‘If you’ve got more to say, why wouldn’t you say it?’
Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, Berlin, 26 March 2015 (Press Conference to formally announce a-ha’s comeback and the release of a new album, Cast In Steel)
Traditionally, when ‘the quiet one’ from a-ha has had something to say, it has invariably been through his song lyrics.
While the other two members of the Norwegian band have been far more loquacious over the years, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy has done most of his talking through the pages of numerous well-thumbed notebooks.
While some musicians get worn down by playing the media game over time, for Waaktaar-Savoy there was barely a honeymoon period at all during which he was comfortable in that environment.
Take, for example, an interview on UK ‘Breakfast’ show Good Morning Britain in 1986, when interrogator Nick Owen asked ‘Are you OK’ because he ‘Hadn’t heard enough from [Paul]!’
A pattern had been set whereby singer Morten Harket and keyboardist Magne (then going by ‘Mags’) Furuholmen would spar with one another – and the interviewer(s) – while Paul shuffled uncomfortably alongside them.
Then again, when you have a back catalogue of songwriting credits like Waaktaar-Savoy does, do you need to give the public more?
Little appeared to have changed from that interview 31 years ago when a-ha visited Berlin again in September 2017 to promote the release of their MTV Unplugged Acoustic album (Summer Solstice) and subsequent extensive touring schedule.
Author and compatriot Jo Nesbo hosted the press conference and began proceedings by asking Paul: ‘How do you feel about being in the room on a scale from 1 to 10?’.
Paul, unsurprisingly, responded ‘1’, while Morten added, ‘It’s off the scale (for Paul)’.
For anyone still in any doubt, Waaktaar-Savoy doesn’t like doing interviews.
Which makes the publication of a biography – that involved writer Ørjan Nilsson undertaking several lengthy discussions with the musician – even more unlikely.
Yet here, in all its glory, comes Tårer fra en stein (Tears from a stone), published on 6 October, charting Waaktaar-Savoy’s rise to fame and exalted success not just with a-ha but Savoy and other side-projects.
The Electricity Club spoke to Nilsson about his role in what some may consider more like getting ‘blood from a stone’ in persuading Waaktaar-Savoy to open up for this long-awaited tome.
Firstly, is the book ghost-written – in the first person – or more biographical in the third-person?
Nilsson: The book is more biographical. It is based upon long interviews in four different cities (New York, Berlin, Hamburg and Oslo) over two years.
Many people have tried to persuade Paul Waaktaar-Savoy to put his thoughts into print (beyond song lyrics) but few have succeeded. Certainly, nobody has managed to get him to open up at such length – what is your secret?!
We (my publisher and I) contacted him in the fall of 2014 and told him what kind of book I wanted to write. Then we didn’t hear anything for half a year. Then, suddenly, he sent me an e-mail and asked if I could send him my first book, about Kings of Convenience’s iconic debut album (Quiet is the New Loud), and he liked it. Then we met one hot summer’s day in Oslo two years’ ago and discussed how we could try to dig deeper into his mindset around songs and songwriting.
It always helps to be passionate about the subject one writes about: how far does your interest in Paul’s music go, historically?
a-ha’s and Paul’s music played a significant role in my life since I was four years old. When the book was finished my editor wrote to me: ‘Congratulations. This is one of the most important things you’ve done in your life’. And it actually feels like that too. Paul, and a-ha as a trio, are among the few Norwegians that have reached far, far out of this country. Everybody knows the story behind their breakthrough, but I wanted to go into where the songs came from. What literature did Paul read in 1979? What films blow him away? Could his parents’ background say anything about the way he writes songs? What about the Norwegian landscape? I wanted to find out about that, for myself, and write about it so that it hopefully will be read as a cultural-historical document about a man that never spoke much but wrote songs that touched so many people in so many parts of the world.
Is this book something you have wanted to do for a long time?
I’ve had the idea somewhere inside me for 5-6 years, but it became more realistic three years ago.
Many people warn against meeting one’s heroes. Are you glad you did on this occasion?
I thought a little bit about that, of course. But five minutes into our first talk I knew that this was the right thing to do. This IS one of the most important things I have ever done – and will ever do.
Did you go into the interviews with any preconceptions about what Paul would be like? Was he as you expected or were there some surprises?
One surprise; he’s a very funny guy.
It is probably true to say that Paul was hit the hardest when a-ha split in 2010 – the other two were keen to embark on new careers whereas Paul believed there was still more to come from a-ha. Does this come across in the book?
Yes, it does. Paul says in the book that he didn’t want to quit at all back in 2010, and that he wanted more a-ha.
Is it also fair to say that Paul is the most enthusiastic with what is going on now – the ‘MTV Unplugged’ concert and the many live concerts ahead, both acoustic and ‘plugged’?
We haven’t talked about that specifically, we ended our two years of interviews just in the start of the ‘Unplugged’ project.
You have also written about Kings of Convenience, so do you see the struggles that a-ha has had internally over the years as just something that happens in every/most bands?
I don’t want to have an opinion about a-ha’s struggles. Paul talks about it in the book but he also says that Morten and Magne are two of his closest friends.
Initially the book will only be available in Norwegian. Are there plans to translate it into other languages, including English?
There is some interest in other countries, and there will be news out on that in the not too distant future, but I’m afraid not English right now. But I really hope it will happen.
As a-ha lived in and enjoyed great success in England in the ‘80s/early ‘90s (and retain a strong fan-base there to this day), why do you think the English translation is not near the top of the list?
Hmm, do you mean from my perspective or from English publishers? I guess many potential publishers haven’t heard about the book yet but hopefully they will and the book will have a long life.
Is Paul excited about the book?
Yes, that’s my impression. But probably also a little bit worried. This book goes into details about big parts of his life, and goes into the core of what he does – writing songs. I know I would have been kind of nervous (in his position).
And you have recorded a Savoy song (‘Whalebone’) especially for the release of the book with your own band (Willow) – how exciting was that to do and what does Paul think of it?
I have confidence in my writing and wasn’t too afraid about what Paul would think when I sent him the first chapters [of the book] last summer, since he liked the Kings of Convenience book. But the singing – and the Willow cover-version: I was super nervous. But then we got really nice feedback from him; he told me that he loved it and the version almost gave him a Placebo-vibe. Willow is, by the way, a band that broke up 12 years ago, but we thought this was a great opportunity to get back together and do something, because I like the concept of a book-single (a limited edition 7″ vinyl featuring ‘Whalebone’ by Willow and ‘Manhattan Skyline’ by Kings of Convenience was included for those who pre-ordered through bidra.no).
And what more from Waaktaar-Savoy?
When a celebrity has a book out it is common to tour the media circuit hammering home the point.
Will this be the case on this occasion?
Let publisher Christer Falck clear that matter up: ‘Pål will not promote the book,” Falck clarified.
‘As he said: “I have said what is to be said. From now on, I will keep silent.”’
One suspects Paul’s notebooks will continue to vocalise his thoughts for many years to come.
Savoy reissue their successful third album, introducing its classic songs to a new audience…
Following last year’s re-release of Lackluster Me, Bergen-based Apollon Records have now reissued Savoy’s classic third album Mountains Of Time. Originally released in 1999, the band’s biggest selling album has been remastered on CD, vinyl and digital formats, and now boasts a striking new sleeve design that incorporates both the band’s logo, and a virtual depiction of the album title. At the time of its release, the album represented Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s best set of songs since 1986’s Scoundrel Days.
Savoy were officially formed when it became evident to chief songwriter Waaktaar that Morten Harket had prioritised a solo career over plans to record a sixth a-ha album; an album that he had already started demoing, largely independently, in 1994. Joining the prolific songwriter was Frode Unneland (from the band Chocolate Overdose) and Waaktaar’s wife, Lauren Savoy. The London Film School graduate had already played a huge part in the a-ha story; not only as a source of support for her creative husband, but also as a director of some of the band’s promotional videos (she had also contributed the line “Night I left the city, I dreamt of a wolf” to ‘Cry Wolf’). As a musician in Waaktaar’s latest three-piece, Lauren Savoy was credited with co-writing all the songs, as well as contributing vocal and guitar parts.
By the time a-ha had reformed for the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo in 1998, Savoy had already released two albums; attaining a respectable level of success – both critically and commercially – in Norway. Despite a-ha’s reformation and intentions to release new material, plans were already in place to release a third Savoy album. Indeed, by the time a-ha had signed with WEA Germany in July 1999, both acts were working concurrently. “To run the two bands alongside each other was of course madness,” Waaktaar later told Jan Omdahl. “To juggle records, recording dates, release plans, tour plans, and promotional plans from two different record companies makes everything spin for me. The place of freedom that Savoy had been, became, in the end, pretty stressful.”
However, it was a confident band that entered the recording studio to cut their third record; undoubtedly buoyed by the enthusiastic response to their previous album, 1997’s Lackluster Me. “The songs kept coming – recording it was easy,” recalled Waaktaar. “Lauren was pregnant. We were giddy and excited!” Like its predecessor, the album was self-produced, with Waaktaar resuming bass-playing duties following the departure of Greg Calvert. Many of the songs were also enriched with string parts, featuring session players who have played on recordings by the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Susanne Sundfør and Morten Harket.
Such was Waaktaar-Savoy’s prolificacy during this period, the band were able to set aside songs for a fourth album. And, inevitably, there were some Savoy songs that would eventually make it on to a-ha’s comeback album, such as ‘Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count’ and ‘Barely Hanging On’. For the Nobel Peace Prize concert, Waaktaar was presented with the dilemma of which song to play at the show, entrusting the decision to drummer Frode Unneland: “I gave Frode the choice between ‘Summer Moved On’ and ‘Man In The Park’“, he said. “He chose ‘Man In The Park’ and with that, ‘Summer Moved On’ became an a-ha song. Both songs are equally good, and I guarantee you that if a-ha had recorded ‘Man In The Park’, that would have been a hit instead.”
