A year ago, nearly every music website and magazine was publishing trend pieces tracking the explosion of electronic dance music in America. Fast-forward to the present, and nearly every general interest magazine and website is publishing similar stories, with the added clarity of hindsight.
But for Above & Beyond, a trance DJ and production trio known for melodic compositions and a deeply personal connection with their fans, none of this is news. Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness, and Paavo Siljamäki have been creating dance music for over a decade, releasing three studio albums, two remix albums and countless compilations and singles along the way. The cumulative affect: a devoted following that numbers in the millions.
Festival-goers and office-earbud ravers alike are familiar with the group, whose Trance Around the World radio show draws tens of millions of listeners each week. The trio is coming to New York this Labor Day weekend for two sets at Electric Zoo, where they'll headline both their own Group Therapy Stage (following acts like Mat Zo and Ferry Corsten) on Friday and the main stage on Saturday.
HuffPost Entertainment caught up with Grant and Siljamäki in two separate interviews that have been edited together below. Among the topics: how EDM can get smart again (Grant says it has been "dumbed down"), why trance doesn't suffer from the same problems as pop house and dubstep and whether pop DJs' days are numbered.
In what ways have you seen your fan base grow over the past few years? Do you feel as though trance -- which is in some ways the world's most popular genre of music -- is growing at the same pace as, say, pop house?
Paavo Siljamäki (PS): Pop house and dub house have taken the place of hip-hop in the charts in the past couple of years, and they've just had this incredible explosion -- particularly dubstep, but also pop house. And trance has gone through this gradual, really long term slow but steady growth. I don't think we've necessarily broken into the commercial charts and stuff. We feel like it's a very nice thing, things are gradually getting better but we don't have to compete for chart success as such. It's a much freer place for us to be as musicians. How much bigger can pop house and dubstep necessarily get? Trance is still growing around the world.
What's happened with the internet is that people have a much more direct connection with the music and the producers, so a genre-based grouping is [archaic]. I know a lot of people who are into artists who aren't in the same genre, because people have access to the music they really love. So they jump between genres, which is great, because it lets us feel a bit freer.
But are there downsides? What's the biggest challenge you've been facing as of late?
Jono Grant (JG): As you get bigger and as you're selling out shows, there are people coming to your shows and demanding hits. We try to balance that a lot, because I think it's important that you don't just become a jukebox. There's a lot of temptation, as you get bigger and there's more money on the table, there's a lot of temptation for artists to chase after that and dilute what you're doing. I'm proud that we're not doing that, because I see a lot of people drifting off and not knowing where they're going.
In that realm, do you feel any differences in the reception around the states? At, say, Electric Zoo in New York versus EDC in Vegas?
PS: It used be for us that the west coast were where things seemed like they were ahead of the curve. But as times progress, that difference has been getting less and less. EDC in Vegas and EZoo in New York even draw a lot of people from around the country and even the world. The whole clubbing scene in New York has such a long history and versus more of the rave side of things, so there's less of a difference now.
JG: If you drive through the strip in Vegas and you look up on on the screens and you see the number of DJs playing, how long can that be sustained? And when people are playing the same records, how can people choose between DJs? That's what I'm questioning, particularly in Vegas, because it has the potential to be an amazing dance music scene, but when a lot of people go there, they dumb down what they do and stick to the hits, which is kind of sad. If you're an artist, you got to where you are because of what you're doing. You'd be best off not just playing a gig if you have to severely change what you're doing.
The main thing is that people will want something more, and they'll move on to some new things. Personally, I'm very optimistic about dance music because I think it will get smart again. It's been dumbed down a little bit over the past year, but we try to operate around that and focus on what we're doing.
I spoke with Pasquale Rotella [founder and CEO of Insomniac, which puts on large-scale raves such as Electric Daisy Carnival] about how he is growing wary of having celebrity DJs at his events because it causes everyone to stand there with a cell phone instead of dancing around and making friends. That's a slight oversimplification, but what do you make of that point?
JG: Forgetting our gigs for the moment, if we strip that back to not booking big artists and that means not people that are popular. And the reality is that people going to these shows are going to see music that they like and people that they know. Presumably people that are booked are booked because they made their career and have recognition.
