Above & Beyond's Paavo Siljamäki: My Coronavirus Experience 'Was Just Terrifying'

Paavo Siljamäki Elena Brower
Jessie McCall

Paavo Siljamäki and Elena Brower

Paavo Siljamäki, one third of beloved dance trio Above & Beyond, has long been into yoga, meditation, nutrition and other sundry healthy lifestyle choices, but no amount downward dog could have prepared him for the coronavirus.

Siljamäki became seriously ill with COVID-19 in March, experiencing chest pains so severe that he woke up feeling like he was having a heart attack. One of the the hardest parts, he says, was going through the experience alone. But through it all, he kept meditating, eventually regaining his health to the extent that he could travel from his place in the U.K. to his home in the wilderness of Finland, where Billboard Dance caught up with him via video chat.

The remote location is a long way from London's Royal Albert Hall or New York's Radio City Music Hall, two of the many esteemed venues that Above & Beyond was scheduled to play this spring and summer on an acoustic tour -- events that many in the dance scene and beyond describe as something holy. Instead, the trio has shelved the Acoustic III LP that was supposed to come out in conjunction with the tour and is instead lying low and focusing on projects intended to positively impact the world during a tenuous time.

On Monday (May 11), Above & Beyond released an update to their 2019 album of meditation music, Flow State. Having garnered more than 50 million streams since its July release, the Flow State update features four new meditations set to Flow State music, with talks in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and a new recording in English from frequent A&B collaborator Elena Brower.

This week, the trio's venerable label Anjunabeats is also hosting Wellness Week via its Twitch page, with programming including sound baths, yoga, wellness talks, dance sessions and more hosted by members of the A&B family. This summer, the group will also release the Anjunabeats 15 compilation, featuring new label material and Above & Beyond tracks.

Here, Siljamäki opens up about canceling the acoustic tour, battling the coronavirus, how yoga and meditation have helped him and how they might help you, too.

What was it like when shows started being canceled?

It’s almost a double-edged thing. I’ve been going through a couple of really challenging years, so on one hand, I was thinking, "Maybe it’s good to have a breather and there’s a moment to rest." But on the other hand, we were all geared up to do our acoustic tour, which has been a huge project. I know how hard we’ve worked on the music and also how hard our teams have worked on getting up the tour, and fans were getting excited for these shows.

We were literally playing places like Radio City Music Hall and Royal Albert Hall and ready to do this thing. Then it was like, “It’s not going to happen.” It was a shock. I’m not really sure at what point they’ll be allowing mass gathering. It’s a huge uncertainty. You just don’t know. Being OK with something that uncertain is probably the hardest thing.

You said this has been a challenging few years for you. Why?

I think a lot of people reach the point in their life where they start wondering -- when they’ve achieved so much and they’ve been doing something for a really long time -- you just reach a point where you start having these big questions of "Why are we doing this? Is this what life is really about? When you’ve achieved so much, what do you achieve next? What’s the next big challenge for you?"

I’ve had these mega-huge questions on my plate all at once, and in a way, it’s a really cool time to rediscover myself and go through all of that stuff, but it’s led to a lot of changes in my personal life. The transformation that I’m going through is a really challenging thing, but Above & Beyond's message has always been "follow your heart, be yourself." So now, it’s turning it back on myself. It’s time for me to really go through those questions and find the answers.

What answers have you found so far?

Obviously some of the stuff has happened in my personal life, but Flow State as an album has come out of that, because it’s come from this idea of being free from any genres. I feel like musicians kind of box themselves in. The media does too, but musicians can also feel self-restricted. I’ve certainly felt that things have had to fit into the A&B main show, and Flow State was such a cool thing to go through and realize that actually, as artists, we are free. We can do the acoustic stuff. Can do Flow State. If we really put our heart and soul into it, people will get it. It’s actually been interesting seeing how the acoustic and Flow State projects have brought in people to the electronic stuff. They first do yoga stuff then end up coming to the main show

Have you been quarantining by yourself this whole time?

I was in the U.K. for about four and a half weeks, in total isolation. Then I realized that actually, because I’m Finnish and I have a house in Finland, that I could actually go to Finland. Having been physically recovered from the corona thing for a week and a half, I just bought myself a flight and came to Finland. I’ve been here in total nature continuing the healing -- having dips in the freezing cold lake and going into the sauna.

