ‘Hunting High and Low’ in full?
Yeah! When we’re playing, we usually do ‘Take on Me’ last, and now it’s going to be first, so it’ll be a whole different show for everybody! I’m looking forward to it. We’ve worked with some great people on the production and stuff like that, so I’m very excited about the whole overall look of it. That’s going to be nice, I think.
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A-ha's 'Hunting High and Low' tour kicks off in Dublin on 29th October at the 3Arena, and continues with a show in Belfast on 30th October at the SSE Arena. For tickets, click here. For a full list of dates visit a-ha.com.