What do you do after your third studio album hits number one on the iTunes dance chart in 20 countries? After the accompanying tour sees you become the first British DJs to sell out New York’s Madison Square Garden — in fact, the first DJs from anywhere in the world to sell out both the legendary New York venue and The Forum in Los Angeles? Where do you go after you sell 12,000 tickets in Sydney in one day, 12,000 tickets in Amsterdam on another day and raise over £200,000 for charity at a sold-out Wembley Arena show? After you’ve headlined stages at festivals everywhere, from Glastonbury to Creamfields, from Electric Daisy Carnival to Pukkelpop to Lollapalooza?
How do you top a global run of shows in 2015 that makes you the second-highest grossing electronic act in the US… but the only act of any nationality, in any genre, that can get Breaking Bad legend Bryan Cranston to join you onstage in Las Vegas and, you know, play along?
If you’re Above & Beyond, after all that, what next? You go acoustic. Specifically, you go Acoustic II and record a follow-up to your 2014 album, Acoustic, which was a stripped back reworking of some of the biggest songs from your catalog. But because you’re Above & Beyond, a London-based trio for whom progress is everything, you go further, in every sense.
So for this second collection of re-imaginings of your songs, you record strings and brass at Abbey Road, and you present these wholly different productions in iconic global venues befitting Acoustic II’s ambitious, intimate-yet-expansive brilliance: the Royal Albert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, San Francisco’s Greek Theatre, Sydney Opera House, New York’s Beacon Theatre and the Waikiki Shell in Honolulu.
And you do that with a traveling party of 17 musicians — or, in the case of the Hollywood Bowl, you do it with the addition of 34 of Los Angeles’ finest classical players.
You are Above & Beyond, the UK’s most adventurous electronic band, and all of this is something only you can — or would — do.
Having spent much of 2015 touring We Are All We Need, Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness and Paavo Siljamäki were keen to maintain the accelerated momentum created by their third album. Yes, they still had their weekly radio show Group Therapy, as well as two record labels (Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep), and their publishing company and management agency, to keep the trio busy. As Grant points out, “running a label and having a radio show naturally keep us in touch with what’s going on musically. If we didn’t have those we’d make music in the studio and that would be great, but we wouldn’t have so much context for it.”
But for a band who pride themselves on the song craft at the heart of their dance floor-friendly anthems, the untapped possibilities inherent in their music was a far bigger buzz — and challenge.
“With the first acoustic album, it was guitars, piano, strings and vocals that were the bare bones of what we were working with,” begins Siljamäki. “This time around we started from thinking: ‘Well, what other kind of things can we do?’ So brass is a really big player on Acoustic II: we added a lot of John Barry-esque brass horns. And we wondered what interesting things we could do with the voices, so there are a lot of choral and bigger vocal arrangements than on the first one. Really, this album is standing on the shoulders of the first one. If we’d have tried this then, it would have been overwhelming and too much for us to do.”
“It’s funny, we originally wanted to do it literally unplugged, and call it that,” continues McGuinness. “But even on the first album there were things that weren’t unplugged, electronic and orchestral things. But we stuck with the ‘acoustic’ label because to us Above & Beyond Acoustic means that band with electric guitars and electric bass and strings and horns and everything else. So it doesn’t really mean acoustic in the old sense, and I sort of think we’ve invented a new genre. I’m really pleased with that.”
In late summer 2015 Above & Beyond asked genius Leeds-based composer/arranger Bob Bradley, who’d worked on Acoustic, to assemble a new selection of songs from their catalog, with a view to scoring, re-recording and reinventing them. In discussion with the trio, a core of 13 songs were agreed upon.
The Grammy-nominated title track from their last album, a collaboration with singer/songwriter Zoë Johnston, was an obvious choice. The addition of ukulele was less obvious, but the new instruments are an inspired addition to the wee-hours, orchestral-jazz rendering of ‘We Are All We Need’. ‘Sticky Fingers’, an album teaser single from 2013, is another standout, here re-rubbed into a stirring, swelling, 007-worthy love theme.
“The great thing about this version of ‘Sticky Fingers’ is that, before this, the only version we had out there was the dance mix,” says McGuinness. “There was more of the song written that we hadn’t included in that version. So the whole song is in this version of ‘Sticky Fingers’, and it’s the same with ‘Peace Of Mind’ — there are extra verses here.”
But while it’s in with extra verses, it’s out, obviously, with a lot of what made Above & Beyond one of the biggest electronic bands in the world: the beats and the production. And while harp and French horn help offer a whole new take on festival anthems like ‘Blue Sky Action’, what of the sense of momentous occasion brought by the band’s famous “Push The Button” moment in their DJ sets, when they invite a fan onstage to take the party several notches higher?
In Vegas last summer, that honour fell to one of the band’s heroes, Bryan Cranston. Above & Beyond are such huge Breaking Bad fans that they wrote a song called ‘Walter White’. Getting Cranston to join them onstage made their headline appearance at Electric Daisy Carnival even more memorable. “He was totally into it,” smiles Grant, “but he was a bit nervous. He’s done theatre but this was in front of 50,000 people.”
But making Acoustic II, and then touring it, offers no opportunities for button-pushing or banging beats. Was that a concern?
“Absolutely,” admits McGuinness. “We felt like we were kicking one of our legs from underneath us, which was the sound and the power of the dance productions for which we’d become famous. But over the years, the experience we’d have at our gigs is that our other leg — the songs we’ve written — came through. We’d end our sets with beatless versions of some of our songs and people were singing along at the top of their voices. That gave us the courage to do this.”
That sense of enhanced connection with audiences was apparent at 2013’s six shows the band performed in support of Acoustic, at London’s Porchester Hall and LA’s Greek Theatre (the film of one of the London shows has had over ten million YouTube views). Grant echoes that sense of intimacy and potency when he describes performing these acoustic/orchestral versions as “a musical holiday. It makes you realise how important the music is to other people, and gives you a focus.”
Clearly that sense of occasion and importance goes both ways. Most of this spring/summer’s six-week Acoustic II world tour is already sold out, including the Royal Albert Hall and both shows at the Sydney Opera House.
Are Grant, McGuinness and Siljamäki daunted by playing to eagerly expectant, packed houses in such august venues? In only positive ways.
“That is part of the charm of this,” nods McGuinness, “it unlocks the door to these venues that we have absolutely no right to go to. An Above & Beyond electronic show is never going to happen in the Sydney Opera House. And that’s just great fun for us as musicians.”
“That we get to play places like this is proper bucket list stuff,” adds Siljamäki. “This is stuff I didn’t even know I could dream about.”
“And just to make sure it’s not a dream,” concludes Grant with a smile, “we’re going to make a documentary about the tour, and film the Hollywood Bowl show in its entirety — if nothing else, so the three of get to see what Above & Beyond performing with 34 LA classical musicians looks like. That’ll be as much a thrill for us as it will be for the 18,000 people in the audience.”