The unusual British trio has found its fans in the worldwide public.
At 2 am on a beautiful Saturday night Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome becomes home for an Anglo-Finnish trio Above & Beyond. They perform with a DJ set for a crazily dancing and jumping crowd of 12,000 people. According to Twitter worldwide trending, they are in the centre of the world, which is announced by Tony McGuinness who takes the mike.
You may ask: “Can the modern audience really be so crazy about a band of middle-aged men that aren’t famous to those who don’t dance in clubs?” Their electronic music sounds like in the 1990s. You bet they can — the event goes on to generate 120,000 tweets, which apparently is par for the course at Above & Beyond’s big shows. “The first year it happened we were all incredibly excited,” McGuinness says. “Last year we went, ‘Well, that always happens.’ ”
You can understand why they’re blasé. Since forming in London in 2000 they have become one of the most enduring successes of the electronic dance music (EDM) era; their weekly online radio show,Group Therapy, has 21 million listeners and in 2014 they became the first British electronic act to sell out Madison Square Garden in New York. Their fanbase is truly international; at the Ziggo Dome are people from more than 70 countries, including Iraq, Sudan and American Samoa. “I don’t even know where American Samoa is,” McGuinness says with a smile.
How did they become a global phenomenon? It’s partly because beat-driven music translates easily across cultures, and has exploded in popularity across the Americas and Asia. It’s also because they’ve used their business and technological savvy — McGuinness is a former marketing director at Warner Music; his bandmates, Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki, are self-confessed tech nerds whom he met when he commissioned them to do a remix — to bypass the majors and release music via their own label, communicate online with their fans and help their fans to communicate with each other. “When people have those conversations online and then meet each other at the events, then it becomes real,” Siljamäki says. “They become part of a family.”
Backstage, it feels more like a Silicon Valley start-up than a gig, with an army of hipsters tending the group’s social-media feeds, a barista making macchiatos, and audio and video teams broadcasting the event live online (it has since been watched by more than half a million people). Tweets from some of the 150,000 YouTube viewers flash up on a screen above the crowd. “This is so freakin amazin,” says Rune, from Norway. “Can this dream continue forever?” asks Varun, from India. “I need more bass,” says Oskar, from Pasadena in California.
The inclusiveness extends to age as well as nationality. While there are lots of saucer-eyed club kids here, there are also plenty of people in their forties and fifties. The show starts at 8pm, earlier than many EDM events, “so it’s not just a load of people on drugs”, says Grant. “We get a lot of what our lighting director calls the ‘one last rave’ people” — ie middle-aged fans out for a nostalgic last hoorah.
One reason for Above & Beyond’s broader appeal is that they make “dance music for the week” — tracks that aren’t just about larging it at the weekend, but also about the less euphoric stuff that happens in between. “A lot of dance music is about the party; shake yer booty, put your hands in the air,” McGuinness says, but the success of songs such as their melancholic break-up anthem Sun & Moon has taught them that “dark moments can work in club music. It’s been a great revelation.”
Backstage it feels more like a Silicon Valley start-up than a gig
In 2013 they took their grown-up ethos a step farther by performing acoustic versions of their songs with a band, going on to play sold-out shows this year at Sydney Opera House, the Royal Albert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. That approach has something in common with Pete Tong’s Ibiza Prom and Cream’s orchestral concerts of club classics, but McGuinness insists they aren’t about to retire from DJing. “We just really wanted to play live and do something different. I can remember MTV Unplugged, I went to the recording of Eric Clapton when he did it. [I thought] what if we did the same thing?”
While their acoustic shows were lavish and tasteful, they still weren’t enough to win over the popular press. Nor will Above & Beyond be flavour of the month in the style mags. “The fact that we’ve never been fashionable is why we’ve never had press,” McGuinness says. Grant makes the comparison to heavy metal, another scene that is largely ignored by mainstream media, but encourages zealous devotion among millions of fans.
At the Ziggo Dome I see scores of A&B tattoos, including one that features the entire chorus to Sun & Moon, and at the after party the next day I meet a Saudi Arabian woman who follows the group around the world, and Rahul and Priyanka, Indian newlyweds who have brought their wedding card from Mumbai to be signed by them. “They mean everything to us,” Rahul says. “They’re family.” With fans like these, who needs critics?
Above & Beyond play O2 Academy, Glasgow, November 24; Warehouse Project, Manchester, November 25; Ulster Hall, Belfast, November 26