Jono Grant of Above & Beyond weighs in on the current EDM explosion in mainstream America
Never straying from its roots in pure house music, Above & Beyond has grown into one of the most sought-after acts currently touring, thanks to high quality music that evokes emotion and movement and, most important, forges a connection with the audience. The U.K.-based trio (Paavo Siljamäki, Tony McGuinness and Jono Grant) has been coming to America for a decade now, and in those ten years, they've noticed a significant change in the culture of dance music. We recently spoke with Grant, who gave us his take on the transformation and acceptance that EDM has gone through, both in America and in the U.K.
Westword:How many interviews do you have lined up today?
Jono Grant: I don't know. I think it's just the two, actually. Not that many. That sounds very self-important.
That's seems to be kind of life now, right?
When I do interviews, I like to do them all in one go because you get in a mode and you know what you're talking about. When you get caught off guard, you sometimes don't know what you're talking about.
Let's start with what you're doing, what Above & Beyond is doing and what Anjunabeats is doing. It seems you are gearing up to be one of the most sought after headlining acts. Talk to me about the pressures, the fears and the excitement with everything that's happening.
I think in terms of the pressures, there is always pressure and a little fear involved. If it wasn't there, then you probably wouldn't have the drive to carry on doing it because that little feeling of having to jump out of an airplane, it makes you excited about it. Whether that is thinking about, "we gotta play some new tracks tonight because we came here six months ago, and we gotta think about doing something different this time," that challenge is really, really, difficult for us.
I was just talking about [Ultra Music Festival] because we are doing that this year, and we are already thinking about what we are going to play there because a lot of our records are getting a little bit old now. We've got some new remixes and stuff that we are working on. It's great to have that kind of pressure to freshen up things from the public. It's in our head on the one hand, but you've got that 'you can't play the same records for two years,' ya know?
I can't speak for any countries outside of America, because I'm based here, but EDM and house music and trance have gotten a lot of mainstream coverage here. Do you feel any pressure bringing something that is people are more accustomed to in Europe to America, and showing us what you've been doing for years, and what we are finding out now and putting in car commercials?
I see that. We've been coming here since 2003, so obviously now it's hit the mainstream. We are really fortunate because we've been doing it for a while now, and we've got a really committed fan base, but I particularly feel what you mean by coming in and having a little bit of a hit, and then there is this expectation to deliver. I think you can quite easily slip into that mode of being a jobbing DJ, or you can deliver to the audience what you think they might need.
Thankfully, we don't need to dip into that area too much because we tend to play to the crowd from within our palette, without stepping too far out of that into places that we don't want to go. There is that pressure, especially if you are in the mainstream area. Playing in places like Las Vegas where you've got...well, it's not a hot audience. I mean, the people are hot -- it's Las Vegas -- but I mean it's not a prime audience in terms of the knowledge of the music versus playing somewhere like Denver, you know? It depends...I can't remember the question. Are we back at question one about pressure?
I think there is a pressure there to sort of perform, particularly for people who had big hits. The bigger the hit you have, the bigger the pressure. We've done it kind of a different way to have these sort of mainstream radio hits. Our records get played on more of the independent or specialist shows...Sirius XM, that sort of thing. We're not quite so mainstream.
I always compare it to heavy metal: If you go to a heavy metal festival in the U.K., there's a huge lineup of all these bands, half of which I've never heard of, and if I walked in to that festival, you'd see all these fans with tattoos, and all this crazy stuff, and eighty thousand people turning up. You think, "Where did they come from?" It's a bit like with elements of the dance scene. On one hand, you've got something nice about the fans that we do have. I don't know where they come from, but it's amazing.
I think because we've been doing it for a while, coming to America, we've kind of built up that fan base, rather than people coming because they think, "Ooh, I should go to that! I heard they're good!" We do get some people like that, of course, and that's great. They are introduced to our music. We've also got these hard core fans who've been coming for years and seem to really it. It's really important that we serve those people.
In your view, what do you think about how EDM is growing in America? Do you think it's a good thing, or a temporary thing? Obviously you've been in the electronic music scene for a long time. Do you see it as a good thing, or do you almost not want it to peak because it can only go down?
This is interesting question because my honest opinion about any of these sorts of things is that I could get worried about it. It's certain sounds that people are looking for. It's one sound. It's one area of dance music that people tend to congregate and chase after... producers, as well! Trying to get on the radio to make it sound a bit like someone else's record. It doesn't really bother me because we kick back and do our own thing. We let that go on without worrying about it.
I think it can be an issue for the scene. If you look at it as a scene, it is an issue for that, in a way, it becomes a little bit homogenized. That's just a phase that it's going through. It will peak at some point, because everything does. I don't think it's damning for the future of EDM or anything like that. It's just something that is happening. There are good bits about it and bad bits. The good bits are that everyone is getting into, but I do think some of the music sounds very much the same.