With both a-ha and Savoy running in tandem, both acts’ new albums inevitably ended up featuring some of the same musicians. Drummer Per Lindvall, who became a regular member of a-ha’s recording and performing setup in the noughties, guested on ‘Man In The Park’, while Savoy’s Frode Unneland featured on a-ha’s ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’ and ‘The Company Man’. When quizzed by NRK in August 1999 about the next a-ha album, Lauren Savoy replied: “The thing is, I’m an a-ha fan. I think it’s great – I’m looking forward to the next album… the more music the better!” In the end, she made two major contributions to Minor Earth Major Sky, co-writing ‘The Sun Never Shone That Day’ and adding a distinctive backing vocal to ‘You’ll Never Get Over Me’.
One other notable guest on Mountains Of Time was Magne Furuholmen, who added a gorgeous clavichord part to ‘Bottomless Pit’. Waaktaar was certainly impressed with Furuholmen’s musicianship, telling Jan Omdahl: “Magne can pick up any instrument at all and play it as if he’s been doing it all his life. I’ll never forget when he walked in and laid down a fantastic part on ‘Bottomless Pit’ in the space of two hours… I used to challenge him, and the only time I’ve been surprised was when I asked him to play the saxophone part on ‘The Living Daylights’ live at a concert. Magne bought a sax, went out in front of a packed arena, and totally screwed it up! The shock was that he couldn’t pull it off. It was the only time.”
“Life should be a song/ One of those sixties songs/ With lots of catchy phrases/ That everybody knows/ So you can sing along.” It’s this verse, taken from Lackluster Me’s ‘Foreign Film’, that seems to perfectly encapsulate the spirit of Mountains Of Time. ‘Star (I’m Not Stupid Baby)’, released as the album’s first single in July 1999, certainly provided a portent of what was to come: well-produced songs with a ’60s flavour and catchier pop sheen; an antidote to the previous album’s more sombre inflections. Featuring Lauren on lead vocals, the single was a minor hit and earned the band another Spellemannprisen nomination (the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy award).
‘Grind You Down’, featuring another Lauren Savoy vocal, was released as a promotional single in October 1999. An extremely catchy four-chord pop track, it featured some lovely arpeggiated guitar, and became a firm favourite amongst Savoy fans (it was later re-recorded for 2007’s Songbook compilation). Elsewhere, the more sombre ‘Bottomless Pit’, found itself in similar Beatles-influenced territory, subtly evoking the melodic craft of Rubber Soul. Other highlights included ‘End Of The Line’ (which has shades of Burt Bacharach) and ‘Any Other Way’, which included some effective keyboard work from session player Preben Grieg-Halvorsen, as well as a stunning middle-eight.
Whether by coincidence or by design, the album seemingly takes the listener on something of a seasonal journey. The opening ‘Man In The Park’ evokes images of springtime walks in Washington Square Park, with its tale of the ‘flower shop girl’ and the ‘man that knows’; summer is clearly represented by ‘Grind You Down’ (“You wait all year/ Then the summer comes”), and there’s some lovely wintery imagery in ‘See What Becomes’ (“I’m walking through a snowfall/ I’m just a little kid”). Lauren Savoy’s original 1960s-style sleeve design, featuring individual shots of the band, also seem to embody the album’s many moods, via its array of Warhol-inspired colour filters. As an illustration of Waaktaar’s gift for fusing melody with melancholia, it’s a largely unparalleled collection.
The album was released by EMI in July 1999, with initial copies including a bonus 5-track EP (titled The Bovarnick Twins). Reviews were unanimous in their praise. “John Lennon would have been hailed as a god if this were his solo album” claimed Dagbladet, while VG declared: “If the legendary Phil Spector had heard Savoy’s Mountains Of Time, we would probably have seen tears behind that eccentric’s sunglasses.”
And there were celebrations-a-plenty in the Waaktaar-Savoy household throughout August and September 1999, with the couple announcing the birth of their child True August, and the album hitting number one in the Norwegian charts. The celebrations continued in February 2000 when Savoy were awarded a Spellemannprisen award for ‘Best Pop Group’. “This album was so much fun to make, and we enjoyed it so much,” Lauren Savoy said during her brief award acceptance speech. “It’s so nice when you guys like it as well!”
a-ha’s comeback album Minor Earth Major Sky would attract similar plaudits, and it was no surprise when Waaktaar later described this period as one of the highlights of his career. “We got two-page reviews in all the Norwegian newspapers,” he later reflected. “That’s never happened with a-ha. The summer we had Augie and released Mountains Of Time almost at the same time was totally special. It was magical. It’s never been better.”
“Musically, we went through a bunch of phases – for a while it was rock opera. We were going to compose some grandiose stuff about earthquakes in Guatemala. Our ambitions had no limits.” – Paul Waaktaar-Savoy
It’s been well documented that a-ha’s huge success with ‘Take On Me’ – and subsequent album Hunting High And Low – didn’t happen overnight. Whilst the band didn’t slog it out via the conventional – and slightly clichéd – live route, they chose instead to hone their songwriting craft in the studio; using the fast-developing advances in electronic instrumentation to develop their sound.
But that’s not to say the band didn’t have any grounding at all in live performance – in truth, the three members of a-ha had all paid their dues, completing a musical apprenticeship of sorts in a number of bands.
Prior to a-ha’s official formation on Morten Harket’s 23rd birthday in September 1982, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen had recorded two albums as part of a four-piece combo named Bridges, including a self-financed opus titled Fakkeltog (which translates as ‘torchlight procession’). In this article we tell the story of Bridges, using archive material and some exclusive reminiscences from former members of the band.
Far from being prototype a-ha recordings, the music of Bridges owed more to the music of The Doors than the synth-pop sounds that would characterize much of the Norwegian trio’s earliest demos and album recordings. Brimming with ambition, the band’s only officially released album Fakkeltog is a surprisingly complex piece of music; split into three parts and boasting an impressive mastery of several instruments, progressive rock-like time signature shifts and lyrics inspired not just by Jim Morrison, but also Norwegian literary figures such as Gunvor Hofmo. Perhaps more importantly, the roots of many of a-ha’s songs stemmed from Bridges sessions and recordings, including ‘Take On Me’, ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘Soft Rains Of April’.
It would be very difficult to understate the huge influence of The Doors on the music produced by Waaktaar and Furuholmen. As key an influence as David Bowie on the ‘Blitz Kids’ of the late 1970s or Kraftwerk on electronic acts such as OMD and The Human League, much of the music of a-ha (particularly throughout the 1980s and 1990s) is permeated with Doors influences. There’s the earlier brooding numbers such as ‘Here I Stand And Face The Rain’ and ‘Soft Rains Of April’; through to the roadside drama of ‘Sycamore Leaves’ and mid-period numbers such as ‘Slender Frame’, ‘Early Morning’ and Lamb To The Slaughter’ that all imbue a Venice Beach campfire spirit. In concert the band regularly included a snatch of ‘Riders On The Storm’ during ‘Cry Wolf’.
Building Bridges (1974-1979)
Pål Waaktaar Gamst and Magne Furuholmen had become acquainted circa 1974 as near-neighbours in Manglerud, a borough that lies in the southeastern district of Oslo. Waaktaar reflected on their early meetings years later: “He was unbelievably musical, and we hit it off right from the start. He had a Dali amplifier – with a tremolo. It was the coolest thing we’ve ever heard – the first time you hear a tremolo, it’s a fantastic sound. Magne played ‘Sunshine’ by Nazareth, and we were really impressed.”
In 2013 Furuholmen told music writer Wyndham Wallace about an early encounter with Waaktaar: “I saw him perform on a third floor balcony. They were performing inside, but there was a group of people stood outside, and they’d come out and he’d put the drumsticks in the air. I think it was just a Hammond, a living room organ, and cardboard drums – a very makeshift concert – but I remember being incredibly impressed, not by the music but by the spectacle of it all.”
Both teenagers had grown up with music coursing through their veins; Furuholmen in particular. His father Kåre was a well-travelled musician, playing trumpet for the Bent Sølves Orkester, a popular six-piece jazz band. Sadly, he (and the rest of his entourage) died in an airplane crash on the way to a show in Sweden in May 1969. Bizarrely, the tragedy was witnessed by a nine-year old Morten Harket. Furuholmen told the Adresseavisen newspaper years later: “The first time I met Morten Harket, we walked home together after a party. It was a long walk, and when we had talked about the important stuff – what music we liked – we needed to find other topics of conversation. What our parents were doing, things like that. I told him that my father died in a plane crash in 1969. Morten remained completely silent for a while, before he told me that he was an eyewitness to the plane crash in Drammen… he saw the plane hit the ground.”
The teenagers had a shared love of both Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, as Waaktaar recalled during a Facebook Q&A in 2015: “When I first started playing guitar, I learned from copying old blues vinyl played on half speed. Jimi Hendrix was an early hero – Magne and I would compete who had the biggest collection of obscure bootlegs. Mind-blowing stuff. Then it was all about The Doors and Robbie Krieger who just knew exactly what each song needed and without ever over-playing.” And it probably wouldn’t have gone unnoticed that, while Jim Morrison garnered most of the attention as The Doors’ frontman and in-house poet, it was guitarist Krieger that had quietly contributed some of the band’s best songs (see ‘Light My Fire’, ‘You’re Lost Little Girl’, ‘Touch Me’, ‘Love Her Madly’, etc). Waaktaar also practised at an after-school club, playing folk songs such as ‘Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley’.
