Imagine an Earth filled with passion, full of therapeutic color and free from worry. Sounds too good to be true, right? However, Above & Beyond — the iconic three-piece electronic music production group consisting of Jono Grant, Paavo Siljamäki and Tony McGuinness — have created this gorgeous world within a world with the unveiling of Common Ground. The album is a euphoric combination of enthralling hooks and mood-lifting melodies — the endearing signature qualities that have brought us to this refreshing moment in electronic music culture. The release debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, thus proving music listeners are seeking the escapism Above & Beyond offers through their most diverse soundtrack to date.
Though Houston’s electronic music scene is relatively new compared to that of Chicago, NYC and Berlin amid other key cities around the globe, Above & Beyond have established themselves as an intriguing staple to the city’s array of electronic music lovers. The trio return to Houston this Saturday, Feb. 24 at Revention Music Center. Paavo states, “We’ve had many good shows in Houston, so I’m really looking forward to it.” Our sentiments precisely.
Free Press Houston: I absolutely love that you guys have the documentary ‘Above & Beyond Acoustic: Giving Up The Day Job’ coming out. In a sense, trance [music] is the day job in comparison to your shift to the acoustic aesthetic. What are some of the challenges you faced with making this transition?
Paavo Siljamäki: Well, when we first started doing our acoustic thing, it was kind of a scary moment for us because doing something so out of the ordinary [and] something our fan base didn’t really know of felt like a big step into the unknown. It also felt like something really exciting for us — something really different. Sometimes it’s very good to challenge yourself and go beyond your comfort zone. After we had done the Porchester Hall recording, and then our first show in LA doing the acoustic, we knew that the whole thing could work…we knew that we could pull it off, but it was a steep hill to climb. I’m really happy we took the risk.
FPH: It definitely works. What do you appreciate most about the direction you all are going musically?
Siljamäki: I suppose I love the fact that we’re trying to just look internally at how we can keep things exciting for ourselves. It would maybe be too easy to try to sort of look at it and see, ‘Okay, what do our fans want to hear?’ Over the years, we’ve always been just trying to be almost selfish in that way. (Laughs) We think, ‘What excites us?’ and keep it interesting for ourselves.
FPH: You have to keep things interesting for yourselves as artists or you’ll become jaded or just lose the joy that you have as being an artist. I can’t believe that you guys have released music consistently since 2006. Even before then, you’ve been together since 2000. So, what do you attribute to your longevity?
Siljamäki: I think part of the reason that we’ve been able to keep it going for so long is that we haven’t made any long-term plans. When we go in the studio we think, ‘What’s cool and exciting today?’ I think our longevity is very much down to just trying to enjoy our daily lives as a band rather than putting big expectations on the future.
FPH: That makes sense. I look back at the past albums such as Tri-State, Group Therapy and so forth — even Common Ground — they’re all cohesive. They take the listener on a journey. When you produce an album, how is that storytelling aspect kept in mind?
Siljamäki: I guess we kind of in a similar way do this for most albums, but especially this time around we had quite a few half-made songs. We had over 20 songs. We had to think, ‘How do we produce each song and which songs would kind of complement each other?’ So, we had more material than we actually ended up putting on the album to start with. We’ve always looked at albums as a body of work than just a selection of singles.
FPH: My favorite song from the album is “Is It Love? (1001)”.
Siljamäki: (Laughs) Did you hear the club version? It’s so funny how it’s like the song is living its second life. ‘1001’ was a club track first, and then we made a kind of deeper album version of it. Then, Jono put that vocal on it and suddenly it was like a new song. If Jono was doing this interview with you, he’d be blushing here. It has a real ‘80s vibe to it which I like.
FPH: It is amazing! There’s quite a bit of collaborators on Common Ground. I noticed some of them from the past releases of yours. What do you admire most about these artists that you’ve featured on the album?
Siljamäki: We had a couple of tracks with Justine Suissa, the first-ever vocalist that we’ve worked with as Above & Beyond. So, we go way, way, way back. I think Justine has always had this incredible talent coming back with real hooky melodies and really emotional lyrics. So, that’s what I would say is Justine’s real strength. We wrote tracks like “On A Good Day” with her. That’s still a big track in our sets.
I think Zoë similarly we worked with for a really long time. I’ve always admired Zoë’s bravery in writing really what’s going on in her heart — her difficulties in life, ups and downs she’s regularly included in her lyrics. It’s really inspired me also to publicly admit my vulnerabilities and difficulties. So, Zoë’s always been that kind of innovator in that way.
Some of the other songs have always been written by Tony, who is a big part of the touring band. He sees what our life is like on the road and sees it from the band’s perspective. He writes from his personal experience. I feel like we get really cool things from Tony as well. Marty is obviously a new singer that we worked with here. Marty Longstaff co-wrote “Tightrope” with Tony, and he’s just such an incredible, unique sounding guy. I was excited to work with him. Richard Bedford is one of our oldest buddies as well. He sung on “Thing Called Love” and a lot of our big, male vocal tracks from the past, so it was great to get him back on this record.
FPH: That is so exciting! I always love to hear the backstories with how collaborations happen. Thank you for expounding on that. I appreciate the relationship you guys have with your fans. It reminds me of the Deadheads of Grateful Dead and Beyoncé’s Beyhive. You have very loyal fans. What do you love most about your followers? What experience with a fan can you recall that made you particularly emotional?
Siljamäki: I was just on the North American tour last week and promoters are telling me how they’re sort of surprised it was an EDM show because they had no trouble. People were being so nice to each other. There was this respect and politeness about the crowd. That’s one of the things I’m proudest of about our fans. There seems to be this sort of respect for others at our shows which is really cool.
One of the moments I was really touched by was at the Gorge Amphitheater. I was having lunch and these two couples — I think one of them was maybe from Mexico and the other people were maybe from Canada, I can’t remember where they’re from — but overheard these two couples becoming friends. It just brought it home how music unites people. I love how music is that uniting thing in the world.
FPH: That’s for sure a key component of music. Another fun thing about your live shows are the visuals. Who coordinates the live shows in terms of the visual aspect? Do you work with a team or are you guys the masterminds behind it?
Siljamäki: We as a band are very involved with the visual aspect of the show. We have a guy called Neil Marsh who we’ve worked with for either seven or eight years. He’s done almost every single show with us. He’s our show director. Together with Neil, we’ve looked at the visual aspect of the show and not taken it for granted. The end game is to create real show moments for people to remember so that we don’t just have lights because they look cool. So, there’s a real meaning to the show.
FPH: That makes such a difference — the fact that it’s not just pyro and lasers.
Siljamäki: Pyro and lasers are very cool when they make sense at the right moment and accenting things in the show. My personal background is in theater as well, so I love the idea that these shows that we do are a form of theater and drama. I love that they have a bit of a story to them and they’re not just a collection of tracks or lights.
FPH: I realize there are three of you, but from your personal perspective, what do you value most about being part of Above & Beyond?
Siljamäki: Big question. The thing I value the most is that I have these two close friends who have shared this 18-year career with me. All of the ups and downs, good and the bad that’s happened, we’ve been there for each other, and we still are. I think if I’d be here the 18th year doing this on my own, I’m not sure if I’d feel as fulfilled. I love the feeling of being on stage with Jono and Tony. I can just look at the guys and we both know the story it took to get to that moment.