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Feature
Above & Beyond Interview
June 26, 2008
by: Arthur Galestian

Arthur Galestian Interviews Jonathan "Jono" Grant and Tony McGuinness of Above & Beyond.

Arthur Galestian: Alright guys! Right here in the studio with me, Above & Beyond tonight. Ranked number six according to DJ Mag's Top 100 Poll of 2007, they've produced massive remixes for artists such as Tomcraft and Motorcycle, in addition to bigger names such as Madonna, Britney Spears, Dido, and Delerium. They've also held scheduled DJ gigs all over the world at clubs like Passion, Turnmills, Ministry of Sound, Gatecrasher in the UK, Godskitchen, and Global Gathering. Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to Tony & Jonathan, two thirds of Above & Beyond! How are you doing, guys?

Jonathan "Jono" Grant: Good, thanks. How are you?

AG: Alright, excellent!

Tony McGuinness: Nice to be here!

AG: Now you guys have traveled quite a bit to get here. Where are you guys originally from?

TM: I'm originally from London... from Kensington. Well Chelsea is the closest place. That's why I support Chelsea football team.

AG: Right on. What about you?

JG: I'm from the southwest of England, but I now live in London.

AG: Okay. So how did you guys end up meeting and getting together?

TM: We were both... Jono was working with Paavo. Jono and Paavo met when they were at university in London, and they were making music together, and I was doing some music with my brother, and for a number of different reasons we, sort of, crossed paths. And Jono and Paavo did a remix of a track that I was working on with my brother and it sounded much better than the ones that my brother and I were working on and a little bit later on we got asked to do a remix for Warner's—Chakra - "Home"—and I asked Jono and Paavo if they'd help finish it off... well, work on it with me, I should say. So we sorted of started one off; we were doing our own other things at the same time, it went really well, the remix became really popular. And so Above & Beyond kept getting more and more work. So our other things dried up...

AG: Okay, so why was it Chakra's "Home"? Why that particular track among all the other tracks?

TM: It was always my favorite vocal trance track ever and I was working at Warner's at the time and the remixes were sort of being farmed out and I mentioned to the guy that I'd really like to have a go at doing it. And so he said "Okay, have a go 'on spec'" you know... not expecting it to do very well, but it got to number one in the club chart, Pete Tong played it three times, and we got a career out of it [laughs].

AG: Quite an accomplishment! What about as a child? What were your aspirations as a child? What were you guys into when you were growing up and how did you fall into music?

JG: When I was a child, I always wanted to do music. I was into New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode. All that kind of electronic stuff. I think I wanted to stand behind a big rack of keyboards and play in a band at that stage. I didn't really want to become a DJ then, but I knew I wanted to do something in music.

TM: I've always been involved in music part-time, it seemed, up until we went full-time in 2001. I'd been in a band called Sad Lovers & Giants for a long, long time while I was still at work, and I used to use most evenings and weekends and holidays to do the rehearsals and recording and touring. So, you know, I've always really loved music. Wanted to play the guitar, wanted to do anything, and I got into dance music at about '95, and I don't play the guitar so much anymore.

All: [Laughs]

JG: Thank God!

AG: So when was that breaking point when you realized, you know, that "things are really going well for me in music and I want to make music a full-time career" and things just seemed to really be falling into place? When was that?

JG: I think it was at the time of the Madonna mix really, wasn't it? I think that's when we had our, kind of, lucky break, if you like... if you want to highlight one point. But I think we would have—without wanting to sound arrogant—I think we would've plowed on through with what we were doing anyway somehow and found a way. I think if you're really passionate about something, you always find a way to do it.

TM: Yeah, I agree.

AG: So before Above & Beyond became an actual group, what were you guys doing separately—as Tony, as Jonathan—what were you guy doing?

JG: Well, when Above & Beyond formed, I was about 19 or 20, so I was still at university at the time and that's when me and Paavo set up Anjunabeats—that's our record label. So I've always done music, really, I've never had a proper job.

All: [Laughs]

AG: Right on, right on.

