“Protein bar, fruit juice, sparkling water, tea?” In a plush dressing room at Sydney Showground, Sebastian Ingrosso is offering me the spoils of Swedish House Mafia’s rider. “Not very rock star,” he admits. It’s two hours till show-time and all is efficiently calm behind the scenes. Outside, the crowd in the Showground is swelling, from the front-and-centre diehards right back to the stands. Goodwill is a tiny figure at the foot of a colossal, AC/DC-worthy stage. (“I had a list printed out of every record from them as a group, individually and all their labels, so I didn’t make a very public mistake in my set,” he later told me about the warm-up experience.)
The dressing room looks down on the arena, and Ingrosso strolls to the window to survey the scene. “What time are we playing?” Axwell asks breezily from the couch where he’s lounging across from Steve Angello. “8:45?” Not counting Angello’s backwards-turned red cap, the trio’s in all-black uniform. They could pass for stage-hands, if stage-hands also got around in leather jackets. For a show of this scale, the atmosphere around the Swedish House Mafia is unusually stress-free. No one is darting around making demands. Everything feels coolly in control. With over 20 shows on the One Last Tour schedule before this one, Team SHM knows the ropes.
“When we did the European run, we were bringing everything, even the sound system,” Angello says. “We’d just come into a clear, empty stadium.”
“We had 11 trucks,” Ingrosso adds. “We had all the LED walls. They had four hours to break down the whole structure, into 11 trucks, then onto the next European city.”
A few years back, it seemed the Swedish House Mafia were deliberately playing up the superstar DJ-diva clichés in the Take One documentary. There was fuming at promoters and festival production, an Ingrosso meltdown at not getting his own car to drive to Ultra Music Festival and the hopeful catch-phrase “wanna party?” used on most girls. The Guardian titled its review of the movie, ‘This Isn’t Spinal Tap, This Is Swedish House Mafia’. Three years on, the trio looks healthier and in good spirits. They know inthemix well and want to talk freely.
“We don’t just press play,” says Ingrosso with a grin just two minutes into our sit-down. This has been one of those easy digs at the Swedish House Mafia: it’s all theatre up there. The criticism hasn’t been lost on the three DJs. Recently they’ve added electronic drums to the booth, and during the show you can spot Ax’ onstage channelling Arno from Booka Shade.
“Sometimes we hit each other with the drum-sticks too,” Axwell quips, before picking up from Ingrosso. “Let me take this. We definitely do not just press play. We’ve always known how to DJ – we know how to mix, we know how to beat-match. As far as us planning our set, when we have these songs that we want to play – be it Stockholm, or be it in Australia – we don’t want to come to Australia and say, well, we played Save The World in Stockholm, so we can’t play it here.”
Angello interjects. “You can’t forget one thing – it’s a concert. People forget the format we’re working in. If this was Daft Punk or Deadmau5, you watch them perform and it’s the same from night to night. People just assume that a DJ would mix it up and do things on the fly, but they forget that this is not a 300-person club. This is a sold-out concert.”
“Some tracks just work in key together, and some do not arrangement-wise,” Ingrosso adds. “I don’t think that Coldplay plays a show in London, goes back to the hotel and writes 12 new songs before the next set.”
“Just to switch up the order for the sake of it does not make sense to us,” Axwell says. “We have live visuals, lasers and effects teams, so we want to give them the best opportunity to be synchronised. There’s no use in doing a half-arsed show. It’s either tight, or not tight. We assume that people who came to our show in Stockholm will not come to Melbourne.”
A woman walks in with a tray. “Yes, you’ve gotta see this rock and roll rider,” Angello announces gleefully. “Green tea and lattes!” Axwell requests a Red Bull. This looks as hardcore as tonight is going to get. On this tour, adrenaline is standing in for vodka.
“We were sitting in Seb’s room after last night’s show just…doing nothing,” Angello says. “It’s kind of weird. A weird transition from this” – he points outside to the arena – “into a hotel room. Before, when I used to drink a lot, it was different, because you came back to the hotel wasted and just passed out. Now you’re reflecting, thinking and just taking in what happened. Even if I wasn’t drinking a big amount every show, I was drinking something. If you put that over 200 shows a year, that’s a lot of alcohol. So I had to decide before this tour, OK, that’s it for me. Because honestly, we live a fucked-up life. It has not been the healthiest. You shouldn’t take that for granted, and when I had kids I realised, OK, now I want to live forever.”
A conversation with the Swedish House Mafia is an all-in, the guys finishing each other’s sentences, chipping in asides and laughing at inside jokes. It’s the sign of three personalities used to close proximity. As Angello tells it, the three DJs grew up in Sweden’s techno scene alongside the likes of Adam Beyer, Thomas Krome and Carl Lekebusch. Ingrosso’s father owned two record labels, and as a teenager, Sebastian was often around music studios. It wasn’t easy for young DJs to throw parties, as “the police classified all dance events as drug events”.
Ingrosso, Angello, Axwell and their friend Eric Prydz began DJing every week at a gay club called the Rainbow Room, with a capacity of no more than 100 people. “The Rainbow Room made us into what we are,” inthemix heard Angello tell the EDMBiz conference last June. “We were guys playing vinyl, everybody wasted, couldn’t mix, the needles were sliding.” The scene in Sweden had a ceiling, so the guys began chasing international bookings. “We were playing in Sweden, but no one really gave a fuck,” Ingrosso recalls. “Even if we didn’t think about it yet, we worked hard to get a Swedish quality to our own sound.”
