Above and Beyond previewed their Acoustic II album with a tour featuring an 18-piece band and all three members (Jonathan Grant, Tony McGuinness, and Paavo Siljamäki) playing instruments
as well. To say the show is a magical experience is an understatement. Their songwriting is emotional, thought-provoking, and inspiring, which are words not often used to describe dance songs. When transformed to acoustic instrumentations, the songs take on a second life and possibly even more meaning. Some songs are extended with additional verses and other are transformed into medleys which make the new album an essential listening experience. In case you missed their live tour, don’t fear, it was filmed for future release. We had the honor of speaking to Tony and Jono backstage before their Chicago performance, and the conversation will whet your appetite for Acoustic II
RS: I am here with two-thirds of Above & Beyond. You usually tour with Paavo right?
Jono: No, actually we sort of take it in turns. A lot of times one of us stays behind to work in the studio so sometimes it will be Tony and I and sometimes it’ll be Tony and Paavo.
Tony: It’s like tag team DJing.
RS: So when you are doing a live set, you just never know what is going to come next or do you plan things ahead of game?
Jono: We do a bit of planning before a big festival show because you have an allotted time so you need to be fairly precise but when we are doing more club type gigs we have more freedom to experiment.
Tony: In terms of the lineup we sort of plan it a bit ahead. If Jono and Paavo do Dallas, then the next time I definitely do Dallas and so we rotate it that way so everyone gets to see all of us. If you see Paavo and I that is just coincidence.
RS: I am assuming that tonight’s set is already planned though.
Jono: Yes, definitely because when you are doing a set as a band, unless you are Bruce Springsteen, you kind of need to know roughly where you are going. We don’t do that many gigs as a band so we kind of need to know what we are doing.
RS: When you are playing live with this acoustic set what instrument do each of you play?
Tony: I play electric guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin, ukulele and vibraphone and sing.
Jono: For this gig ,I am playing Fender Rhodes piano, piano and vibraphone.
RS: What is the biggest challenge taking your music from electronic to acoustic?
Jono: I think the biggest challenge is actually just doing the gigs themselves. Bob Bradley who is the musical director does most of the leg work on turning the tracks into acoustic songs and I think that we would be capable of doing that if we had the time. I think that the challenge is the fact that when you are doing a DJ gig it is a completely different skill. Tony has done loads of gig with his other band Sad Lovers & Giants and I did gigs when I was a kid and a few in my late teens but then there was a massive dead spot where I was just DJing and producing music in the studio which is a completely different skill. You play something once and you tweak it and get it right whereas if you are playing a live gig you need to ideally be an experienced musician and I am not in regards to performance. I still really enjoy it though and I like the challenge of it.
Tony: But he is bloody good live. I saw you when we were down south and you got on stage and did that jazz improvisation thing.
Jono: Oh that’s right, in New Orleans! That is a great city because the music there is in the veins of the city. There was a jam night, a band played a couple of songs and they asked if anyone played keyboard or guitar and someone volunteered me. I went up and then some fan turned up and played guitar and our production manager was on drums and it was a lot of fun. I love that kind of stuff.
Tony: One thing that just occurred to me about the difference between electronic and acoustic is that sometimes the dance mix doesn’t have all of the song in it or maybe it does have all of the song but when you turn it into a more traditional song format you need to add some words. With “Sticky Fingers” there is more of a song that is not on the dance mix that you will hear tonight. “Peace of Mind” and “Alone Tonight” has extra lyrics written so that when you play the first chorus there is something to sing and it is not the first verse repeated. There is a little bit of bending in terms of format. We also mixed “Satellite” and “Stealing Time” together on our last album and weirdly the key was the same and the sentiment of the song fit together really well. We have another one of those in the new album too. We don’t tend to do that much with electronic stuff although we do mashups, also called medleys in the old school.
RS: When hearing your songs electronic ands acoustic, are there some that sound better one way more than another and if so which one do you think sounds better?
Jono: I have an opinion on that because on the album we had “Save Me” which turned out okay but I feel like it has really come to life in the acoustic format. “Save Me” sounds really good live and really gets to the guts of the song in the acoustic sense.
Tony: In some ways the two formats highlight different parts of the song. I feel that sometimes when we play “Sun and Moon” it has an incredible sing along moment but there is no question that the original dance version helped it get to that point. In some ways the acoustic arrangement is quite stripped back but I agree with you on “Save Me,” I think that has found extra gravitas. I love the new version of “On My Way To Heaven,” it’s my new favorite version of that song. I think it’s a lot of things, when you hear them in a different context it makes you listen to them in a slightly different way and I really enjoy that. Being part of this band and making this incredible noise is enormously rewarding and great fun. We are really close to the front row at this theater and when you are looking out at people five feet away from you, you see the effect of it which is a lot harder to do at DJ gigs. In some ways it is a more intense and a more emotional experience playing songs live because of the proximity of reacting people. It was really interesting, we had been rehearsing for three weeks and then we got to do the first show and the songs sound different when you have someone sitting there reacting to your music. It is a totally different kind of two-way experience. DJ shows have moments like that but it is kind of like a ping pong game as opposed to symbiosis.
