ON WRITING, ACOUSTIC TOURS AND THE FUTURE OF DANCE MUSIC
London-based trio Above & Beyond began in 2000 when guitarist Tony McGuinness, then working for Warner Music, approached Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki at the then-nascent label Anjunabeats, to collaborate on a remix of Chakra’s “Home.” The remix was an instant hit, and the group was born. After 15 years of working together, the band is certainly on the same page—talking with the three of them is a conversation full of ideas handed off around the room, with a sentence started by one ending up finished by the other two, all in perfect synchrony.
The band made their reputation first with remixes, following up “Home” with a huge remix of Madonna’s “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” then with a string of club hits, selling solidly and playing to capacity crowds at EDC and other dance music festivals—successfully expanding their audience without benefit of much in the way of mainstream exposure or radio airplay. What really sets them apart on the scene, though, are the acoustic tours, complete with small orchestra, where their songs are presented, stripped down to the basics, in venues like The Hollywood Bowl and The Royal Albert Hall.
The motivations for stepping away from their normal format are varied. “If you spoke to each one of us we’d all have different reasons for doing it,” says producer/guitarist McGuinness. “I think it’s nice to step outside the sort of comfort zone and the comfort of DJing, playing prerecorded music. Obviously the work in DJing is really done mostly before you go out on tour, because you’ve written your tracks. You’ve remixed whatever else you’re going to play as well and made your edits, whereas for us, ‘I should go and play as a band’ is quite a step outside that comfort zone and something different. And it’s exciting because the two feed into each other as well because when we get back in the studio and start writing more music, we’ve been kind of doing more of a traditional band thing which helps do something different, maybe, in dance music to other people.”
“For quite a few years we were looking for a way to do a live show,” adds producer/keyboardist Siljamäki, “and thought of playing with the idea of doing a fully electronic live show, maybe having live vocals but backing tracks, or then doing fully electronic or then doing like a hybrid that’s a little bit more like a live thing and a little bit more electronic.
We could never really find a version of that kind of a show that we felt that really absolutely worked. I suppose it really originated from “Love Is Not Enough” [from 2011’s Group Therapy]. Tony’s friend Bob Bradley did this incredible chill remix of it. I suppose that was probably one of the sparks that started the acoustic [tours], because suddenly we saw that maybe there is a way to do a live show, but maybe we need to sort of forget genre constraints and go for something totally different. Bob’s version of “Love Is Not Enough” just showed the direction, I suppose.”
In addition to this summer’s Acoustic II tour, the trio keeps up a seemingly punishing routine of both production and touring, with a near constant flow of new music coming from their London studio and 100–150 performances a year, a busy schedule for a group that didn’t begin with the intent of being road dogs. “I certainly never wanted to be a DJ,” says keyboardist/producer Grant. “It’s funny how you just fall into these things. You get an opportunity offered to you and you think, ‘Do I want to do that?’ Often the answer is, ‘No, we don’t want to do that,’ but we ended up doing some DJ shows and it went really well. We really enjoyed it quite early on in our career. Then that really took off and also helped us—it sort of fed back into the music, in terms of inspiring us to make different sorts of records—that sort of thing as well. Because when you are out there and you see what people respond to, you take something away from that, but at the same time, when we’re writing music, we’re often trying to not think about that as well, because we’ve got so much experience doing shows you want to take it back to the source of the raw ideas of what makes a great track for you, rather than entertaining an audience. So it’s balancing those two things.”
Part of the balance issue keeps one of the three at home in the studio while the other two DJ at festivals and clubs worldwide. “As we’ve been touring more and more,” says Siljamäki, “what we found is that we have one of us in the studio and two of us on the road for most of the time. Andrew Bayer is an incredible producer who’s almost become like the fourth member of our music-making team, because Andrew’s always been in the studio with that single person who happens to be in London at the time. So a lot of our ideas sort of originate with either just one of us or one of us with Andrew and then we sort of bring them into the team and things get often finished together. Some other people might come with a different version of the original thing that you’ve done.”
“It really depends what the song needs,” adds Grant. “Sometimes [there will] be something that has something great in it but we haven’t quite realized it and then someone else will come in and then develop that to the next state. It just depends on the track. But I think we do—I don’t know if we really fall into roles as such. We just do whatever it takes to get it done, if you know what I mean. Sometimes Tony’ll be editing vocals or whatever. Whatever somebody’s doing. We juggle it around a little bit, really.”
Having been together for so long, producing music that tends to ride at the bleeding edge of technology, means staying on top of what’s new, without throwing out the classic gear that still gets the job done, yet keeping it all simple and streamlined. “I think we’ve obviously gone through many generations of styles of production, starting from the MIDI days of counting how much polyphony our studio has,” laughs Siljamäki. “You’re now thrown into this plug-in world where suddenly everything is possible. It’s been a really interesting and challenging thing with production. How do you improve your sound continuously? I love computers and I love coding and the idea of the vast power and the incredible possibilities that digital processing brings, but then it almost backlashed on me, because the technical aspects of production are so fascinating to me that I then turned off the computers and started playing the piano. That’s been a wonderful thing for me to then go the other way and actually have a means of making music that’s completely free of that digital thinking. It’s about combining the best of both worlds for me.”
“And also reduction of choice is a really powerful thing in the studio,” adds Grant. “So, rather than having 20 reverb plug-ins, buy one or two great ones and really learn those, because actually it causes stress having loads of options in the studio. If you’ve got one or two really fantastic preamps or one or two great compressors that you know really, really well and actually sometimes using a limited gear set gives you a sound more so than having a kind of potpourri of everything.”
When asked for specifics, Grant continues, “In the box, [we’re] using a lot of the Universal Audio stuff, because it’s one of those things when—especially for mixing an album like Acoustic—you want a certain aesthetic to it, and using things like the space echo and the new spring reverb they brought out just gives you that sound so instantly, rather than reaching for a kind of synthetic reverb or a perfect delay. Universal Audio have just done an incredible job of modeling those bits of kit. So those plug-ins are definitely at the top of our list in terms of getting tone, because I think tone is really, really important when mixing and producing—that’s what gives your records character in a sense. Everyone’s working with the same tools and you need to kind of stand out somehow and I think that gives you that kind of character.”
Asked about the future of dance music and evolution of the band’s sound, the trio admits that, while new material is in the works, it’s still taking shape. “We’re writing songs for our next electronic album,” says Siljamäki. “It’s interesting looking at what would be the sound of the next electronic album for us. We don’t actually know yet. It’s an interesting thing because we don’t really approach an album having decided how it’s going to sound. We just make a lot of stuff and then hopefully the direction comes naturally from when you start seeing how the songs connect and everything.”
“Actually some of the best times for dance music are when it isn’t commercial,” adds Grant, “because people are then making music with their hearts more. I think it would be nice to hear what people come up with when the commercial scene dies off a bit more.”
For Above & Beyond, though, this summer is all about the Acoustic II tour, says McGuinness. “In some respects the acoustic tour enables us to play some venues we have no right in playing, and gives us a kind of a guise in which we can go into places like the Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House and the Hollywood Bowl and do a show. When we played the Greek Theatre with Acoustic, I think we’d done maybe four shows together when we walked on the stage. We have no right to be there after four gigs. Who gets to do that? So we’re really delighted that we have this fantastically loyal fan base that allows us to do these different things and still come and see us, regardless of what it is that we’re doing, DJing or playing acoustic.”