The bookings outside Stockholm gathered speed throughout the 2000s (Steve Angello memorably played at 4pm on the Subliminal Stage at the first-ever Future Music Festival in 2006), but the ‘Swedish House Mafia’ didn’t crystallise until later. “When we would bring people to Sweden to DJ with us, they’d ask, ‘So what are you guys, some kind of house mafia?’,” Angello told EDMBiz. “We didn’t use the name. Then one day Pete Tong heard about that story and said, ‘I’ve heard you’re the Swedish House Mafia.’ And we were like, OK, whatever.”
Early releases from the trio, like Get Dumb and Leave The World Behind, were billed as ‘Axwell, Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso’, not Swedish House Mafia (Laidback Luke featured on both, as well). And then, an abridged history of what happened from the juggernaut going official: One (Your Name), Miami 2 Ibiza, the Take One documentary with its climax closing the Ultra mainstage, an ascendant 2011 with Save The World, road-blocks each week at their Ibiza residency, the sold-out Masquerade Motel on Miami Beach, Antidote with Knife Party, then the sudden arrival of One Last Tour. It’s all been capped off by a certified blockbuster single in Don’t You Worry Child.
In March, the tour comes to a close back on the Ultra Music Festival mainstage in Miami. “I think we will be serious that day,” Axwell says. Ingrosso nods. “We will be serious, emotional and fucking drunk.”
“It’ll be good to have a breather,” Axwell adds on the switch back to full-time solo careers. “Because we’ve always played catch-up with Swedish House Mafia – a lot of commitments, a lot of schedules. Now I feel we’ll have time to clear the desk. The formality of Swedish House Mafia is gone, and everyone expected so much from the releases. Now we are more free.”
“We will still have unofficial Swedish House Mafia barbeques,” adds Angello.
The incongruity of going from the Rainbow Room to arenas isn’t lost on the DJs. They seem genuinely awed by it all. What’s the biggest moment of the set? “It’s Don’t You Worry Child,” Axwell responds without a beat. “When the first drop goes, everyone is like ‘Bahhhh!’ Then the chords come in. You hear like a two step rocket. Guys scream at the ‘bfffffff’, then the girls go ‘wahhhhh’ at the chords.” They all look satisfied with that description.
“It was pretty dramatic in Melbourne,” Angello says. “Raining so much, and the whole venue just turned into a zoo. People go all in, in this very animal way. It’s crazy.”
I feel like our time should be up, but the guys want to keep talking. In March, they’re attending the Grammys, but won’t be performing – probably a wise choice after last year’s defective ‘EDM’ segment. “The Grammys would probably feel like a monkey in a cage kind of situation,” Axwell says. We move onto the phenomenon of DJs using the mic.
Ingrosso: “I never took the mic when I played with these guys, now I’m taking it two, three times. Imagine if we were just up there drinking tequila.”
Axwell: “It’s another level of communicating with the crowd. If you have 30, 40 thousand people in front of you, you’d like every possible option to communicate with them. It would be weird not to. There’s beauty in people not doing it, obviously. If Daft Punk took the mic, it’d be fucked up.” He effects a French accent. ”’Ello, ve are Daft Punk from France, make some fucking noise!’”
So begins a 15-minute discussion about the genius of Daft Punk, before the tour manager appears (again: no sign of mounting stress, despite our lengthy interview). “Meet and greets?” Ingrosso says. Yes, they’re told: “20 people in a room to meet you, followed by 20 people in the next room to meet you.”
“You have a great website,” Ingrosso says as they file out. “I’ve liked it since a lot of years back. Axwell introduced it to me.”
Ten minutes later, they’re back amongst the protein bars and free-flowing sparkling water of the dressing room. Is it weird, I ask, to be bounced around from interviews to meet and greets, and always be ‘on’? “Right now, I do feel more robot than human,” Ingrosso says sincerely. At home in Stockholm, where the Swedish House Mafia sold out the Friends Arena three times over last November, Ingrosso’s Christmas shopping trip fast became just about photos with fans. All three laugh about the many interviews that begin with, “Describe your music.” They disappear onto the balcony, talking excitedly in Swedish, to soak it up. One hour till show-time.
30 minutes later, on their way to the stage, there’s another quick photo opp in the corridor. “Congratulations on the Grammy,” a guy says after them. “We haven’t won it yet!” Ingrosso replies cheerily, and then they’re gone.
The next time I see the Swedish House Mafia, they’re distant silhouettes against a vast LED wall. Suspended above the luminescent DJ booth are two concave panels of pulsing visuals, giving the stage a mesmeric depth. We Come We Rave We Love has thundered out across the arena, straight into Greyhound, and Sydney Showground is a sea of raised hands. A tremendous whip-crack of energy has coursed through the place.
Even for a show this bombastic, though, there’s a build-up of sorts to the hit-parade of the second hour. Confetti gushes through the air, CO2 cannons erupt, lasers dart over heads right back to the stands and the screens are a constant whir of colour. When Angello gets on the mic to conduct a mass sit-down and jump-up during Don’t You Worry Child, the sight is electric. Every track is unapologetically huge: case in point, the snippet of Faithless’s Insomnia that dispenses with the build-up and goes straight to the euphoric, trance-y pay-off.
When Save The World hits, with its shower of flames and blitzkrieg of production, the guy next to me worries about his “overdose of epic”. The stage goes dark and three white dots light up the booth. It’s been a whole lot of stimulation in two whirlwind hours. As Angello put it in the dressing room, “It takes a long time for us to fall asleep afterwards.”
Swedish House Mafia’s Until Now mix album is out now on EMI Records.