Taken as a trio, Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness, and Paavo Siljamäki go by many names. They're principally and best known as Above & Beyond, the trance group behind worldwide genre hits like "Sun & Moon," but they're also the maestros behind the widely adored Anjunabeats compilation series and the newly christened Group Therapy radio.
It's in these latter two roles that the thirteen-year veterans of dance music have most recently made waves. On Monday, Above & Beyond released the Anjunabeats vol. 10 compilation, which starts with the group's "Small Moments" before running through over 30 exclusives and rare tracks. It follows the group's model: music fit for both dancing until morning and working all day at one's desk.
A&B fans are familiar with Group Therapy as the group's brand for full-production live shows (Grant, McGuiness and Siljamäki brought the party to New York in February), but it's now also the name of their radio show. Previously known as Trance Around the World, the program draws tens of millions of international listeners every week.
Later this month, the trio will head down to Miami for a headlining set at Ultra Music Festival and their own Anjunabeats Pool Party, featuring Mat Zo, Norin & Rad and Andrew Bayer, among others. Ahead, Grant discusses why they decided to drop the TATW moniker, the painstaking process of putting together a Volume series compilation and how they avoid the Swedish House Mafia effect.
How did the transition from Trance Around the World to Group Therapy go?
We had to think about a lot. It felt like the name embodied much more what we do, rather than Trance Around The World which was great for the time. It served us really well and people really well I think. But it got to a point where we were playing records some people were saying weren't trance. It just felt like the freedom needed to come from the inside. We just needed to have that psychological freedom to do what we want with the show really. And I think once you restrict yourself to a genre, although the genre is very broad and open to debate anyway, it's just an unhelpful thing. I wouldn't do a show called Techno Around the World or Prog Around the World or whatever. I think that era has passed and I think things are different now. And I think we are in a different place than where we were when we started the show about seven or eight years ago. And in terms of a response from people, it was something that we had to think about because we didn't want to upset our fans. But it felt like the right thing to do. And to be honest, I'm pretty overwhelmed with how supportive everyone was. There's always going to be a few people that complain but I didn't see so many of those people voicing their opinions as I expected to.
So there's probably not going to be a Brostep Around the World
No, that's a funny thing. A few people actually feel this means we can now play dubstep or whatever. Let's be honest, if we got a dubstep record we like we'd play it anyway just because we like it. And we're not feeling the kind of shackles of genre kind of restricting what you do. It's really liberating. And will the music change that much, probably not that much actually. But it gives us inner freedom if anything.
Was there a sense of your taste in music changing? Or is more that you've found perhaps that people were becoming a little more nit picky about genre and you just wanted to sort of liberate yourself from that.
To be honest, people being nit picky about genre is a secondary thing really. I mean, it wasn't so important. I think it's kind of helpful as well. It's more about people should decide what they want to call us. If they want to call it trance that's absolutely fine with me. However, I don't think it should come from us because we are doing the job of the press then. For me, it's the job of the press to decide what genre you are.
For practicality, maybe just the job of iTunes and Beatport.
Exactly, it feels uncomfortable to say, "We are this kind of an act" or "We are that kind of an act," actually. And that's what we were doing by having that radio show -- we were saying we do trance. And we don't all just do that. That's one of the things we do do. And perhaps one of the biggest parts of what we do. But it's still uncomfortable somehow and someways when we're doing these ambient tracks sometimes that they're barely really trance anyway. But in terms of tastes, I think they always change, every week. When you're DJing you are picking different stuff depending on your mood and when you're producing you're doing the same. But my tastes have definitely changed a bit over the year because I much prefer the slower stuff now these day. I wouldn't, right now, want to be making something at 138 beats per minute. I could never rule it out but that's the way I've been feeling for the last few years certainly. I prefer it to have a bit more groove and be a bit slower. But I think musically, the actual raw content of the music -- in terms of the melody and harmony and the type of chords that we use and the type of vocalists we use -- actually hasn't changed that much really. It's more the production and the kind of veneer on the outside I'd say.
