Highs and lows

Thomas Robsahm on dream projects and Aha The Movie

by Jennie Kermode

A-ha The Movie
A-ha The Movie

In the first part of my interview with Thoman Robsahm about A-ha The Movie, we discussed how he engaged with Morten Harket, Magne Furuholmen and Pål Waaktaar, and what he learned about how these very different personalities interacted. We talked about the vast scope of the project, which charts the band’s story across four decades, and how it was important to him to keep the focus on the music. In this second part, we discuss the band’s own musical influences, their various artistic side projects, and how he went about filming them onstage.

He almost left out the side projects, he says, because it would have been the obvious thing to drop if the film was too long, “but I feel that since this is a band so much about the different personalities. In some bands, you could argue that some of the members bring a lot less into the band, and they're not as important, but often we want those original members. Like the Beatles wouldn’t be the same without Ringo; and the Smiths even, you know, if the Smith were ever to reunite, it would have to be all four in order to make it a real Smiths reunion. Because with bands, we have this romantic thing about, you know, the whole band. There are some exceptions, but even when REM lost one member, the magic was kind of gone. They went on for a while, but then they realised it kind of doesn't work that way.

“And so I really wanted to make the film not just about A-ha as a band and as Norway's most successful fan cultural projects and the whole phenomenon, but also a film about the three members. And so to have a little bit on what they are doing outside the boundary is important. Savoy, the band Pål was in, was very successful in Norway and quite close and international success. As for Morten, he was very unlucky when it came to success as a solo artist. And if Savoy or Mags on his own, or Morten on his own, had become really successful, then we might not have seen A-ha again, but none of those projects were nearly as successful as A-ha was.

We discuss the way that the band has changed over the years, and I mention a scene in the film in which Morten wants to change the way a song is approached because his voice has changed and he can no longer reliably deliver the same vocal, but the others don’t seem willing to accept that things can’t go on in the same way as before.

“Yeah, that's them rehearsing for the unplugged tour in a remote studio in the West of Norway. So it's a great place and they stayed there for a long time. And that was the one scene that I was really happy about, because I felt it said a lot about the band, not just about Morten. Actually, you know, he’s self-taught and he is not very confident about his own voice. His voice is almost like a violin string. So if you play a wrong note on a guitar, you know, it almost sounds like it's supposed to and you can get away with it with a little bit of adjusting, but a false note with his voice, it's not rock n’ roll, you know, it’s really high pitched pop music, and you really hear it. And so he's very worried about not only not hitting the right note, but that it doesn't sound good.

“I guess that song has always been difficult, even when his voice was different, but singing that song with the very big, almost heavy metal sound that that song has in the original version, it just didn't feel or sound as good. And he was right. And they made it sound much better when Mags actually had the idea of changing a little bit, and Mags going in between them saying ‘Why don't we do it this way?’ kind of resolved the whole thing when Pål was saying – and also the the producer was saying – ‘But the song has been like this for 35 years, soo what's the problem?’ So that is an example of Mags often being the one that has great ideas about solving something that is part of a problem in some way.”

There's also a studio scene where Morten is experimenting with a lyric and trying to hit the right note and Pål seems frustrated as if Morten is an instrument he can't quite get to play right. It seemed that Pål has a very clear idea of how the song should be and he can control what the actual instruments are doing but Morten is the difficult factor for him.

“Yeah, that's back in the Eighties when they were recording I’ve Been Losing You, and Pål is saying himself that he was leaning over everybody's shoulder and being very clear about what he wanted. And it's funny, because that's actually the version that ended up in the final version of the song. And he’s saying ‘It sounds a bit awkward.’ He was very clear about what he wanted, and that can be tough for the others. And I guess that has changed because now Morten doesn't want the other two to be there while recording the vocals, even though he gets demos where either Mags or Pål are singing how they feel it should be. But that's all he wants of input from them – from there he wants to work it out on his own.

Back in the 80s, you know, Pål and Mags brought Morten into the band, and in a strange way, Morten still feels like he's the new one. And it's really hard for him to get in between the other two. You know, whenever he brings a song, he has two people that are sceptical about it. I guess in the Eighties and Nineties the other two were more of a team, so Morten was kind of the outsider, and then when they got back together in the early 2000s, I guess Morten and Mags became more of a team against Pål. And so now Pål feels like he's been pushed a little bit out and so on the Foot Of The Mountain sequence, where they take his song and take out the words and put in Mags’ words, and so on, then he feels that he's the one that's been pushed around or pushed into a corner. That's why he's a bit pissed off now, these last years, because the other two have taken more control.”

We talk about the band’s image and how different they were live, even in the Eighties, from the way the media presented them. There’s a section in the film about the bands they were going to see during the ir early days in London which may surprise some viewers.

“They really were a rock band,” Thomas says. “Previously, Morten sang in blues bands. They discovered Soft Cell, the Human League, Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen. They discovered the post punk thing from England. The fact that they went for the synth pop thing was partly a coincidence because had the other two from Bridges come over they might not even have brought Morten over; or even if they did, they would technically be more of a rock band, not a synth pop band, but not having a drummer, they had to bring a drum machine. And the drum machine is, of course, very typical of a synth pop band. They were interested in synth also in Bridges, but it became much more of a synth pop sound when there were only two of them, and then when they brought over Morten, they had to introduce him to that music, because he wasn't aware of that music at all.

“Also, though, I don't think they were aware of Morten's looks at the time, because he used to have really long hair and look more like a hippy. And when he went along and started to make his own image, that's when people realised how good he was looking. So in many ways they became a pop band and a boy band by coincidence. Even the clothes, you know, the rag jeans were not planned. It was because they really didn't have money at some points, and so they went around with these jeans that were are all ragged. So sometimes when you think a band is fabricated, this case was not that at all. They didn't make the video [for Take On Me] on their own, and of course that video was extremely helpful, but a lot of the other things they really did by themselves. That's something I hope also that this film manages to tell.”

They have also, always, made a big impression on stage.

“I'm impressed with how good they are live,” he agrees. “I think actually their best period was probably in the early Nineties, when they played in South America and wanted to become that rock band that they felt that they were from the beginning. That kept up the sense that they want to be a good live band, and they want to be good and respected musicians. I think they are a good live band, so it was important for me to get that into the film. Of course, nowadays, they're a little bit less free than they were in the early Nineties. Morten is very focused on singing. When they played in South America, they just let themselves loose, and there was Morten fun running around on stage like he's never done before or since, so that was perfect.”

His next project is a family film, he tells me, and it will have lots of music in it. As far as documentaries go, he’s less certain, but he has a few more music-related ideas in mind.

“ I have some some really favourite musicians from the UK that I really feel deserve a documentary. Some of them have been quite overlooked in many ways. Padd McAloon from Prefab Sprout, I really would love to make something with him, or Green Gartside from Scritti Politti. Recluse musicians that are now working in their own studios for years and years before releasing new music. Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins has also been close in her own home for many years, so that could be one thing, you know, making a documentary about unknown musicians, but it's hard to finance.

“My dream project would be to make a documentary about Abba, the neighbour band of A-ha, from Sweden. I'm not sure if they're ready for a documentary. But the dream is of course that in 10 years time, A-ha will have forgotten all about their conflicts because they're so old, so that they're ready to go into the studio and make a record together again, and let me film them. That would be fantastic, but it's going to take 10 or 15 years befor that happens, I think.”

A-ha The Movie is in UK cinemas now.

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