RS: I love that symbiosis effect. You just said something amazing, “incredible noise,” and I am thinking that could be the title of your next next album. We know and love Justine and Zoe and you brought Natalie and Cobi on board for this tour. Do you think that you will collaborate with them for your next single or album?
Jono: It is difficult to say because it depends on them a lot as well but maybe, it is certainly a possibility.
RS: You have used movies to inspire your last four or five videos and they are really amazing. Thinking back to some of your older songs if you were to do a video for “Alone Tonight,” what movie would be the video?
Tony: It’s difficult to answer that question without thinking about the acoustic version which was from the first album and the first time that we really delved into James Bond territory. James Bond is not a terribly reflective character; he doesn’t really look back in respect to relationships. I don’t know, that is a bloody good question. We thought long and hard about which films we were going to use for the last album and I think particularly for “We Are All We Need” and “Blue Sky Action” we absolutely nailed it, I am really proud of those two. They are all great, we were very lucky and it took all the guess work out of making the videos and choosing a director. I will think about that while we are sitting here and maybe I will figure it out. All of the songs from the last album are based on real life experiences so they aren’t necessarily based on stories you get from movies so it is sometimes difficult to find a film that deals with your real life event. I think that songs are a lot easier to transplant in your real life because they are a little bit more abstract whereas films tend to have clear and short narrative arks.
RS: I am going to ask a historical, really geeky question. Think back to 2001 when you remixed Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For A Girl,” and she chose your version for the video and as the official single. How did that make you feel and how did you react to it?
Jono: A lot of people thought that it was the Paul Oakenfold mix at first. That was an amazing moment and we could have never expected any of those things to happen. We didn’t really know a lot of what was going on at the time so we kind of submitted that remix and then she asked us to do a load of other work. We didn’t know what it was going to be for and it turned out that she loved the original remix and the work that we were doing was because she wanted to use it for the video. That was pretty amazing, I don’t know of many instances when a major artist such as Madonna has used a remix in a video. Unfortunately, well it’s kind of cool in the midst of time, but it got banned because it was a violent video. It would have been nice if more people had seen it, it was on TV for a bit but they pulled it off. That was amazing looking back, to make that decision is kind of a kamikaze decision.
Tony: I was working at Warners at the time and it wasn’t the album version it was still the radio version. Nobody at Warners could understand, I was going to all these European marketing meetings and everyone was scratching their heads wondering why is she doing that. I was like, I don’t care, it’s good for us.
RS: When they make the movie of your life as the band what actor is going to play each of you?
Jono: I don’t know, that is such a difficult question. When I had hair they used to say that I looked like Colin Farrell.
RS: I see it, the nose.
Jono: So he could shave his hair and look a bit younger.
Tony: I am not sure but once a long time ago I was compared to Robert De Niro in an interview. I remember reading it thinking that is not true but I want it to be true! Maybe Ghandi, Ben Kingsley, but he would be too old. I don’t know, anybody, wouldn’t it be great if there was a movie of our lives? Who would play Paavo?
Tony: He is retired, bless him. That is another good question!
RS: Speaking about movies, they are filming the Hollywood Bowl show, is that going to come out as a documentary or a movie? What is going to happen with that footage?
Jono: It is going to come out as a documentary or a movie but I am not quite sure of the exact format. We are definitely going to put out a concert type film and documentary as well of the whole tour. I think both things are going to come out in some shape or form but we haven’t fully shaped everything yet, some of that footage will probably be in the documentary as well.
Tony: The day after Albert Hall, I really could have slept in because I was drinking until 4am with people who came to see the show but at 10 am and there was a knock on the door and there was Mars and the film crew. I had forgotten about it and that day I had to move all of my furniture out of my front room into a van that went off to a hospice charity shop and I had to take my TV off the wall and get ready for the room to be done up. Most of what they filmed was just me moving furniture out and I asked him if he was sure that it was good for the documentary and he said “yeah, yeah it’s really good stuff.” We are not really sure; we just make things up as we go. We have to be flexible but we are filming the majority of the gig in Hollywood and we are making a documentary. They are kind of separate at this point but we will see, it depends on who wants to buy the material in the end. It’s kind of fluid right up to the last minute.
Jono: On the other hand, we want to make something for ourselves as well. It might appear in some other shapes and forms but we are doing it for ourselves rather than doing it as something to sell.
RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Jono: Thank you for supporting us, we just did a meet and greet downstairs and I was telling some of the people that what I get from the fans is purpose for our music. I love making music and I would gladly sit at home and do that all day long,. When you put it out there and people actually listen and care about it and say that it changed their life . I would say, you changed your own life and maybe our music gave you something to inspire you and it is wonderful to be part of that. The bottom line is it gives what we do more purpose than if we were just making music willy nilly for a laugh. It’s a wonderful thing and I can’t thank our fans enough for giving us the opportunity to share this stuff with them and for it to mean something to them.
Interview conducted May 2016 in Chicago.