You know when you can’t find a plumber at the weekend? It’ll be just like that with DJs over the next few days because Radio 1 has taken them all to Ibiza. The station is broadcasting from the clubbing mecca today, tomorrow and Sunday night, and putting on two massive all-star parties at the Ushuaïa and Privilege venues.
It’s only fitting that Above & Beyond should be in the thick of it, as the biggest London group of the current worldwide boom in dance music. Relative anonymity — the trio of Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness and Paavo Siljamäki have yet to join their peers Calvin Harris, David Guetta and Avicii in the upper reaches of the pop charts — hasn’t stopped them from becoming giants in their field, selling out shows at Alexandra Palace and Madison Square Garden and topping the bill at Clapham Common’s South West Four festival at the end of this month.
Grant compares the band to Iron Maiden, despite their sweet-tempered, pretty trance music being waaay on the other end of the spectrum from screamy guitar dismemberment. “They’re not on the radio, not really in the press that much but when they turn up to a festival a lot of people are there to see them,” he says of the veteran rockers. “The heavy metal analogy is a good one because it exists outside the mainstream.”
The band have sidestepped the need for media approval (they’ve been going since 2000 so I’m astonished that this seems to be their first big interview away from the specialist press) because they’re completely self-sufficient. They’ve invited me to their relatively new base in Bermondsey Street, where a nondescript door opens to reveal a smart courtyard and a huge sign made of light bulbs saying HELLO.
Upstairs is their record label, Anjunabeats, where about a dozen young go-getters tap at computers beneath their distinctive “A” logo — a popular tattoo among clubbers. Downstairs is a big, naturally lit studio lined with keyboards where they produce their own music, and next door is a smaller room where they record their globally syndicated radio show, Group Therapy. All they need is a vegetable patch and a cow outside and they need never leave.
After some debate over which of their fancy coffee machines to use (McGuinness loves his little Nespresso, while Siljamäki has installed the full barista works upstairs) they chat to me in another room graced by a long black sofa and a baby grand piano.
The radio show is key to their success, they say, allowing them a weekly opportunity to engage with fans and test new material for their DJ sets. There’s no radio station pressure over what to play because they make it themselves and sell it on.
In the UK you can hear and interact with it on their website or on Ministry of Sound Radio every Friday evening. “It’s given us a huge amount of freedom,” says McGuinness, a former marketing man for Warner Music who is the elder statesman of the band at 45, but also the most charismatic with his peroxide hair and confident chatter. “The old, traditional gatekeepers aren’t as powerful as they were. Now records can become big because of people power above everything else.”
Today I’m meeting McGuinness and Grant. They’re not sure where Siljamäki is. He’s the 37-year-old Finn who first started the record label in 1999 with Grant, 34, when they met at the University of Westminster. When McGuinness approached them for help with a remix, Above & Beyond was formed.
Dividing and conquering is the way they’ve always done it, only performing as a trio about once a year. The weekend following our chat, McGuinness says he’ll be at the Benicàssim festival in Spain, while Grant and Siljamäki are going to “Vancouver and Vegas and somewhere else, I can’t remember”.
They’re looking forward to appearing in Ibiza, with the Radio 1 show just one of six weekly appearances there over the season, but recognise, as their air miles attest, that the scene is now shifting away from the island. “It’s one of the places now, whereas years ago it was the place,” says Grant. “Look at Las Vegas. It’s not the same as Ibiza, don’t get me wrong, but as a place that people go to party and listen to dance music, it’s definitely on the map.”
“We’re probably doing 60 per cent of our gigs in America now,” adds McGuinness.
Above & Beyond were the stars of Under the Electric Sky, a recent documentary film about the US dance festival Electric Daisy Carnival, in which their fans came across as far and away the most dedicated. You can watch a girl invited onto the stage to press play and start the climax of their biggest song, Sun & Moon. It’s visibly the greatest moment of her life. They pick someone from the crowd to do it at every show. “We let them do this big, theatrical finger-push,” says McGuinness. “Now everyone’s trying to coerce you, holding signs saying ‘Let me push the button!’”
It’s important for the band to enable this direct contact, he continues. “Even if there’s 50,000 people at a gig, it’s the front few rows that you play to. It kills the show for me if I can’t see faces and interact with them. That communion is what the show is all about.”
On their albums, too, they work to do much more than offer faceless thudding euphoria. A number of dance acts are now writing songs with a more traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, instead of trance music’s traditional build-and-release, and ending up with pop hits.
Above & Beyond have always written real songs, many of them sung with dreamy allure by Zoë Johnston. Their new song, Blue Sky Action, the first taster from a third album proper due next year, features regular collaborator Alex Vargas emoting over a great wall of synth melody. But they have also dropped the electronics altogether for an album and gigs that showed their songwriting prowess in acoustic form.
“DJ sets are a lot more about loud, quiet, dark, light. You’re hitting people with this big bombastic thing. The acoustic shows were just the songs laid bare,” says McGuinness of the theatre gigs last summer and the album, Acoustic, which came out in January.
It was a move that definitively set them apart from the rest of the dance crowd. “We have benefited from the EDM boom but we’re also not as much a part of it as some of the other guys,” says Grant. “You see people come and go. A lot of trance music is very formulaic and sounds a bit tired to me.”
Now it’s for the wider public to become aware that this long-running trio aren’t just a great home-grown dance band but a great band full stop. It’s happening slowly, says McGuinness. “A few years ago I would have been doubtful that we’d ever get there but in the last year I’ve been recognised more in London than in the previous 10 years combined.”
And if mainstream fame still doesn’t come calling, who cares? They’ve already made it in every way that really counts.
BBC Radio 1 in Ibiza, until Sunday (bbc.co.uk/radio1). Above & Beyond play the South West Four festival, Clapham Common, SW4 (0871 220 0260, southwestfour.com), August 23 and 24. Their new single, Blue Sky Action, is out on September 21 on Anjunabeats