Swedish House Mafia: Billboard Cover Story
Checking in with the reigning dons of the dance scene as they prepare to go their separate ways
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.
There is no alcohol in the green room. There is Cozy Chamomile herbal tea, a fruit bowl, a plate of red velvet cupcakes and a copy of "Art & Sole," a book about sneaker design, with a note that reads "For Seb." There's a TV connected to a Sony PlayStation 3. There's a production assistant, who enters 15 minutes before Swedish House Mafia's expected arrival to turn off the harsh overhead fluorescents and light some pillar candles. But there is no posse, no hangers-on, no waiting party of industry well-wishers who would seemingly turn up for one of the arena-packing act's last performances ever. And, consequently, there is no tequila, vodka or even Red Bull.
SHM + BILLBOARD
"We got handed the key to the city and we said, 'Thank you, that's awesome. There you go.' [Mimes handing key back.] So, it's stupid in many ways" - Axwell
"I think it's a lot of stupid" - Ingrosso
Steve Angello, Sebastian Ingrosso and Axel Hedfors (aka Axwell), the members of Swedish House Mafia, are en route from the San Francisco Airport, where their private plane has just landed. They've opted to make the 30-minute flight back and forth to Los Angeles every night of this five-night stand at the Bill Graham Civic Center (the longest sold-out run for a single act in the venue's history), rather than stay in San Francisco, because L.A. is home, and their wives and children are there. When they finally arrive, Axwell walks in holding the hand of his 3-year-old son, a hip little boy with long hair and red, white and blue sneakers with Mercury wings on the back. "He picked those out himself," Angello says.
The men of today's Swedish House Mafia are very different from the ones who first said hello to the U.S. EDM industry six years ago, three of countless European DJ/producers looking to make something of their modest awareness stateside. Back then, they were in their 20s, and the party was the thing: the party, the after-party and the party after that. There was plenty of tequila, planes jetting from one international dance music hot spot to another, summers in Ibiza and winters in Miami. But nothing was that serious, because not much was at stake: A $7,000 nightclub gig, a track release on one of their digital-only labels, a slot at a small festival.
Now, EDM is big business, and SHM is one of its most rapid and mysterious success stories. After years of solo gigs and occasional one-offs under the SHM banner, the group released its first track, "One," in May 2010. Five more singles make up the total sum of its original output. The latest, sweeping dance ballad "Don't You Worry Child," is its biggest hit yet, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 with more than 1.9 million copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In December 2011, SHM became the first DJ act to headline New York's Madison Square Garden, selling it out in nine minutes. It has an international sponsorship deal with Absolut Vodka, including a film-quality TV spot featuring the group's members and one of its six singles, "Greyhound," made especially for the brand. It put all 52 dates of its international farewell One Last Tour on sale on the same day, and sold them out in short order. In the United States alone, there's 15 shows at seven venues, all with eye-popping pyrotechnics aimed to be, as Axwell says, "the best party of your life." On Feb. 28, SHM lit up the New York skyline in a different way: To mark Black Tie Rave, SHM's benefit for Hurricane Sandy victims, the city's Empire State Building displayed the colors of the Swedish flag. Not bad for a gang of DJs with funny names.
So when SHM announced in June 2012, six months after its original MSG triumph, that it was over-the members would continue as solo artists, but Swedish House Mafia would be no more-fans were stunned. "We came, we raved, we loved," read a statement on its website. When it closes Miami's Ultra Music Festival on March 27, its set will purportedly be its last ever as a group.
As the kiddie-proof Zen of the Graham green room shows, "the boys"-as everyone on their team refers to them-have different priorities than they did even a few years ago. (Ingrosso, 29, and Angello, 30, each have two daughters under the age of 3, while Axwell, 35, is expecting his second son.) And while that's a factor, it's not why they've decided to call it quits at the peak of their power, right when they're about to go from a cool EDM act to a major force in music. The gravity of the decision isn't lost on the trio.
"We're letting go of something huge," Axwell admits. "We got handed the key to the city and we said, 'Thank you, that's awesome. There you go.' [Mimes handing key back.] So, it's stupid in many ways. It's also a little bit refreshing."
"I think it's a lot of stupid," Ingrosso cracks.
The story of how Swedish House Mafia separated itself from the pack of DJ hopefuls to find success on its own terms is something of an epic romance, with unlikely heroes, dogged idealism, passionate breakups (and makeups) and, now, the proverbial ride into the sunset. Along the way, the act and its team pushed the boundaries of the 360 deal, dismantled the notion that big acts need big albums and introduced corporate branding to artist development. Yet it's SHM's final act-the walking away-that might resonate the loudest from its brief, brilliant career.
Also part of the story is the group's behind-the-scenes fourth member: manager Amy Thomson. "She's the driving force for any of this to ever take place," Axwell says. "She was the reason we found ourselves in the studio making 'One' together. She's definitely an equal member."
"We didn't think that she was so important until we didn't have her anymore," Ingrosso adds. "It's like any relationship: You don't know what you have until you lose it."
The band cut ties with Thomson, its first and only manager, in December 2011-just before the MSG gig-and joined Three Six Zero, home to Deadmau5 and a Roc Nation affiliate. But SHM left six months later, and Thomson reunited with the group last summer.
"We had a massive fucking argument, and then we massively fixed it," Thomson says.