Label of the Month: Anjunabeats
Label of the Month: AnjunabeatsMay 12, 2020
“It’s funny. The story’s been told and retold so many times. I’m wondering how much of the story is real and how much of it has been altered by the retelling.” Tony McGuinness’s cheery voice is beaming at me from London via Skype. It’s a voice that would be instantly familiar to anyone who’s tuned into Above & Beyond’s Group Therapy, the trio’s weekly radio show, which has been running since 2012, or Trance Around The World, which launched in 2004 and reached an impressive 450 episodes in its eight years span. The size and scale of those programs — Group Therapy reaches 30 million listeners a week — offers a window into just how big Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep, Above & Beyond’s labels, have grown since launching 20 and 15 years ago.
“This was genuinely 20 years ago this month,” Tony says. He then pauses, possibly contemplating his vast music career. At the time, McGuinness was working as a successful Marketing Director and A&R at Warner Music Group, while Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki were bonding over a similar love for electronic music at The University of Westminster. After making a few tracks together, they came up with the name Anjunabeats (originally their artist alias), a cheeky play on words that pays homage to Anjuna Beach in Goa, India — the spiritual birthplace of Goa Trance, and a hotspot for jetsetters and hippies alike in the early ’90s.
Using the last bit of their student loan, Paavo and Jono pressed 1000 copies of their first single, “Volume 1.” It quickly infiltrated clubs all throughout the greater London area, and was picked up by DJs such as Pete Tong, Paul Van Dyk, and Judge Jules. With their success percolating, Tony’s brother Liam introduced him to Jono Grant, who, in turn, introduced him to Paavo. They instantly hit it off. And soon, Tony was recruiting them to help him produce a remix of “Home” by Chakra. “At the time, I guess I thought it was just a one-off,” Tony says. “I had no idea how well the remix would go down. And it ended up getting to number one in the club chart.” Above & Beyond was born.
Soon, Tony’s A&R colleagues at Warner and Sony were pleading for Above & Beyond remixes for their artists. But Jono and Paavo were still playing under their hard trance moniker, Dirt Devils, while Tony continued with Warner. Still, as time went on, the popularity of Above & Beyond was becoming impossible to ignore. The trio had found a formula that was as big and heartfelt as the festival stages they would soon find themselves playing. Tony describes it as being “the toughness of Paul van Dyk, the melodic content of Ferry Corsten, and the production tricks of Matt Darey. Three guys that had their own thing that we went to school on.”
That same year, Above & Beyond remixed Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For A Girl.” When the track was finished, the British pop star told Tony, “This is the best remix I have ever heard.”
“I remember we were working with Madonna over the phone to shorten and amend the remix for the music video when she said, ‘You guys must work in a really great studio to make this sound so good,'” Tony says. “In reality, it couldn’t be further from the truth. At the time, we were working in Paavo’s student flat, working on a PC that was so slow that we couldn’t render a whole track in one go.”
That remix “turned a page within the industry for Above & Beyond,” Tony says, and soon they were asked to remix the country’s biggest pop star, Ayumi Hamasaki, through Japan’s Avex Trax label. “Japan was just starting to figure out that trance was a new and exciting form of music, and Avex was starting to educate their loyal fans to that fact,” Tony explains. “That was what led to our first ever DJ gig in August of 2001 in Tokyo with Tiësto, Svenson & Gielen, Ferry Corsten. And that cemented it all for me. I think by that time, Above & Beyond felt like it had enough legs that I could leave Warner.”
From that point forward, Jono, Paavo, and Tony knew that stardom was within reach. They then began building a fanbase unlike anyone had seen in dance music, using a tool that few in the music industry had previously thought to use yet: the Internet.
A codding guru and early adopter of the world wide web, Paavo created a web forum dedicated to trance that could connect fans from all over the globe. It was unlike anything online at the time, and soon became a breeding ground for what would eventually become the Anjunafamily. It was a direct line to their fanbase, and helped Above & Beyond build their Anjunabeats imprint — adopted from the group’s original name — into an empire. But what good is an empire without a noticeable banner?
Today, the Anjunabeats “A,” which sits prominently at the front of each record they release, is one of the most recognized logos in all of electronic music. “The logo itself, Paavo engineered from half of the letter ‘N’ on Wingding, which was an old font that came with Microsoft computers,” Tony explains. For 20 years, the logo has served as a dance music beacon ever since. In thinking up the imprint’s design and overall aesthetic, the group took cues from famous graphic artist Mark Farrow, who created the sleeves and posters for Factory and The Haçienda in the early ’80s. Farrow was also the primary album art creator for the Pet Shop Boys, who Jono, Paavo, and Tony cite as one of their biggest musical influences.
“Mark Farrow had an obsession with the font Helvetica,” Tony says about the font that inspired the label’s clean look. It remained as the official font of Anjunabeats up until five years ago when the imprint decided to refresh the brand. “He and a few other significant designers at the time had decided that a word’s a word and the only font he used is Helvetica because it gets out of the way of the meaning of the words. I fell in love with that idea. I got a Helvetica T-shirt, and I’ve even been to a Helvetica convention at the ICA. There’s sort of a strange religion around that font. It’s been around for 100 years, but it felt right to go that way, go very neat, lowercase and uppercase. Why use things that are going to date? Use classic typefaces, use classic layouts.” This method of cataloging has resulted in a discography of clean, coherent, and color-coded records that are so numerous they’ve used almost every hue imaginable.
Within this color wheel are breakthrough singles, EPs and albums from artists like ilan Bluestone, Sunny Lax, Genix, Oliver Smith, Audien, Mat Zo, Grum, ARTY, and Andrew Bayer — often referred to as “the fourth member of Above & Beyond.” Each artist on Anjunabeats brings their form of emotional authenticity to the floor with ease. It’s all rooted in the tradition of trance and progressive house’s welcoming aura that stays true to its “hands in the air, head in the clouds” approach to performance and continues to remain relevant with its sincerity, perseverance, and delight.