There are certain artists that if you put them all on in one night in the same town, it would be difficult to pick between which night to go to. They all kind of operate in the same arena. The key is to have your niche, and do your thing, and not worry too much about the wider scene. I don't think that is happening much, sadly, because I think a lot of people are kind of chasing that thing. It's been great for us because some of those people who would go to the other gigs for the artists that have the mainstream [appeal] would come check out our gig by association. So that's one of the good things.
Take someone like David Guetta: He has pop hits, but he brings people into the scene that wouldn't normally listen to dance music, which is a great thing. I'm not one of these people that wants my music to be elitist. There are people out there who don't want to share the music with other people. They want it to stay underground. I'm not interested in underground or over-ground; it's just good music or not for me. The more people that would like our music and get to hear it -- well, that's a wonderful thing. It's the good side of the explosion in dance music.
Thinking back to ten years ago and your first time coming Stateside, would you have imagined that you'd be the modern day rock stars? It seems like DJs and producers have taken that role, and some see it as, "Well, I think it's about time," and some are also a little bit surprised that it's gotten this big. They could be the elitist, or more humble about it. What's it like to be the Black Sabbaths and the Van Halens with these massive productions?
That's a fascinating point, actually. It's a really interesting one. There was a time when people didn't want to know anything about dance music. The place you notice it most now is with the business people. All the people that want buy into this are suddenly coming running. They are the same people who didn't want to talk to you before. They are now frothing at the mouth over this dance music scene.
You see it in Billboard every week. There is someone buying something, or something happening. It's funny. There is a sense that a lot of the major labels are getting in too late. They are trying to buy a piece of the EDM action. From an artist perspective, it is really interesting, your point about the Black Sabbaths and Van Halens. It's hard to accept, but yeah, a lot of electronic artists are those acts of today.
The point for me where it falls apart is those bands didn't have just one hit; they had a series of albums that were successful. That's important. That's what I think is a little bit lacking sometimes in dance music. Not always, but [some] people can make not one, not two, but three great records; but [to] make a beautiful album that works together, instead of a series of radio hits, it's something that people can really, really get their teeth into.
An artist that really did that and managed to do both things would be Daft Punk, for example. They were artists who dipped into both areas. You hear their records in the clubs, you hear their records on the radio and you have people who want to listen to their albums in the car. It's not just part of someone's DJ mix compilation. We're yet to see more of those kinds of artists coming through. And then, if people can pull that off, then I think they will cement themselves as the next Black Sabbath.
Maybe we're in an era where albums are gone. We like to do albums because we enjoy it. We enjoy making an album with twelve songs on it, and not all of the songs being club records, or down-tempo. We like to make something that people will hopefully want to listen to for ten years time, or longer, with a little bit of luck.
Maybe we're in an era where people just -- it's kind of like a McDonald's culture where people just want buy a portion of fries and go and eat them -- move onto the next thing. That's difficult to say. It is interesting about people wanting to approach you about collaborations and people wanting to get involved, speaking of dance music in car advertisements, or those sorts of things.
That was happening in Europe for sometime, but not to the level that it's now happening in America, I would say. It's kind of overwhelming. The important thing as an artist, or whatever you do, is to take what you do seriously, but not take yourself too seriously. That's a key distinction.
In a set, producers, DJs and artists don't come in and put their CD in and play it in the same way that Van Halen plays their album and hits all the way through with an encore. Often, you are using other artist's music and feeling the crowd and the way you interact with your live texting. How did that come about? What prompted the direct audience interaction?
What happened with that was that Paavo one day -- I think it was at EDC in 2006-2007 one day -- Paavo held up his laptop with text on it and there was a camera pointing at the laptop, and therefore it was projected on the screen behind us. We started doing more visuals for our shows, and we thought: "Why not hook it up to the laptop to screen and project to the crowd?"
It was literally a thing that started that wasn't really a conscious thing that happened there. It started as Paavo messing around onstage, and then it became part of the show. That's true for almost everything we do. It's little things that happen like that to make our show. That just happened one night. That's the best way to do it, rather than try all these little things. It's the happy accidents that become something that you repeat.
It's the same as writing music in the studio when you are playing around with ideas. You think, "What was that?" and then you make something out of it. It could be on the piano, or whatever it is. I think that's how the texting thing came about. It has grown from there, and we don't feel any need to drop it just yet because it doesn't feel all the time, particularly. It helps connect with people. We'll keep doing it for as long as we feel like doing it.
Until the next happy accident happens?
Is there anything you'd like to say to Denver before we close this out?
We are just really looking forward to doing the show because, as much as we love festivals, it's really great to do the smaller club shows. It helps us keep our feet in that world, and it helps us as well to come up with ideas. That different environment, that different vibe.
There is a vibe to a room, rather than -- obviously, there is a vibe to a festival, but it's different. I am trying to think of the smaller club shows we've done in America. It's been a little while. I am looking forward to that. The other thing is that we just released Anjunabeats Volume 10, which is a compilation CD that we released with loads of new stuff on it.
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