Interview with Above & Beyond’s Tony McGuinness
British trio ‘Above & Beyond’ (Tony McGuinness, Jono Grant, and Paavo Siljamäki) have been slowly taking the World of Trance music by storm since they created their first remix (Chakra’s ‘Home’) back in 2000. These days they can be found playing the largest venues and festivals on the planet, blasting across the airwaves on their radio show, and bringing inspirational music and messages to their fans through their Group Therapy sessions.
Their new album ‘We Are All We Need’ dropped today in the U.S. and will be followed up by a massive North American tour. We chatted with McGuinness from across the pond about the new album, their live shows, and a slew of other topics including computer coding, brownies, scuba diving, and cannibalism. Dig in.
Independent Philly: Is it true that you got the name for ‘Above & Beyond’ off of an inspirational poster?
Tony McGuinness: Yes. Well, actually an inspirational website. If you put ‘Jono Grant’ into Google now there is a good chance you’ll get the one in Above & Beyond but, back when we started, if you did it one of the names that would come up is this motivational speaker from America called Jono Grant. He ran training courses for sales people and businesses and his slogan was “Above & Beyond”. Jono was so pleased to find a kind of “famous” Jono Grant out in the Universe somewhere that he printed out the web-page and stuck it to the wall of his student house, which is where the studio was where we did our first remix. We finished the remix and went “Okay we need a name for the remix” and literally, three inches from my head at the time was this poster and I looked at it and looked at ‘Above & Beyond’ and thought, “That’s it”. Love at first sight I suppose.
Independent Philly: Your new album, ‘We Are All We Need’ is dropping in the U.S. on January 20th. In your personal estimation, how do the new tracks vary from the past work you’ve put out as Above & Beyond?
Tony McGuinness: To be honest we have discovered, not a groove, but a kind of personality for the music of Above & Beyond, which sort of changes song by song. I think, in terms of the nature of the subject matter that we write our songs about and the kind of music that we want to make, I think it’s along similar lines except it’s coming in 2015 and the other albums are sort of earlier than that. I think that the crucial thing for our World is that while the nature of the songs and the nature of the intent of the music stays the same, the sound of electronic dance music changes week by week, or at least every time a new record comes out. So there is an evolution but I think in terms of the personality of the band, hopefully that stays the same. That being said, we’ve always been very keen to kind of mix our sonic references. So the stuff that sounds that purposefully like stuff that’s from a long, long time ago, and the stuff that sounds like it’s from outside our theme, we’ve always been keen to do that. It’s hard to tell because we’ve just finished it and sometimes you need perspective to see how it will fit into the body of work, but it feels like a new chapter in the same book, except maybe with some new characters.
IP: This is the first time that you haven’t featured vocals from ‘Richard Bedford’ on your album. You used some new vocalists this time around but are there others that you’d love to work with in the future?
TM: I’d love to work with Jeff Buckley, bless him, who is sadly no longer with us. I think, for us, the thing with the male vocal tracks that we write is, they are songs that we write ourselves and ones that I would have done the demo male vocal on. So, what we’ve always been looking for, and we found with Richard, and I think we found with Alex (Vargas), is men that will bring those songs to life. It’s very much a singing role on the male side of Above & Beyond. On the female side, we’ve just been really, really lucky with Zoe (Johnston), and we just seem to find singer/songwriters who write with us, but, left to their own devices, don’t do stuff that’s a million miles away from the stuff we do ourselves. That’s really the criteria. We’re not looking to pull in a famous person to give us a market that we’re not involved in. We’ve never really gone that way, in the same way that ‘U2’ wouldn’t pull in a different vocalist; Bono does fine by them. It’s an interesting question because a lot of our peers, if you can call them that, the producers in this scene, generally work with a wide variety of singers. I guess we see ourselves as more of a kind of hybrid band than dance producers in that way, with a strong message of our own to kind of enhance with the singers that we work with. But there are loads of people that I’d love to work with. I’d love to do something with Thom Yorke although I can’t imagine he’d do something with us. I’d have loved to do something with Michael Stipe in his prime but again, that didn’t happen. Brian Molko from ‘Placebo’, we tried to get to sing ‘Black Room Boy’ but he wasn’t interested. One of the lovely things about the acoustic dates that we did in L.A., is that we had ‘Skrillex’ come up and play guitar on one of the songs. That kind of collaboration, which can be arranged at the drop of a hat, rehearsed in 20 minutes, and executed is really great fun. When you’re looking to work with people in the recording realm, it seems to take a lot longer to organize, and there are record companies involved, so I’m hoping if we ever get to repeat that acoustic form of Above & Beyond that we can bring people up for the different gigs we do, and have it be something really fun and spontaneous.
IP: Above & Beyond shows are unique in that you don’t just inspire your fans through music but through the text messages that are relayed on the video screens. How does your creative process for those messages work? Are they just created on the fly or does some planning go into them?
