Swedish House Mafia: “Dance music is freedom – that’s our language”

Returning with their first proper album ‘Paradise Again’, the dance giants talk to NME about brotherhood, the dark side of EDM, and doing this for the love, never the money

“These are exciting times,” Swedish House Mafia’s Steve Angello tells NME from a Stockholm studio on a Zoom call with his two bandmates, as we talk up the dance powerhouse’s long-awaited return to their throne. “We haven’t come back to reclaim our title because we never lost it.” His bandmate Axwell agrees: “We’re still the biggest, so it’s fine.”

Swedish House Mafia are the rockstars of the dance music world, and they sure as hell talk a good game. A collaboration between the established and wildly successful DJs Axwell (born Axel Hedfors), Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso, the supergroup first announced themselves in 2008 and quickly changed the world of popular music forever. In 2010 they broke through with the singles ‘One’ and the Tinie Tempah-featuring ‘Miami 2 Ibiza’ as their pulsating, progressive take on house music spearheaded an EDM boom that dominated the mainstream for the next decade. Bangers like ‘Save The World’ and ‘Don’t You Worry Child’ inspired a generation of teenagers to abandon the mosh-pit in favour of raves.

NME Cover 2021 Swedish House Mafia
Credit: Therese Öhrvall

Five years after they formed, however, Swedish House Mafia broke up at the very height of their popularity. Unsure how to balance the demands of the group with their solo projects, Axwell says that “maybe we weren’t focused enough, or didn’t know what to do”. Either way, two months after closing out Coachella’s mainstage after headliners The Black Keys, they announced their farewell tour.

“Things did not happen overnight for us, but towards the end we felt like it was hard to feed the monster that was Swedish House Mafia,” says Axwell. “We’ve always made music that feeds off excitement and energies. The way that Swedish House Mafia was going though, it had to be much more controlled to feed the animal it had become. We all had the realisation of: ‘Wait, is this now work?’ The band started to feel like an office job.”

Despite the dizzying fame and fortune that comes with dance music success, the three friends insist that “Swedish House Mafia was never a business” and they “never gave a fuck about the money”, says Angello. Apparently, their farewell tour grossed $200million but cost them $210million, but it was cool because they were “running after our dreams”. In that spirit, the band decided that “the most exciting thing to do was to quit”.

NME Cover 2021 Swedish House Mafia
Swedish House Mafia on the cover of NME

Their amicable 2013 split allowed the DJs to explore new opportunities, with Angello pursuing his own thing while the other two teamed up as Axwell /\ Ingrosso. Still, the lure of Swedish House Mafia never went away.

The trio first reunited in 2018 for a surprise show at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, and began working on music once again. The dramatic and electrifying single ‘It Gets Better’ eventually arrived in July of this year, the group’s first new release in nearly a decade, to preview their upcoming new album ‘Paradise Again’ and world tour.

They’re back to finish what they started. For Angello, the plan was always world domination. “As an artist, you always have big goals,” he admits. “You want the whole world to hear your songs, you want kids to resonate with your music and you want to be the biggest thing around. It’s a long road to get there: we’ve all been doing this for over 20 years, but the ambition was always there.”

NME Cover 2021 Swedish House Mafia
Credit: Therese Öhrvall

There was a period following the 2013 split where Angello didn’t talk to the others, but it wasn’t because he was bitter: he was just busy moving his family to Los Angeles. “We grew up together,” he explains. “Sure, sometimes you don’t talk for a while, but the second we got together it didn’t feel like any time had passed. That shows the depth of brotherhood.”

It’s that bond that inspired their reunion. Once Angello had moved back to Sweden following Trump’s 2016 election, he met up with Axwell and Ingrosso and it immediately felt natural. They longed to be “standing on stage as three brothers again,” explains Angello.

“Some songs made us want to cry, dance and hug, while others make you want to drive your car straight into a wall” – Ingrosso

But after everything they’ve achieved, what would the project mean this time? In secret, they returned to the studio and started making new music. “It was important for us to not just tour the legacy,” says Ingrosso. “Of course we’re going to play our old music because we still like it, but we wanted to challenge ourselves, challenge the fans and challenge the sound. The reunion was never going to just be a tour because we were so excited about the idea of doing something new.”