The fashions of the Sixties also had something of an effect on Waaktaar: “I wore wide bellbottoms, grew my hair long and put up Jimi Hendrix posters,” he told Tor Marcussen in The Story So Far. “At Nordstrand, the boys were all clean, crew cut kids driving around in their rich fathers’ cars. Everybody else’s style was completely alien to me, and I had no desire to become like them. I’ve always wanted to be different.” Much to his parents’ disappointment, the increasingly music-obsessed Waaktaar harboured little in the way of academic ambition (he was even nicknamed “The Guest” by his teachers due to his poor attendance record!). “They came from Northern Norway to Oslo to get an education, and had to uproot themselves from their families up there,” he recalled. “My not wanting to go to University and take the same route was a bit of a downer for them.”
Both Waaktaar and Furuholmen had been in different school bands, including Black Day and Black Sapphire, respectively. Waaktaar confirmed that the competitive streak between the pair was prevalent even at this early stage in their music career: “We were always in there together, competing to write the best songs, play the fastest guitar.” The pair initially teamed up in the band Spider Empire, with Furuholmen on vocals and guitar, before changing their name to Thala and the Layas Blues Band and then, finally, Bridges, in 1978. “During that period Magne and I went though different band names from one month to the next,” Waaktaar told The Electricity Club. During a speech in 2012, Bondi recalled the first time he met Waaktaar and Furuholmen: “I got off the bus, carrying a bass guitar – that is how I meet Magne and Paul for the first time. Two long-haired boys – or were they girls? – dressed like Jimi Hendrix. Silk flower shirts, bell-bottom pants, moccasins, long scarves, handkerchiefs – I was catapulted back to the sixties!”
There was to be a further personnel change in the new year, with Bondi’s friend – and bandmate in Essens – Erik Hagelien replacing Jan Erik Ødegård on the drum stool. Hagelien told The Electricity Club: “I had played with another Asker band for a short period where we tried out playing with two drummers,” he explained. “Viggo contacted me to ask if I would join his new band with two young enthusiasts (Magne and Paul) which I accepted. The band name Bridges was created and adopted by the four of us. Later we introduced another old friend, Jostein Nygard, on keyboards. He brought his organ, Fender electric piano and his old Minimoog which required quite some time to warm up and stabilize the oscillators.”
The band, which was known for a while as ‘The Bridges’, eventually reverted to a four-piece with Waaktaar in a dual guitar and vocal role, while Furuholmen was persuaded to take a Ray Manzarek-like position behind the keyboards; the fledgling songwriter keen on guiding the group in a Doors-like direction. Whilst not as rich in tone, Waaktaar possessed a baritone voice akin to that of Jim Morrison’s, and his rockier vocal tones would perfectly suit his later indie-pop work with Savoy during a-ha’s sabbatical in the mid-to-late 1990s. I asked Hagelien if he was as enamoured with The Doors as Waaktaar and Furuholmen. “I always said that the songs composed by Magne and Paul at that time was much influenced by The Doors,” he replies. “I believe Jimi Hendrix was important for them too, and probably also The Beatles. Magne and Paul gave me the book The Beatles: In Their Own Words for my 17th birthday. I was, and Viggo too, more of a prog rock lover, listening to artists like Rick Wakeman, ELP, Yes, Genesis and Frank Zappa. We also loved what we called ‘jazz-rock’, like Mahavishnu Orchestra. I really was a fan of the drummer Phil Collins, both in Genesis and Brand X, Carl Palmer, Billy Cobham and Terry Bozzio.”
By the time of Bridges’ formation, the well-travelled Furuholmen had moved to Asker, which was within a commutable distance from Manglerud. And it was the basement at Furuholmen’s family home in Asker, affectionately referred to as Knusla Bruk, that provided the rehearsal space for the ambitious young band during their high school years. They focused on practising original material rather than covers, while Waaktaar wrote his lyrics in English rather than his native Norwegian, later explaining that “there was no point trying to shove Norwegian down English people’s throats.”
After-school sessions were frequent and Waaktaar was beginning to stockpile a vast repertoire of songs, as Bondi later recalled: “The only homework we did during high school was what we assigned ourselves – or, more accurately, what Magne and Paul assigned one another. A new song for every practice. The result was a huge number of songs: ‘Truths Of Love’, ‘The Endless Brigade’, and so on. The list is incredibly long. Songs about dreams… songs as musical building blocks for what would later become a-ha.”
Whilst Waaktaar’s chosen career path had been met with disappointment, he certainly found an ally in his older sister Tonje who would spur him on during this period and throughout his musical career. In the Furuholmen household, Magne’s mother Lise was also a constant source of encouragement. “There was always a woman behind the band – Lise,” recalled Bondi. “With four rehearsals every week for four years, three teenaged boys not only moved into her house, they moved into her refrigerator! She also had four children of her own. We weren’t given many responsibilities, but at one of the first practises, we were sent out to the potato field! Lise is a teacher, but she never asked us if we had done our homework. It was as though she understood that something big was happening.”
Whilst music was seemingly the primary focus, occasionally the band would help each other out with their schoolwork, as Bondi fondly recalled at the a-ha Fan Convention in 2016: “We were really busy, practising four days a week actually and it was really hard to combine homework, you know, with playing. So I had some homework to do myself… and I needed to write a short story for the next day I think I was. And I said, ‘well I have a problem guys, because it’s hard to play tonight because I have homework to do for tomorrow’. And Magne said, ‘well I have one here – maybe you can use that one’. So I just took his and I got an A!”
Hagelien was also able to share some memories from this period: “Paul came all the way from Manglerud to Vollen every Friday after school,” he says. “He stayed there for the whole weekend. Viggo and myself showed up on Saturdays and Sundays. There was a 25-minute walk from Hvalstad (where Viggo and I lived in Asker) to the bus stop and another 25 minutes from the bus stop in Vollen to Magne’s house. We practised mostly every weekend and Magne’s mother always served us good food – we felt very welcome. It was a big house with a large room in the basement where we played, and my drums stood permanently. Over time I damaged the very nice and brand new wooden pine floor with my drum hardware spikes – I felt very embarrassed! Per Arne Skjeggestad, an old friend of Magne and Paul, occasionally joined us in parts of the weekends – he was following the band and took a lot of pictures.”
Bridges In Concert (1979)
Live performances were sporadic during the infancy of the band’s career and, years later, Waaktaar vividly recalled his first performance: “I started, you know, on drums, because that was the most invisible place in the band. But then songwriting suddenly reared its head, and the urge to present the songs became so strong that it literally pushed me forward to the edge of the stage. I remember the day I turned on the microphone and sang – it was a big deal for me.”
One of the band’s first live commitments was NM for Rockeband (a Norwegian ‘battle of the bands’) at Chateau Neuf in Oslo. The performance of ‘Somebody’s Going Away’ during the preliminary heat on the 11th March was, according to some sources, beset with sound problems and the band didn’t progress to the next round on the 12th (Oslo-based Broadway News prevailed as the winners at the national final in July). The following weekend the band played a private show for family and friends at Hagelien’s home in Hvalstad, and also went to the trouble of preparing a small programme for the event! This fascinating document reveals that Waaktaar was still using his original surname of Gamst, while the set list included songs such as ‘Born Between The Battles’ and ‘Imagination’. Keen to boost their profile, the ambitious band were also interviewed by local newspaper Asker og Bærum Budstikke in April. “We do not want to make it big here in Norway,” they said. “We do not want to be a new notch in the joke.”
Chateau Neuf also provided the setting for another live show, performing with several other bands as part of a programme organised by the IAB (an amateur band association) on the 27th May. According to Hagelien, the band performed well during the day-long event.
By the summer of 1979 there was a change of personnel behind the drums. Hagelien picks up the story: “Magne and Paul showed up at the family house to have a discussion. They had decided to dedicate themselves 100% to the music to become international professionals. They also had a clear view to grow abroad and not in Norway. The ultimatum they gave me was to commit to their strategy, with the consequence that I had to quit school. At that time this was not an option for me.” Replacing Hagelien wasn’t easy, but they eventually found an ideal replacement in 19-year old Øystein Jevanord. He’d already graduated from Sogn Upper Secondary School in 1977 and, in footballing parlance, was a ‘free agent’. “I was looking for an interesting band to play with,” Jevanord told The Electricity Club. “I had played drums since I was 12, had some special skills, and was open-minded to all kinds of music. I saw Bridges live at Chateau Neuf during the IAB concert, with Hagelien on drums, so I knew what they were about… and they stood out that night. A good friend of mine ripped out a small ad in Aftenposten (Norway’s biggest newspaper), and I got it a week too late. It sounded interesting, so I called them up. They had already tested two drummers – which didn’t work too well – so they invited me to Magne’s house the following weekend (15th September 1979). I remember the date because my 20th birthday was the day after. We played all night, slept over, and after breakfast we continued playing. It was magic – interesting music, very nice people. Everything matched. I was very happy and excited, and the others agreed… this was it!” I also asked him who his musical influences were: “As I said, I was open-minded and listened to all kinds of music – but mostly to music with great drummers, such as Frank Zappa, Genesis, Brand X, Yes and Santana. But I must admit that Phil Collins was my biggest influence at the time.”
