The highs and lows of being a-ha

How many farewell tours can one band have? Magne Furuholmen talks about stardom, group therapy — and why his music is more than just fluff
The band in the early 1980s © Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

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It’s the sort of excess you’d hope for from a pop star. Magne Furuholmen, keyboard player with Norwegian pop-rock trio a-ha, angles the camera of his laptop to show me over Skype the mounds of pristine powder.

He’s suffering today. Yesterday he went skiing down those slopes, just outside his holiday home two hours north of Oslo, and sprained his back.

“There’s a rock-star handbook that everyone has to follow,” Furuholmen is saying. “It starts with buying cameras when you’re on your first successful tour and everyone thinks they’re a photographer. If you keep on getting successful you buy flats all over the world. Then you get interested in antiques because you have to fill the flats up. Then you move on to vintage cars. Eventually you end up buying a lot of art.”

The day after our interview, Furuholmen is flying to St Petersburg to rehearse with the rest of the band before the next leg of their “Cast in Steel” arena tour. Last year’s Cast in Steel was the band’s 10th album, and debuted at number eight in the UK charts, and at number four in Germany.

Of course, the live shows will include the hits that made them global megastars some 30 years ago, but the band are sore that many journalists missed the depth of those songs at the time. Eighties chart-stormers such as “The Sun Always Shines on TV” and “Hunting High and Low” were symphonic masterpieces, grounded in classical theory and prog-rock overtures, and rich with harmonic language.

“People never saw past the cheekbones and the glossy surface,” complains Furuholmen, who is now 53 and no longer known as “Mags”.

“The problem is you want it all, don’t you? If you have success you want credibility, and if you have credibility you want success. Normally it’s people who feel a great sense of entitlement who think they can have it all.”

Furuholmen and guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy have known each other since their schooldays and recruited singer Morten Harket in Oslo in 1982, but the band’s journey began in earnest in London in 1983. Harket in particular flourished on the New Romantic scene.

“He’d have white Dulux paint in his hair and he’d hang out at the Camden Palace,” Furuholmen says. “He’d get invited to all these parties and clubs, and Paul and I would just tag along. As long as you could get in for free and steal people’s drinks behind their backs, that would be a pretty successful night out.”

Their breakthrough began when Harket recognised the potential of Furuholmen’s keyboard riff to what was then called “The Juicy Fruit Song” — a track that they’d been messing with since Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy were in Oslo-based, Doors-influenced band, Bridges. As a-ha, they reworked the track to show off Harket’s remarkable vocal range, and “Take on Me” wound up at number one in 36 countries. The following year, in 1985, their debut album Hunting High and Low was released, selling more than 10m copies worldwide.

“We made a decision to take things as far as we could commercially and go from being a garage band to pop stardom,” says Furuholmen. “I think it was our inability to say no to any and all cheesy promotion that put us in such a bind.”

Their manager was Terry Slater, who had worked with Queen, Kate Bush and the Sex Pistols. “He treated us as if we were his sons, to the point that he would threaten to break people’s legs if they took drugs around the band,” Furuholmen recalls fondly. “We spent most of our career without seeing anyone taking drugs. Quite frankly, we thought that was all a bit of a myth.”

So it wasn’t drugs that broke up the band for the first time, in 1993, but internal tension over the high-stakes decision-making and credit-taking that fame brought. “Suffice to say that our individual versions of our history together differ wildly,” Furuholmen sighs.

Magne Furuholmen, a-ha’s keyboard player, in Moscow on the band’s Cast in Steel tour © Petr Antonov

It was he who withdrew. “I was sliding more and more into the art world. I felt an acute need to return to zero, to go back to the meaning of creative work without any expectation of result or career.” Since his humble start in printmaking, Furuholmen has gone on to work in various media. His large-scale sculptures inhabit Scandin­avia’s largest ceramic sculpture park at Fornebuporten. He’s also chairman of the Bergen International Festival.

Five years after that first split, a-ha were invited to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo in 1998. “It was the first time we’d been in a room together for all that period and we immediately started talking about doing something new,” Furuholmen says.

Four more albums and a farewell tour followed, then Furuholmen pulled the plug once more in 2010, after their ninth album Foot of the Mountain. So coming back together a final time in 2015, he says, “certainly wasn’t my decision. The other two wanted to do it, and I had to decide: do I block it, let them do it without me, or make a fool of myself, with my statements about this being the end.”

Those don’t really sound like choices, I note. He laughs. “It’s a bit like that, isn’t it?”

Nevertheless, it must have been satisfying to find that new fans were coming out of the woodwork. Kanye West, U2, Radiohead, Leonard Cohen, The Killers, Noel Gallagher and Coldplay have all dropped major compliments or cited the band as an inspiration.

This time around, a-ha played the 30th anniversary of Rock in Rio in September, and put out Cast in Steel. Some of Furuholmen’s contributions as songwriter — “Objects in the Mirror”, “Mythomania” — seem to be a meta-commentary on the bubble of the band. Of “Mythomania” he says, “It’s about narcissism, self-delusion and problematic forms of self-protection.”

There’s a mutual respect for what each member brings to a-ha, but collaboration is never without conflict. “I suggested group therapy and the response was, why are you bringing your problems into our world?” he laughs.

Watch any recent TV interview of the band together and you’ll see that such frankness is at least mutual. “As a band we have at times brought internal conflicts out in the open more than most,” he muses. “[But] making things look more unified than they are is commercially smarter than opening cans of worms. Privileged people complaining about the insignificant injustices in their lives can be extremely tiresome, but sometimes you read something [inaccurate] that upsets the stomach so much that you cannot help but heave.”

Even so, these days Furuholmen is satisfied with the legacy of the band. “Once you were in Smash Hits the serious music papers immediately discarded you as fluff, so the more serious critics came quite late to the band,” he says. “Our history has had a few interesting cases of revisionism, with the early albums being treated with almost directly opposite views by the same people 10 years later.”

While no concrete plans have been made beyond these spring dates, he says, “It’s not really a farewell tour. We’ve done that already so it would be kind of shameful to do it again. Everyone’s got a sense of freedom at the end of it, not knowing what’s going to happen next.”

Tour continues to May 7. a-ha.com/tour

Photographs: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty; Petr Antonov

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