They spent two years in existential talks about what SHM was going to be heading into the future, before the eureka! moment came with ‘It Gets Better’. “It just clicked,” says Angello. “We looked at each other and knew: this is some new shit. This is something original. It had that emotion, that melancholic vibe, and when we listened to it loud, it bangs.”

NME Cover 2021 Swedish House Mafia
Credit: Therese Öhrvall

The track was the first taster of ‘Paradise Again’, Swedish House Mafia’s first proper album. While 2010’s ‘Until One’ and 2012’s ‘Until Now’ were both singles collections, ‘Paradise Again’ is “a whole body of work”, according to Angello. Well, according to Ingrosso, Swedish House Mafia actually made four albums that became one after writing 45 songs. “They might become something else someday,” he starts, explaining that the vibe of some of those tracks just wasn’t right for the record.

This album, named after the feeling of being on stage together again, is “an invitation into our world”, according to Angello.

“In the past we put out single after single, and it was almost like we were chasing something,” says Ingrosso. But, because of the pandemic, the Swedes had nothing but time. “When Steve first said, ‘We need to make an album’, I wanted to jump out the window,” he continues. “Swedish House Mafia have never made an album before, and historically it takes us a long time to even make a song. We’re really happy with what it’s become, though – we can’t wait to give it to the world.”

“You want the whole world to hear your songs, you want kids to resonate with your music and you want to be the biggest thing around” – Angello

As ambitious a departure as this record might sound from Swedish House Mafia, Ingrosso insists that it still has their DNA of “combining Scandinavian melodies with dark production and hard sounds”.

“We’re always searching for that little bass note that makes your knees go weak,” he explains. “In the studio, some songs made us want to cry, dance and hug, because it felt like the best four minutes of the whole year, while others, as Steve says, make you want to drive your car straight into a wall.“

So are Swedish House Mafia using ‘Paradise Again’ to prove themselves as artists?

“Not necessarily,” says Angello. “This is a love story between us.”

Axwell adds: “We’ll do our best, though. The one thing you can always count on is the fact we will never do anything half-arsed.”

NME Cover 2021 Swedish House Mafia
Credit: Therese Öhrvall

With that drive and “a vision we wanted to show the world”, Ingrosso explains how they found themselves working with “people that maybe you wouldn’t think we’d have worked with”, a cast that they tell us is made up of less famous names and household superstars. Case in point: The Weeknd, who features on their recent single ‘Moth To A Flame’. The smouldering, cinematic and surprisingly menacing track was an instant smash when it was released in October, racking up over 40million streams in under two weeks.

“Working with Abel [Tesfaye] is one of the proudest moments of my life,” says Ingrosso. “It was a dream, and the fact we were all together in the studio, rather than sending each other beats via email, was mind-blowing. His voice and his way of writing music is incredible, and sonically we knew when our dark, melodic side met his, something interesting would happen.”

“The one thing you can always count on is the fact we will never do anything half-arsed”– Axwell

“To be honest with you, we don’t really connect with many artists and we don’t really listen to much of what’s in the Top 50. So to make a song with an artist just because of their popularity wouldn’t be real,” he continues. “But we’ve been listening to The Weeknd since day one. We’ve always loved his music, so it made sense. He’s not just one of the biggest artists in the world, he’s one of the best.”

The band are, however, more cagey about who else appears on the album because they’re still finalising everything, but it won’t be long until we find out. “You’ll be the first to know, I promise,” laughs Ingrosso.

While Swedish House Mafia have been away, the EDM bubble has noticeably burst. Big room house is once again a rarity on mainstream radio, hedonistic raves were killed by money and VIP parties, and new superstar DJs are few and far between.

NME Cover 2021 Swedish House Mafia
Credit: Alexander Wessely

Despite this, Swedish House Mafia don’t seem fazed as they’ve always weathered the storm. “It doesn’t really matter,” says Angello. “When we first came through, people weren’t making the type of music we were. It was pretty original back then, and then obviously a lot of people followed that. We did our own shows, though, and we weren’t too affected by changes in the scene. We’re just an act that does its own thing.”

“When you say the dance music scene has changed…” starts Axwell, before Angello encourages him “to just say it,” knowing what’s coming. “I don’t know if the scene has changed, and maybe that’s the problem. We’ve changed, though.”

