“It's wonderful and troubling at the same time, because there's this sense of responsibility when somebody lifts their shirt up and their entire back is the Anjunabeats logo,” says Above & Beyond's Tony McGuinness over a pint near their London studio. “You think, 'we'd better not go shit'. There was this girl I saw with this massive self-designed Above & Beyond and Anjunabeats crest on the top of her thigh, and another with lyrics on one side of her body and sheet music on the other. It's bewildering. I hope we never disappoint them in terms of songs. That's something we feel very strongly about.”
Fat chance. Their melancholy-yet-uplifting take on electronic dance music, with the onus very much on the craft of songwriting, has become their raison d'etre; their calling card. Along with Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki, McGuinness is an equal third of Above & Beyond, arguably the biggest DJing and production collective this country has ever produced.
Their fans are millions-strong and ravenous for their output, whether it’s through their prolific Anjunabeats label, its sister label Anjunadeep or as their alter-egos OceanLab with vocalist Justine Suissa or Tranquility Base (their Tranquility Base track ‘Buzz’ was used to launch Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic project in 2009 in the Mojave Desert). In a world where decreasing margins and piracy are winning an ugly war of attrition with the established record industry, Above & Beyond are new school, self-made superstars.
This fact is something all three are acutely aware of. McGuinness might perhaps know best. The eldest of the three at 42 (Jono is 31, Paavo, 34), he was director of marketing at Warner Music in a previous life. He worked with world-dominating acts years before the spectre of the internet emerged and pummelled their profits, when signing to a major label was the only way to reach a global audience. Jono and Paavo met while studying at the University of Westminster. They started Anjunabeats in their final year, the summer of 1999. They spent their student loans releasing their first track. Paavo used the fully-functional label as coursework, while Jono submitted the trio's fully-approved remix of Madonna's 'What It Feels Like For A Girl' for his final year project. (Madge even used their remix for her video). Remarkably, and perhaps one can only assume for reasons of jealousy, they didn't come out with firsts. “You've got a student at your university who remixes Madonna, and you don't give him a first?!” says McGuinness, incredulous.
McGuinness was a physics student before a first foray into the music business as part of post-punk band Sad Lovers & Giants, with whom he played guitars and produced tracks for nearly a decade, releasing five albums. The band still have a loyal following, and have reunited for live shows in recent months, playing gigs across Europe with Jono helping out on keyboards. His work at Warner, which came towards the end of his tenure with Sad Lovers, brought him in contact with the emerging dance music scene, and a pivotal night at Ministry Of Sound in the mid-’90s.
“My brother had been pretending to be Tony McGuinness from Warner Music and getting into all these clubs for nothing,” he says. “I wasn't into clubbing at all, I was into indie music and rock music. He said, 'you've got to come clubbing'.” And so he did. Fire Island's anthem ‘There But For the Grace Of God’, he says, “changed everything”. He started producing electronic music under the name Nitromethane with his brother Liam.
SOUL IN THE MACHINE
While McGuinness was leading a double life as an indie rock guitarist and music industry bigwig, Paavo was a student of music in his native Finland. After studying throughout his childhood (each member of the family had their own instrument), he began writing music for theatre productions, and composed his first musical at 14. At 15, he began attending the prestigious Sibelius-Lukio in Helsinki, a state-run music and performing arts school. Though he played piano and cello, he wanted to be a scientist and build synthesizers. But thanks to being surrounded by creative types at school, he realised that making music was far sexier than making circuit boards. He had his first clubbing experiences in Helsinki, nights when everything started to make sense.
“This is really me, I thought to myself,” he says. “I haven't looked back since.” He started organising his own parties, soundtracked by house music and early trance. When Sven Väth would come to town every couple of months, he'd wake up early to go to the afterhours party, because he was too young to get into the club venue for the main gig. “He would play these illegal raves until 10 in the morning. That era was so new for everybody. I'm lucky to have gone through all that.”
Jono grew up enthralled by the pomp-synth of Jean Michel Jarre, and was taught piano by his grandmother.
