Ibiza, Pacha, 4am, and a night that’s already hit dozens of precipitous highs is launching itself upwards to its dizziest high yet. The dancefloor is a rippling sea of sweat-shined limbs and pan-European faces. All around a sci-fi fairytale is unfolding that repeatedly demands that the eyes double-check the facts with the brain: there are lip-bitingly beautiful dancers in surreal outfits three times their size; a truly vast crystal ball that — wait! — is actually a crystal wolf’s head; and a solitary green laser so ferociously powerful and unutterably mad that DJmag wants to stand on a table and applaud it.
And holy shit, the music! It’s righteously loud, but as clean and shiny as a hard, polished gem. It’s the classic house template also cheekily taking in the mid-range buzz rush of trance, the android clatter of techno and, every so often, nostalgia-tickling snippets of classic pop. This is what fun looks and sounds like when served up raw, unpretentious and with no budgetary constraints. DJmag can read it on the shocked and elated faces: for many, this’ll be the one to beat for years to come — “Best fuckin’ night of my life.”
Up in the DJ booth, the three men responsible for all this lunacy — Axwell, Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso — are punching the air and grinning like gold-winning champs. The Swedish House Mafia are well and truly on top of the world.
Fast-forward two days. DJmag is sat at a beachside restaurant with Axwell, Steve and Sebastian, eager to get their thoughts on the opening night of The Dark Forest, their new Monday night residency at Pacha. We wonder if earlier in their careers the aspiring DJs/producers ever shared wide-eyed dreams of one day having their very own summer residency at the mighty, iconic Pacha.
“Nah, not really,” shrugs Axwell. “It’s more about having our own night, not really the venue it’s held in. Wherever we play, we bring the party there. As far as Pacha is concerned, it’s a legendary club but that’s perhaps more because it’s a place where legends are made — people like Erick Morillo and Roger Sanchez. And we do hope to join that hall of fame.”
“We need the people,” agrees Sebastian, “and we need their energy — but we don’t necessarily need the club.”
Blimey. But it’s not that the trio are deriding Pacha or are in any way displeased with how their inaugural Dark Forest night went. It’s just that in an age of PR-friendly DJs and producers scared to rock the boat or bleat anything other than “Everything’s great, everyone’s cool” platitudes, the Swedish House Mafia are willfully, brilliantly opinionated and more than happy, when required, to blow noisy raspberries at dance music’s sacred cows. Not for them, for example, the ridiculous hushed reverence afforded by many towards Ibiza’s elite cabal of veteran DJs. And all over the island, it’s those same old faces bearing down from the clubs’ huge billboard adverts…
“My brother is 19 and he’s starting to come up as a DJ now,” says Steve. “When I asked him if he’d ever heard this one famous DJ play, he’d actually never even heard of him! None of the kids have. These big guys stop doing productions; they even stop doing mix compilations. A lot of these older DJs don’t put as much effort into the game because they’ve done it for 15 years, and it’s not ‘new’ for them to come out to Ibiza or whatever. But we’re taking a different path, and we’re coming to get them. We’re really going for it.”
Hence The Dark Forest: a Monday night Pacha residency featuring production values not seen since the heyday of Manumission; a genuine spectacle that strives for total immersion into an atmosphere of high-end hedonism. Those surreal dancers’ costumes, for example? Co-designed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less.
“Pacha gave us total freedom,” beams Axwell, “although it was sometimes in a Spanish, impossible-to-deal-with kind of way [laughs].”
“They did say no to our suggestion of fireworks,” recalls Steve. “They weren’t too happy about having indoor fireworks. We probably got about ten percent of all the crazy stuff we wanted in the end.”
But given the run of hits and anthems that these three have enjoyed in recent years, the Swedish House Mafia could probably pack Pacha out week after week without all that expensive and elaborate, high-concept dark glamour.
“But you have to put your own twist on things,” says Steve. “It’s really important to put your stamp on Ibiza.”
“We could just go down there and play,” continues Axwell, “but you need to give the kids something new. They’re in there for the whole night, and we don’t want to come across as lazy. That’d be terrible, and really disrespectful to the kids.”
The trio will be joined on their weekly summer run — to 21st September — by a handpicked set of guests, including Basement Jaxx, Dizzee Rascal and Bob Sinclar. Curating this guest roster has presented its own problems.
“It was really hard to find guests,” says Axwell. “There are a hell of a lot of people making dance music now, with a couple of tracks here and there on Beatport, but they never really manage to get themselves a ‘name’. It seems like that’s really hard to do these days. A lot of people, not many ‘names’. So you try to pick a few guys who you want to play at your night, names that people will recognise, and they turn out to be the exact same people that everybody else wants. But we have tried to bring in a few new people, while keeping in mind the audience we have at Pacha — which, you know, can be ‘40-year-old champagne-guy’ sometimes.”