I feel really fortunate that I have these two homes, and that I was even able to actually travel, because most travel is banned at the moment. There are still some flights between London and Finland, and the main thing for me was to make sure enough time had passed so I was sure I wasn’t infectious anymore. But then, when I entered Finland, I also had to agree to a two-week quarantine. It’s funny, because the way of life here anyways is that if I don’t want to see someone for a week, I probably won’t. This is the perfect place to quarantine.

Are you still experiencing any symptoms?

I’ve had the occasional running out of breath more regularly than normal. I think my lungs were damaged quite badly, so initially, if I went for a walk, I ran out of breath right away. But little by little, I’ve been getting stronger and now I can go for a little jog.

What was it like at the peak of your sickness?

I had really, really severe chest pains … On about day eleven, I woke up at 5 a.m. thinking I was having a heart attack. I had severe, excruciating chest pains. It was just terrifying. I had a lot of physical pain, but when you multiply it with the emotional side of being ill ...

I know a lot of people who are ill with COVID-19, and a lot of them have to go through this alone. It’s one thing having someone there to say it’s going to be all right, but when it’s just you in isolation having to deal with it, that was really challenging for me. I felt mentally exhausted from three weeks of batting that fear, but in the end I came out of it, and I feel really fortunate that it wasn’t worse than it was.

How were you taking care of yourself during the worst of it?

There isn’t really any real medication … obviously there’s a lot of debate about what would work, but in my case I just tried to just eat really well and sleep a lot. My neighbors were helping me a lot, because obviously I couldn’t go shopping. In a way, it was nice to see how it brought the kindness out of the people who live around me. People were checking in every day to see how I was doing and what I needed. That was a really nice thing through it all.

Were things like meditation or yoga even part of the equation, or were you too sick?

I meditate every morning for 20 minutes when I wake up, and I was doing it through this, and it certainly helped. Part of meditation and yoga is body awareness and just realizing that there is a lot of pain. Being OK with it was part of the practice.

As someone who’s had coronavirus pretty seriously, what would do you want people to now about it? 

I feel like right now in the world, people all want to take a stand and make a decision on something, regarding who’s right or wrong. I certainly spend a lot of time watching the news and  trying to understand it. Having gone through it, I would say that maybe it’s time we all realize that we don’t need to know it all. My health thing was uncertain. I didn’t know how it was going to go. I had to be OK with the fact that I really didn’t know what was going to happen.

It just feels like there’s a lot of fear, uncertainty and stress in people. Everyone’s looking for a target for their anger and fear, and politics is going to give you a great place for it. Conspiracy theories are going to give you a great place for it. Fighting with people is going to give you a great place for it.

I wish for people to be aware that that’s what’s happening. If something you’ve read on the news makes you really angry, you need to consider whether it’s that thing, or if it’s your own anger being multiplied by this thing. Ask yourself if you can be happier tomorrow. Maybe it’s watching a bit less news or engaging less in certain things that affect your personal happiness. For me personally, the happier I am the better person I am in society. So I really have to actively pick what I read and do.

Are you looking forward to being back on the road?

I really miss traveling. The last two shows we had were in Singapore and Bali and were such fun. I really don’t know when we can start DJing again, but I’m itching for it. I’m ready.

How has wellness changed your life and your music?

I’ve been interested in meditation and yoga for as long as I can remember. A couple of years ago, I had a burnout and we had a new tour manager who happened to be a yoga teacher, and yoga was a thing we were doing two to three times a week on tour. Normally if I do a three-month bus tour, I’d be really exhausted by the and, this one -- the Common Ground bus tour -- I was feeling better by the end of it than at the beginning. I was basically stronger and fitter, feeling mentally and physically better at the end.

For me, that was a sign that I can do things that will make a positive impact for me and my life. That’s where yoga became a much more integral part of what I do. And then meditation for me, after my burnout, I was depressed, and it helped me dig myself out of that depression. I really saw firsthand the power of meditation as a regular practice, not as a thing you do for two hours every two weeks, but even a few minutes every day. I really did see how that helped me -- and it’s still helping me. The days that I meditate are better than the days that I don’t. It’s as simple as that.

How does it feel to make these contributions to the electronic scene, which is renowned for partying?

Even since the '90s when I got into dance music, at least my personal take on it has been informed partying, knowing that if you do this, this is how it’s going to affect you. I see the wellness, yoga and meditation priming you to have a better time when you go out. If you’re fitter and healthier and feeling better about everything, then you go and party, it’s even better. You can say all this is about making those party moment even better, but of course it’s not just about the parties.