One of the new line-up’s most important engagements, certainly in terms of the formation of a-ha, was a performance at Asker Gymnasium in 1979. Bondi picked up the story years later: “On the way to the concert, Terje Nøkleby – Magne’s stepfather – played a tape recording of the previous weekend’s jam session. It sounded dreadful. We were in shock – were we really that bad? We could not live with that. It became one of our best concerts ever… but, more importantly, among the audience in the hall was Morten Harket.” The future a-ha vocalist was certainly impressed by the performance: “It really stunned me when I heard them live – this was Doors music,” he told Wyndham Wallace in 2013. “All of a sudden everything changed – it stunned me, right there on the floor. ‘This is it. This is how it’s gonna happen.’ It was instant. But at the same time I knew they needed me. I had to be a part of it. That wasn’t a question for me. It wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t a problem. It was just a fact, a comfortable matter of fact. But I was not going to go after them and suggest anything. I just knew, and that was enough for me. So I left it there. For quite some time.” Harket did in fact approach Bondi about joining the band, but the timing was wrong, and the future a-ha vocalist would have to ply his trade in the band Souldier Blue for the foreseeable future. World domination had to be put on hold…
In the spring of 1980, the confident band played a show at the Dovrehallen club in Oslo, sharing the bill with a local punk rock band named Kjøtt. “The punks waltzed to Bridges’ music – we did not take that as a compliment” recalled Bondi. The show was etched in his memory as he also recalled that a few days later his ears pricked up when he received a phone call from Ole Sørli, formerly of Polydor Records. “We were in shock – this would mean a record contract! Or so we thought. Instead, he produced two black and white pictures of two teenage girls with huge sunglasses: Ingrid and Benedicte. Dollie de Luxe had just recorded their first album, and he asked if we wanted to be their backing band! We left his office, infuriated. We’d been given one of their records and, once we were out on the street again, we found out that it performed really well as a frisbee!”
“I grew up in the Sixties/ The Seventies I betrayed/ But the Eighties are mine/ You can’t take them away from me”
Following their flirtations with live performance, the next logical step was to cut a record; and fate was to play another part in the Bridges story with their choice of record producer. Svein Erichsen was both a neighbour of Furuholmen’s and a fan of The Doors (he’d seen them play at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970), and – crucially – possessed technical knowledge. “As I recall, he didn’t do much as a producer… we did that mostly ourselves,” says Jevanord. “[He was] more of a fan, and neighbour of Magne’s. Anyway, he was credited as a producer on the album because he helped us with various equipment in the period before Fakkeltog. For example, a 4-track recorder to get down the old songs Bridges had made. Mags can probably tell you more about his musical background, because I don’t know. I know he was a guitar / bass player… oh yes, he did some background vocals on a track on Fakkeltog as well.”
In the summer of 1980, the band booked recording time at a basement in an old factory in Nydalen (in Northern Oslo) that had been converted into a recording studio (named Octocon) by Tore Aarnes. “I think it was Paul that found Octocon,” says Jevanord. “Not too expensive for four young lads. And the recording conditions were okay… we didn’t have much to compare it to since this was our first time in a real studio. I just remember it was exciting and joyful to work there. Eight tracks was a lot for us then – fantastic!”
It would take the well-rehearsed band just a week to record the album, at a cost of 500 krone per day, and the sessions were long and productive. “We prepared all the arrangements at the rehearsals, so we used just four days to record the main [album]” recalls Jevanord. “The rest of the week we did the overdubs, vocals and mix. Fakkeltog was finished in one week in other words. But of course, some changes were also done here and there in the studio.” I asked Jevanord if there were any creative tensions between Waaktaar and Furuholmen at this early stage. “No, just minor, healthy disagreements all musicians experience during making good music together – four strong personalities,” he replies. “So, no, not like I’ve heard it has become in late a-ha-days!”
Waaktaar’s guitar of choice was a Gibson SG (a model favoured by Robbie Krieger), while Furuholmen’s keyboard setup included a Wasp synthesizer and a Moog Polymoog (203A) synthesizer. The Wasp synth (a favourite of Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes) was a quirky but affordable instrument that was launched by EDP (Electronic Dream Plant) in 1978, and is easily identifiable by its yellow and black colours and unconventional flat keys. The considerably more expensive Moog, meanwhile, dated back to 1975 and featured a number of presets (including harpsichord, piano and organ) and was important to the band, in that it was capable of emulating some of The Doors’ trademark sounds. One notable user of the 203A was Rick Wakeman, who’d used the instrument on some of Yes’s recordings in the late 1970s, while Gary Numan used a more affordable version of the Polymoog (the 280A) to great effect with the iconic Vox Humana preset.
The band also used some additional musicians to augment some of the songs, including strings on the beautiful ‘Vagrants’ (the 4-piece string section included Hans Morten Stensland, who later featured on a-ha’s Foot Of The Mountain album in 2009).
Though unarguably derivative in places, the resulting album is a perfect representation of where the band were at that point. What is really impressive, though, is that the album was cut by a band largely in their late teens and barely out of school (Furuholmen was just 17). Certainly the quality of the musicianship shines through – Bondi’s bass lines are melodic, while Jevanord’s drum playing is adventurous but tight (check out the album’s superb 10-minute centrepiece, ‘The Stranger’s Town’, that showcase a range of skills). But it’s the combination of Waaktaar’s inventive guitar work and Furuholmen’s broad palette of keyboard sounds that characterizes much of Fakkeltog; a sound that was more in tune with the progressive rock genre than the Punk and New Wave sounds that were coming out of the UK and the USA in the late 1970s. Norway had its own progressive rock movement, spearheaded by early ’70s acts such as Saft, Aunt Mary and Popol Ace, but it was a scene that was becoming increasingly unfashionable as the decade wore on.
Whilst Fakkeltog wasn’t quite in tune with the musical trends of the day, the band certainly weren’t alone in their affinity for The Doors’ music – acts such as The Stranglers, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Triffids were all clearly influenced by the Los Angeles rockers. It would be cruel to dismiss Fakkeltog as nothing more than a Doors tribute album, though. Certainly the spectre of the Lizard King looms large: ‘Death Of The Century’ and ‘Vagrants’, portents of Waaktaar’s favoured ballad style with a-ha, echo the mournful and melancholic side of Morrison’s baritone, while the spoken word elements of ‘Every Mortal Night’ recall ‘The WASP (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)’ from 1971. Waaktaar’s guitar playing, whilst not as effortlessly dextrous as Robbie Krieger’s, is certainly impressive and you can hear The Doors guitarist’s influence on tracks such as ‘Somebody’s Going Away’, which feature some fine blues licks.
There were some other key literary references on Fakkeltog as well: Gunvor Hofmo was a reclusive writer who lived in the Nordstrand area of Oslo, publishing several poetry collections. “She was the closest you could get to The Doors in Norway,” Waaktaar later claimed. “Early Bridges songs like ‘Guest On Earth’ were snatched straight out of her poetry collection Gjest På Jorden.” Waaktaar wasn’t alone in his admiration for the poet (who died in 1995) either – many years later, a Norwegian singer-songwriter named Susanna Wallumrød would record an entire album Jeg vil hjem til menneskene using Hofmo’s poetry.
In terms of the history of a-ha, there are two tracks that stand out: ‘May The Last Danse Be Mine’ [sic] and ‘Every Mortal Night’ both featured lyrics that were later recycled on the 1986 b-side ‘This Alone Is Love’, notably the melodic refrain “It will make my last breath pass out at dawn/ It will make my body dissolve out in the blue”. ‘May The Last Danse Be Mine’ was a track that dated back to the early days of the band, and represented a more romantic facet to Waaktaar’s writing. “That album is actually about my first real kiss,” Waaktaar later reflected. “About how at last I felt like a member of the human race. About how relieved and happy I was that it had happened – that someone wanted to be with me. About how I had grown up to the extent that I had thought it was rotten to be alone and about my disappointment when I realised how little she really was involved, but how something in me had been awakened anyway.”
The band had a novel way round of getting round the problem of presenting a three-part album across two sides of vinyl, as Bondi later recalled: “Sometimes Paul and Magne’s genius could get out of hand, such as when they decided that our first album should have three sides instead of two, with a stop-groove in the middle of one side… Very clever, but highly impractical!”
The album, which boasted a striking collage of band photos and lyrics on the front cover, was mixed by Svein Erichsen and Octocon owner Tore Aarnes. The band were confident that no major labels would show an interest in Fakkeltog, so they adopted the DIY ethos of British bands such as The Buzzcocks and released the album themselves on their own Våkenatt label (a name inspired by a Gunvor Hofmo poetry collection from 1954 titled I en våkenatt). Just 1000 copies were pressed, with the band shifting less than half of these units. I asked Jevanord what expectations the band had for the album, and how they promoted it. “Well, just the fact [we made] an album available, and get some reviews in some music papers and daily papers was fantastic – and most of them liked it,” he recalls. “All the promotion we did was to glue lots of posters all over Oslo city wherever we could, and we went around to the most popular record shops in Oslo and asked if they would like to buy some of them… some of them actually did!
By the end of 1980 the band were ensconced in Sound Art Studio in Oslo, working on the follow up to Fakkeltog. Waaktaar had also convinced his band colleagues into a change of band name from Bridges to Poem. “I believe it was Paul’s idea,” says Jevanord. “And the reason was simply to find a more catchy name before we got more well known.” With the change of name there also came a change in musical direction, with the four-piece aiming for a more commercial sound. Fakkeltog’s distillation of Doors and Prog influences had provided an ideal musical grounding for the band, and an insight into record recording and production; but the band was still taking steps to realise their musical identity. An inspired Waaktaar had penned some shorter – and more direct – new songs, which included ‘Soft Rains Of April’ and ‘The Leap’ (an embryonic version of ‘Scoundrel Days’); tracks that would eventually end up on a-ha’s sophomore album. “I recall that the songs were more fresh,” recalls Jevanord. “Simply because we made the songs in the middle of the week at rehearsals and recorded them in Sound Art studio in the weekends – three new songs every week until we had the whole new album. We had evolved as musicians as well, and Sound Art Studio was better equipped and the production was much better sounding.”
Also involved in the making of the new album was former drummer Erik Hagelien: “Paul called me later, after I left, and asked me to join a studio recording,” he recalls. “One single song, ‘Våkenatt’, which I did and enjoyed very much. I recall that Paul’s sister and her boyfriend [Erik Nygaard] was in the studio and that a slide guitar was used.”
