Face it. Often, the biggest acts in electronic music come at us like bass-dropping wolves. Above & Beyond is the group that bears a unique calling card to distinguish itself from the pack. In lieu of a signature synth, viral videos or outlandish stage gimmicks, the British trance trio has established a legacy based on one word: connection. Sure they boast over two million followers across social media, as well as legion of worldwide fans that live Tweet during their weekly podcasts. However, there is a palpable connection to their devoted followers that runs deeper than the trappings of DJ-superstar spectacle. Rather than appealing to the crowd’s frenzied state in a club environment, Above & Beyond taps into the human condition through lyric and melody.
Partygoers of Gen Now often get lost in the sounds in their favorite tracks; contorting their mouths in an attempt to reproduce ear-rattling buzz-saw synths and wonky basslines, accompanied by contorted facial expression and hand gestures. Conversely, witnessing a non-open format DJ fade the volume out to bask in a euphoric crowd singing back every meaningful word of a verse and chorus is rare. For stalwart spinners Above & Beyond, comprised of members Tony McGuinness, Juno Grant, and Paavo Siljamaki, these moments of crowd acapella have become staple aspects of their sets. Consequently, fans don’t wait for the drop. They anticipate the lyric.
“We’ve seen for years, and to an increasing degree, people singing along to our songs in clubs,” Tony states in his interview with DJ Mag USA on behalf of the trio. “I distinctly remember that happening at Global Gathering, in 2004, when we played 'Alone Tonight,’ which is not the sort of song you’d expect people to sing along to at a festival! We were in a big tent when we turned down the volume on the chorus and there were 8,000 singing ‘Alone Tonight.’ That was quite unexpected!”
A&B’s sound is commonly referred to as ‘trance 2.0;’ a more progressive, groovier take on its earlier counterpart. While the swooning synths and chunky basslines might keep the crowd dancing, it’s the emotional connection to the music that keeps them coming back.
“There are countless tracks that are about clubbing.‘Tonight's going to be a good night,’” he points to David Guetta’s maniacally popular track with The Black Eyed Peas. “We write about the reasons why people go clubbing, not what they do when they’re there, and that’s to connect with other people. What happens if you meet somebody? Does it go according to plan? That’s the kind of thing our songs are about.”
Sounds rather sappy given the industry’s standard mind-numbing bass and sensory overload. Numbers don’t lie, and Above & Beyond’s sentimental approach to performing dance music is proven in its longevity. Last October, A&B celebrated its 50th Group Therapy Podcast with a sold-out performance at London’s historic Alexandra Palace. “We were so busy it didn’t really sink in at the time. We were flying around chatting with fans, DJing and anchoring the show backstage,” Tony reflects. “It felt huge at the time, but I have to say the reaction afterwards helped me get my head around it. We’ve never had such a uniformly positive reaction to one of our birthday shows. It was our biggest UK show by a factor of two. It’s kind of overwhelming.”
In addition to keeping the band connected with their worldwide audience on a weekly basis, Group Therapy, the sophomore podcast series - following a staggering 450 episodes of Trance Around The World - allows the three musicians to narrate the ever-changing landscape of EDM. For Tony, the podcast has served to benchmark the evolution of electronic music and how trance has permeated into various genres of EDM.
“One by one, records come out that can change people’s view and give them something different to aim for. That’s what happened in the last 10 years in trance music. In 1998, you could clearly see a gaping gap between trance, house, electro, and techno with tumbleweeds rolling through them. Arguably, what Swedish House Mafia became famous for playing is more in tune with old fashion trance music from 1998 than with house music from 1998.”
In today’s EDM landscape, Above & Beyond utilizes genre blurring to an advantage, which shapes and evolves their signature sets. “Everyone is pulling in production tricks,” Tony admits. “It has made stuff a lot more individual. Finding tracks that have the same groove has gotten a lot harder, but it’s more interesting for us. It forces us to think outside of the things that categorize music—like bpms and genre—to find what we appreciate about music, a combination of a great groove and emotion. If you have that on your shopping list, then you can start looking at a much broader range.”
As their name suggests, the trio is ready to take their music and their record label above and beyond. After years at the forefront of European electronic music, Anjunabeats, and its sister label Anjunadeep, recently opened an LA office to supplement the London headquarters.
“America has been one of our biggest markets for some time now,” Tony says on the label's organic growth. “America, especially California, is as rabid an A&B fan as Buenos Aires, Argentina, Poland, and Australia. It made sense for us to have someone there to be more in tune with day-to-day life and the time difference. Like everything at Anjunabeats, it just seemed natural.”
Although the Group Therapy birthday show at Alexandra Palace in London is among his favorite shows to date, Tony is still reveling from the group's acoustic performances a few weeks prior. On October 12 and 13, Above & Beyond performed two unforgettable acoustic shows at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Accompanied by fifteen handpicked musicians from the southern California area and three album vocalists, A&B brought their sentimental anthems to life in a fresh new fashion. “I can remember every second of the acoustic shows,” Tony explains, the performance-based memory coming from being, “So in the moment. Every movement of your fingers is critical to what's happening.”