The dark side of the dance world has also shown itself over the past few years. Avicii, the spiritual successor to Swedish House Mafia’s throne, took his own life in 2018 at the age of 28. It’s a tragedy that struck home as much with the trio as it did with everyone else. “There is a lot of pressure mentally when you’re coming up,” starts Angello. “It’s a mindfuck. When you rise to the top very fast, it can be really dangerous.”

“We’ve taken drugs, drank too much and partied for 345 days of the year. Sometimes I thank God that I survived, and you learn from that” – Ingrosso

Ingrosso also recalls “those close calls to fucking up” around the pitfalls of the scene. “We’ve taken drugs, drank too much and partied for 345 days of the year,” he admits. “Sometimes I thank God that I survived, and you learn from that. If you get a second chance, you take it. But I’m also really blessed to have these two guys next to me. I know I can talk to them about anything, but for solo artists, surrounded by people who just want to suck their blood, that’s hard.”

The band aren’t sure there’s much the industry as a whole can do to make things better, either. “Everything is moving so fast and you have to keep everything on point,” says Axwell. “When we started out, all we needed to worry about was vinyl and maybe a website. But now you need to be number one on TikTok, Instagram, have your own cryptocoin and a six-pack. There’s so much going on and it all moves so quickly. Unless you can slow down the pace of the world, I don’t know what can be done.”

“You need great people around you,” says Angello. “We’ve had shitty people around us throughout the years, making you do stuff you don’t want to do and pushing you to levels you feel are bad for you. But, at the same time, that helped make this successful. We’re sitting here because of that experience, but we always had each other.”

NME Cover 2021 Swedish House Mafia
Credit: Alexander Wessely

That fraternal connection has got them through a lot. Despite Swedish House Mafia’s hysterical popularity, they haven’t been without their critics. Numerous rock bands have slated EDM throughout the years, claiming that it wasn’t real music and little more than pressing a button on a laptop. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler gave a shout-out to “all the bands still playing actual instruments” at Coachella 2014, Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins called the music “depressing” while Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell was less subtle, saying: “I hate EDM. I want to vomit it out of my nostrils”. Ouch.

“What rock musicians need to understand is that we spend just as much time practicing with synthesisers and beats as they do practising the guitar,” says Ingrosso. “It’s hard to understand change, but we all need to ready ourselves because there’s a 12-year-old producer making a smash album on their iPhone using an app we’ve never heard of before. There’s always something new. We welcome it. If someone comes up making music that’s different, we’ll only be inspired by that.”

Angello, meanwhile, describes the backlash as “just a lot of ignorance”. “People don’t know what we do or how many hours we put in in the studio, which is fine – but you don’t see us asking why the fuck some old rock band is headlining a festival. Things change.”

NME Cover 2021 Swedish House Mafia
Credit: Alexander Wessely

“We got inspired by bands like Metallica, Rage Against The Machine, Pink Floyd and Soundgarden. If you listen to ‘Greyhound’, that’s a classic rock riff, and the intro to ‘It Gets Better’ is raging,” says Ingrosso before singing the guitar line. Axwell agrees: “I just love it when worlds clash. That’s the fun part of art: taking something, fucking it up [and] making something else.”

Still, as Angello protests: “Dance music is freedom. That’s our language. You can go and let everything out.” Inspiring abandon on the dancefloor is something that Swedes do so well, be that Robyn or another group of returning pop giants. “ABBA are definitely the second biggest Swedish act, after us,” says Angelo, as Axwell jokes: “Yeah, they were probably really nervous about coming back after they realised we were also back!”

While they confess that they’d love to have a legacy like the ’70s legends, their biggest test yet lies ahead of them. Next year Swedish House Mafia will take their first proper album across the globe, starting off with what’s sure to be an phenomenal, euphoric and overdue headline slot at Coachella 2022, alongside Travis Scott and Rage Against The Machine.

“I’m nervous about that first time we get back on stage because of how much energy and emotion there will be,” Angello says. “It’s going to be an incredible feeling.” The band have spent a year working on their “different, cool and new” live set-up, with Ingrosso promising that “it’s going to be one hell of a fucking ride”.

Right now, Swedish House Mafia’s main ambition is to finish the album – and then they’ve only got their own limits to break. “Like I said earlier, you always gravitate towards something bigger,” says Angello. “This is just the beginning.”

‘Moth To A Flame’ by Swedish House Mafia featuring The Weeknd is out now via Republic Records. ‘Paradise Again’ is expected later in 2022, ahead of a world tour. Visit here for tickets and information.