The band’s plans were derailed when an intruder broke into the recording studio and stole both the master tapes and Bondi’s Gibson Les Paul bass guitar. A distraught Waaktaar made an appeal to the Aftenposten newspaper in January 1981: “Those tapes couldn’t possibly be of any value to the thieves… But the recordings, the unfinished album, have cost us thousands that we’ve spent on studio time and work. Those tapes are worth so much more to us than the thieves. Can’t we please get them back?” Luckily, the plea proved to be successful and the stolen items were eventually returned. Tor Marcussen, a journalist with Aftenposten at the time, would later write The Story So Far, one of the first books about the band (published in 1986).
Around this time Waaktaar and Bondi travelled to London to pick up a synth-bass but, much to Jevanord’s annoyance, the pair returned with a set of expensive Pollard Syndrums! “I didn’t like it much,” he confirms. “Simply because the synth-drums in 1980 were terrible… more of a toy than an instrument. I used the analog Syndrums, and it was just another sound – like a bad drum machine. But I used them anyway on some tracks, just to please the other guys!” Syndrums were used by some well known acts, including The Cars and Yellow Magic Orchestra, but its primitive sounds soon went out of fashion; particularly following the introduction of the Simmons company’s range of far more authentic sounding electronic drum kits in the early 1980s (showcased by artists such as Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo and Ultravox).
Intent on steering their music in an electronic direction, Waaktaar sold his Gibson guitar. He told The Electricity Club: “I traded my SG for a Roland GR-300 guitar synth for the Poem album… Missing that awesome SG though… never seen a similar one since!” Guitar synthesizers were introduced in the late 1970s and Roland’s GR-300 had been officially endorsed by The Police’s Andy Summers, and used by other artists such as King Crimson and Robert Fripp. Roland enthusiastically described the product in one of their brochures: ‘The GR-300 polyphonic guitar synthesizer has an outstanding expressing ability, being able to reproduce the subtleness of the guitar sound which cannot be obtained by a keyboard synthesizer’. Sadly it didn’t quite live up to its billing and these days the vintage instrument is, like the Syndrum, more of a collector’s piece – Waaktaar soon reverted to guitar, primarily using a Gibson ES-335. Furuholmen, meanwhile, made a far greater investment with the purchase of a new Korg synthesizer; which was to prove far more conducive to their creative aspirations.
The pair announced plans to head to London in the hope of landing a record deal, but Bondi and Jevanord didn’t share their ambitions and declined an invitation to join them. Whilst artwork for the self-titled Poem album had been designed, its release was sadly shelved following the band’s inevitable break-up. Waaktaar and Furuholmen’s alliance with Harket was just around the corner, and a song that the duo had originally rehearsed with Bridges called ‘The Juicy Fruit Song’ would later morph into ‘Take On Me’, changing their lives forever…
Scoundrel Days (the post-Bridges years)
Despite the break-up of the band, Waaktaar and Furuholmen didn’t – pardon the pun – burn their bridges. Bondi and Jevanord kept in touch with their former bandmates, and both played a part in a-ha’s career throughout the 1980s. Bondi – along with Waaktaar’s girlfriend and future wife Lauren Savoy – featured on one of the band’s Rendezvous Studio demos from 1984, an experimental instrumental named ‘Umbrella’ (aka ‘Telephone’), but his main focus during this period was studying law. He’s currently the Executive Director in the Department of Labour and Legal affairs and Competence Development at the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association. He still plays the bass and in recent years has recorded some songs for the appropriately named Guns ‘N Lawyers.
Jevanord, meanwhile, maintained a much higher musical profile and contributed to both the Scoundrel Days and Stay On These Roads albums, playing on key tracks such as ‘Cry Wolf’ and ‘The Blood That Moves The Body’. “We first did a demo version of ‘Cry Wolf’ in Oslo,” Jevanord explains. “And then some months later I was asked to come to London for a week in 1986. We started from scratch with ‘Cry Wolf’, using a drum machine on bass drum, snare and cowbell. Then I did all the cymbals and fills, using a full drum kit with lots of toms – my take took about 20 minutes to do, so the rest of the one-week session I was just present and watched! I remember that, after a couple of test takes, Paul told me to “go bananas”! And I did… that’s the take they used on the record!” On ‘Stay On These Roads’ (the title track), I just played some cymbals recorded at Rainbow Studio in Oslo. On ‘The Blood That Moves The Body’ I did the same as on ‘Cry Wolf’ the year before… not so good – more tame – but okay.”
Jevanord was also a part of a-ha’s live band in 1987: “I was simply asked,” he says, when recalling his appointment. “And I said yes! An adventure – Mike Sturgis on drums and me on percussion; Ian Wherry on keys and Leif Karsten Johansen on bass. Seventeen concerts during three weeks in Japan, two concerts in Reykjavik, Iceland, and five outdoor concerts in the south of France, all during the summer of 1987.”
For a brief period in the mid-1980s, Jevanord was a member of popular Norwegian band deLillos (he recorded two albums with them: Før Var Det Morsomt Med Sne and Suser Avgårde). He’s also played with many other acts, including Fra Lippo Lippi, Beranek, Oslo Plektrum and Michael Krohn. “Most of them no one has ever heard of!” jokes Jevanord, who is also a long-term member of the band Dog Age. “I joined them in 1991 and they’re still going. The band has made eight records, the first in 1987. When I joined the band, they had two records already out, and the first year for me with the band was live performances. It’s kind of an underground band and lo-fi – at the same time, very creative. And the band have never done something with haste, taking their time in making an album – each record in making maybe two , or sometimes three, years. Each member makes songs, so it’s quite variable music. We like to describe the music as psychedelic pop rock, as it’s mostly inspired by late ’60s and early ’70s music. Lots of fun – if you want to listen, you’ll find many of the albums on Spotify!”
Erik Hagelien, the band’s original drummer, currently works for Hans H Schive (a battery manufacturer) and still sees Bondi occasionally: “Just for fun, our first band Essens were reunited about five years ago,” he says. “I meet Viggo and the others a couple of times a year, ending up with the same yearly performance at a local reunion party. I recently bought a second hand drum kit from a famous Norwegian drummer, Thor Andreassen. Viggo hated my digital drums and forced me to take this step which I am very happy for!”
As for Tore Aarnes, the owner of Octocon Studio, his first post-Fakkeltog project (and debut release on Octocon Records), was an impressive progressive rock album by Octopus, released in 1981. Titled Thærie Wiighen, and inspired by the writings of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, this equally rare cult release featured Aarnes on keyboards and synths (a second album, Sica, remains unreleased). Other notable Octocon recordings included 1985 a-ha demos of ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘I’ve Been Losing You’; and ‘Dance With The World’, a synth-pop single by Aarnes (under the pseudonym Y Me) that Waaktaar had remixed.
It was confirmed earlier this year that the Poem album is finally set for a long-awaited commercial release. “I’ve just mastered the second Bridges album,” Waaktaar tells me. “And I’m surprised how good it ended up sounding, considering the age of the tape and the modest studio we used.” In the meantime, fans can look forward to a brand new Savoy album (provisionally penciled in for September).
Fakkeltog is still a highly prized collector’s item, with some copies changing hands for over £500. It was unofficially re-released by Luna Nera Records as a limited edition in 2012, but the tracks are now easily accessible via vinyl rips on YouTube, giving a fresh generation of a-ha fans the opportunity to listen to this cult favourite. I asked Waaktaar about the master tapes and a potential official reissue. “Those tapes have worn a bit over the years,” he says. “I did get a transfer of the multi-track last year. And, who knows, maybe we’ll remix this one as well one day. The album was done on 8-track and the main performance is already mixed down on two tracks so it’s limited to what you can do to restore it.”
I asked Erik Hagelien, the band’s original drummer, what he thought about Fakkeltog. “Great album, with jazz rock elements,” he says. “My favourite is ‘May The Last Danse Be Mine’, since I knew this song so well from our playlist.”
“I think it’s good music,” adds Jevanord, fondly. “And we did what we could at the time to make it feel good. We were four happy, self-taught amateurs, but with good intentions in a cheap recording studio. I think it’s good if you think about that… and we made the album in one week!”
As for a Bridges reunion, Bondi recalled talk in the early 1990s of a potential reformation: “I was contacted by Paul and he said ‘I think we should talk about [getting] together again’… and I think Paul was thinking about Bridges actually at that stage… So I took out the old LP, was listening to the songs and started to practise and I was almost there, waiting for another phone call from Paul… still waiting for it!”
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Erik Hagelien, Øystein Jevanord, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Viggo Bondi
“There hasn’t been trench warfare between the two roles – which hat I’m wearing hasn’t been so important. I don’t write Savoy songs or a-ha songs – I write songs.” – Paul Waaktaar-Savoy
In an impressive recording career that has spawned ten studio albums since 1985, a-ha’s principal three members have also built up a considerable back catalogue of quality songs via an array of side projects. Whilst the reformed band continue to work on a new album of acoustic versions of some of their best songs, we take an in-depth look at the solo careers of a-ha’s triumvirate of talent, beginning with Paul Waaktaar.
a-ha’s hiatus in the 1990s was described on their Homecoming DVD as the ‘seven-year itch’. In truth, a-ha were still a working band up right until the summer of 1994; completing the recording of ‘Shapes That Go Together’ (a minor UK hit single) earlier in the year for the Winter Paralympics in Lillehammer, before concluding the Memorial Beach tour in June. a-ha reformed just over four years later, following an invitation to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo in 1998.