So much of the Anjunabeats arsenal has come thanks to active A&R scouting, the conduit of which is Group Therapy Radio. If a particular track is met with a positive response during any given show, the A&R hustlers for Anjunabeats don’t sit around passively; they pick up the phone and find the producer in question. The label puts out dozens of releases each year, and rather than sitting around and waiting for the music to fall in their lap, this active recruitment strategy does wonders for their output and serves to bolster the familial atmosphere within their ranks.
“To me, the music and the musicality, the quality of the songs, the quality of the songwriting, and the quality of the sound production is as good as it’s ever been,” Tony says. “We have to sift through a lot more stuff than we used to, you don’t have A&R men earning 100 grand a year sifting through the chaff, you have to do it yourself. But we’ve got a brilliant team to help, and you can find some extraordinary things.”
While Anjunabeats is the flagship and Above & Beyond remain steadfast at the helm — with the ability to sell out mega-venues like Madison Square Garden in a matter of minutes — there’s also a deeper side to the Anjunafamily.
As Above & Beyond was gaining widespread recognition in the early 2000s, Jono Grant’s older brother, James Grant, was brought into the fold. Working his way up from, essentially, unpaid intern to Above & Beyond’s full-time manager, James became an invaluable partner in the Anjuna organization.
“We all grew together really,” James recounts over the phone. In true familial fashion, he had just returned from dropping off a birthday present for Tony, who lives just down the road. “It was around that time that the bottom was beginning to sort of fall out of the major label market for dance music. We successfully missed the champagne days of big money, big advances, and making a hundred grand on a compilation, and suddenly, signing Above & Beyond tracks to major UK labels didn’t make sense anymore. So, we started putting it out ourselves. And that was so significant when I look back because it turned out to be the best decision we’ve ever made. It was a slightly forced decision in a strange way, but it was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. We managed to start attracting other artists to the label and just organically built out this label over time, and everything just clicked.”
It was in 2005 that James came up with the idea to create a sub-label called Anjunadeep — a place to act as a home for the music that may elude your typical Above & Beyond set. Beginning as a fun side-project for James and a way to satisfy his evolving musical tastes, Anjunadeep has emerged as a home for dancefloor titans like Dusky, Cubicolor, Lane 8, Moon Boots, Luttrell, Yotto, and many more. Another artist that’s heavily involved with the label is Bristol legend Jody Wisternoff, who works with the Anjuna A&R team, has been James Grant’s partner for mixing several volumes of the annual Anjunadeep compilation, and has just released his long-awaited album Nightwhisper via the imprint.
“I think the label has developed incredibly well over the last 10 years and has gained so much loyalty from music lovers and those who prefer their dance music with a bit more maturity and substance,” Jody says. “This is down to scrupulous A&R and a tireless team working in the background, and obviously the extremely high level of talent that we are now attracting.” As vast and eclectic as the Anjunadeep roster is, one of the guiding principles behind the imprint is its tendency to put up artists whose tracks carry an element of euphoria and consistently tug on its audience’s heartstrings.
“If you listen to the Anjunadeep stuff, I think there’s a common thread, which is its strong and soulful melodic element,” James says. “I’d like to think there’s emotion and soul in everything that we do. I think we’re trying to continue to give the love and attention that sort of independent dance music deserves. And so that makes it an exciting time to be running an indie because we’re the right home for all these credible artists with long term career plans. It just gives it a feeling of integrity from start to finish.”
Even without a fixed sonic direction, Anjunadeep has become a successful tastemaker for much of the underground. “Increasingly these days, we’re not limited by any dancefloor considerations,” James says. “We’re putting out some bangers certainly, but also just some beautiful bits of music that won’t ever go near a dancefloor unless they’re remixed.” At the same time, this allows Anjunabeats to continue its role as a bastion for trance. The result is mutual respect from both sides of the tracks, along with a combined catalogue of over 1,000 releases.
Forthcoming music from fresh acts like Durante, Jon Gurd, CRI, Leaving Laurel, and more will land on Anjunadeep later this year. And Tony excitedly tells us about new tracks from longtime associates like Gabriel & Dresden, ilan Bluestone, Spencer Brown, Mat Zo, ALPHA 9, Gardenstate, Marsh, and Oliver Smith, which will be appearing on Anjunabeats Vol. 15.
Tony also points out that the roles of each imprint aren’t as black and white as they may appear, reminding us that the veil between the world of progressive house/trance and the world of melodic/deep house is often more malleable than it seems.
“We have got a bunch of great stuff this year, where there are quite a few things slightly deeper than our usual Anjunabeats output. As Anjunadeep has gotten deeper and deeper over the years, this sort of hole has opened up between the two labels that allow for all sorts of cross-collaboration.”
In the end, we’re left with a musical dynasty that has become an invaluable component of a scene that prides itself on shared connection and sonic innovation. Even as the future of live events hangs in the balance, Anjunabeats is continuing to deliver for fans with regular livestreams via the Anjuna Twitch channel, while raising money for COVID-19 relief with the collaborative single “We’re All In This Together.”
Membership to the Anjunafamily is free. There is no initiation fee or secret knowledge that one has to understand in order to be brought into the fold. All you have to do is show up, smile, accept your fellow fans, and start creating memories. And with millions of kinsfolk scattered throughout the world, this enormous and gushy tribe of ravers — many of whom may very well be some of your future best friends — are ready to accept you with open arms.
Cameron Holbrook is a staff writer for Beatportal. Find him on Twitter.