Luckily for the Swedish House Mafia, it seems that this year visitors to Ibiza are after just the kind of chunky, celebratory power-house that The Dark Forest is built around. The island’s definitely turning away from the somnambulant shuffle of minimal and back towards the beatific escapist music that made its name.
“The techno scene is great, for what it is,” says Steve, “but when all that minimal stuff really kicked off, a lot of people found that they too could produce minimal; they could go on their laptops and make those tracks because it was a lot easier than producing a big vocal anthem. To get the right chords, to get the right vocalist, to get the right arrangement is hard — but minimal is much simpler music so there ended up being a thousand-and-one guys pumping it out.”
“And you can get tired of it pretty quickly,” Axwell interjects. “Which is maybe why the whole minimal trend was quite short-lived. House, though, is music, and music will always be around. House always comes back. It’s everlasting.”
If you’re unable to make it out to Ibiza this summer to witness Axwell, Steve and Sebastian tearing strips off the willing Pacha crowd, fret not: on 7th November the boys will be travelling to the UK to take London’s Brixton Academy over for a night of heavyweight Swedish funk.
“That’s gonna be crazy,” grins a visibly excited Sebastian. “That place is really big!”
“We’ll be having a little pre-party at the Royal Albert Hall first,” Axwell giggles. “During this summer we’re gonna have a serious think about what we want to do for that show.”
“But whatever happens, it’s definitely gonna be something totally different for us,” affirms Sebastian. “It’s not just gonna be us DJing, with maybe an MC. It’ll be something really different.”
“Maybe,” kids Axwell, “we’ll have Coldplay come on and have a little sing-song over some tracks. I wonder if Brixton Academy will let us have indoor fireworks? We’ll obviously have to move venue if not [laughs].”
“Me and Seb, we grew up together, and then we met Axwell through the music, later on. And… pfff… there we are.”
That right there was Steve Angello’s poor, poor attempt at filling DJmag in on the Swedish House Mafia’s back story. Getting these guys to talk about their past isn’t easy. It’s not that their closets are rattling with embarrassing skeletons, more that they’re smart enough to be possessed with a zen-like focus on the here and now (it’s telling that Sebastian wears a silver bracelet bearing the Latin seize-the-day maxim “carpe diem”). It’s their enthusiasm for finding out what’s just around the next corner that fuels their ambition and work ethic. Still, for those who don’t think all history is bunk…
Axwell (or Axel Hedfors to his postman) you’ll know from all-conquering anthems like ‘Feel The Vibe’, ‘I Found You’ and ‘Get Dumb’, a track recorded with fellow Swedish House Mafioso Steve and Sebastian, and token Dutch dude Laidback Luke. He’s gifted the likes of Madonna, Pharrell and Moby with his astute remix work and is the big-wig boss of his own Axtone Records.
House, prog and electro-house producer Sebastian Ingrosso (and fellow Mafioso Steve Angello) recently collaborated with N*E*R*D* — the guys having bonded when Ingrosso knocked an aggro guy out on Chad Hugo’s behalf during an all-star game of basketball in Sydney. Plus, after months of underground hugeness, Ingrosso’s bootleg remix of MGMT’s ‘Kids’ was recently cleared for an official release.
Steve Angello’s recent re-imagining of the Robin S classic ‘Show Me Love’ (alongside Laidback Luke) couldn’t really have been much more successful, and he’s recently taken himself and his super-hot Size imprint and decamped from snowy Stockholm to sunny LA. He’s currently acting as DJing and production mentor to his fast-rising 19-year-old little bro, Antoine.
By anyone’s standards, then, three hugely successful artists — but the boys maintain that their coming together to create Swedish House Mafia isn’t the next step in building some huge corporate-house mega-brand. It’s all about the fun, not the funds.
“People assume,” smiles Axwell, “that there must have been a lot of thought behind something when a brand is quite strong, but sometimes it’s just like, plop!, and it’s there. It’s great when things aren’t planned — you couldn’t ever just make something like Swedish House Mafia up. We weren’t like, ‘Let’s build a brand!’ It just happened. We met, had fun, made music. One thing led to another and soon we started to DJ together, collaborate on tracks together.
“The thing is, we don’t really have any goals. We’ve already surpassed all the goals that we had — by far — some time ago. The one goal I’ve had in my life was to make a living out of music. A friend actually said to me once, some time back, ‘You know, I think you could actually make a living out of what you’re doing.’ And I was just like, ‘Fuck you, man! Don’t give me stupid ideas.’ So once I did actually manage that, everything else was just a bonus. I don’t have any more ambitions to fulfill. Now I’m just along for the ride.
