ABBA: in their residence, ABBA Voyage

After their split four decades ago, ABBA turned down all kinds of money for ABBA’s reunions and performances. But a few years ago, British entrepreneur Simon Fuller came up with an idea that sparked the interest of Swedish superstars. “We were kind of excited by the idea that we could be on stage without us being there,” ABBA singer-songwriter Benny Andersson said on Zoom.

The band, along with Fuller and their producers Ludvig Andersson (Benny Andersson’s son) and Svana Gisla (music video producer for Radiohead and Beyoncé), first explored reproduction through hologram technology, but it didn’t market. They finally achieved a bigger dream: ABBA Voyage, the 196-show concert residency at the newly built ABBA Arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park which begins May 27.

Made with the help of Industrial Light & Magic by George Lucas, the digital avatars (also known as ABBA-tars) embody the stars of the heyday of the 70s, performing a set of 22 songs alongside a flesh-and-blood backing band assembled by James Righton of the Klaxons and including British singer Little Boots on keyboards. “It was a lot of uphill,” says the elder Andersson. “Brexit, the pandemic. There are a lot of things that didn’t work well, but we were resilient.

The band, crew and ILM realized early on that an existing venue was not going to work for the residency. There are 1,000 visual effects artists on ABBA Voyage, making it the biggest project ILM has done, according to Gisla (and it’s the company behind star wars, Wonder, and jurassic park). The roof of the ABBA Arena has been redesigned three times to accommodate the complex lighting system. Where many gigs only use one light fixture, this one uses 20.

There was a lot of work to make the ABBA-tars – which, the group points out, are do not holograms, but digital versions of the members that look like real physical artists. Shortly before the pandemic put an end to things, the four members of ABBA met from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, for four and a half weeks in a row, performing in front of 200 cameras and a crew of nearly 40 people while wearing motion-capture costumes. They stationed themselves in a sound studio within the Swedish Film Institute, playing all the songs they had carefully selected for their first show in 40 years. “It was really a pleasure for all of us,” says Andersson.

Back in London, the body doubles mimicked the performances, but with a more youthful energy. “We are kind of fused with our body doubles. Don’t ask me how it works because I can’t explain it,” Andersson continues. “If you’re 75, you don’t jump like you did when you were 34, that’s why it happened.”

Baillie Walsh*

“ABBA is physically on stage there, and we can say that with some degree of certainty because we’re in rehearsals right now,” Gisla said. Andersson was impressed when he saw himself and the others “perform” for the first time in April: “I see myself standing on stage, talking to you. It’s absolutely believable. It’s not amazing. It’s believable!

During rehearsals, Andersson and his teammate Björn Ulvaeus were struck by a spark of creativity. They wrote two new songs – “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down” – and asked Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad if they would record them for the show. “We recorded those two and found we were still pretty good,” Andersson says. Eventually they recorded an entire album, last year’s Travel. “I Still Have Faith in You” was so well-regarded that it earned the band their first Grammy nomination.

There’s still a lot about the future of production that ABBA and ILM still don’t know. They could end up touring years from now, or even change the set list. One thing is certain: Gisla and Ludvig Andersson have no intention of doing something like this again, and they stress that nothing like it should probably exist in the future. As impressive as the technology is, they worry about how it might be used. “Personally, I don’t think doing things posthumously with artists who have passed away, without them having a say, having no opinion or voice, is a good idea,” Gisla explains. “ABBA did this show, but if they hadn’t been involved, it wouldn’t be an ABBA gig.”

Ludvig Andersson adds: “We often hear: ‘It’s the dawn of a new era in live entertainment.’ I think this is an incorrect statement. I do not think so. It’s unique.

The London location was a no-brainer for the band, which is still based in Sweden. Not only is London a major destination for international travel, but it’s also where the oft-maligned band felt most at home when away from home. “The English have always treated ABBA as if we were their own, for some strange reason,” Andersson says. “They took ABBA to their hearts and they show it to us.” In some ways, ABBA’s return is perfectly timed. Many millennials were exposed to the group through the A*Teens tribute pop band at the turn of the century, and later the musical Mama Mia! and its cult classic film adaptation (as well as the original sequel Mama Mia! Here we go again). For millennials and Gen Z kids, the group is a musical staple on the level of what the Beatles were for Gen X. There are ABBA-themed parties at venues around the world, and songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Chiquitita” have become hits on TikTok. Andersson still doesn’t understand. “That’s pretty weird, isn’t it?” That was 40 years ago, and the corpse is still moving. I do not know. Maybe that’s good enough. That may be the only answer.

About John Villalpando

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