If a-ha’s frontman Morten Harket had decided that a-ha had run its course by 1994, Waaktaar certainly didn’t know about it as he worked on demos for the follow up to 1993’s Memorial Beach. But it soon become obvious to him that Harket’s primary concern was a solo career, which had already been kick-started with the late 1993 release of Poetenes Evangelium, a collection of Norwegian-language collection of poems by various writers set to music. Harket had aligned himself with a-ha’s manager Terry Slater, signed a major recording deal with Warners, and started working with Håvard Rem on the songs that would eventually form the Wild Seed album. An unimpressed Waaktaar would vent his frustration in the song ‘Daylight Wasting’: “Singer was fair but got it wrong/ He never did justice to my songs/ He did more for me and that’s a fact/ When he went and stabbed me in the back”.
Now based in New York, Waaktaar formed a new band with his wife Lauren Savoy; both contributing guitars and vocals. They were joined by Frode Unneland, whose drumming with Norwegian band Chocolate Overdose had impressed. Norwegian tabloid newspaper Dagbladet reported in January 1995 that the new band was called Savoy and that they’d commenced work on their debut album, provisionally titled Fade.
Lauren Savoy had met Pål Waaktaar (as he was then known) prior to a-ha’s meteoric rise in the mid-1980s and the pair eventually married in December 1991 (Waaktaar presented the song ‘Angel In The Snow’ as a wedding present to Lauren and performed it at the ceremony in place of a speech). Lauren was something of a peripheral figure in phase one of a-ha’s career, not only co-writing the song ‘Cold River’ and directing the promo video for ‘I Call Your Name’ (both from East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon), but also producing and directing the tour video Live In South America, a document of the hugely successful East of the Sun, West of the Moon tour. Waaktaar already had some experience as a lead singer via the progressive rock band Bridges that he’d formed with Magne Furuholmen (they’d cut one self-financed album, Fakkeltog, in 1980). Whilst the syrupy vocals of Lauren Savoy would divide fan opinion, Waaktaar’s rougher vocal tones would prove the perfect fit for the new band’s blend of 1960s-influenced indie rock.
Savoy – Mary Is Coming (1996 album)
“Mary Is Coming was the total opposite of the a-ha records. It was just flesh and blood, very basic. Good songs, good lyrics.” – Paul Waaktaar-Savoy
Savoy’s debut album, featuring songs co-written and produced by the husband-and-wife team, was completed in 1995; but it wouldn’t be released until February 1996 (the Norwegian media speculated that the record company didn’t want the album to clash with Morten Harket’s Wild Seed).
The band’s debut single, ‘Velvet’, got the band off to a good start and it promptly hit the Norwegian top five. One of the slower numbers on the album, the track featured Simone Larsen from Oslo-based pop band D’Sound – her backing vocals, which ghosted in and out to great effect, provided the song’s memorable hook. ‘Velvet’ did not chart in the UK but it would prove to be a perfect fit for a-ha, and the song enjoyed a new lease of life as the third single to be lifted from 2000’s Minor Earth Major Sky.
Elsewhere on the album, the title track provided another tender moment, segueing beautifully into the unlisted twelfth track, ‘Fade’ (a lovely instrumental). Evidence that Waaktaar had lost none of his pop sensibilities was displayed on catchy tracks such as ‘Underground’ and ‘We Will Never Forget’, while the likes of ‘Daylight Wasting’, ‘Get Up Now’ and ‘Foolish’ demonstrated a new found sense of lyrical and musical bite, the latter being described by Waaktaar as his most aggressive song to date. Meanwhile, ‘Half An Hour’s Worth’ featured some pleasing McCartney-esque melodic touches.
Without the recognisable voice of a-ha amidst their ranks, Savoy were unlikely to match the success enjoyed by Morten Harket, and their odds of global success were slashed considerably when Danny Goldberg, the man who had originally signed them to Warners, left the label. MTV had reported that he had been a “vocal supporter of artists’ right to express themselves as they see fit on their recordings”. Without Goldberg’s support, Savoy’s album soon disappeared from public attention, despite some promising sales in Norway. However, Savoy were nominated for two Spellemannprisen awards (the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy) in the spring of 1997, though lost out in both the ‘Best Band’ and ‘Best Newcomer’ categories. During this period, the band also signed a new recording deal with EMI.
Savoy – Lackluster Me (1997 album)
“An astonishing masterpiece: dangerously catchy and unpredictably intellectual in its gloomy, monumental beauty.” – Aftenbladet
Sessions for Savoy’s second album included bassist Greg Calvert, who had already bedded himself in on a new, almost unrecognisable, version of a-ha’s ‘October’ on the b-side of ‘Velvet’. The band played some festival dates in the summer of 1996, incorporating the likes of ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ and ‘Sycamore Leaves’ into the set lists. A more rock-based version of the latter track (from East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon) would later find its way on to the new self-produced album.
Featuring a creepy sleeve depicting the cracked face of a doll, Lackluster Me hit Norwegian record stores in October 1997. Whilst it lacked some of the pop hooks prevalent in its predecessor, it was sonically a much more satisfying album, and can be viewed as an ideal companion piece to Radiohead’s highly rated OK Computer (which had been released just months earlier).
The serviceable ballad, ‘Rain’, was released as the album’s first single, and became a minor hit in the band’s homeland. It was somewhat indicative of the largely downbeat feel of the band’s second album; the title track being a case in point (“Lackluster me/ Stands before you”). The bleakness continued apace with ‘Unsound’, with a grungey bass line complementing the biting lyrics (“No point asking me to stay/ I’d rather walk away”). Meanwhile, ‘This That And The Other’ featured some more indie rock grit, recalling Eels’ hit ‘Novocaine For The Soul’.
The recruitment of Calvert effectively freed up Waaktaar to utilise a broader sonic palette. Lauren Savoy was also afforded the opportunity to add a touch of art house pop to the mix with a daring double header: ‘Foreign Film’ saw the band experimenting with electronics and Mellotron sounds, while the more abstract ambient piece ‘Flowers For Sylvia’ served as an interesting tribute to the prolific Boston-born poet and novelist Sylvia Plath who’d committed suicide in 1963, aged just 30. Against a backdrop of unsettling sound effects, Lauren Savoy recited a selective list of Plath’s poems in a spoken word homage (later she would reference Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, in 2004’s ‘Girl One’).
The album included several gems: the beautifully wistful ‘You Should Have Told Me’ rates as one of Waaktaar’s best ballads, while the faster-paced rock workout ‘I Still Cry’ was another standout. Another track worthy of note was ‘Hey Luchie’, a sequel of sorts to ‘Angel In The Snow’.
A promo CD featuring the non-album ‘Xmas Time (Blows My Mind)’ was given away with copies of Lackluster Me during the Christmas period. Whilst the album only enjoyed modest sales, critics were certainly impressed and Lackluster Me earned Savoy another Spellemannprisen nomination (for ‘Best Rock Album’).
As part of a Savoy reissue programme, the album was re-released by Apollo Records in December 2016, including a vinyl edition limited to 1000 copies.
Savoy – Mountains Of Time (1999 album)
“John Lennon would have been hailed as a god if this were his solo album.” – Dagbladet
“If the legendary Phil Spector had heard Savoy’s Mountains of Time, we would probably have seen tears behind that eccentric’s sunglasses.” – VG
The first half of 1998 saw the band performing some of their songs at showcase gigs in the UK and the USA. Waaktaar also busied himself with other ventures; firstly exhibiting a collection (titled Rammer) of his oil paintings at a gallery in Lillehammer and, secondly, producing a single by Norwegian band deLillos titled ‘Tyve Null Tre’. His only previous experience of working with other bands had been the Y Me single ‘Dance With The World’ that he’d remixed in 1985 (now a highly sought-after collector’s item).
Following an approach by the organisers of the Nobel Peace Prize concert to perform, the members of a-ha met during the summer to discuss their future. This would eventually lead to a full scale reunion, including a new album and world tour. Plans were also afoot for Savoy to release a third record, which meant that both acts would be working concurrently over the next few years; a move Waaktaar would later describe as “madness”.
Deciding which songs would work for which act wasn’t a problem for the prolific songwriter, as he later recalled: “It is easier to write songs for Savoy than a-ha, so there are Savoy songs that do end up with a-ha, for example ‘Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count’ and ‘Barely Hanging On’ – I think they worked there, too”. And there was seemingly no dilemma when it came to choosing which new song to play at the Nobel Peace Prize concert either: “On Mountains of Time I gave Frode the choice between ‘Summer Moved On’ and ‘Man In The Park'”, he said. “He chose ‘Man In The Park’ and with that, ‘Summer Moved On’ became an a-ha song. Both songs are equally good, and I guarantee you that if a-ha had recorded ‘Man In The Park’, that would have been a hit instead.”
Following the departure of Greg Calvert, Waaktaar resumed bass-playing duties on the new album. Buoyed by the enthusiastic response to Lackluster Me, it was a confident band that entered the recording studio to cut their third opus: “The songs kept coming – recording it was easy,” recalled Waaktaar. “Lauren was pregnant. We were giddy and excited!”
The first fruits of these self-produced recording sessions arrived in July 1999 with the release of the single ‘Star (I’m Not Stupid Baby)’, which would earn the band another Spellemannprisen nomination. Featuring Lauren on lead vocal, it provided a portent of what was to come: well-produced songs with a catchier pop sheen; an antidote to the previous album’s more sombre inflections. Of the pacier tracks, ‘Any Other Way’ and the Revolver pop of ‘Grind You Down’ provided two bona fide Savoy classics, the latter featuring a memorable guitar motif. Other highlights included ‘Man In The Park’, which was inspired by the couple’s visits to Washington Square Park; ‘End Of The Line’, which is sumptuously imbued with the spirit of Burt Bacharach, and ‘Bottomless Pit’ which subtly evokes the melodic craft of Rubber Soul.
