Above & Beyond on Belfast gig, US success and new album
With best-selling albums, two record labels and a weekly internet radio show, progressive trance trio Above & Beyond are one of the biggest dance acts around. As they prepare to perform in Belfast tonight, David Roy spoke to DJ/producer Tony McGuinness about achieving global success and why he rates Irish fans as being among the best in the world
HI TONY, what are you up to today?
I am in the studio working on our new album and also starting to prepare our radio show. I love radio, it's great fun.
Your weekly Group Therapy Radio show has built up a huge following over the past five years – does it require a lot of work?
We're lucky that we have some people who help. Filtering through all the promos is the thing that can take the longest time – for us to listen to everything that gets sent to us it would take weeks.
Once we get going, I've worked out that it takes about 10 hours to do each show. But it's an enjoyable process: I quite like starting off with an empty file on the computer and then finishing with a two-hour radio show – it's great.
A lot of the stuff that we do, whether it's writing songs or producing or doing gigs, is somehow quite open-ended still. It takes a while to reach fruition, whereas the day doing the radio show, you start off with nothing and end with something – I like that.
You're celebrating your 250th episode with a huge outdoor gig in the US next month – are you looking forward to that?
Yeah we are. It's at The Gorge in Washington State. We played there before at a festival called Paradiso – it's one of those extraordinary natural amphitheatres with a huge gorge behind the stage.
We're doing it over two days, so there will be people camping overnight and then the next day we're doing a yoga set in the morning and an Adjunadeep (their deep house-orientated label) afternoon.
It's not quite The Grand Canyon but it's still an impressive natural feature in what is quite moon-like terrain: you're up on a glacial escarpment, I think it's called, so it's quite barren all around.
It's a magical place, so it should be really nice.
I'm not sure we can honestly describe Custom House Square as being 'magical' but are you looking forward to playing in Belfast again?
Haha! Well, it's rare to be able to do a festival right in downtown. There's a similar one we've done in Chicago, but it's not really like Belfast where you have buildings on every side and there's people hanging out their windows watching the show – it's fantastic.
And of course the Irish are among the most enthusiastic people we play to anywhere in the world. I'd say the top three are Brazil, Ireland and California.
We'll take that. Being a McGuinness, you must have a big guest list every time Above & Beyond visit Ireland?
Well actually most of my family moved to America a long long time ago. I do still have some family in Northern Ireland and they have been to some of our previous shows, but they can't make this one unfortunately.
But we did a show in Boston on our Acoustic tour and I had 52 members of my family there, which was incredible: the youngest was 11 and the oldest was 84!
Above & Beyond have enjoyed huge success in the States, getting nominated for a Grammy and becoming the first UK dance act to sell-out New York's Madison Square Garden in 2014 and The Forum in Los Angeles in 2015. What's been the secret of your success over there?
We decided early on that the only way of 'breaking' America was just to play over there in all the places you can – a lot – and to keep going back until such time as it grows and you can start playing what they call the 'secondary markets' on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in-between the bigger shows and it all starts glueing together.
We've been doing that since the first time we went to America in 2004. It's very easy to travel and to tour there, they all speak English so it's a relatively easy market in which to get a return if you make that commitment.
It also helps if you're quite good too, right?
Haha! Well, I can't attest to us being any good or not but I do think there are very few people doing what we do, which does make a difference.
That's always been the case through the history of music: I mean, Enya is not like anybody else and that's one of the reasons why she's as big as she is.
When we do festivals around the world, there's a number of DJs playing before or after us who to my maybe slightly ignorant ears could be interchangeable – and that's not the case when Above & Beyond are playing.
It doesn't sound like anybody else and that's something we're very proud of.
So where do Above & Beyond go from here?
We've not tried to be big in the mainstream world: we've tried to be big in our world and then to make our world bigger.
This year we've done more mainland Europe music festivals than we've ever done before, and these are not just dance festivals.
It's really nice that we've been able to start doing some of the more 'general' festivals, because those are the most exciting for us personally – when you have the likes of System of A Down or Radiohead playing on the next stage over.
To get a decent crowd in France, where we hardly ever go, was enormously rewarding for me: we had about 10,000 people watching us and it was almost like playing in America.
What's happening with the next album – is it coming together?
It is. It's one of those things where the first 90 per cent takes half the time and then the last 10 per cent takes half the time. I think we're in that latter stage now.
I'm in the studio this week and we're hoping to get it finished by the autumn for release next year. We'll be putting out a few tracks before then though.
How is it sounding?
This seems like a really negative thing to say, but it's kind of 'more of the same', really (laughs).
Much to our joy, I think what we've discovered is that the kind of music we like to make as Above & Beyond is the kind of music that people like to listen to from us.
Provided the songs are heartfelt and emotional and tinged with sadness then we can do almost whatever we want with our music, which is terribly liberating.
So, as long as people like listening to what we do we're more than happy to keep writing and recording it.
Above & Beyond, tonight, Custom House Square, Belfast. Tickets via Ticketmaster outlets.