The springy sound of Justin Bieber’s ‘What Do You Mean?’ owes a debt to producer Kygo’s tropical house movement. He tells Chris Cottingham why he wants to kill the genre he created with debut album ‘Cloud Nine’
There’s no pleasing some people. Twenty-four-year old Norwegian producer Kyrre Gørvell-Dahll, stage name Kygo, is the biggest hype in dance music right now. He helped invent electronic music’s scene of the moment, ‘tropical house’, and is its key figure. Last year, he became the artist to achieve one billion plays on Spotify in the fastest time. But none of it’s enough. “I hate being put in a box labelled ‘tropical house’,” Kygo sighs. When I started making tropical house no-one else was making it. Now, everyone is making it. I want people to see me as a more than just a tropical house producer.”
If you don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, refer to two of last year’s biggest songs, Jack Ü’s remix of ‘What Do You Mean?’ by Justin Bieber, and Felix Jaehn’s remix of ‘Cheerleader’ by OMI.
In one line: tropical house is what EDM did next. In 2013, some younger EDM producers, Kygo among them, started to wonder whether there wasn’t more to life than endless breakdowns and dancefloors filled with bare-chested bros. The result was a pop-house hybrid, filled with flutes, marimbas, sun-kissed hook lines and other supposedly tropical motifs (hence the name). It’s slower than EDM, much more melodic and less testosterone-fuelled. “Yeah, compared to EDM, I feel like there are a lot of girls at my shows,” says Kygo, cutting straight to the heart of tropical house’s success.
We meet on the day Kygo plays the first of two sold-out dates at London’s O2 Academy Brixton. He’s sat backstage, dressed head-to-toe in black, topped off by a trademark backwards baseball cap. In a sing-song Scandi accent punctuated by regular laughs, he expands on why he is already looking past the scene that made his name. “If you do the same thing all the time it’s not very challenging. Everything I’ve done up to this point has been the same vibe, but there’s much more to me than that.”
That explains why Kygo’s debut album, ‘Cloud Nine’, out May 13, is not especially tropical. Recent single, ‘Fragile’, a collaboration with UK rapper Labrinth, is a straight-up, mid-paced pop song built around swelling piano chords and splashy ’80s drums. The cast of guests on ‘Cloud Nine’ tells you a lot about Kygo’s mindset. Ranging from soul man John Legend, to singer-songwriter Tom Odell and Australian indie-folk duo Angus & Julia Stone, it screams: don’t try to pin me down.
Kygo learned to play piano as a kid, something to which he attributes his success. “A lot of producers don’t have any musical education. I couldn’t make the music I make without playing the piano.” When EDM first blew up in 2011, Kygo got into fellow Scandinavians Avicii and Swedish House Mafia, but by the time he started making his own tracks three years ago, he was already bored of the scene. When he released his 2013 breakthrough single ‘Firestone’, he was listening to melancholic house producer Finnebassen, Norwegian electronic duo Lemaitre and jazz great Oliver Nelson. ‘Firestone’ was an instant success, striking a chord with DJs such as Australian Thomas Jack, the man who coined the term ‘tropical house’, and Kygo promptly dropped out of his business degree at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University. Soon, newspapers in Norway were writing articles about him. “My friends told me they didn’t like going out with me any more,” he laughs. “There was so much stuff going on around me, people wanting pictures and getting mobbed in clubs, that we couldn’t just hang out.”
Last year, when Justin Bieber jumped on the tropical house bandwagon with his fourth album ‘Purpose’, he asked Kygo to be involved – but he said no. “They reached out to me for a writing camp,” says Kygo. “When big artists do an album they have a lot of producers in different rooms all writing songs and they go in and pick which track they like. But I didn’t have time. I wanted to focus on my own career.”
Tropical house might be huge, but its success, and Bieber’s involvement, make it the object of a lot of snobbery. