Even by their sky-high standards ABOVE & BEYOND are currently flying, well, above and beyond.
On Saturday 18th October, the trio made history: they became the first British DJs to headline New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden. As usual with the band, the numbers spoke for themselves: all 13,000 tickets sold in a snap; tickets changing hands on secondary markets for $700 a pop; within a week, half-a-million video views of a pair of delirious fans accorded the honour of pushing the button during “Blue Sky Action”.
It was the perfect curtain-raiser for the next stage of ABOVE & BEYOND’s dauntless, peerless, thrilling ascent. On 19th January, Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness and Paavo Siljamäki release their new album. It’s called We Are All We Need, and pre-orders come with three instant grat singles, including the title track. Thereafter comes another single, “All Over The World” – an appropriate title given that early 2015 also sees them embark on a global album tour.
Of course, the band have put in the miles, racked up the achievements, sweated over the songs, to get to this point.
In the UK they’ve sold out London’s Alexandra Palace. In the US, prior to Madison Square Garden, they’d sold out The Hollywood Palladium more quickly than any act in history. Their radio show, now operating under the name Group Therapy, has broadcast over 500 episodes since 2004 and reaches 30 million listeners in 35 countries – every week.
They have released three studio albums, two remix albums, one side-project album. Their own labels, Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep, are among the most respected imprints in the global dance music scene and have released some 23 ABOVE & BEYOND albums and compilations in the last 12 years. There have been dozens (and dozens) of singles and mix albums and offshoot projects, all snapped up by a devoted worldwide fanbase that has happily, passionately followed this London-based electronic trio since their formation in 2000.
As artists they have sold a million records.
In the mainstream media, ABOVE & BEYOND have been tagged as ‘The Biggest Band You’ve Never Heard Of’. But the fans know differently. They’re just their band. The band they’ve followed round club gigs, arena shows, American dance festivals, European rock festivals, and parties from Bangalore to Beirut, from Branson’s rocket (they soundtracked the launch of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo) to Brazil’s beaches (one million fans in Rio for New Year’s Eve ’07). To their fans, ABOVE & BEYOND are just ‘The Biggest Band In The World’.
Explaining the trio’s huge popularity-meets-curious obscurity, Grant thinks, “it’s similar to a heavy metal band in that they they’re not on the radio so much. But they have that fanbase that they’ve built up over a long period of time, rather than going for a money shot and having the big-name vocalist,” he adds, referring to the default option of many a dance outfit that started off as “just” producers. “It’s a case of we’ve built it very, very slowly, and we haven’t had massive career spikes. We’ve flirted with mainstream things, but we’ve not really gone all out. We did remix Madonna, though…”
In 2001 ABOVE & BEYOND were hired to create a club mix of “What It Feels Like For A Girl”. Then the video was banned by MTV. “It’s got car crashes and everything,” laughs McGuinness. “We thought we’d won the pools but no one saw it. Classic!” he hoots.
“And!” adds Siljamäki, the final third of this exuberant, savvy and brutally honest trio, “everyone thought it was a Paul Oakenfold track ’cause he’d remixed it as well! But,” adds the Finn who met Grant at the University of Westminster where both were on music courses, “the dance music scene has got much, much bigger and the sound that used to be called underground is a lot closer to the mainstream. So we’ve naturally found ourselves at a crossing point. But still I think in this new album the primary focus is writing songs for our purpose. We are,” he smiles, “kind of a selfish band in that way.”
They’re also a smarter band that way. Yes, the three men of ABOVE & BEYOND can craft big, transporting, electronic dance anthems. And for sure, they grew out of the trance scene. But they can also write emotive songs. Complete compositions that move the head and soul as winningly as they do the heart and feet.
As much was evident in the Acoustic album they released in early 2014, in which they dug in their own crates to create stripped back, “revamped” versions of songs from their deep catalogue. It was a project whose success surprised even ABOVE & BEYOND. Four sell-out acoustic shows at London’s Porchester Hall led to two sold out nights at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, with fans hoovering up 12,000 tickets in a matter of hours. The combined views for the 17 Acoustic videos on the band’s hugely trafficked YouTube channel currently number somewhere north of five million.
And it was evident in the two teaser tracks they released in 2014. “Sticky Fingers” featured the powerful, soulful vocals of Alex Vargas and plangent piano/synth chords. It was followed by summer-coloured, electronic-soul epic “Blue Sky Action”, again sung by Vargas. Both tunes showcased another signature ABOVE & BEYOND strength: lyrics that mean something.
“There’s a sadness to ABOVE & BEYOND’s music which has gone through right from the start,” says McGuinness. “Which is perhaps surprising when you think that we make party music ostensibly. And that’s not something we’ll claim we pioneered, but I remember distinctly the first time we played [2006 single] “Alone Tonight” a long, long time ago, at Global Gathering. And we were worried whether even that title alone was alright! Then there were 5000 people in this tent together singing it. And suddenly you get it.”
ABOVE & BEYOND, as rigorously focused on the road and on stage as they are in the studio, are maestros at crafting that elevational moment of communal emotion – whether up or down.
“It feels very limiting just to make music for Friday night,” offers McGuinness. “‘Make some fucking noise, put your hands in the air, shake your booty’ – all that stuff. What about Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday? What about the rest of your life? What happens after you meet the girl or guy in the club and you get together and start living your life? There’s so much more to write songs about than partying.”
Maintaining quality control is paramount for Grant, Siljamäki and McGuinness. They built a unique, independent, standalone artist and business organisation (comprising of record labels, an artist management company and a publishing division, and employing around 20 people) that, from the outset, had 360-degree control, vision and aspiration. Similarly, they never wanted to freight in this or that Big Pop Star for a guest vocal. They wanted their own singers, perhaps with their own lyrical ideas and definitely with their own worldviews. So the entirely self-funding, self-motivating ABOVE & BEYOND maintained a coterie of select collaborators. So the upcoming We Are All We Need, which was recently completed in their south London studio HQ, features appearances from regular vocalists Zoë Johnston and Justine Suissa.
As for the musical appeal of Vargas,“he’s done a couple of major label albums, hundreds of gigs, really accomplished live singer, looks great,” hymns McGuinness. “We saw a couple of his YouTube videos and just thought: this guy is just a force of nature. He’s young, he’s good looking, his voice has a little bit of Joe Cocker in there…”
And so, with Vargas’s help, “Sticky Fingers” and “Blue Sky Action” combined for a killer one-two punch that begins the next stage of ABOVE & BEYOND’s cloud-busting career.
According to Siljamäki, their ambitions are simple. “We’re trying to write music for 25 years from now, rather than music just for today. Music is timeless when it’s good. Genres will always move and change but songs are forever. That’s part of our challenge, and part of ABOVE & BEYOND’s identity.”
And, says Grant, referring to that long-awaited new album, that means applying old-fashioned values to future music. “You want to make something where an album isn’t just a carrier for a few singles. Especially in dance music, where so many albums are just filler around the single. Why shouldn’t an album be listenable from start to finish?”
“To me, it feels the world’s moved towards us,” concludes McGuinness, “not the other way round. It’s great that there’s so much attention and innovation in electronic dance music. But doing the Acoustic thing was great in that it showed we exist in that scene – and we exist out of it. To be able to survive out of it so ably was a validation of what we’re really about: that ABOVE & BEYOND are a band.”
The fans, of course, already knew that. Their commitment and passion are proud and proven, which is why that new album title is brilliantly apt on multiple levels. ABOVE & BEYOND are all they need.
Watch Above & Beyond’s full set from Madison Square Garden: