INTERVIEW: Above and Beyond – Group Therapy Interview (2011)

Ranked #5 on DJ Magazine’s annual Top 100 DJ Pool, the trio of Jonathan Grant, Tony McGuinness, and Paavo Siljam?ki known as Above and Beyond are definitely superstars in the trance world. With touring, production, weekly radio shows and running their label Anjunabeats, the trio are constantly busy bringing music to their loyal fans. We caught up with Tony and Paavo as they passed through Nashville the week before the release of Group Therapy.

DJ Ron Slomowicz (RS): Welcome to Nashville, is this your first time here?

Tony McGuinness: No, actually I was here a long, long time ago when I used to work for Warner Brothers. I came to witness the opening of the WEA Nashville building. I actually met up tonight with a dear friend of mine Bob Saporiti, who used to be the international director of WEA Nashville. He is sitting over there; he is actually a recording artist under the name of reckless Johnny Wales. So give him a big up.
Paavo Siljamaki (PS): Tony?s background is in the old school music industry and we were just laughing over dinner. There are two guys here, proper music industry heavy weights who reformed themselves as artists. Tony is doing a little bit of arties and so is Bob.

RS: So the big story is that Group Therapy is coming out next week, at least here in the states. What?s the inspiration behind it and what was the move for another artist album?

Tony McGuinness: After we started doing remixes we realized that there was a lot more value and traction in doing our own material. So we put out a couple of singles. Then we thought we should do an album like a proper group. Since we are a group (there are three of us), we write our own songs and have even played live on occasion. In the old fashioned sense of the word, doing an old artist album felt like the best thing to do and that was what we really wanted to do forever. Each of us has music business album connotations. We did an Oceanlab album after our first album, but I think another artist album is kind of what we do.

Paavo Siljam?ki: If we release a single they?re mainly for clubs. The thing about doing an album is it gives us more of a chance to go to the heart of the music; because we are all really interested in writing and storytelling and that kind of aspect of music. Doing an album gives us a lot more of a chance to do that than if we are solely doing something for the clubs.

RS: Talking about the songwriting, does each of you write songs? Does one of you build tracks? How does that work?

Tony McGuinness: We write songs together for the most part. Obviously, the songs that we write are from a man?s point of view, but we will occasionally lean on favored women to tell the other side of the story. It was just as it was with Oceanlab and Sally Johnson with Above & Beyond. We try to do as much of it as we can, but I think that our market has kind of broadened. I think that?s the thing with Above & Beyond. The nature of Group Therapy is it?s a much bigger thing than the three of us, so we try to encompass that with the song writing. Sally seems to add something that we can?t bring ourselves to the party.

RS: Did you sing one of the songs on the album ?Black Room Boy??

Tony McGuinness: Yeah, Paavo sings ?Sun In Your Eyes? and I sing ?Black Room Boy.? I jokingly said that I am the Ringo Star of the group because I get one song to sing on each album. I sung ?All I Care? on the last one.
We are very lucky to have found Richard Bedford. He gives us a voice, which is like the voice that we would like to sing ourselves; if we could. I know that is very true of me. He manages to sing the words that we write in a way that makes him sound like he wrote them himself which is the beauty of Richard. He?s got that kind of expressive, soulful voice. He is obviously a man, but he has a feminine, beautiful voice and I think that kind of suits the area that we work in.

Paavo Siljam?ki: I think that there are very few singers that have the ability to sing and make things sound very believable and really sound like they mean it. Richard is definitely one of those guys and it has been really cool doing stuff with him. I think it?s an amazing thing to witness a great singer at work and that?s what it?s like for us working with him.

RS: Do you find it difficult to work with your own voice versus working with someone else?s voice when you are doing your productions?

Tony McGuinness: Yeah, I know the amount of time Paavo spent recording. It can be difficult when you are working with your own voice, most people have problems when they hear their voice recording because it doesn?t sound like the voices they have in their head. It?s a lot higher generally and kind of reedier.

Paavo Siljam?ki: Its much easier being objective about somebody else?s voice than your own and I think that is where the difficulties come when you are trying do something that would sound really great. It?s almost impossible to tell about your own thing, but it?s a lot easier telling what sounds good with somebody else?s.

Tony McGuinness: Yeah, I mean certainly with ?Black Room Boy? we sort of thought long and hard about getting somebody else to do it. To be honest it was John and Pavvo who said ?your version is as good as it?s going to be,? so we should just go with that. I can?t hear it, to me it sounds like a hair on the floors in it.

Paavo Siljam?ki: The floors are quite often where the beauty of things are.

Tony McGuinness: Yeah, that may be true.

