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During the pandemic, most of us dreamed of being transported to places far beyond our couches and makeshift dining-table offices.
Likewise, Darren Tate and Jono Grant dreamed of going back to the ’80s. Unlike most of us who longed for escape though, they actually managed to get there.
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This time travel began in early 2020 when the longtime friends — Tate is an esteemed UK artist and producer, Grant is one-third of beloved trance outfit Above & Beyond — were working on The Last Glaciers, a 2022 documentary about climate change for which Tate and Above & Beyond provided the score.
There came a point when the remainder of the movie wasn’t ready for music. The other two members of A&B — Tony McGuinness and Paavo Siljamäki — were out of town and Grant and Tate didn’t really have anything to do besides experiment in the studio.
While essentially just killing time, they wrote “Shape of Your Heart,” a warm, deliciously synthy and deeply ’80s inspired instrumental jam that brought the duo back to 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 Wednesday (June 22), the track is the fourth single from JODA, the project Tate and Grant formed during the pandemic, with an album coming Aug. 26 via Above & Beyond’s Anjunabeats label.
Recognizing the magic of this bygone era’s music — both because of its greatness and their personal connection to it — the guys kept working, hunkering into their pandemic bubble in 2020 while much of the world did the same. They found comfort in making music with the same sound and ethos as the hits they’d grown up with and freedom in doing whatever the hell they pleased during those uninterrupted days in Tate’s North London studio and A&B’s South London space.
“There was this sense of, ‘Let’s just write songs and do stuff that we love,” Tate says, Zooming with Billboard from London. “We’re not going to go moody and techno-ey and minimal. Let’s just do things we really want to do.”
“I was doing a lot of gigs with Above & Beyond, and suddenly the world stopped,” Grant says. “After the first month or two of lockdown, I started realizing that without anywhere to play these dance records, I didn’t feel like making them. I had to do something different from what I was doing with Above & Beyond, because I didn’t have the motivation.”
Trading festival bangers for tighter, sleeker, often smaller sounds, the guys used both vintage instruments and the modern software presets designed to mimic them to create a flurry of sleekly shimmering tracks spanning electro, French touch, new wave, ambient, IDM and beyond. While embracing the ethos of those aforementioned ’80s titans, the goal wasn’t to mimic their music, but to design elements in homage to it.
“We didn’t try and make, like, 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 in a new thing,”
“We wanted to still have that nostalgic element,” adds Tate, nothing that details — like the way certain drum tracks are produced — brings in this vintage touch, while the rest of the production leans on modern techniques. Ironically, while working on this music during a one of the more confined periods of human history, the guys found a feeling of spaciousness they hadn’t experienced with other projects.
“There’s a very strict format for dance music,” Tate adds. “You’ve got to fit a big kick drum in and everything is kind of around that in a sense, and this is not like that. So that was really freeing.”
“Growing up in the late ’80s, and early ’90s,” Grant says, “my perception is that the music had a bit more space in it, a bit more room, a bit more freedom. I feel like modern pop music is often about grabbing attention and maintaining attention. I suppose that to some degree that’s always been the case in pop music, but I think that era allowed for a different sense of space.”
With actual physical space now once again available to touring artists and humanity at large, the guys are putting their heads together on possibly taking JODA’s music. They say that at the very least, these songs will mix well into edits for Above & Beyond sets. They hope they’ll appeal not just to A&B and ’80s new waves fans, but to new listeners further afield.
Regardless of where the music lands, though, Tate and Darren are happy that the time they spent locked inside gave them the freedom to make music they might not have otherwise produced. “Basically,” Grant says of the scenario, “it means that you make a record from the heart, rather than from the head.”