Above & Beyond
It's electronic music with soul, not just something that sounds like a computer spat out. According to Above & Beyond's Jono Grant, it's possible to apply your songwriting skills to dance music and end up with something that simply sends shivers down the spine. For the British trio, in 2011 that comes in the form of second album Group Therapy. "Ah, no it's got nothing to do with actual therapy," Grant jokingly assures. "We're all okay mentally, it's just an album title! I guess we're just trying to show people that you can be a DJ or a producer, but you can be a musician too. I think that's something people have a habit of forgetting occasionally. This is definitely not a dance-floor album, it's more for home listening. I hope it makes sense when I say that it's dance-floor-influenced but not meant to be played in a club. It's much more cinematic than that. I believe that we are strong as songwriters which is not necessarily something that electronic artists are known for."
In other words: if you've got it, flaunt it. And that's exactly what Grant, along with band mates Paavo Siljamaki and Tony McGuinness, have done. With the single Sun And Moon already knocking influential publications like Mixmag and DJ Magazine off their collective asses, Group Therapy is not only being touted as the best offering from Above And Beyond, but also as the biggest record of the year. It's a big call, certainly, but Grant is more than confident the album will no doubt live up to critics' and fans' expectations. "It's been a few years in the making," states Grant. "Quite a few of the tracks have been sitting in the garage, waiting to be dusted off and repainted. Many of them have taken different forms since their initial inception too. We've been very lucky to be able to hook up with some amazing vocalists too - Richard [Bedford] has an incredible voice and a top personality. The most difficult thing will probably be taking these songs as organic as they are and having to develop different versions of them in order to fit them into a DJ set when we're on the road. I think Sun And Moon and Thing Called Love will be the easiest because they're the only club-friendly ones already. It's also probably going to be the most fun thing to do, because I've always enjoyed playing around with sound and seeing how much you can modify a certain track."
So while remixing Group Therapy is next on the agenda for Above & Beyond, it's not something the guys are keen to focus on too much from now on, though. Although, original productions and developing their songwriting chops may be priority these days, Grant still cites Above & Beyond's 2001 remix of Madonna's What It Feels Like For A Girl as both a career highlight and breakthrough for the group. Oh, and the rumours are true when it comes to the notorious Madge, Grants laughs - while the queen of pop is professional to the core, she somewhat borders on a complete control freak, demanding to have her finger in every pie at all times. "She was great, I can't say otherwise," insists Grant. "But we found out that what most people assume about her is pretty much true, though not in a bad way or anything. She likes to have all control when it comes to her music, she will personally make sure that it goes down exactly how she wants it to. Some people might consider her to be a control freak because of that, but I suppose if you think about it, it's probably the way to go if you want to make sure that your product is exactly what you had in mind from the beginning. It's a very professional way to go about it and at this stage, as far as professionalism goes, she is on the top of that game, really."
Rather than focusing on Madonna's personality, Grant prefers to recall What It Feels Like For A Girl as the opportunity of a life-time which was presented to Above And Beyond very early on in the trio's career. It was a massive turning point for the guys, and then some, as Grant explains. "You know, what's been amazing about that is that that opportunity came our way in like the first or second year after we formed," he recalls. "When you think about it, that's almost unheard of to get that kind of recognition or acknowledgement or whatever so early in your career. A lot of artists work their arses off and never even get a chance to work with someone of that caliber. I feel like it's getting tougher and tougher to have that kind of opportunity for artists because there are so many DJs and producers out there sometimes it's hard to filter through that and figure out who is actually delivering the goods and doing a great job. For ever 100 tracks out there, there is probably about one that is actually of any considerable quality. It comes down to the convenience of just anybody being able to sit down at their laptop and put a track together and call themselves a producer. And the same goes with DJs - some guy at your local can just play a few Top 40 tracks for a group of people and call himself a 'DJ'. A lot has changed, and not always for the better."
While Grant claims that remixing has been great fun and opened up a lot of doors for Above & Beyond, he also adds that the trio would rather spend time focusing on developing their songwriting skills in recent times. That said, remixing isn't exactly out of the question - not if a good enough offer comes their way, that is. "Remixing has been good fun but we'd rather spend our time songwriting. It's a case of 'been there, done that', but it's also a personal choice because we want to develop more as songwriters at this point. However, if we could remix anyone I'd love to do Depeche Mode. I'd love to do the Pet Shop Boys too - it's a childhood thing - but unfortunately I can't see it working with our remixing style as much when it comes to the Pet Shop Boys. Anyway, the Madonna remix was such a big rocket for us as a group. But I'd have to say doing the Radio 1 Essential Mix Trance Around The World in 2004 was an even bigger deal, for me anyway. Having to do that really mattered to me for some reason; it meant a lot to all of us. It seemed like big things were happening to us every three years at that point, because then in 2007 we played to a million people in Brazil for New Year's celebrations. A million people! It could have been intimidating but when everyone's partying and just wanting to have a good time, it takes that pressure off."
Lucky Grant's had a month's worth of his "beauty sleep," as he puts it, because Above & Beyond are now doing it all over again, with a 40-date tour of the U.S. and an Ibiza residency sitting next on the cards. According to Grant, it's Australia that the trio are looking forward to the most, however. "We're going to be doing a much different set to what we did at Future [Music] Festival," he promises. "It's hard to explain how, but we've gone through a lot of developments recently. When I was younger, one of my favourite artists was Miles Davis - and I'm not comparing our music to Miles Davis or anything - but I've come to realise as I've gotten older that electronic music has to have an organic edge to it. It needs to have some kind of extra dimension so it doesn't sound too cold and digital. It's very easy to end up with soulless music if you're not careful, and you know it when you hear it because it makes you cringe. What we want to bring with our live show these days is the complete opposite of that. We want to introduce people to music that's more real and human but still electronic. I think that's the difference between being a DJ or a producer and being a songwriter, that you can actually pull that off. It's possible to write electronic music with a deeper soul that goes beyond the dance floor."
Above & Beyond [UK] play Festival Hall on Saturday September 17.