With both a-ha and Savoy running in tandem, both acts’ new albums inevitably ended up featuring some of the same musicians. Drummer Per Lindvall, a mainstay of a-ha’s recording and performing team in the noughties, guested on ‘Man In The Park’, while Savoy’s Frode Unneland featured on a-ha’s ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’ and ‘The Company Man’. Lauren Savoy co-wrote ‘The Sun Never Shone That Day’ and added a distinctive backing vocal to ‘You’ll Never Get Over Me’, while Magne Furuholmen added a gorgeous clavichord part to ‘Bottomless Pit’. Many of the tracks on Mountains Of Time were also enriched with strings, resulting in a euphonious listening experience.
The album, with a Lauren Savoy-designed sleeve that harked back to the 1960s, was released in July 1999, with initial copies including a bonus EP of exclusive tracks. Reviews were unanimous in their praise, and there were celebrations-a-plenty in the Waaktaar household throughout August and September 1999, with the couple announcing the birth of their child True August, and the album hitting number one in the Norwegian charts. The celebrations continued in February 2000 when Savoy were awarded a Spellemannprisen award for ‘Best Pop Group’. Later in the year, fans and critics alike would hail a-ha’s comeback album Minor Earth Major Sky, and it was no surprise when Waaktaar later described this period as one of the highlights of his career.
Savoy – Reasons To Stay Indoors (2001 album)
“Reasons To Stay Indoors is undoubtedly a quality product, and opens with two staggering pieces of classical pop… but then the excitement levels out” – Dagbladet
“Paul Waaktaar-Savoy has a phenomenal instinct and basic understanding of good pop music. When he plays on his own without the friction of a-ha, the result is easy going and charming pop music which sounds contemporary” – Adresseavisen
Keen to sustain the momentum after the success of Mountains Of Time, the band wasted no time in commencing work on the follow-up. Paul told a-ha’s official website: “We started out doing seven songs that were left over from Mountains Of Time, finished those up, and that gave us a big boost! They sounded good… but then, as time went by, it was like: ‘Oh, we’ll have to have this new song there, and this one as well’, and in the end it [was] all new songs” Lauren added that “Paul was writing like a maniac!”
Still fully committed to a-ha in both a recording and performing capacity, the fact that Waaktaar was still able to churn out songs for both acts with such regularity was an impressive feat. However, the pool of songs that he presented to his a-ha colleagues for the Lifelines album wasn’t exactly met with an enthusiastic response. “They’re completely unrealised – they don’t have a chorus that goes anywhere,” claimed Morten Harket. “They can’t be taken any further. It was the way with all of them, except ‘Time And Again’ and ‘Did Anyone Approach You?'” There were certainly some speculation in the media that Waaktaar was squirreling his best songs for Savoy. When reviewing their fourth album, Dagsavisen quipped: “Reasons To Stay Indoors is an album that defines the personality of Savoy more than ever before, even when the title song is so anchored in a-ha tradition than one can’t help but wonder if Paul Waaktaar saves a few possible a-ha hits for his own band.”
What’s definite for sure about Reasons To Stay Indoors is that its roots are firmly planted in New York. The couples’ new found domestic bliss certainly crept into some of the songs; ‘Once Upon A Year’ being one obvious example: “Once upon a year we had a boy/ Our boy/ Once upon a road we took a drive/ To the seaside”. ‘Five Million Years’, meanwhile, found Waaktaar in a philosophical mood: “Hundred million years ago/ The dinosaurs that walked the earth were so slow/ Hundred million years ahead/ Luchie puts her sleepy son to bed”.
Inevitably, the album would end up drawing some comparisons with Double Fantasy, the final album by fellow Manhattan residents John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which had featured songs such as ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’. And it probably wouldn’t have gone unnoticed that a certain Grammy Award-winning George Marino had mastered both Double Fantasy and Reasons To Stay Indoors.
The new album didn’t stray too far from previous long player’s template, though it did employ a greater use of strings this time round; particularly on the title track. There was, however, a change of bass-playing personnel with the arrival of Jørun Bøgeberg (who’d previously played on the Memorial Beach and East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon albums). There was another a-ha connection in the form of Anneli Drecker, who would later duet with Morten Harket on ‘Turn The Lights Down’ and perform with the band on the subsequent Lifelines tour. On Savoy’s album, Drecker guested on the quirky synthpop number, ‘Fear List’, which included off-the-wall lyrical couplets such as “It’s so itchy you have to itch/ It doesn’t matter if it bleeds.” Not one of Savoy’s greatest moments, but its inclusion proved that the band were still prepared to experiment. Far better was the more conventional ‘Paramount’, that recalled the mid-1990s indie pop of acts such as Lush and Garbage.
The album was preceded by the single (and minor hit) ‘If You Won’t Come To The Party’ in September 2001, and featured some lovely vocal interplay between the band. The album arrived in October and, once again, early copies included an EP of exclusive songs. Reviews were generally favourable, though the general consensus amongst critics was that the band had played it too safe. Certainly, tracks such as ‘I Wouldn’t Change A Thing’ occupied familiar Rubber Soul-like territory, but there were plenty of standouts. These included the epic title track, the brooding ‘Face’ and ‘Half Of The Time’, which saw Waaktaar ruminating on his well-documented shyness (“Half of the time/ I see no reason/ To say much”). “I like to keep in the background,” the sensitive songwriter once confessed in the Tor Marcussen book The Story So Far. “There are only certain kinds of people I can talk to [and] feel secure with… I’m definitely not the pop-star type.”
While the album didn’t quite meet expectations, it was certainly a worthy addition to Savoy’s increasingly impressive body of work. And the bands’ hard work paid off with yet another Spellemannprisen award for ‘Best Pop Group’.
Savoy – Savoy (2004 album)
There would be a wait of almost three years for the next Savoy album as Paul Waaktaar was fully committed to a-ha and the promotion of Lifelines throughout 2002.
Tensions had been fraught during the recording of Lifelines, which involved the three principal members of a-ha battling to get their new songs on the album. Magne Furuholmen had his own view of the sessions: “For me, Lifelines was about not giving a shit about the others in the band and only working with those who were interested in working with my material.”
Waaktaar’s own contribution to Lifelines was still fairly substantial, but the experience was not a happy one for the prolific writer, and he would later vent his creative frustrations on ‘Is My Confidence Reeling?’. Amongst a musical backdrop that evoked John Lennon circa 1970, Waaktaar asked: “What’s the point of writing songs that no-one hears?/ Little waves of sound falling on deaf ears”. Waaktaar was certainly grateful to return to the more receptive and amiable Savoy set-up. “Things were extremely uncomfortable at that time,” he confirmed. “So it was probably a matter of wanting to be in a band in which everything was free and friendly, where everybody wished the best for one another. It was a natural reaction, a yin/yang thing.”
Savoy’s fifth album would employ a more organic, back-to-basics approach and something of a return to the melancholic intonations of Lackluster Me; not just in terms of its musical content but also its presentation. The album was simply titled Savoy and released on their own Eleventeen label, while the sleeve featured (barely legible) handwritten lyrics and credits. Further emphasizing the band’s solidarity, Lauren Savoy was given a greater share of the lead vocals. Frode Jacobsen (from the successful Norwegian rock band Madrugada) was drafted in to help produce the album.
Such was the wealth of material available during this period the band briefly considered releasing a double album, before opting for a standard 12-track set. Some songs that had been earmarked for Lifelines, but later rejected, were considered for inclusion on Savoy. These included ‘The Breakers’, which featured a vocal from Waaktaar’s friend Jimmy Gnecco (frontman for the rock band Ours). Also included on the new opus was the stunning ‘Whalebone’, a song which had been written for the Norwegian film Hotel, Oslo – it also served a dual purpose as the album’s first single release in August 2004. ‘Whalebone’ was also notable in that it recycled, to great effect, the “O weeping night/ O grieving sky…” lyric from a-ha’s ‘Locust’.
Like the previous album, Savoy was not short of New York references: There’s the wonderful laid-back vibe of ‘Girl One’ with its South Street Seaport setting and Byrds-like guitar, while the gorgeous snow-covered ‘Watertowers’ harked back to the White Album stylings of Lackluster Me.
By the time of the album’s recording, New York City was still coming to terms with the events of 9/11 and there’s a pervading sense of despair on the album; evident on tracks such as ‘Shooting Spree’, a Lennon-inspired narrative about a gunman who “Kills everyone that gets in the line of him and his gun/ Then shoots himself when he’s done”. And then there’s the brooding, funereal closer ‘Isotope’ which saw the band ruminating over environmental affairs against a soundscape of guitars, electronics and backwards effects; permeated throughout with some chilling death bells. Tensions were eased with the McCartney-like playfulness of ‘Bovine’ (“You have to be gifted/ To get me out of bed”) but Savoy’s ‘brown’ album was a largely sombre affair. There was no doubting the quality of the product, though, and the band deservedly received another Spellemannprisen nomination.
The album was dedicated to Lauren’s sister Deborah who had sadly passed away, and was released in Norway at the end of August 2004. The band toured there throughout September with new bassist Maya Vik, but Waaktaar’s attention was about to swing back to a-ha once more, with the recording of Analogue commencing in the spring of 2005.
Savoy – Savoy Songbook Vol.1 (2007 album)
“Savoy’s music lacks drama and ambition, the creative tension that characterizes a-ha at their best seems to disappear when the Waaktaar-Savoys are working in their home studio.” – Dagsavisen
“The new songs fit well together with newly arranged, but well-known, Savoy songs like, and make this ten-track album into a complete, but at times boring album.” – Dagbladet
“Pop with correction fluid – Savoy are more concerned about correcting old mistakes than risking potential new ones.” – Aftenposten
With Paul Waaktaar committed to a-ha for the next years, Savoy effectively went into hibernation, before re-emerging with the Savoy Songbook in 2007. Lauren Savoy’s only recording during this period had been a contribution to Anneli Drecker’s second solo album, Frolic in 2005 (a vocal part on the Blancmange-sampling, ‘The Monkey Trap’). Waaktaar also found time to add a vocal to ‘Goodbye Sweet Sorrow’, a track that features on the 2006 album Piece Of Paradise by Maya Vik’s band Furia.