Although the two Greek performances were wildly successful, sparking a wave of demand for more acoustic tour dates, Tony reveals the Los Angeles shows were not originally meant to be acoustic. “We had the two shows at the Greek on hold. We had to ask ourselves what our biggest market was in America, and what the nature of the show would be with a 95 decibel sound limit. It wouldn’t have been a proper electronic show in that respect. So our manager suggested we use the venue for an acoustic show.”
The resulting showcase was a selection of beautifully performed band and fan favorites that had the crowd standing motionless and wide-eyed as they sang every word. More astounding than the performance’s success was the sheer musicianship of the ensemble. Always behind a set of CDJs, this time Juno floated his fingers across a piano while Tony dabbled with the xylophone and mandolin, and Paavo showed off his mastery of the cello. “I was tempted to color code the xylophone so I wouldn’t mess up,” Tony chuckles.
The concept for an acoustic gig had been brewing amidst the band member for years. “One of my dreams as a kid was to be in a band and play on MTV’s Unplugged, so we’ve been trying to make our own version of that,” he admits. “A couple of years ago we started finishing our sets with acoustic versions of ‘Satellite’ and ‘On A Good Day.’ It gave a nice, warm, fuzzy moment for people to absorb what they had just experienced, and help them feel connected to us and the other people in the room. Increasingly, a number our songs personally connect to people. We first tried to do a live show in Beirut by reproducing our electronic sounds, but it didn’t really work out. The human body can’t reproduce the precision of computers. So from there, we thought it would be much more comfortable to take it far away from electronic music and genuinely play the songs live.”
For now, Above & Beyond has not scheduled any acoustic performances in the foreseeable future. “There’s certainly a demand for it, but I think we need to get our next album finished first before we think about doing it again.” However, the LA shows were not the last of the series. Eager at the thought of another one, Tony exalts, “It requires a lot of musicians, time, and it’s extremely expensive! But halfway through we realized there was no way this would be the end. We don’t have any plans to do it again, but we’ve been blown away by the response!”
THE NEW ALBUMS
On the production front, Above & Beyond is in the midst of completing two albums. The first will be a rendition of Above & Beyond’s live acoustic set. “We weren’t entirely satisfied with the current vocal recordings so we’re going to get back in the studio this week to record some of the tracks again,” Tony says. Slated for release shortly after Christmas, it features studio versions of the songs performed at their live acoustic shows.
The second album, projected for release in mid-2014, will be a full-length studio LP that has, until now, been kept under wraps. “We started on our new album before the acoustic thing took off. We played the Group Therapy album out for a bit longer than we expected. That was three years ago, so it’s about time we put something else out!” They are getting close, but it’s not quite there yet. Tony spills: “We have about 16 songs and a few of them are starting to near the production stage. I think we need another round of writing.”
Although the three new songs that Above & Beyond premiered at Alexandra Palace were club tracks, Tony explains that their next album will most likely follow the trend set by their previous two by focusing on solid songwriting and forgoing club readiness.
“There are three tracks on Tri State that didn’t really have drums. We relaxed that even more with the OceanLab album, where there was very little, if anything, that could be played in clubs, since we just tried to make an album that made sense of the songs. We tried to make something a little bit more clubby for Group Therapy, but ironically only ‘Sun and Moon’ ended up getting played in clubs. What we learned from all that, is that the important thing for an album is to write songs that work as a collective piece of music, and not worry about whether they work in clubs. If you make an album with 12 club tracks, people will be tired of it in three months.”
Like musical puzzle pieces, Tony, Paavo, and Juno know exactly where each of them fit sonically. After a decade of collaborating, a weekly radio show and an endless world tour, the members stick to their strong suits.
“Now that two of us are always touring we tend to stick to what we are good at,” Tony elaborates. “Paavo and Juno both have incredible music skills. Generally they write music and then give it to me or Zoe or Justine to write the song on. Once the song has been written on top of the music skeleton, Juno and Paavo have this fantastic ability to take the vocal melody and rewrite the music around the vocal to heighten the emotion of the lyric at that point. Then they come back and remix the music.That’s how we’ve managed to make music so long. The song and the music are what’s important to us.”
Tony approaches the task as weaving it all together in front of an audience. “Playing the new tracks we’d been working on in front of 10,000 people and seeing them go bananas is an entirely different kind of satisfaction than playing 15 feet from the girl crying her eyes out.”
Tony wants to be clear.“There’s nothing new that A&B does. We’re a band, we write songs about our lives, and we play them to people. This was just different packaging. There’s something much more fundamental to our music.”
Just like the wolf pack DJs of today have their own methods to making noise, Above & Beyond has its way of sinking teeth into people. “There are a million ways a DJ can connect with his audience,” Tony says. “Talking on the mic and telling people to ‘make some fucking noise’ isn’t where we want people’s heads to be at. We don’t want people paying attention to our voice.” He then adds pointedly like a click track: “We want people paying attention to the music.