“There was no pressure, so I'd pick up stuff by ear, and that's how I learned,” he says. Pet Shop Boys made a big impression too, as did Electronic and Depeche Mode. But nothing was quite as pivotal as New Order's ‘Blue Monday’. “It's so machine-like, but it has so much soul. The best dance music is stuff that does have soul, despite being machine-like. And it's really hard to achieve that. ‘Blue Monday’ has that embodied in a record.” His first electronic productions were debuted when he managed to sneak past bouncers at the Warehouse in Plymouth to play his first live set aged 16. His mind was blown by Stardust's ‘Music Sounds Better With You’, while the pivotal Paul Oakenfold ‘Goa’ mix, pinched on cassette from his brother, also made a deep impression. A career in music production seemed a fait accompli.
Meeting Paavo at Westminster made this a reality. The pair began writing tracks as Free State, Dirt Devils and Anjunabeats, before the name was later taken for their label. Meanwhile, McGuinness was offered the chance to remix Warner Music trance artist Chakra's track ‘Home’. He approached Jono and Paavo at the fledgling Anjunabeats to help out. Above & Beyond was born.
BIG IN BRAZIL
You barely even have to approach hyperbole when stating the influence that Above & Beyond have had on the electronic music scene in the years since. Some statistics, then: 30 million — that's the amount of people who tune in weekly to their Trance Around the World podcast, which is picked up in around 35 countries. (Their 350th show trended globally on Twitter). 90 minutes — the time in which they sold out the Hollywood Palladium for their show this month, the fastest sell-out in the venue's history, quicker even than Prince. 780,000 — that's the official number that the trio played to at a solo gig on Barra Beach in Rio De Janeiro on New Year's Eve in 2007, though other estimates have said the figure was more like a million. Who of the superstar DJs of recent years can boast that? Fatboy Slim? Underworld? Sasha? Even contemporaries like Tiësto, Paul van Dyk or Armin van Buuren, or someone straddling the mainstream like David Guetta? Perhaps not. A testament to their humility, they never even received their fee.
“It was New Year's Eve, we're quite popular in Brazil, they thought they'd stick us on and we were the only people playing on that beach,” says McGuinness. “Yeah, we ended up not getting paid, but that's Brazil. Brazil is the Wild West. They've had fantastic economic growth, but it's come from kind of seat-of-the-pants companies. It's like an onion, you're dealing with this guy who says he's in charge, and then underneath there's a guy, and then another guy.
“You can't take in that number. Human beings can only deal with about 150 people in one go. 200 people, you can get your head round. Maybe a thousand, you can get your head round. Maybe 10,000, you've maybe got an idea. After that, it's just 'many'.”
“People like us, we haven't had a huge amount of records on the radio. For us it's been a long-term, slow-building thing. We've had some little peaks along the way, like the Madonna remix, and things like that, that have spiked our popularity,” says Jono.
“It's the nature of the market now. There are a lot of sustainable bands that no-one has ever heard of, and we're probably one of them,” adds McGuinness. They're modest to a fault. So how many records do they actually sell?
“It's not a rude question, I just don't know if I know the answer,” says McGuinness. “A lot less than we would have done 10 years ago.”
“It's in the tens of thousands, and not the hundreds of thousands, let's put it that way,” adds Grant.
“But millions of people have got those records, they just haven't bought them,” chips in McGuinness.
DOWN TO EARTH
It's heartening to meet people with the outlook that Above & Beyond have. They seem entirely devoid of cynicism without being irritating and self-righteous, or pumped up with their own hubris, something they could be forgiven for, all things considered. Take their video for last year's massive single ‘On A Good Day’, recorded under their OceanLab alias with fellow trance producer Gareth Emery. Instead of the standard dance music video — vocalist, beach, sunset — they hired director Steve Glashier who went to Detroit to film residents of a street reclaiming derelict land to make an urban farm to feed their community, a project they contributed to. It was an inspiring story among the city's almost crippling deprivation, a city which has gone from being one of the USA's most thriving to being almost one-third derelict. As a message, it's overwhelmingly positive. Their forthcoming tour of the US will include a show in Detroit, which hopes to raise enough money to buy the Georgia Street community a computer lab and a neighbourhood library.
Maybe if they had been part of the old way of things, the way that the record business used to operate, they might be the swaggering arseholes that have populated the industry since time immemorial, their egos built up by legions of people whose job it is to tell them how important they are. As it is, they are to an extent enclosed in their own world, able to keep a level head and keep each other in check. While they might not sell vast numbers of units, the popularity they have achieved is something that the record industry would sell its soul for, had it not already. And they have worked fucking hard for it.
