Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness, and Paavo Siljamaki—over the past decade these three men have illustriously created a cult-like lore around their group, Above & Beyond. Relying heavily on their weekly radio show trance around the world which ran for 450 episodes before transitioning to group therapy two year ago, the group attracts millions of dedicated listeners around the world each week. Without a single North American top40 radio hit Above & Beyond consistently manages to sell out the country’s most famous arenas.
Luckily for Vancouver fans Above & Beyond are stopping off to celebrate #BP17YR Anniversary with us this Saturday at the Pacific Coliseum before making their way to New York to celebrate #ABGT100 at Madison Square Garden. In honor of both landmark achievements we chatted with Jono Grant straight from his London studio—his passion, integrity and humility were contagious:
Blueprint: You are helping Blueprint celebrate their 17th birthday with Dirty South, MakJ, Botnek, and Vannic. Musically, how do you prepare for a set when so many big room house acts setting the tone?
Jono: I think you have to treat it as two hours of your own space in a sense because if you worry about what other people are playing too much you can impede on the fans experience of your own show. We do adapt things a little bit for festivals where we play a lot more well-known stuff I guess, but we try not to just play stuff that people will enjoy in a jumping DJ kind of way. That is just not our thing; we want people to come who want to hear our own music because that is really what we do.
Blueprint: It’s getting to the point where you can play only your own tracks that is difficult…
Jono: I think the way that you get to that state is by sticking to what you do. If you start to doubt yourself and waver and worry about what others may think, you can start overthinking it and then you start to lose what you were about. You just have to do your own thing and not worry about the people, and enjoy other artists music—be influenced by it—but at the same time stick to what you believe in so you don’t lose your true intention and by extension your identity.
Blueprint: Exactly one week after #BP17YR you are celebrating #ABGT100 at Madison Square Garden: what does this milestone mean to you and what can fans expect for your MSG event?
Jono: Firstly as DJs, producers, and artists we don’t really get time to…well actually we don’t take time to look at how far we have actually come. We just tend to get on with it, and do what we do. So I think it is nice to celebrate things like this, it gives you a chance to look both backwards and forwards. That’s why we celebrate every fifty episodes of group therapy, its time taken to a place a marker in the ground; we also play a lot of new material at the celebrations because they represent the beginning of a new era for our sound and where we are going.
In terms of production, we have done a ton of new visuals. Usually we like to keep the radio show a radio show, so doing a live video stream for the first time is a big deal for us. It just feels like the right time in our careers to play such a beautiful venue, especially in New York…I don’t know if we will do it again in the future, I mean maybe, but this time we are, and it’s going to be special. It’s all very nerve-racking.
Blueprint: Because #BP17YR and #ABGT100 are so close together will you be releasing some new material in Vancouver as well?
Jono: We are saving a lot of it, but there will certainly be some new bits and pieces in there yeah.
Blueprint: What does it take to ensure that you remain afloat after the North American EDM boom begins to fade out? Who do you believe has the staying power to remain relevant on a global level?
Jono: I think it is largely about doing your own thing and having your own original identity. Looking at it from a cold hard business perspective it is almost like a brand, you need to retain your brand values. If Apple started going off and making washing machines people would be really confused, they would have to be made extremely well and with the companies cores values in mind or it just wouldn’t work—stick to what you believe in and what comes naturally.
However, that does not mean you do the same thing over and over again, Apple made the transition to focusing on iPhone’s and iPad’s because they had a great idea that was true to the company. We’ve done it before where we release a track and people are like…what, this is Above & Beyond, no way…but if we are inspired and believe in the track it usually finds an audience.
If you want to have a long term career, the audience knows when you are not being sincere, so you have to produce and play what you believe in. Chances are if you believe in it, someone else will too. We get sent tons of tracks every day and sometimes people bug us for not signing a certain track that is going off really big on the internet. But we aren’t going to stand in front of a crowd and play something we don’t believe in. In the short term it is very easy to be tempted to do what you think you need to have success, but long term you will come up stuck if your career is standing on things that don’t come naturally.
It’s hard to say who will stick around, but someone like Eric Prydz has had a great long career and he has always stuck to what he believes in and people love him for that…they know what they are going to get.
Blueprint: Sometimes the problem is knowing what you are going to get though…
Jono: Yeah, I mean if you have five DJs playing in a big city all on the same night and they are all playing the Beatport Top10 how are audiences supposed to pick who to go and see? So if you do something different you have the upper hand. Plus you save yourself from being bored really. Those same DJs might want to be doing something different but are too afraid…just do it though, you might find it brings you a lot of success.
Blueprint: Will fans ever see new OceanLab productions, maybe even an OceanLab tour, or has the inspiration that initially sparked the OceanLab project dissipated over the years?
Jono: For me not at all,I would love to do more tracks with Justine. Still, I can’t say there will definitely be another album. But I am definitely aiming to do more work with Justine in the future because I think she is a real talent, she just has a great distinctive voice, and brings things to the table that other people we work with don’t have. That said, I don’t think we will do another OceanLab tour because she is very much a homebody—which is just another one of her great qualities.
Blueprint: Anjuna is the name of a beach on India’s western coast in the Goa rejoin: why was it the inspiration for both Anjunabeats & Anjunadeep?