“I remember, before Swedish House Mafia became a ‘thing’, we had this vague meeting about us all hooking up and doing a series of gigs — and suddenly we’re playing Pacha, or Brixton Academy, and you’re like, ‘Woah, okay then!’ Swedish House Mafia has become a beast: it just grabs you and takes you off with it. Sometimes, when you’ve found something special, you just need to let yourself get carried along, up and away by it.
“In the beginning, when I started making music, I’d be trying to get my tracks on the radio, trying to push my music to the right people, but sometimes, no matter how much work I did, they just wouldn’t take off. But I learnt that sometimes, when you’ve got a really good song, you just sit on it — and it’ll just take off by itself. There’s not much you can do to control it — you just tag along. And that’s how Swedish House Mafia has been, for all of us.”
Even the trio’s name was borne of a daft, off-the-cuff remark.
“Yeah, even with the name, there was never any big plan,” laughs Sebastian. “We just said that in an interview once for fun — ‘Hey, we’re like the Swedish house mafia!’ — and then it started popping up on the internet and on forums, so it was like, ‘Okay, I guess we really are the Swedish House Mafia now!’”
For all their success and cohesion, however, Axwell reckons they can still be slightly flaky to work with.
“At the end of the day,” he chuckles, “we’re artists, so we’ll go away for a month and be like, ‘Don’t fucking call me, don’t send me a load of CC-ed emails about the costume designs,’ but then when the costumes turn up we’ll be like, ‘What the fuck? What is this shit? I never saw these designs!’ That’s how we are and that’s why it can be hard to work with us [laughs].”
“Especially with there being three of us,” says Steve. “It’s like, ‘Well, I liked it, but he didn’t like it, and he can’t decide…’”
“It’s a wonder,” Axwell sighs, “that it all keeps moving forwards, really.”
“I guess we just want everything to be the best it possibly can be,” shrugs Sebastian.
A big part of the trio’s rapid, runaway rise to the upper echelons of dance royalty has been their canny use of the internet to build, nurture and expand an ultra-loyal fan-base; in fact, community might be closer to the mark than fan-base.
“I do think we’re doing a pretty good job in communicating with the kids,” says Steve. “Things like Axwell’s forum over on his site — the kids love that shit. We have the Twitters, the Facebooks, the MySpaces… Kids wanna be involved in what you do nowadays and the more you get them involved, the better you’re going to be able to attract more fans. And it makes the kids part of my career and my life. I can just Twitter a party and then 1000 people turn up! It helps, it definitely helps.”
They blog their every move and even employ a mate as a full-time cameraman to document their living-the-dream lifestyles and produce regular (and frequently hilarious) videos for the fans. So, with all this wide-open access and digital intimacy, they must’ve had close contact with at least one or two fans from the more obsessive end of the scale?
“Actually, I do have one,” says Sebastian, gingerly raising his hand, “but I like her, she’s cool. She wrote on my blog a couple of years ago, ‘You are better than all the anti-depressants and medications I've taken. I almost took my own life, but coming to see you DJ is like going to the shrink for me.’
“I've seen her in the UK and France, coming to my gigs. She actually made my forum on my website for me! She sends me pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower with my name this big [he out-stretches his arms] made out of candles. I've met her, her name is Estelle. She’s harmless, she’s cool, but yes, she is obsessed.”
So are the older DJs missing out on gaining fans amongst dance’s younger generation by failing to embrace blogging and social networking in the way that the Swedish Mafioso have?
“Nah, it’s not all about the Twitter,” laughs Axwell. “It’s about older DJs making wack productions or no productions at all. You can only Twitter so much — at the end of the day you still have to have a fat track!”
However, for working musicians such as Steve, Sebastian and Axwell, the internet has, of course, proved to be something of a double-edged sword.
“It’s a nightmare,” says Steve, grimly. “A couple of years ago, any producer could make a living off tracks but now you just can’t. A couple of years ago, I could have a white label, play it for a whole year and nobody would know what it was. People would come and see me just to hear ‘that track’. And now it’s everywhere after a week, partly because of piracy and partly because we have Beatport. I don’t see Beatport as a good MP3 platform because Beatport, to me, is just a label. They pick their favourites and they push the tracks they like.
“If nobody’s going to make any money off music then nobody’s going to make any music, are they? My brother, for example, has to DJ a lot because he can’t afford to live off just his remixes and productions. So if he wasn’t a DJ, he’d have to have a second job.”
Axwell picks up the baton. “And what if people didn’t have to go out and spend all that time DJing? How much great music are we missing out on? Obviously, we’re not going to sit here and complain, ‘Oh, it’s fucking horrible to have to DJ, to go all around the world and sit here by the beach and eat lobster in the sun,’ but we’re not really talking about us…”
“Yeah,” clarifies Steve, “I'm speaking for all the kids I see around who are trying to make it as producers.”