At this point, I imagine there’s a lot of trust that the three of you have built up over the decade or so. But do you find that you generally know what you're each bringing to the table. Are you continually changing responsibilities or are you staying in your own lane most of the time?
We all contribute. There’s a lot of overlap in what we do, but there’s also differences in what we do contribute. And I think it does vary track by track, which is nice. Because I think I would find it really hard if I was doing it alone because to be creative -- we’ve been together for nearly 12 years maybe -- to be creative and have consistent output for that period of time as an artist is really hard. Some days you go in the studio and not much happens. And there’s other days suddenly loads of stuff happens and if you’ve got each other to lean on that as well and to bounce ideas off, that’s really really important. So in terms of the writing process, all of us do a little bit of writing. Tony tends to focus on lyrics and vocal melodies, but he still gets involved in the other areas. So that’s really useful, because I don’t personally write lyrics and neither does Paavo. So we all have sort of our special areas but it’s so useful working as a team. Being creative is not always easy you’re not always churning it out. It’s challenging sometimes like that.
Are there songs that only one of you will not have worked on at all or can you say confidently that every song has input from all three?
Pretty much every song has input from everybody, really. Sometimes the idea will be started by one person. But once we get in the production stage, normally other people put their oars in. But I don’t get involved in lyrics for example. Occasionally I’ll suggest changing a line or two. So in that sense, there’s a clear are that I actually don’t get involved in there too much. If something is jarring, I’ll tell Tony, "I don’t think that sounds right." Because I listen to how it sounds rather than the meaning of the song first and foremost. And then once I get to know the song, I appreciate the meaning more. So, I suppose it brings something different to the table where as Tony is dominantly focused on the meaning of the song and sometimes I’m like “But it doesn’t sound right.” And then we’ll change it up a bit, or not.
When it comes to the Anjunabeats compilations, there's a preconception that mixes are sometimes just put out quickly. And I know that you guys spend a lot of time and energy deciding what’s going to make it in and which tracks you’re going to make exclusive to the compilations. What's the actual timeline on a project like that?
A large part of the process is actually getting records in, talking with the artists. So we put a call out, it would have been sometime in autumn I think last year, just to say, "We’re doing volume 10, start sending tracks in." It might have even been before then to be honest. We were certainly thinking about it before then. Then we start to get some demos and some more finished tracks in as well. And then we communicate with those artists individually so everyone -- Tony has a group of artists, I have a group of artists and the same with Paavo -- we kind of communicate with them and the people in the office do a lot of communication with them when we can’t do it.
You start to get a sense of the tracks you’ve got in the compilation and maybe what kind you might be missing. And once you’ve got a core of 5 or 10 tracks, you’ll then start talking to your artists and say, “You know what, we really need something," or we really need [a track] from this artist because there is too much music in this area and we need something a bit more progressive, or a bit more trancy or whatever area we feel. So we’ll talk to those artists, and if they’ve got anything their working on, those kind of things. It’s a time that we look to sign new artists and bring them to the label. And then, when we’ve got all the tracks in, it seems like we are just about there and ready to mix the compilation together and then suddenly more tracks come in and you’re like, “Oh sure, we’ll take this track or replace it with this one that suits the compilation better.”
And then at that point, often we realize that we don’t have enough vocal parts or we don’t have enough this and then we are trying to scurry around a finish one of our own. So there’s a lot of work in scouring of the music. That’s what I’d say is the biggest amount of work really because it’s quite a long-winded process. Or sometimes we’ve done stuff where, at the point it’s in compilation, we know where we want the track to go but it won’t flow because of the way the track is produced in terms of the key or it has too many sounds that clash with the track before. So we’ll actually get the producer to make a special version for a volume series just to get it to mix properly. So theres a lot of work involved and those kind of bits tend to happen later when you are kind of mixing the compilation together and getting it to flow and seeing what doesn’t work. And then, finally, there’s the mastering stage. We all sort of listen to it at home and check how it’s flowing in your car, on the iPod headphones, everything. And then we get it mastered and then it’s manufactured and in your hands.