“People are excited about how the internet has given everyone free music, but the reality for recording artists is that you've got to work every night,” says McGuinness. “You've got to work every weekend to have the same level of income you'd have had making a great record and sitting back watching the royalties come in.”
Their labels too (rather improbably considering their workload) receive undivided attention. Both Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep have strict quality controls and are nudging 400 releases between them over 10 years.
“We A&R everything,” says McGuinness. “And we probably only release maybe 50 to 75% of what our artists actually make. Most people don't, they'll put out everything. We've always had this wonderful thing, and a frustrating thing at times, but there's two other people that you have to please. Most artists working on their own don't have to do that, the label puts out everything and your message gets diluted. The last thing you do should be the best thing you've ever done. We work like an old-fashioned record company. We spend a lot of time listening to tracks and making them better and better. Version eight might be the one that eventually comes out.”
“It's tough. Especially if you've got an artist that's been with you for a long time and the next single isn't quite up to scratch,” says Jono. “But we have to. You've got to be happy to shelve a track, and say no. But we've made mistakes. Oh god, yeah!”
Being a group, and being in each other's pockets for over 10 years, you can sense a strong bond between them, one forged through nights out everywhere from Russia to Damascus, endless plane journeys and hours upon hours in the studio.
“We're really fortunate,” says Paavo. “Because we're a group, we have someone on the road with us who completely understands what you're going through. When we have these absolutely amazing moments, the fact that we can share it with somebody always, who's going through it with you, that's absolutely priceless. That's one of the reasons I enjoy touring and going through these difficult and great moments. And someone who has gone the 10 years with you. We're really lucky.”
Following their remix of Chakra, things quickly blew up. Remixes for Delerium and Tomcraft, even Britney Spears, Radiohead and Dido followed, along with more for Madonna. Solo tracks like ‘Good For Me’ and ‘No One On Earth’ kept up the pressure and also hooked them up with vocalist Zoe Johnston, known for her work with downtempo types Bent. Debut album ‘Tri-State’ dropped in 2006 to widespread acclaim. It showed their aptitude for songwriting, not merely knocking out club-friendly, arpeggiating trance. It also seemed to further hint at a sadness to their tracks, a melancholy quality. This extended, too, to their 2008 album ‘Sirens Of the Sea’, recorded as OceanLab with vocalist Justine Suissa, recorded in London and Ibiza over two years. It featured an international chart hit with the single ‘Satellite’.
“There's an idea of sadness having something incredibly beautiful about it, and the idea of letting go is also saying hello to something new,” says Paavo. “I think that's the sweet spot of this music. It's not miserable. It's also something more.”
New album ‘Group Therapy’ was, says McGuinness, brought together in much the same way as ‘Tri-State’, pooling their experiences and writing about them, with Johnston back on female vocals and singer Richard Bedford providing the male voice. “They're like 15 of our children,” says Paavo of the tracks. “Sonically, it's probably closer to ‘Tri-State’ than ‘Sirens Of the Sea’. For me, it's really cool to be able to release music that we wouldn't have a vehicle to do otherwise. Tracks that are not necessarily club tracks or that are going to end up on the radio, but still have a reason to be on an album. That's great for us musically.”
Tracks like the hugely epic ‘Sun & Moon’, with Bedford on vocals, are already firmly in the A&B lexicon, with fans knowing the lyrics by heart. A quick scan of YouTube unearths countless fan-recorded moments where vast crowds holler their hearts out. The album is brimming with these moments, moments waiting to happen on a dancefloor, in a field or in the car back from a club this summer. ‘Like You Got To Go’, string-heavy, gorgeously uplifting, glistening with a career-high vocal from Johnston. Jono tells how ‘Love Is Not Enough’ had Johnston in tears recording the second verse. The emotion poured into these tracks is hard to fake.
Whether or not trance is your thing, and whether what Above & Beyond actually do can be called trance in its traditional sense, it's hard not to be impressed by the cultural groundswell that has built up behind them in the past decade. More notable still is the devotion that is shown them by their fans around the world.
“These songs that we make, hopefully they go out and people use them to help in their lives,” says McGuinness. “We got an email from a guy in America, his friend had died at 25. They'd put the words to OceanLab's ‘Satellite’ on his gravestone and they sent me a picture of it. It's crazy. It's wonderful.”
“It's those kinds of things that you value the most,” says Jono.
Group Therapy’ is out on 6th June through Anjunabeats
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.