Savoy’s next release represented something of a misstep for the band, a somewhat confused retrospective featuring an album of seven re-recordings and three new tracks, plus a second disc of previously released band favourites. Guest musicians included Rob Schwimmer, who would later contribute a theremin part to a-ha’s ‘Under The Make-up’.
Co-produced by Michael Ilbert, the album was recording in a highly productive two-week period at Loho Studios in New York. According to Waaktaar: “We recorded about 18 songs… we took the songs that we thought worked the best.” Lauren Savoy, however, had to be convinced about the inclusion of ‘Lackluster Me’ and pushed for more uptempo material to be included: “That’s how it’s always been with Paul,” she told NRK Radio. “He writes ballads, and then others have to convince him to increase the tempo. That’s what happened with a lot of the a-ha songs as well. ‘The Sun Always Shines On T.V.’, for example, started as a ballad.”
Arguably, a single CD compilation may have served as a better introduction to the band, who were using the opportunity to present their blend of melancholic indie pop to a wider audience. Of the new tracks presented, ‘Karma Boomerang’ impressed the most. Another New York-inspired track (the Grey Bar coffee house in Carmine Street), the catchy pop song was redolent of their Mountains Of Time period and duly released as a single in April 2007. Sadly, the somewhat leaden re-recordings rarely improved on the original tracks and the album attracted some mixed reviews when it was released (on the Universal label) in August 2007.
In May 2008 the three members of a-ha came together to showcase their side projects at some unique shows in both Oslo and the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. Both Morten Harket and Magne Furuholmen had released new albums that month (Letters From Egypt and A Dot Of Black In The Blue Of Your Bliss, respectively), while the Genepool label had picked up the Savoy album for release that month. A dream ticket for a-ha fans, the three members each performed individual sets before coming together for songs old and new. Sadly, the Savoy Songbook wasn’t a big seller in the UK, and it remains to be seen whether there’ll be a second volume.
The next few years would see the release of a-ha’s ninth studio album Foot Of The Mountain and a new compilation album, appropriately titled 25. The band also embarked on the Ending On A High Note tour, a title which would prove something of a misnomer several years later!
Weathervane – Weathervane (2011 single)
“The beat is fierily electronic, the piano plays along resignedly, the tone is grandiosely sad… everything is as it should be in Waaktaar’s anxious universe.” – VG
In June 2011, Waaktaar released the Weathervane single, another collaboration with Jimmy Gnecco. Following a-ha’s farewell shows in December 2010, Waaktaar had been approached by filmmaker Morten Tyldum, who had been looking for a song for his new movie Hodejegerne (Headhunters). “At that point I had actually just written this song,” Waaktaar told VG. “This chance to front a new project again was just too good to let go. I like the way this has evolved. Weathervane hasn’t been put together on a whim – we have known each other for a long time and Jimmy has just the right vocal range that my songs need to reach their full potential.”
Musically, the single was an extension of the synthpop direction that had informed a-ha’s Foot Of The Mountain album and swansong ‘Butterfly, Butterfly (The Last Hurrah)’. Beginning with some lovely Elton John-esque piano and featuring a typically soaring chorus, the song would have been perfect for a-ha. The songs’ lyrics were steeped in melancholia, and detailed a scenario in which Waaktaar had been left at home for a week while Lauren Savoy holidayed in London: “So you’re going for a week to sort out your head/ So you left me here to keep things going”.
During interviews to promote the single, Waaktaar had hinted that the project with Gnecco would stretch to an album, but this never materialised. The next few years would see Waaktaar stockpiling songs for Savoy and other artists. In 2012, Waaktaar and Lauren Savoy helped out their studio engineer Eliot Leigh (who was using the pseudonym Infuze) on a dubstep recording titled ‘Far Away’, supplying lyrics and a guide vocal melody. Waaktaar also produced a song for Scent Of A Woman, a short film that Lauren Savoy had directed in 2013.
Waaktaar wrote and produced three songs for Linnea Dale’s 2014 album Good Goodbyes, namely ‘Better Without You’, ‘Sweet Life’ and ‘With Eyes Closed’. Waaktaar was certainly impressed with this particular project: “I loved her voice from the first moment,” he told VG. “This is the first time I’ve done something like this, and I liked it. It felt good; a different perspective.” Dale was a former Norwegian Idol finalist who had been mentored by Morten Harket. She also guested on synthpop act Donkeyboy’s album Caught In A Life, later performing with them as a support act for a-ha on the Foot Of The Mountain tour.
Waaktaar also appeared on Hågen Rørmark’s album Alt Eller Ingenting, performing drums on ‘Ensom Leter’. Rørmark had previously played harmonica on Savoy’s ‘Is My Confidence Reeling?’ and co-wrote ‘Undecided’, a bonus track on Morten Harket’s Out Of My Hands album.
Waaktaar – Manmade Lake (2014 single)
Another song that would have been perfect for a-ha was ‘Manmade Lake’. It had originally been pencilled in for release on Foot Of The Mountain, and Waaktaar surprised fans with a free download of this distorted oddity in February 2014. Waaktaar was certainly impressed with his lo-fi production: “It’s been a favourite of mine for a while,” he told a-ha.com. “It was written around the overdriven guitar riff in the outro and I’ve been looking for a way to present it. The voice is run through a guitar amp which I thought strengthened the mood and related to the words, particularly in the second verse. Sort of like a ground-to-air type voice.”
Plans to release an album under the Waaktaar name were aborted when a-ha announced a new album and tour in the spring of 2015. Following a-ha’s 2010 break-up, Paul and Morten had kept in touch and worked on new material… they just needed a reluctant Magne to green-light a reunion. The band eventually released their tenth studio album Cast In Steel in September 2015 and the project would keep Waaktaar busy until 2016.
Waaktaar and Zoe – World Of Trouble (2017 album)
With his a-ha commitments completed (for the time being at least), Waaktaar was able to turn his attention to the completion of both a new Savoy album (due later this year) and an album with singer Zoe Gnecco, released in February. Waaktaar discussed the origins of the recording of World Of Trouble during a Facebook Q&A: “The collaboration started when a-ha did its big goodbye tour in 2010,” he said. “I thought I would make a batch of songs that I could present for other artists to sing. I wrote about 13, 14 songs and asked Jimmy Gnecco if his daughter Zoe would be interested in singing a guide vocal on the demos. During the previous tour he had played me a snippet of her singing from his phone and I thought she had an absolute killer voice. The second I heard her voice on the tracks I felt she owned them.”
From the pool of songs that the New York-based duo recorded, some would eventually be reworked on a-ha’s Cast In Steel album, as confirmed to Superdeluxeedition recently: “The two albums were overlapping a little bit, so there are a few songs from that last a-ha album – ‘Under The Make-up’, ‘Cast In Steel’ and ‘Open Face’ – that Zoe sang first.”
Whilst Waaktaar had played most of the instruments on the album, a few musicians were drafted in to play on some of the tracks, including ‘Open Face’. Kurt Uenala, who has collaborated with Dave Gahan on recent Depeche Mode releases, including Spirit, played a synthesizer part on the track, giving it a pleasing commercial glaze. The album’s most electronic track, third single ‘Open Face’ certainly sounds like an a-ha song and it’s puzzling that it was overlooked in favour of inferior cuts such as ‘Door Ajar’.
The origins of ‘They To Me And I To Them’ could be traced back even further, to the early days of a-ha when titles like ‘She’s Humming A Tune’, ‘We’re Looking For The Whales’ and ‘Touchy!” formed part of a provisional list of debut album contenders. Some of the lyrics to ‘Beautiful Burnout’ stemmed from a demo version of ‘Foot Of The Mountain’, while ‘Winter Wants Me Empty’ was actually a cover of Savoy’s ‘Unsound’, with some lyrical tweaks. Meanwhile, the more politically-charged album closer, ‘The Sequoia Has Fallen’, had originally been inspired by a trip to the Redwood National Park in California in the early 1990s.
Whilst on paper World Of Trouble sounds like a collection of outtakes, it’s a actually an impressively cohesive album; with a production that often calls to mind Phil Spector. Certainly there’s a lovely 1960s feel to first single ‘Beautiful Burnout’, with its gorgeous strings and easygoing West Coast vocals. Gnecco certainly has a beautifully pure voice, boasting a maturity that belies her young years. And it’s a voice that’s perfectly suited to Waaktaar’s melancholic style of writing. “From the very first session I really just loved her voice and that super rich mid-range,” he told the BBC. “She was also very good at just zoning into the mood of the song, which I’m super sensitive to. I could see for every take we did, she would get closer and closer to where she needed to be. For me that was such a kick as a songwriter, because a lot of the times you have to make that up in the arrangement.”
“Here we are/ Hamsters in a wheel” sings Gnecco on the equally-impressive second single ‘Tearful Girl’. Her versatile voice is this time deployed in a more ethereal style, and there’s an effective use of toy piano and funky guitars. ‘Mammoth’ is as epic as its title suggests and features another of Waaktaar’s trademark soaring choruses, replete with some lovely harmonies. ‘They To Me And I To Them’, meanwhile, showcases Waaktaar’s considerable guitar-playing skills, and there’s some captivating imagery in the lyrics (“Monochrome-like pictures/ Adorn the entrance hall/ Floor-to-ceiling walnut shelves/ Embrace the wall”). Many fans will of course view this as a stop-gap release while they wait for new a-ha and Savoy releases; which is a shame, because World Of Trouble is an album that deserves to stand on its own merits and reach a wider audience.