TM: I was working in the music business, but not completely creatively, although I was doing the music in my spare time. I was marketing director at Warner's in London.

AG: I've interned there, actually. Not in London, but here in Burbank.

TM: Oh, cool! It used to be a lovely record company, I'm not quite so sure anymore what it's like to work there 'cause most of the people I used to know that worked in the company have left, but during the time when I was working there, it was really, really good fun and they kind of gave me a free hand and I started to get into doing A&R towards the end of my time, even though I was actually a marketing person. Signed a couple of records and worked with William Orbit on his classical album.

AG: Now, in the "From Goa to Rio" video, you guys talk about how much you love traveling, and how much you love DJing. What are some of the most memorable times on the road that you'll never forget, that just stand out clearly?

TM: For me, still my favorite gig that we've ever done anywhere, even having played to a million people in Rio on New Year's Eve, which was incredible, but my favorite gig was the EDC last year in LA.

AG: Oh, wow, I was actually there [chuckles].

TM: It was just very special, I mean, in an amazing location. I mean that's the place they've had the olympics it looked like... except we were on stage, and it was just, you know, a very special evening to see that many people singing along to our tracks. It was a really, really amazing experience.

AG: How did it feel overall?

TM: The whole gig, brilliant. One of the best I think.

AG: What about the music business in general? What do you love about it? What do you hate about it? It's a rollercoaster.

JG: I think what's great about the music business is it's forever changing. It's not stuck in its way, which is good. Also, on the flip side of that, it's been slow to change sometimes on the business side of things, but the reality is it has changed. I think it'd be great if records had a longer shelf life, 'cause these days with the internet and stuff, stuff... is sort of said to be old quite early on. And, you know, just because something's old it doesn't mean it's not very good anymore. So it'd be nice if it had a bit longer shelf life.

TM: I think the business has had a hard time adjusting... The big record companies, like a lot of big companies, were going through this period where they thought nothing would change and when you're in a fairly static market situation, what you try and do is make the company more and more efficient. You know, tighten up people's job descriptions, use free interns to help the payroll costs... keep those down. And as a result, when the internet came along, it wasn't really anybody's job to deal with that. And so the reaction to it straight away was a kind of defensive one. But what's happened with the whole collapse in record sales is it's pointed out a major flaw in their original business model, which is they developed all these brands whether it's, you know, Elton John or Seal or Queen or whatever. They developed those brands in a way that Nike would develop their own brands, but they only took a share of a small part of the income, which was the records, which when that was a big part of the income, then fine, but when it shrunk and shrunk and shrunk, and you know, touring income and merchandising income was grown to be slightly bigger or more defendable or more sustainable, then the record company's looking a little bit foolish. So what you're seeing now, we're an example of a 360 degree record company. We do everything for Above & Beyond. You know, records, publishing, merchandising, earplugs, you name it. If it's got Above & Beyond income then that's coming into our company. And a lot of record companies are now starting to do 360 deals with their artists and, George Michael and Robbie Williams, they're examples of people who do that kind of deal now, where you get a share of everything that they do, which is the way I think that it should be.

AG: Now, the Anjunabeats record label, comes from Anjuna Beach in India—the name. Why don't you tell us a little bit more about that?

JG: Well, the name was actually chosen by Paavo, when we set up the label. And, he actually started a little... it was kind of a fun project with some friends years ago, and they allowed us to use the name "Anjunabeats," which was very kind of them. But Anjuna Beach is a place in Goa, where a lot of the, kind of, original trance parties happened. So it kind of seemed like a good name to choose for the label.

AG: Now, music is obviously a very big passion of yours and at the same time you're doing it as a business, so how do you keep the business perspective of things to make sure that things follow through as a business?

JG: I think it's probably easier to keep the business perspective on things 'cause that's a kind of logical, methodical process than it is to keep a creative hold on things. I think, yeah, that's more challenging. Not to say that we're not creative, but you know, because sometimes you're on the road and there's logistics, considering stuff like that. You're in that frame of mind quite often these days when you're DJing, and it's actually important to take time to get into the creative sense so I find it harder to get into that mindset sometimes after having done lots of DJing and traveling. And having that peace of mind just to relax and... you're mind is very creative when it's relaxed, I think. So that's the important state to try to find time to get into.