RS: Last time we spoke one thing that came up was the whole plethora of VST trance out there and I was wondering, do you think that situation has gotten worse within the last five years or better than that?

Paavo Siljam?ki: I think that it has gotten better now; especially from five years ago. There was a point where everybody moved from using analog synths and actually midi synths to doing everything in the box using plug-ins as their instruments. At that point, there weren?t that many of them out there an sort of subtractive syntheses thing using Logic ES1, ES2, plug ins or something similar was what most people were using. Everybody has the same kind of sound they were doing and hence a lot of music sounds similar. But I think that the range of tools for musicians has really expanded dramatically since then, and also there have been so many diversifications of music. I think that so much house is trance and so much trance is house and techno. I think that where we are now, is like 5 years ago, we may have had a problem finding records to play two hours of music and now we make sure that we can find records to play that are different enough to be interesting. Nowadays we have records that sound all great, but so different how do we make something that sound somehow like a collection of something together. I think it?s a totally different situation.

Tony McGuinness: I think for us in terms of that VST trance the old school it felt to me when we coined that old phrase of people that were doing very much what we were doing in 2001 and 2002, that?s kind of been marginalized. I think by most people these days it?s very rare to for us to get above 125 or 136 in a DJ set. So a record that starts at 138 is not really where it?s at any more. Everything has slowed down and a funky bass got much more important. I think now we are dealing with digital only media. The bottom end of our world has literally enlarged from what you used to be able to get on a piece of vinyl in terms of the bottom end action, what kind of bass lines you could get that would sound interesting. There is a lot more bass in what you can do now with a digital music production and a digital music delivery system. There is a lot more definition down there so I think that has totally changed the way that our world sounds.

Paavo Siljam?ki: I think that in terms of where the older three of us think the real heart of the music is in the songs. Songs are kind of timeless and songs can be remixed in all sorts of different ways. So I still feel like what we are doing hasn?t really changed much, it?s just the club mixes. Hopefully in 20 years time whatever seems to be the sounds that are raving the room in the club we will do with some new club mixes for like 2032 or something.

RS: Speaking about things changing over time we also spoke about revenue streams and you guys were actually the first people to speak openly about getting money as a DJ, a producer and as a remixer.
How have the streams changed over the past five years or so, are you just getting more money from Djing gigs? Has publishing gone away?

Tony McGuinness: I?d say in terms of the balance of things, physical record sales have declined and we were talking to Bob about this before. I mean record shops have disappeared. It has become hard to sell records with no shops doing that anymore. Publishing I think remains an important thing because it operates in both record sales and radio play and licensing things and all that kind of stuff. I guess really the big move that DJ income that all of us doing this live income whether you are a rock band or a Dj is a larger and larger part of what we do. I?d say probably merchandise is increasing as a important revenue stream because that?s a way of people buying something physical that they value but interestingly CD?s are hanging in there, they aren?t disappearing vitals for us. They are disappearing but it hasn?t disappeared completely. I?d say live revenue is a much more important part of the business.

Paavo Siljam?ki: At least from all of my friends that I know, people go to see shows a lot more than they used to 10 yrs ago. There is so much more excitement for music now because people have so much access to the internet and satellite radio here in America. So all the while record sales have been going down, I think that the demand for people who make the music and love to perform live has been increasing. So more and more people are doing great shows and that is sort of where we are heading as well. Last time we spoke we were playing mainly in night clubs and that sort of thing and now we are moving a lot more towards playing theaters and doing a real show for people. We have put a lot of effort in doing that really well and hopefully little by little it?s getting there. We did the shows in LA that were like the first time.

Brent Bussey (BB): Performing live? Is that what you are referring to, are you not necessarily djing?

Tony McGuinness: No, this is a Dj show that we are talking about. But in terms of the production, the lighting and the visuals, it?s a much more coordinated thing than it used to be. I am not quite sure of the set up we have tonight it depends on the venue that we play at. It?s our first time in Nashville so we are starting small and building up. With the markets where we have been several times, we do take over a venue and build a particular screen set up and program the lights so that the show has a consistent feel wherever we are playing. So if we are at Beta in Denver or we are somewhere else, the show isn?t different. The show is in terms of what you would see as if you were standing in the room. It?s more consistent in that way.

RS: With regards to sales, is Beatport becoming a bigger share of that? Has that replaced the physical sales?

Paavo Siljam?ki: iTunes is king.

