As the sun began to set on Saturday night, Above & Beyond fans began to pour through the gates of the Hollywood Bowl by the thousands. This wasn’t just another DJ set from the now veteran trance trio, it was their sold out Acoustic II show, on one of the biggest stages known to man. The young twenty-somethings in the audience had traded their rave attire for button down shirts and cocktail dresses tonight, but the slightly formal attire didn’t damper the energy of the show at all.
Above & Beyond––the trio of Jono Grant, Paavo Siljamäki, and Tony McGuinness has been producing together since 2000, and their 2015 track “We’re All We Need” was nominated for a Grammy. And although the boys of A&B are better known for their emotional sets and their Trance imprint Anjunabeats, they have decided to take their music in a whole different direction with their new album Acoustic II, which is comprised of acoustic covers of the group's biggest songs.
It’s rare to see all three members of Above & Beyond together for a show, often times one of them sticks back in the UK to manage everything while the other two tour the world with their music. For the Acoustic II album tour Jono, Paavo, and Tony all play together on stage, only this time swapping out their CDJs for guitars and keyboards. Backing them was full brass and string sections, a harpist, drummers, and a stacked cast of singers that included Zoë Johnston, Justine Suissa (of Oceanlab), Cobi, and Natalie Holmes.
After Solomun Grey warmed up the speakers with their wonderfully vocal downtempo set, the full A&B Acoustic band took to the stage to thunderous applause. They started the show with their favorite opener “Hello,” and from there it wasn’t too long until people around me were softly wiping tears from their eyes. Even the two older ladies sitting by me were enjoying themselves, and they told me before the show they had no idea who Above & Beyond was.
The show was comprised of songs from Above & Beyond’s first acoustic album, as well as some sneak peeks of songs from their upcoming Acoustic II album, which is out June 3rd. Acoustic II was recorded at Abbey Road studios in London, and the whole album sounds more like something you would find in your parents record stash than an album from one of the largest electronic groups in the world.
We sat down with Jono of Above & Beyond in the middle of their Acoustic II tour to ask him about the pressures of playing an instrument live, the creative process behind Acoustic II, and why A&B decided to take their music in a whole new direction.
You’re at the tail end of the Acoustic II tour now, how has it been going?
It’s been going well, it’s been a completely different experience to doing DJ shows––Higher adrenaline I would say. It’s a lot more concentration, in a strange way. Even though the music is more energetic in an electronic arena, the level of concentration playing instruments and being part of a band is higher. haven’t done gigs since I was just coming out of my teens, perhaps my early 20s. I’ve dedicated most of my life to being in the studio, and DJing so it’s a completely different art form really.
What inspired your acoustic albums?
It was Tony’s idea in terms of the concept of doing unplugged. Stylistically, there’s lots of influences, from sort of John Berry kind of string and brass moments, and there’s jazz moments in there as well. Bob Bradley is the guy who created the arrangements, he’s a friend of Tony’s he’s known him for 20 years. He was also into that sort of Bristol trip-hop sound, like Portishead and stuff like that.
I’ve also seen that you guys say a lot of your songs actually start acoustically when you’re writing them, and then from there you bring in all the dance elements and make them into the songs that we all know. So what’s your favorite part of going back to those kind of sketches if you will of an early song then making a full blown acoustic masterpiece out of it?
When you are producing a dance track, after you’ve written a song you often have to simplify things down to kind of make it work in that format, which is a good and a bad thing––you’ve got a big kick drum that you need to kind of consider. The nice thing about doing these tracks acoustically is the arrangements have been more expansive. It’s not so much about the production, but more about the arrangement and the string parts and where the instrumentation is. There’s a bit more room to experiment and you can put more music in. You’ve got a bigger canvas to work with. There’s exciting things about both those extremes.
I actually got to listen to your new album and I especially loved how you reimagined "Black Room Boy". The vocals sounded like a vintage microphone or something- so what new song are you most excited to share like to be released and to share with crowds as you’re performing?
In the acoustic form, that’s a tricky one actually there’s a few. I think “On My Way To Heaven” is nice because it’s a nice version of that song, just because it makes the most of the string part. That’s a kind of good one live. I’m trying to think- “Save Me” is a track that I think works better in the acoustic form than it did on the original We’re All We Need album, so that’s kind of interesting. I think some of the songs sound good in both formats to me, but Save Me is one that I don’t think we quite got as I really liked it to be on the electronic album, I was never quite happy with it. But it kind of works here in the acoustic form better. And then I’m trying to think of what other ones we’ve done really, I’m trying to think of the sets it’s all been a bit of a blur. “Blue Sky Action” works well I think, and “All Over The World”. That one live works really really well I think.
What are all the instruments you’ve been using to record?
Obviously, there’s the strings and brass. There is some mandolin on there, there’s Fender Rhodes, there’s obviously piano. Bob Bradley is the mastermind behind the arrangements, like I said. He put a lot of stuff on there...I don’t even know what some of it is!
So what’s the crowd reaction been like at these acoustic shows? Obviously your electronic sets are very high energy, and still very emotional but how has the crowd reaction been different in this kind of different setting? You guys are wearing suit jackets, it’s more relaxed, it’s more of an evening than a club night out.
It really depends I think on the city you play. We had quite a nice rowdy audience in New York actually, which is really good. And some of the audiences we’ve played like in Holland, the people were very, very respectful there. They clapped between songs but they were quiet during the set, compared to when we played in Manchester, we opened with “Hello” and when we opened with that track they started singing along. And the only lyrics in the track are “Hello,” so I think that was quite funny. But it really varies from venue to venue. And I think the venue influences how people are. The one in Holland, the venue is a beautiful sort of auditorium where you probably go see an orchestra or something. That kind of venue I suppose puts people in a certain mood as well as the music.
What do you hope that people are going to take away from Acoustic II and the tour?
They might see the songs in a different light. They might view us differently as musicians, it might also make people listen to the electronic versions of the songs––some people have brought their mums and dads to the shows and then they might discover Above & Beyond just beyond the acoustic project as well. So that’s kind of cool. It brings people closer to the songs, is the main thing.
What’s next for Above & Beyond?
The next thing really is to write our next electronic album, that’s what we’ll be doing in the studio next. So we’re not taking any breaks just yet on that, we’ve written quite a few songs, but I think there’s quite a bit more work to do before we can kind of bookend that one.
Above & Beyond's new album Acousitc II is out June 3rd.