If everything had gone as planned, on Sept. 29, Tim Bergling, otherwise known as 25-year-old EDM superstar Avicii, would have been making his way from a headlining gig at TomorrowWorld in Atlanta to another at Storm Festival in Shanghai. Instead, he’s resting at home in Stockholm. Three weeks ago, on Sept. 8, Avicii canceled all tour dates and appearances to fully heal from the lingering effects of having his gall bladder and appendix removed in March.
“Since my operation, I’d just been going and going,” says Avicii in his first interview since the cancellations. “I was dropping weight. I needed to take a break.”
Avicii’s troubles began in January 2012, when he was hospitalized in New York for 11 days with acute pancreatitis, reportedly caused by the heavy drinking that can be hard to avoid when you spend most of your waking hours in bottle-service clubs and first-class flights. The condition flared up again in March 2013, prompting show cancellations and a hospital stay in Australia, where doctors urged him to have his gallbladder removed. He declined, citing preparations for his hit debut LP, True, which arrived that September and topped Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart for six weeks. Avicii stopped drinking, but this past March, stomach pains forced him to pull out of Miami’s Ultra Music Festival. He learned that not only had his pancreas issues returned, his appendix had burst. Avicii had it and, finally, his gall bladder removed, but quickly returned to his nonstop schedule. “I took a month off, but it wasn’t really a month off,” he says. “I was in the studio 12 hours a day, and then went right back to touring. It’s hard to say no in this industry. You want to play everything and be everywhere.”
During the summer, Avicii’s gaunt appearance worried observers. Though festival gigs, Las Vegas residencies and deals with Coca-Cola, Ralph Lauren and others contributed to an empire estimated to net him $24 million this year, it was finally time to hit pause. Now, he says, “I’m going to try to slow it down. Taking a break was the absolute best thing I’ve done. I’m doing better and better.” He’s being tended to by “friends and family,” including his girlfriend, model-blogger Racquel Bettencourt.
But for Avicii, who says he’s “always had a sense of rush,” slowing things down is relative. On Friday (Oct. 3), he released new single “The Days” (listen below), a guitar-driven, 1980s power ballad-on-Molly featuring guest vocals from Robbie Williams. It’s the first in a planned series of singles previewing the follow-up to True, tentatively due in early spring 2015. Avicii’s pioneering debut incorporated folk and bluegrass into EDM — particularly on runaway smash “Wake Me Up!,” which hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. But he describes the new project as rock. “I wanted to take a step away from ‘Wake Me Up!’ and the folky stuff to explore my influences growing up,” he says, citing Toto and Queen. “There’s no limitations.”
He’s taking his new “organic” rock approach so seriously, in fact, that he has taken up guitar and keyboards, in between fine-tuning and whittling down some 60-odd completed songs, many featuring left-field guests: Coldplay‘s Chris Martin, Green Day‘s Billie Joe Armstrong, System of a Down‘s Serj Tankian, Wyclef Jean and Matisyahu number among the planned vocalists.
David Massey, president of Island Records, thinks the album could be Avicii’s David Bowie moment. “He kept surprising people with new directions that were innovative yet incredibly accessible. I want this to be the biggest album in this genre, and if anyone can do that, it’s Tim.”
But before Avicii returns to making EDM history, manager Ash Pournouri is making sure his star client maintains his health. “We’ll hold everything off until Tim is completely back on track,” says Pournouri. “We’re not going to make any presumptions about when that will happen. We’re just keeping an eye on him and when he’s going to be completely healthy so we don’t have to deal with any of this ever again.”
As for Avicii, he misses his globetrotting career, but he knows he’s making the right move. “For once in my life, I don’t feel the rush to do anything. I can take my time and focus 100 percent on the album, which has always been where my first passion really lies — in the music.”
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of Billboard.