Tony McGuinness: Yeah, iTunes is the biggest thing. It?s probably 85% of our download sales. Beatport is really important for Dj?s specifically in our genre, but because of the reach of iTunes and the way that thing is set up, its in everybody?s home when you turn on your computer; where as Beatport is a place that you need to go to, so it just has that footfall presence which Beatport hasn?t got. So iTunes is the biggest thing, it?s not replacing physical sales because I think it?s still a lot smaller than physical sales used to be but it?s becoming more important because it?s the only thing we?ve got.

BB: I have a question regarding Apple?s new streaming service, iCloud. Have you been approached as label owners?

Paavo Siljam?ki: It?s very interesting that you should ask that, we have actually been on tour now for about three weeks now and we?ve basically told our people only to approach us in matters of utmost urgency. So, we are not aware of what is going on back at our home base in London. But, what I can certainly say is that to people iCloud and other streaming music models are certainly the way forward and I think that we as label owners are fully behind that approach.

RS: You say home base, is there a team that stands behind Above & Beyond? Do you have producer and manager and publicists? How does the team work behind you?

Tony McGuinness: We produce most of the music ourselves. We have done a lot of the work on this album with Andrew Bayer who has been a colleague of ours for some time. Essentially, we are a self-producing team outside of him but the team is really there to manage the label, our lives and all the publicity that goes on behind the scenes. Such as Facebook, Twitter, producing our video content, Above & Beyond TV IS producing all the stuff needed to produce for websites in terms of streaming content and banners and artwork and t-shirts and managing our touring schedule. It?s kind of a classic management team but out mended by a lot of tech staff that do a lot of stuff for us online.

BB: Not only are you guys accomplished artists and writers, but you?re also accomplished business owners. Do you mind if I ask you some questions regarding Anjunabeats, your label. How did you come up with the name?

Paavo Siljam?ki: Well. the name Anjunabeats comes from the fact that in the early 90?s as we were getting into dance music, Goa India was a real destination. It was where people from Detroit, Chicago, Berlin and London and all over the world were going to party because it was sort of a very free hippyish destination. At that point there wasn?t much communication from these different cities. So, Anjuna beach in Goa was a really important hub for people to interlink and exchange and interchange ideas and hear the other sounds. Given that it was a legendary place where songs would merge, we thought that Anjunabeats was the perfect name for our record label. That?s where it came from.

BB: What about the development of up-coming artists/producers, how do you guys recruit and embrace them? For example Arty?

Tony McGuinness: Our thing as a label is to try and develop artists rather than to sign individual tracks. So, we always look for people that have some kind of longevity. Arty is an interesting case because had a conversation with him in Moscow about seven months ago, I think it was to say that we would really like to have him exclusively. He went away and thought about it and he came back and said look, I would really like to put a record out with you, but I?m also going to put out records with other labels. That?s just the way it ended up. However, he is on a lot fewer labels than he used to be, because he was in danger of saturating the market. I think that in terms of the other artists we deal with, whether its Andrew Bayer or Jay Tech, who is playing tonight, it is to try and help them in every possible way to build their career. Which I think is what we still do is considered old fashion A&R. We try and make sure that everyone?s next release is as good or better than the one they put out before. That means being strong in saying what this is not so great, you can sign it somewhere else if you want to. We try and maintain some kind of quality control. Which we think has really worked for us. We are very critical about our own stuff and that?s why it takes so long for us to get a record finished because it?s a continual process of soul searching and trying to improve. We try and make sure that is what we do for all of our artists.

BB:Speaking of that, what?s the cost of production verses the actual rate of return, how does that work out from a business point of view. Are you guys actually capitalizing on your releases?

Paavo Siljam?ki: I think that our sound at Anjunabeats has been that our utmost thing with Anjunabeats is to release the highest quality of music as we can. From a business prospective we always thought that Anjunabeats must make a profit so that we can continue to grow and invest in new people and certainly over the last 11 or 12 years that we have been running Anjunabeats its just been incredible to see how we can put that money back into the people. We now have a fantastic team of people helping us with the label because it started from us posting records ourselves and actually doing everything. Whereas now it?s almost kind of like ?don?t approach us before we return home? kind of mentality, but it?s really where it?s at, at the moment

Tony McGuinness: I think we have made money on every record, but that is because we are reasonable and transparent in the way that we deal with artists. We don?t spend a huge amount on advances because there is just not a lot of money in the market anymore.

RS: What do you want to say to your fans out there?

Tony McGuinness: Thank you.

Paavo Siljam?ki: I much agree.

Tony McGuinness: New album?s out on Monday, it?s called Group Therapy and it?s about you.

Paavo Siljam?ki: And if you are in North America and we haven?t yet been to your city, we are most likely coming so we will see you soon. If we?ve already seen you and have been at one of the shows, thank you. If you didn?t come you missed out!

Interview conducted May 2011.