TM: Yeah, the struggle for us, really, is to... because we're all pretty hands-on in the business. Anjunabeats is a small team, it's been pretty much, sort of, four people with an intern for a long period of its life. We've now got a lot more staff. Over the last couple of years, we've been growing in that way, but it's pretty hands-on for all of us. Whether we're doing artwork or compilations or the web site or anything else. And so the struggle really is, for us, to find time and find, as Jono said, the mindset to just be creative without worrying about deadlines and artwork and other A&R tasks that we've got to do. 'Cause, you know, in some ways, like Jono said, they're easy to do. It's easy to do, you wash it up, when you should be doing something much more important. It's just, you know, finding the time to get that kind of space in your head. Now that's one of the reasons why we also went to Ibiza this year, to spend...

JG: ...take some time out really.

TM: ...a couple of weeks on the OceanLab album, just to be away from the phones, and be away from DJ dates and just concentrate on recording.

AG: The OceanLab album, actually, why don't you tell us a little bit more about that? I know you're collaborating with Justine Suissa on that one. So how does it feel to finally get something out?

JG: It feels like a big weight off the shoulders 'cause I think we've all done a lot of all-nighters trying to finish the album and [chuckles] that was really great for me personally 'cause I enjoyed having the time to do some creative stuff, really. 'Cause, you know, you do get satisfaction from doing DJ gigs, but it's very instant satisfaction, whereas if you make a record, that's a lasting thing that you have there in front of you... you listen to whenever you want. So hopefully the album will go down well with the public. It's a bit more chilled-out than Tri-State I would say. [To Tony] Do you want to say anything else?

TM: It's taken us two years to do it, and one of the reasons why it took so long is we decided fairly early on that we'd write some songs and then produce those songs in whatever form felt best for the song, rather than being formulaic about saying "okay, let's do it as a prog album or a trance album or a chill-out album." We can do whatever we want with these songs and sometimes that, you know, gave us too many choices. We've actually ended up using two mixes of one of the tracks, "Breaking Ties" on the album, 'cause we couldn't really decide which one was the best of the two, so felt "oh, we'll stick 'em both on" and it solves the problem that way! But, as Jono said, it's a lot more chilled out than Tri-State. It's the songs that will become a really important part of our DJ sets over the next two years in the same way that Tri-State was, but in a form that you can listen to at home while you're relaxing.

AG: Sounds like a lot to look forward to!

JG: Hopefully!

AG: Now that you guys are pretty successful in what you do—you're ranked #6 in DJ Mag's Top 100 poll in '07—what would you do differently knowing what you know now? Or what is it you wish you knew when you were on your way?

JG: That's difficult to say, really, 'cause I think the nature of what you do comes from the mistakes you make and some of those mistakes become positive things, so I'm not sure if I would do anything differently, really. I think there are certain things that's best—I think a lot of dance artists will agree with this—it's best to put all of your work under one name, because traditionally, when dance music was born, it was quite an anonymous form of music. And, you know, you have seventy twelve-inch records going out under different names and they're all being made by the same guy, whereas now it's more artist-led than it was as DJ/artist led... DJ/producer led if you like. So yeah, I think, putting everything under one name.

TM: Yeah, that's although, finally enough, there seems to be a lot more people doing it under different names. Just in the last few months, I've been noticing some of the artists that we've been dealing with that we have got on Anjunabeats and AnjunaDeep have four or five different names. I remember having a conversation with one of them in Miami: "Why don't you put all of your stuff under one name?" He really couldn't get his head around it. But I think it's a lesson that we've learned because obviously, for us, again, that 360 thing I was talking about before... unless we have the DJ side of thing covered then Above & Beyond is a production/record releasing thing... might not be viable. So, it's important, really, to keep everything under one name. Having said that, we've just done an OceanLab album so, you know, there's all sorts of reasons why that doesn't happen, but I think it is a good lesson. I think, my only thing is, I probably would've bleached my hair a bit earlier.