Across the compilations, the tour, radio shows and the other ventures, is there one one component that you find yourself naturally wanting to spend more time on now than the others?
It’s funny. I kind of want to be doing whatever I’m not doing. If I’m at home in the studio, sometimes, when I’ve finished something or feel like I’ve been productive I’m then ready to get back on the road. When I went to New York, as you know, it was great to be back on tour, I really missed it. Because I was in the studio for about six weeks which is quite a long time for a DJ/Producer to be home because most people are on tour all year around. I really missed being on tour. But when I’m on tour, I wish I could be here more. Ultimately I think the studio stuff is the most rewarding because you can create something that you can live with for the long term rather than just a memory. It’s just like you made a painting. Making music or a recording, it sits there. It’s something you created, whereas even your best gig is only a memory in your mind. It’s still a wonderful thing but you can't look at it on the wall or listen to. So I think the music making process is perhaps the most satisfying. But then when you come to share that music with people, that’s equally amazing in some way.
You're headlining a night of Ultra. Are there any thoughts there as it approaches?
It feels a long way away, but it's not. I haven't thought about it too much yet but we are playing twice. We are playing two weekends. For the main stage it will be a more classic Above & Beyond festival set, with the new stuff we've been working on as well. And there will be some new stuff in there if we finish it in time. The thing is it's just like doing the volume series compilation. We're all scrambling around trying to get stuff together for these shows and that's what makes it exciting. Because you've got the pressure that drives the studio especially with those big festivals. You really feel you've got to pull something out of the bag. And it's actually a really good pressure to have on you in the studio and make results.
But I'm actually just really looking forward to playing on the main stage to be honest. It's been about three, four, five years maybe since we've played main stage. So that in itself is really exciting. And obviously it will be our first full-on show there. It didn't exist when we did the main stage last time. You have to wait and see, though, because I don't know yet.
You're on boarding a lot of new fans. At least in America it seems like the Above & Beyond name is getting bigger and bigger. I was at a couple of Swedish House Mafia shows recently and I was reminded of how Steve Angello said that he really felt like he was trapped because fans really weren't coming with an open mind. How much does that pressure effect you guys when it comes to staying true to the older fan base, accepting the new fans and at the same time giving them the experience that you want to give them as opposed to only what they are coming and expecting.
We've always done quite a lot of playing stuff we really believe in. For the Swedish House Mafia, it is challenging because they will attract a lot of people who come along with the core fans so they've got their core fan base but then they've got people come because they've heard Swedish House is huge so they must come. And I think that's what he is probably alluding to, those fans or kind of secondary fans. They aren't lesser people or anything they just don't spend every waking hour on Twitter or Facebook posting on these artists' sites. They just come to the odd gig. That's why it's challenging but we try to do a bit of both really.
The key is that balance, and it makes it more enjoyable for the person performing as well. I still really enjoy playing the big records that people want to hear. It's challenging playing older stuff sometimes, to get that into a set because sometimes it feels like it doesn't fit because the production is so different. But we normally play the odd one or two in our set and really enjoy playing those to audiences of today. But that is a real challenge to get that balance. And we are always looking for ways to include those old songs through remixes or sometimes we'll play a bit more of a classic as an encore. It's also exciting to move forward and not look back all the time. But it would frustrate me if I was in Steve's position where you've got pretty much a mixture of that kind of dance audience and a pop audience in a sense. And they absolutely have it, the pop audience, because they've heard the song on the radio and that's what they are expecting. And obviously the guys want to play some club music as well so I can totally see the challenges they have. Fortunately, we don't have the challenges they have quite as much. I wouldn't say we are as big of an artist as Swedish House Mafia because they are a mainstream pop act almost, but there's a benefit to being that way because you get a really committed fan base that put trust in you. And I think the Swedes were definitely at that stage at one point. But then they got so big that they transcend it. But it's a high quality problem for them to have.