Axwell: “And the quality of the music starts going down…”
“When I did a track a few years back,” Steve continues, “the label had to put down three, four, even five thousand pounds just to release it — because of the white labels, the promotion, the dubplates. Now, with MP3s, you can release anything so there’s nobody sitting there thinking, ‘Is this track really good? Shall I actually put my money behind this?’ So it’s quantity over quality now. For every wicked track there are 10,000 shit tracks.”
Overall, though, Axwell takes a philosophical view. “We don’t really want to complain about the internet too much — it’s been so positive for us in so many ways. If there was no internet, it’s likely that the Swedish House Mafia wouldn’t be half as big as we are now.”
And they’re still not done — there’s still a far old way for them to go. Now that they’ve comprehensively conquered the world of dance music, the Swedish House Mafia have begun making inroads into the American urban music scene.
“Me and Seb have done a single with [hyped Kanye West protégé] Kid Sister,” confirms Steve, “and we’ve also done a track with Pharrell. I’m feeling that people in that scene aren’t so stressed about their careers any more. They just want to have fun — because at the end of the day, it’s music, it’s supposed to be fun. They wanna come in the studio and see what we do, and we wanna come in and see what they do.”
“As far as the Kid Sister track goes,” says Sebastian, “it’s not really a dance music thing.”
“Well, it’s not a 4/4 beat, no,” Steve agrees, “but the production itself, the sound of it, is ‘dance.’”
DJmag wonders whether the lads consider American hip-hop artists hooking up with dance acts to create fresh new hybrids as the Next Big Thing.
“People are finally starting to wake up to house over there now,” nods Axwell. “The hip-hop artists have always been really clever in snatching up bits of the newest thing, and if house is the newest thing then they’ll want a piece of that pie. Although, actually, maybe house won’t get huge…”
“Oh, it’ll definitely be huge,” counters Sebastian.
“I’m just thinking that maybe house won’t get huge,” Axwell responds, a wild conspiracy cooking in his head, “and the hip-hop artists who sample it will. That’d be one way of them staying on top and keeping the house music down, by sampling it and just fronting it with their faces. Fucking evil plan, huh? [laughs]. Yeah, either that, or house will actually be huge. You’re right.”
Of course, if house does blow up Stateside, the Swedish House Mafia are going to be perfectly positioned to ride those huge waves of success.
“That was the plan,” grins Steve, “that’s why I moved out there!”
“So there is a big plan?” laughs Axwell. “I've been saying we’ve never had one!”
“I saw,” Steve continues, suddenly serious, “that in two years time house is going to be massive in America, and I want to be one of the first guys there when it blows up. There’s a huge potential. If you succeed even a little bit in America, with 300 million people, if you get into the charts with a couple of singles, it’s going to be back to where it was a couple of years ago — you’re going to sell millions of singles. If I'm right, and if the sales kick off there, it’s going to be absolutely massive. I've seen the difference already — from selling 1000 tickets to selling 5000 tickets for a party — in just a few months.”
Walk The Line
At the end of the day, of course, it’s the music that’s got Axwell, Steve and Sebastian to where they are today. It’s incredibly rare for artists to be able to straddle both underground credibility and mainstream commerciality, but that’s exactly what Swedish House Mafia have managed to pull off, time and time again, both separately and in their various collaborative formations. From thrashy electro to pristine pop-house and everything in-between, they really can please all the people all the time.
“We like commercial music,” says Steve, matter-of-factly, “and we like underground music.”
“We want our stuff to reach a lot of people,” nods Axwell, “but we also want it to not sound cheesy. For us, that’s the only line to walk. But yes, sometimes, obviously, it’s hard to manage that production ‘trick’ and to keep a leg on each side of the divide. But you can’t ‘think’ too much when you’re producing songs and you can’t just limit yourself to one style. That would drive you crazy, wouldn’t it? I change my style up so much because I get very easily bored.”
Do they never worry about confusing their fanbase with all the sudden switch-ups in style?
“I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of reactions from people,” Steve notes, “since I’ve starting really bouncing around in styles. Sometimes I might do a prog track, then a techno track, then I move on to a… shit track [laughs]. I was changing my name around for different styles — I still do — but at the end of the day I think it’s kind of important to produce ‘what you are’. When the kids buy tickets to come and see me DJ, that’s what they expect to hear. If you’re producing tracks that don’t sound like what you play as a DJ… well, why would you do that?”
Rewind two days. Ibiza, Pacha, 4am. The crowd are starting to get truly feral as the high-impact house gets heavier and heavier with every mix. As Axwell slams the bass back in following a heroically twisted, filter-mangled breakdown, a kid in the crowd raises his fist skywards — and for a brief moment the two flash beaming, knowing grins at each other from across the club. Axwell turns back to the mixer, and the kid’s head flies back as he throws himself even harder into his dancing. “Best fuckin’ night of my life...”