After they broke up four decades ago, ABBA famously refused all kinds of money for reunion ABBA-tars and performances. But a few years ago, British entrepreneur Simon Fuller pitched an idea that piqued the Swedish superstars’ interest. “We got sort of turned on by the thought that we could actually be onstage without us being there,” ABBA singer-songwriter Benny Andersson says over Zoom.
The band, along with Fuller and their producers Ludvig Andersson (Benny Andersson’s son) and Svana Gisla (music-video producer for the likes of Radiohead and Beyoncé), initially explored reproducing themselves by hologram technology, but that didn’t pan out. ABBA finally realized a grander dream: ABBA Voyage, the concert residency at newly built ABBA Arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park that begins May 27.
Made with help from George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, digital avatars (also known as ABBA-tars) embody the stars in their Seventies prime, performing a 22-song set alongside a flesh-and-blood backing band assembled by James Righton of the Klaxons and including U.K. singer Little Boots on keys. “It’s been a lot of uphill,” the elder Andersson says. “Brexit, the pandemic. It’s been a lot of stuff that hasn’t worked well, but we’ve been resilient.”
The band and the team and ILM realized early on that an existing venue wasn’t 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 this is the company behind Star Wars, Marvel, and Jurassic Park). The roof of ABBA Arena was reengineered three times to fit the complicated lighting system. Where many concerts might use only one lighting rig, this one uses 20.
There was a lot of work put into making the ABBA-tars — which, the band stresses, are not holograms, but digital versions of the members that look like real, physical performers. Not too long before the pandemic put things to a near-halt, the four members of ABBA met from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, for four and half weeks straight, performing for 200 cameras and a crew of nearly 40 people while wearing motion-capture suits. They posted up in a sound studio within the Swedish Film Institute, playing all the songs they had carefully curated for their first show in 40 years. “It was really a pleasure for all of us,” Andersson says.
Back in London, body doubles emulated the performances, but with a younger energy. “We are sort of merged together with our body doubles. Don’t ask me how it works because I can’t explain that,” Andersson continues. “If you’re 75, you don’t jump around like you did when you were 34, so this is why this happened.”
“ABBA are onstage there physically, and we can say that with quite some degree of certainty because we are in rehearsals right now,” Gisla says. Andersson was impressed when he watched himself and the others “perform” for the first time in April: “I see myself standing onstage, talking to you. It’s absolutely believable. It’s not unbelievable. It’s believable!”
During rehearsals, Andersson and bandmate Björn Ulvaeus were hit with a spark of creativity. They penned 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’d record them for the show. “We recorded those two and found that we’re still good enough,” Andersson says. Eventually, they recorded a whole album, last year’s Voyage. “I Still Have Faith in You” was so well-regarded that it garnered the group its first Grammy nomination ever.
There’s still much about the future of the 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’s for sure: Gisla and Ludvig Andersson have no plans to do anything like this again, and they point out that nothing like this should probably exist again in the future. As impressive as the tech is, they worry about how it could be used. “I personally don’t think that doing things posthumously with artists that are passed away, where they have no hand or opinion or say in the matter, is a good idea,” Gisla explains. “ABBA made this show, but had they not been involved, it wouldn’t be an ABBA concert.”
Ludvig Andersson adds: “We hear often, ‘This is the dawn of a new era in live entertainment.’ I think that’s an incorrect statement. I don’t think it is. This is unique.”
The London location was a no-brainer for the group, which is still based in Sweden. Not only is London a major destination for international travel, it’s also the place where the often-maligned group felt most at home when away from home. “The English people have always treated ABBA like we were their own, for some weird reason,” Andersson says. “They’ve taken ABBA to their hearts and they show us that.” In some ways, ABBA’s return is perfectly timed. Many millennials were exposed to the group through the tribute pop band A*Teens at the turn of the century, and later, the musical Mamma Mia! and its cult-classic film adaptation (as well as the original sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). For both millennials and Gen Z kids, the group is a musical fixture on the level of what the Beatles were for Gen X. There are ABBA-themed parties at venues across the globe, and songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Chiquitita” have become hits on TikTok. Andersson still doesn’t understand. “That’s pretty weird, isn’t it? It’s 40 years ago, and the corpse is still moving. I don’t know. Maybe it’s good enough. Maybe that’s the only answer.”