During the pandemic, most of us dream of being transported to places far beyond our couches and makeshift offices with dining tables.
Likewise, Darren Tate and Jono Grant dreamed of going back to the ’80s. However, unlike most of us who yearned to escape, they actually managed to get there.
This time travel began in early 2020 when old friends (Tate is an esteemed UK artist and producer, Grant is one-third of the beloved trance team Above & Beyond) were working on The Last Glaciers, a 2022 documentary. on climate change for which Tate and Above & Beyond provided the score.
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There came a time when the rest of the film was not ready for music. The other two members of A&B, Tony McGuinness and Paavo Siljamäki, were out of town and Grant and Tate really had nothing to do but experiment in the studio.
While they were essentially just killing time, they wrote “Shape of Your Heart,” a warm, delightfully synthesized, deeply ’80s-inspired instrumental improvisation that brought the duo their coming of age in the ’80s and early ’90s, an era soundtracked by MTV Demigod Bands like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys. Out on Wednesday (June 22), the song is the fourth single from JODA, the project Tate and Grant formed during the pandemic, with an album due August 26 via Above & Beyond’s Anjunabeats imprint.
Recognizing the magic of the music of this bygone era, both for its greatness and their personal connection to it, the boys kept to work, huddling in their pandemic bubble in 2020 while much of the world did the same. They found solace in making music in the same sound and spirit as the hits they had grown up with, and the freedom to do as they pleased during those non-stop days at Tate’s north London studio and space. A&B in South London.
“There was this feeling of, ‘We’re going to write songs and do things that we love,'” says Tate, zooming in with Billboard from London. “We are not going to become moody, technological and minimalist. Let’s do the things we really want to do.”
“I was doing a lot of shows with Above & Beyond, and all of a sudden the world stopped,” says Grant. “After the first month or two of lockdown, I started to realize that without a place to play these dance records, I didn’t feel like making them. I had to do something different than what I was doing with Above & Beyond, because I didn’t have the motivation.”
Swapping festival hits for tighter, sleeker, and often smaller sounds, the guys used both vintage instruments and modern software presets designed to mimic them to create a flurry of sleek, shimmery tracks spanning electro, French twist, new wave, ambient, IDM and more. While embracing the spirit of the aforementioned ’80s titans, the goal was not to imitate their music, but to design items in homage to it.
“We’re not trying to make a tribute record to the ’80s and ’90s,” says Grant. “That’s definitely not what we wanted to do. We wanted to incorporate what we loved about those records into something new.”
“We wanted to still have that nostalgic element,” adds Tate, none of the details, like the way certain drum tracks are produced, bring this vintage feel, while the rest of the production leans into modern techniques. Ironically, while working on this music during one of the most confined periods in human history, the boys found a sense of spaciousness that they hadn’t experienced with other projects.
“There’s a very strict format for dance music,” adds Tate. “You have to fit a big hype and everything revolves around that in a certain sense, and this is not like that. So that was really liberating.”
“Growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Grant says, “my perception is that music had a little more space, a little more space, a little more freedom. I feel like modern pop music is often about grabbing and holding attention. I guess to some extent that’s always been the case in pop music, but I think that era allowed for a different sense of space.”
Now that real physical space is once again available to touring artists and humanity in general, the boys are agreeing on the possibility of taking JODA’s music. They say that, at the very least, these songs will mix well with the edits of the Above & Beyond sets. They hope they will appeal not only to A&B and ’80s new wave fans, but to new listeners further afield.
Regardless of where the music lands, however, Tate and Darren are happy that their time spent in lockdown gave them the freedom to make music they otherwise wouldn’t have produced. “Basically,” Grant says onstage, “it means you make a record from your heart, rather than from your head.”