TM: They are all invented on the fly and the ones that work, we tend to repeat if we can, if we’re playing the same record. The whole idea with the show is, I think a lot of electronic music can be very enjoyable but it’s not necessarily there with a message. Most of the stuff that we play, a lot of the stuff that we play, are songs that, along with the music that we make, are kind of emotional. What we try to do at the show, in terms of the lights and the visuals, and the texts on the screens, is just enhance what the song or the music is doing at the time, rather than distract. There are certain things we can put up during certain songs that are about what the song is about, and then there are some other messages that seem appropriate at the time if there is something that has happened in that town that we are playing in, in recent months that we might refer to. If there are people from that town that have a story that we think is interesting; occasionally we’ll allow people to propose at the show and use the screen to kind of make that happen. I think what most of the things end of being is stuff that gets tried on the fly, and the stuff that seems to connect is something we can incorporate into the show. The ‘Push The Button’ moment, which is pretty famous, was completely random. We decided to put a little gap into ‘Sun & Moon’ so that we could make the drop happen when we wanted it to happen, and I think the second time we played it out in that form there was a video camera man on stage and we dragged him over and he filmed his own finger pushing the button during ‘Sun & Moon’ and sure enough, next time we played, there were people with signs that said “Let me push the button”. That’s gone on to just become this really lovely moment in the show. The same is really true with text that happens on the fly, particularly when I’m typing, because I’m sort of the worst at typing. It’s just trying to communicate. We think that the getting on the mic thing is rather intrusive and generally a script for getting on the mic doesn’t really feel appropriate in the show that we’re trying to put over. It’s our way of unintrusively, but hopefully effectively enhancing the emotion of the song in that moment.
IP: What is the most compelling thing a fan has ever done to get you to select them for the ‘Push The Button’ moment?
TM: It’s grown into this big thing and it feels like it’s really important for a lot of people to try to achieve that thing, which of course is making it harder and harder for us, because there are more, and more, and more people who want to do it. We can really only pick one, although occasionally I’ll drag up a bunch of people, but Jono really hates it when I do that, so it’s not really a thing that we can do all the time. You can only pick one person and generally speaking, we don’t pick them ahead of time unless it’s some reason that we need to. We’ll just look out at the front row, or the first ten rows, and you see all these signs, and I suppose that because the signs are bigger than people’s individual faces, you tend to notice them quicker. My favorite one, and the one that tickled me the most, was just a sign that said “Please let my mom push the button”, which was just surprising and charming. That was at a gig we did near a vineyard in California. I can’t remember the name of it. It was charming and selfless and sweet that someone had come to the show with their mom, so that was an easy one to pick. Most of the time it’s almost random, someone that we can get to the stage pretty quickly, especially at festivals when your time is limited, you can’t spend ten minutes picking somebody out. It’s somebody that’s pretty close to the front that really looks like they’ll put on a good show, but it’s fairly random.
IP: If the three of you were stranded on an island and forced into cannibalism to survive, which of you would be eaten first by the other two?
TM: (Laughs loudly) Well, given how unappealing that sounds, it would probably be me because I’m the oldest and would probably pass away first. That’s the strangest question I’ve ever been asked in an interview, congratulations.
IP: Thank you!
TM: (Laughs again).
IP: What is the biggest talent that each of you has, outside of music?
TM: Jono is a pretty good cook. Actually Paavo is a pretty good cook too. Paavo is an incredible technical geek. The two of them are very technical, but Paavo particularly, in terms of computer coding, is a bit of a genius. He, single-handedly, coded the visual system that we’ve developed which enables us to play these clips of video material that we use in the show, which are rhythmic, at exactly the same tempo as the record we are playing at that time. One of the things that people have to do if they’ve got a very complicated show is play a CD with time code on and not change the tempo in the whole show because the fireworks and everything else are keyed off of it. We didn’t want to do that. We want to be flexible and play whatever record we want, and stop the record whenever we want. So Paavo coded a system that takes the MIDI time-code out of the mixer and in fact, he’s been speaking with Pioneer who make this equipment, to get information about ways the machine works to enable us to get it at a high enough resolution to enable the visuals to happen very quickly. Jono does the cooking. He does a very fabulous brownie. Jono’s a real chocolate fan and has been making brownies for years. Years ago with lots of interesting ingredients, although not so much these days. My talent, I can scuba dive. I’m a rescue diver. So if we go scuba diving and you get sick, or run into trouble in the water, I’d be there to pull you out and resuscitate you.
IP: That skill could prevent you from getting stranded on an island and cannibalism from ever coming into play.
TM: It’s a frightening thought. Yes, leave the others and swim away. Are there any islands these days that are completely isolated?
IP: There have to be.
TM: Not near Camden, NJ.
IP: No, definitely not near Camden, NJ. But speaking of Camden, you have your upcoming show there next month on February 21st at the Susquehanna Bank Center. Is there any special messages you’d like to give to your fans here in the Philly region?
TM: That we are very much looking forward to seeing you. You’re coming kind of smack-bang in the middle of the tour so we should have the show pretty slick by the time we arrive at your town. I’m really hoping that you’ll come out in full force and sing loudly, dance wildly, and cry, sing, and enjoy yourself along with the rest of the people who come.
IP: Lastly, tell us something about yourself, or Above & Beyond as a whole, that would surprise or even shock our readers…
TM: To be honest, these days, with the way the internet is and everything else, I think most everything that you could know about us, is well known. Actually you might not know that Paavo is an expert Barista. He’s just delivered me a fine example of one of his best lattes that he made from a machine that we have in our office. That’s maybe a bit of a surprise, but anyone who knows Paavo would know this. It’s typical of him, he’s such a perfectionist. Nobody can make a latte better than he can.
IP: Fantastic! Looking forward to the show next month!
TM: Thank you, take care mate.
[Interview by David Miller]
We know all of you trance fans are eagerly awaiting February 21st as much as we are! What better way to get psyched up for the show than by winning our giveaway for free tickets for you and a guest!