ALL: [laughs]

AG: What would you say your biggest challenges on and off the stage are?

JG: I think getting enough sleep! [laughs] But not on the stage!

ALL: [laughs]

JG: Once you get on the stage, you're awake, but, you know, sometimes—I was joking about it last night—'cause I had just flown in, and I must've got up 45 minutes before we were on stage. And so it was kind of like doing a gig at breakfast time, and you know, you walk into this crowd full of people... for them it's night time. And, you know, that can be quite challenging just to switch mindset like that.

TM: It's funny, there are certain opportunities that arise when you're on tour. I'd say you can have this exciting after-party type opportunity or three hours in bed before you have to check out and fly out somewhere else, and invariably you'll take the three hours in bed [laughs].

JG: And people don't understand—"Why don't you wanna party?!" Look, we do this, this is our job! [laughs]

AG: What about in your downtime? What do you guys like to do in your downtime? What are some things you like to do when you're not doing music?

TM: I used to love scuba-diving. But I haven't really been scuba-diving since about 2001 because I just haven't had time. But I love reading, I love cinema, and I love doing music actually. I do some other music in my spare time.

AG: What kind of music do you listen to if you're not listening to trance?

JG: Well, I like a lot of eighties stuff, as I told you earlier, so I still listen to a lot of that actually. There's an artist called Ulrich Schnauss. He's a guy from Germany, and he does kind of chill-out stuff, and I find that very good to wind down to 'cause for me, listening to a lot of music is quite an active experience, so the good thing about this music is I can actually switch off and not notice it too much, which is kind of good. 'Cause otherwise I'll start noticing "oh listen to snare drum; that sounds good!"

AG: It's like a vacation from music through other music.

TM: I like all kinds of music, particularly songs, particularly sad stuff. So whether, it's you know, classical or soundtrack, or whatever else, I tend to go for the, kind of, sadder stuff.

AG: Okay, and what about when you guys aren't touring? What's a typical day like for you?

JG: What's a typical day? Sometimes it can just involve just resting and sorting out—it sounds mundane —but sorting out a lot of things at home. But, in my spare time, I like cooking or going to the gym. I do some magic stuff as well.

AG: Like magic tricks?

JG: Yeah, I'm interested in that kind of stuff as well. And psychology... like Tony reading about stuff.

AG: Are you an active magician on the side?

JG: I'm not an active magician, no, but we do a good trick together, don't we?

TM: I'm not sure it's gonna work on the radio.

AG: [laughs]

JG: It's not a really a radio-friendly trick. You need to see it in the flesh.

AG: Can you guys see this? They're doing a crazy magic trick!

vALL: [laughs]

TM: Most of the time when we're not on tour, though, we're in the studio... and/or office... so doing Anjunabeats stuff, so either working on our own productions or helping some of our artists within our own capacity, or sorting out, you know, upcoming compilation, artwork, tracklistings, edits, that kind of stuff.

JG: I mean people say this must be one of the best jobs in the world, and it is. But it is a 24/7 job. It's a lifestyle. It's, you know, a real passion. And the people who don't have the passion, and the sort of interest in it and, you know, "I do like it but..." They're not that into it, they won't go that far because you need to commit your life to it, and that presents its own challenges.

TM: Indeed.

AG: What would you say the biggest risks you guys have taken are?

JG: I think musically we've taken some risks sometimes. I can't identify what they are—the biggest risks, but...

TM: I think we have musically in terms of starting with Tri-State by, you know, breaking away from the formula that we had established before that. Pretty much everything that Above & Beyond had put out before Tri-State was a 138 beats-per-minute club track with a breakdown and an intro and an outro, and that album was much more song oriented. And OceanLab is another step further, not in the same direction, but in a similar sort of move away from just a club sound that we're doing. And that is a risk, you risk alienating some of your fans. But I think the songs... I think the album will, you know, stand the test of time better. I'm not sure how long an album of, you know, club bangers would stay in your car. Whereas, I think this is going to be something that will seep into your subconscious.