Ultimately if people are going to pay for a ticket, they're going to want to know what they're getting. Pasquale's point is that it's about the production and the fairground rides and all of the experience, but from our perspective, they want to come and see us and hear our music. They've lived with our music and they want to come see us play it out at festivals. They want to be part of that experience.
You get some festivals that could potentially sell out on the basis of the name of the festival (EDC, Ezoo, Creamfields etc.). But the fans are going to wise up. So then next year if they do the same thing and the lineup was poor or its a lot of artists that people don't know, they're not going to buy the tickets the second time. So it's a bit of a poor economy. But I think [Rotella] is going a bit further, which is to say he'd like to put on a festival with no-name DJs. And that's going to be tricky to do, because there's a great entry point for another promoter to come in and say, "Well, we'll book all the big name DJs."
But to answer your point, hopefully the difference with our show is that the inclusive aspect -- we try to make it about the whole experience, which is essentially what Pasquale wants at his events. Personally, I don't see the attraction in feeling like a god-like figure on stage and getting the crowd to worship us. The real emotion and power comes from shared experiences.
There's another point, which he and others have raised with me, which is that there's this notion of people standing around now and filming on their cell phones instead of meeting people and enjoying the music. Is that something you're conscious of?
JG: There's a certain amount of frustration when you want people to just listen to the music and absorb what's going on and they end up filming. But I don't think you can find that. They've paid the money to come into the event, if they want to film let them film on their camera. It's a shame in a way when some people don't let go and let themselves lose themselves in the environment and music. I'm sure many DJs feel that way.
On the other hand, that's the exact same mentality that's created this huge dance scene, the idea of staring at the DJs, because festival promoters around the world want to book big name talent because it's those same people who are very excited and passionate about coming and seeing the artists. So I don't think you can criticize those people if that's what they want to do, but if I had my way, would I rather have people just kind of dance and lost themselves more? Absolutely, definitely.
PS: Five to ten years ago, people might have gone to a club night and we might have been playing. But now it's like we do shows with a plan and people come with an anticipation, enthusiasm and expectation like they're going to see a band. I think it's going much more toward that sort of thing. But ultimately the best things that we do at shows all come from accidents, or things that we take along and keep doing. If you really tried to come up with this stuff you might not, but if you have a bit of fun you can find some great ideas.
Of course putting on amazingly intricate events must be rewarding, but do you ever wish you could just show up and hit play in a stripped down place? With, perhaps, just some CDJs on a folding table?
PS: I suppose that's like the pool parties that way we do, there's always opportunity for really doing it and a lot of people still have a great time and enjoy the music together. My personal interest is in the theatrical part of it. My background is in theater and I'm really into the idea of giving people an experience they'll talk about a week after going to the show.
JG: Sometimes I definitely enjoy club gigs where it's all about the music, and we are doing less of those these days. If you think about the level of focus in a small gig, they're almost 100 percent your fans these days. There's maybe 20 percent or less in a small club who don't really know who you are. But if you're at a big festival and you have big production, you're probably playing to 50 percent, if you're lucky, to your core fans. The rest have drifted in from other tents and stuff, so it's a real opportunity to give them something special and get them to understand what you're doing. I think production is very important and we do so much. That visuals are the most obvious thing, but the lighting is more important. I say it goes in the order of sound, lights then visuals in order of importance.
With shows like Electric Zoo coming up, Is there something different about headlining a festival that ends relatively early, or is that not a factor?
PS: There's a thing where you can do a show too late -- sometimes even before you get on, if it's 4 or 5 am you can tell that people are starting to get tired. If I could pick, I would always do earlier. The type of thing we do requires knowledge. But some of our best gigs have been at 4 am and some have been at 2 in the afternoon. It's kind of a different thing but I like parties in the dark.
JG: Within reason it's pretty much the same. If you get a sunrise or sunset set, I would say, they're quite different. Those are the two key points where you have to think about what you're playing at that time, so that affects what you're going to play. But whether it's day or night, we generally play the same.
But did you read that thing about Hyde Park where they cut off Paul McCartney and Springsteen? There comes a point where you have to just -- it's great to be rock and roll and say you're going to carry on playing, but at the end of the day, if someone has to come and take you off stage, you don't know what's going to happen. You could get arrested in some countries. But it is really nice when the audience knows why you get stopped, because there are situations where they don't know why you had to wind down or not play an encore, and sometimes it's because there's a policeman standing at the side of the stage.