Big in Japan: a-ha in awe of gadgets, dedicated fans and sumo

Big in Japan: a-ha in awe of gadgets, dedicated fans and sumo

Norwegian trio a-ha share 25 years of experience with loyal Japanese fans
a-ha summersonic 2010
Morten Harket lights up the stage as a-ha hit the Summersonic festival.

When Alphaville sang "Big in Japan" in 1984, the term had slightly negative connotations of bands unable to make it in their home lands, yet big in this country. Today though, Japan's music industry is holding up much better than most Western nations and remains highly lucrative for the acts that make it through.

25 years into their career, Norwegian pop trio a-ha recently brought their final tour through Tokyo, with a show at the city's largest music festival, Summersonic. Speaking at their luxury Shinjuku hotel, the band reminisced at the special treatment and loyalty Western acts receive in Japan.

"I think it was the first time we actually tasted sushi because it was so uncommon in Europe then" says keyboardist Magne Furuholem of their first promotional tour in 1985.

"It was a total shock," continues guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy.

"We started out pretty young so to see the world at that age, coming from Norway, the world was different back then and we didn't know what it was going to be like. We really stuck out over here and you didn't see much English on the streets back then."

a-ha がサマーソニック 2010 に出演 big in japan
A new generation of committed fans

The band would return for their first tour in 1986 and last visited in 2009 to promote "Foot of the Mountain" -- an album that reconnected them to fans of 1980s pop and brought a whole wave of new fans influenced by the bands a-ha themselves inspired, such as Coldplay, Keane and the Jonas Brothers.

"The audiences generally we play to are three or four generations, it's hard to suggests a figure because it's so varied, but it's definitely very different from when we started out," says Waaktaar-Savoy.

Lead singer Morten Harket shows up fashionably late for the early morning interview at the Hilton Hotel, reasoning, "I have to make sure that I sleep enough [for my voice], at least just above the critical point, so priorities are such."

Speaking of the adoration of Japanese fans, he explains: "Immediately there's an intensity of commitment which seems to be a mindset here, that takes westerners aback. It's in everything from letters to the care they put into everything, which was something new for us, but it's always been that way here."

TV show gifts prove welcome indeed

"It was such an exotic experience the first time and we really fell in love with the country," says Furuholmen.

"My kids were here for the second time this time and we just got some pictures from fans from ten years ago so we get memory joggers in the shape of people documenting whatever we do."

"They had a great tradition back then too," says Waaktaar-Savoy. "On every TV show we did we got some sort of electronic gadget. We didn't have much money so it was like 'Woah look at this!'"

"Even now this tradition of giving gifts continues," says Furuholmen.

"I must shamefully admit that I don't sit down much and write responses to fan mail, but this time in Japan I think I've managed to respond to all the letters I've had and I think it's the fact that they are so incredibly generous, such thoughtful gifts that you get, that you feel obliged in a different way to return the courtesy."

It's clear the dedication of Japanese fans has struck the band, but for Waaktaar-Savoy, it also had an amusing side effect for his marriage.

"My wife still calls me 'Paulu' after twenty-five years because that's what they called me over here, so that stuck!" he says.


a-ha がサマーソニック 2010 に出演 big in japan
Letters of intensity

a-ha's career took off in 1985 when first single "Take On Me" topped charts worldwide, followed by further No.1's and hit singles 'The Sun Always Shines On TV", "Cry Wolf" and the James Bond theme "The Living Daylights".

"Back then we were kind of a pop phenomenon," says Furuholmen.

"But over 20 years the reason those people are still there for you is because your music made some kind of emotional impact and that always the content of their letters. How much the music has meant to them over the course of their lives and now they are recruiting their kids."

"I got a couple of letters saying 'my kid can't talk yet but is singing in the car' so the music has lived past its point of fashion and transcended all the things we did in the beginning. [In Japan] the fanbase is so loyal, people who have championed a-ha through our ups and downs, when we've been gone, came back, and they are still here."

In the 1980s a-ha were such a phenomenon they even had their own cartoon books made in Japan. Furuholmen admits he still has them in his attic.

"Memories are powerful so it's hard to separate one thing from another, we are also part of their youth and formation as people but we've always felt that... they were so elaborate and incredibly well-crafted and even today we get memory books with pictures from the 1980s. They made us part of their lives and they've become part of our lives when we see them again after twenty years."

Even a-ha's record company has come to understand the level of loyalty some acts receive. With a hits collection, "25 ~ Complete Best" out this month, local fans were asked decide what tracks would make a bonus disc for the set.

a-ha がサマーソニック 2010 に出演 big in japan
Festival culture

a-ha's final show in Japan took place with a rare festival appearance, on stage at the biggest of Japanese festivals, Summersonic, where they delivered a sleek set that entranced a packed-out Sonic Stage.

"I'm sure we can come up with our northern European awkwardness counting for some bad encounters [with other bands]," jokes Furuholmen.

"But we get along great with other bands and festivals have a nice vibe."

The band admit the opportunity was left over from last year, when they couldn't fit it into their tour.

"It wasn't meant to be a farewell thing at the time but it turned out that way" says Furuholmen.

"We try to take in that it's the last victory lap but we still go on and try to make the most of that moment. There's a good feeling to be able to go out at this level with this excitement and this kind of status that we have."

"The festival circuit is a double-edged sword, because one of the strengths of a-ha is we create an atmosphere and an indoor full-length show is what we feel comfortable with it, but with festivals you have to kind of go out there, the production is not necessarily yours and the atmosphere is different. But it's healthy to do."

Rediscovering the exoticism

The bands affinity for Japan has led them to try to discover the culture deeper. On this trip Furuholmen managed to use his contacts to set up a meeting with two sumo legends, Musashimaru and Konishiki.

Both are retired now though they would have been active during a-ha's first trip.

"Musashimaru is huge still, but Konishiki has dropped 340 pounds since he fought but is still a big guy," says Furuholmen.

"I went to the academy and sat down and ate the food that they ate with them."

Then again he also points out, "I had more sushi last week at home than I did here. it's an odd fact of how things have globally altered since the first time we were here."

Robert Michael Poole is a specialist on the Japanese music and entertainment scene.

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