Jono: It was actually Paavo’s idea, but it was because there were a lot of trance parties on the beach there years ago and it kind of inspired him. I mean we wanted to start up a trance label in the beginning, so it was a way of giving the label some kind of cultural heritage. It gave the label a strong vibe, expectations, before it even really began.
Blueprint: Speaking of Anjunabeats, in your opinion what makes it stand out from the hordes of other artist run record labels—what makes it special?
Jono: We are very picky, and I feel like are attention to quality control is what has made it great. We work very closely with all of our artists on how their record sounds. So, where other labels might put out a track that they know has most of the raw ingredients to be a success and leave it at that we will go the extra mile and make sure if we think there is something wrong with it when we test it out in a club that we try and go back and fix it before it gets an official release; sometimes that even means working on the record ourselves. It really is just attention to detail, even if it is slower at times, it’s worth it.
Blueprint: It’s nice to hear that you guys are so much more then figureheads of the Anjuna brand…
Juno: When Paavo and I set up the label we used to go to the post office and physically send-off individual records to the big guys at the time like Paul Oakenfold. I just remember sending out over a thousand vinyl mailers and if I didn’t they would just sit and stare at me in my bedroom. At this time I was still a student, and I am really glad that I had that experience early on because it taught me to always keep a deep connection with your music and now our label. Even with a great team we still try and make the creative decisions because it is those collective decisions that got us to where we are today. Plus we really enjoy it.
Blueprint: Breaking big ten plus years ago was a very different battle then it is today…
Juno: I mean, I don’t want to be one of those people who say it’s not like it was in the old days, on the other hand there is something to be said about learning everything from the ground up and creating a solid foundation rather than coming in at the top. Because when you do get up that hill a bit you can look back down and you appreciate the view a bit more. You really have a better understanding from the artist perspective as well. I mean if you just come up with a hit in your bedroom…wouldn’t that be great right…on the other hand you miss the entire journey, the perspective, and really it takes away from the reward.
Blueprint: Many artists who have been in the dance music scene for an extended period of time, yourselves included, profess that their musical endeavours are genre free. Do you see the future of dance music becoming a melting pot of sounds as artists continue to shed their genre confines?
Jono: I think you can only do so much of one thing before you get bored of it. Above & Beyond used to make very strict trance, it was actually quiet formulaic in the sense that ever track would be the exact same BPM. We followed the idea of what we thought a trance track should be and when you have done that ten to twenty times you just have to change it up. So really if an artist is thinking about genre they are thinking about their fans too much; it can really shackle you to the ground and hold you back. It is important to avoid that because one day you might be working on a track and think, “hey we should push the sound in this direction,” but then that genre restraint comes in and you miss the essence.
For all these reasons we personally write most of our song with just a piano or just a guitar and vocal initially to get outside of the production mentality and make sure we have a great core to a track before we really produce it…before we think about genre. The audience should be able to decide which genre you are.
Blueprint: So you see dance music as a melting pot of sound then?
Jono: That’s interesting really. Back when I was in university I was in a lecture and I remember one of the most important things my professor said was as time passes the reference point of music gets shorter and shorter. If you think about originality, it is actually getting harder and harder to be genuinely original: of course there are new synth plugins and things you can do.
Music is really a language and there are certain ways you can make people feel through different harmonies and cords—those things haven’t really changed over the years, even since the days of classical music. So the tools always remain the same, what changes is how we manipulate the tools to produce sound structure. So, it’s the production that changes, but even then there are limitations.
The end result, not to sound cynical, is that there is not going to ever be a massive wave of new avenues for presenting music. There are trends in music and like my professor said the cycles get shorter and shorter; we’ve had 80’s revivals, deep house is remerging in a modern sense, and minimal is starting to return. It does always take on new forms though; trance was really big in the late 90’s and then sort of came back as an influence with that Swedish sound…look at trap, it just in big like two years ago and now it’s almost gone.
Time is shortened because of the internet. Now a single track has the power to jumpstart an entire mini-genre. Yet, at the same time, there is so much music out there because of technology that it is still going to sound familiar in some way…and by extension people can always complain.
Blueprint: Within the next year what can fans look forward to from Above & Beyond?
Jono: Album announcement coming soon. We have a new video coming as well for the next single and that is coming in the next couple of weeks…its actually for the title track of the album. It’s quite exciting because it is not a big poppy anthem or anything like that, it is very much classic Above & Beyond I feel and Zoey will be singing on the record. We were going to play it for the first time in New York but you may just hear it in Vancouver.
Blueprint: The Vancouver Trance Family is flush with diehard Above & Beyond fans; will your #BP17YR set leave the satisfied?
Jono: Honestly, I actually haven’t fully thought about the set yet…
Blueprint: That’s perfect, now the set will be more organic right…
Jono: Exactly! And to be honest I am really looking forward to doing the gig because I haven’t done a gig in over three weeks…it really feels like ages. It’s really exciting! Paavo and I will be doing the show and we will see you soon Vancouver.
There you have it—an excited Above & Beyond brimming with new material, passion, and endless integrity. With a 2 hour headlining set slated for their #BP17YR appearance can dance music fans really afford to miss ones of the world’s best at the top of their game?
– Ryan Hayesget tickets