JG: I remember reading somewhere that it's the synth sounds that tend to date an album. And we try not to just use synths, even though I actually love synthesizers, but I think it's important to have a lot of organic elements on a record as well in order to give it that extra edge.

AG: So with all these changing trends in music, how do you guys keep up-to-date with changing with the trends and all?

TM: Well, the great thing about being a DJ is you're exposed to pretty much the crème de la crème of new releases every week. We get between a hundred and two hundred tracks sent to us every week for Trance Around The World consideration, and that's our major, kind of, listening to records. That takes the place of going record shopping for us, for the most part. So you're hearing all these records out, and then you'll pick a few... very few of the ones we get sent ever get into the record box. And then you can hear the effect that they have on the crowd, and that sort of stuff seeps in. You think "actually this is a really nice direction if you try this..."

JG: The media's obviously very keen to point out new trends and "oh this is a completely new genre." But as a musician, I mean, yeah, things do change and, you know, there's different presentation from what I understand to be the same ideas really. I mean, you know, there's only twelve notes in a scale in Western music, so it is all the same music over and over again in some form. I know that sounds cynical, but it's not, it's actually a beautiful thing that we're able to present that in different form every ten years [chuckles].

AG: So when things get tough, what do you guys do to keep yourselves going and to inspire yourselves?

JG: I think a lot of inspiration comes from other music really, but not music from the same genre. I think, you know, the interesting music comes when you combine two genres together. I mean, that's what's been great about trance music recently. It's incorporated elements of house, electro, techno, over the last couple of years and I think that's kept it really fresh. Some people, you know, prefer the classic uplifting sound and, you know, that's fair enough as well. I mean... I think trance music has become encompassing of all dance music now.

TM: And that's true, you hear trance sound even in R&B records.

JG: And I don't mind that. I think that's fine, you know, a lot of people say "they're bastardizing the music" or whatever, but I think it's all part of music, let's just share it out.

AG: If there are any DJs listening out there that are aspiring DJs and producers, what advice would you have for them?

JG: I think it's important to have a USP. I know that sounds very marketing-speak, but have something unique about your music. Don't just try and copy your favorite artist. If you do try and copy your favorite artist, why not throw something else in there from something else you like and combine that just to make something new.

TM: Yeah, exactly. You've really got to try and be original as much as you can, but I mean, aspiring DJs, I would say you need to be an aspiring producer. That's my advice to aspiring DJs.

AG: Okay, and what do you guys have as far as goals now? You know, in the next year, in the next ten years...?

TM: We're hopefully going to be—well, I mean we've already started in a quiet way working on the next Above & Beyond artist album. We're probably going to be using Zoe Johnston a little bit more than we did even on Tri-State. And also Richard Bedford, who sings the songs from a man's point of view. So, we'll try and concentrate on these two guys in terms of the vocals on it, and maybe take some time to do live stuff on there.

AG: And you have an album coming out at the end of this year as well, don't you?

TM: We've got another Anjunabeats compilation slated for the fourth quarter.

JG: Hopefully it won't be slated in the press [chuckles].

TM: And, so we're just kind of corralling tracks for that now. But I guess the Above & Beyond album will be out in a year or two.

AG: So where can listeners get some more information about you guys, your upcoming gig dates, and releases that are going to be put out on Anjunabeats?

JG: There's a couple of web sites. You could go to myspace.com/aboveandbeyond or you could go to our website, aboveandbeyond.nu, or our record label, anjunabeats.com, which is difficult to spell, so I'd probably choose one of the others ones.

AG: Okay, so tonight you guys are playing at Tentation Ultra Lounge. How do you feel about that?

TM: It's a great gig, we've played here quite a few times, and it's a small room, but it's a really exciting room to play. And this part of the world does seem to have some very beautiful people living here. So, it's always very pleasurable to play for them.

AG: Well, thank you! Okay, well that was Above & Beyond guys. Thank you so much for coming down to the studio.

JG: Thanks for having us down.

TM: Thank you.

AG: No problem. More info on Above & Beyond at aboveandbeyond.nu. Thanks for tuning in!

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