Think of Norwegian pop music, and the most likely image would be of a-ha, the cheesy ’80s synthesizer trio, with swoonful lead singer Morten Harket jumping in and out of a semi-animated video for their worldwide No. 1 hit, “Take On Me.”
A-ha came, they conquered (briefly) and they vanished.
Thirteen years later, Norway is back on the Rand McNally pop map, with recent releases by The Tuesdays (on Arista) and Libido (on Fire/Velvel). The Tuesdays are an admirable chip off the Bangles block, while Libido is tougher to categorize. That’s just the way frontman Even Johansen likes it.
“It’s a soulful exercise in the outskirts of pop music,” Johansen said recently of the group’s sharp debut album, “Killing Some Dead Time” (released in January). “What’s funny is, most people think we’re from Britain; we live in London now, but we make sure to tell people that we’re not from there.”
Libido, sort of a melodic cross between The La’s and Nirvana, is light years away from the Bubbleyum of a-ha.
“The people who go out now to clubs, the ones who are 18, don’t even know who a-ha was,” Johansen said. “That’s almost 15 years ago, only we oldies know who they are.”
Johansen and band mates Cato Eikeland (bass) and Jorgen Landhaug (drums) hooked up at The Garage, the pub of youthful choice in tiny Bergen, Norway. When they weren’t sharing drinks and conversation, they were holing up in a nearby studio, where Johansen worked as a sound engineer.
“We started working on songs together, and after about a week, we decided that we had a band,” Johansen said, “and after a couple of months, we had half of an album, then we got signed. It sort of fell into place, more than anything else. It all happened fairly quickly.”
Velvel was sold on Johansen’s searing vocals and surging guitar and Libido’s batch of unpretentious tracks, such as “In My Shadow” and the first single, “Supersonic Daydream,” all recorded in Bergen. More than a year ago, they made the big leap, moving to London.
“If you want to make a splash, Bergen isn’t the place,” Johansen said. “We just wanted to get away. It wasn’t some kind of master plan and decide to go to Britain and become huge pop stars. It was more of doing something a bit differently.”
The album’s most curious cut is “Strange News.” It tells of a flower-power city in another world “where everyone is gay. … If only we could all be there or maybe it could be moved to here, so we can be in this world, where everyone is gay.”
“We deliberately wrote it the way we wrote it, trying to get people to misunderstand it,” Johansen said, “and that has happened more or less everywhere. They think we’re singing about some homosexual utopia, but it’s really about being happy. It’s also about tolerance and acceptance. It really tickles people’s brains, and some of the reviewers think we’re probably gay and on drugs.”
Libido played last month at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, and is making its way across the states.
“Americans seem to appreciate good music,” Johansen said, “and obviously we think we do good music, so hopefully the album will do well. It’s a matter of touring and getting around.”
BWF (before we forget): Fans can satisfy their Libido jones on the Web @ www.velvel.com.
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc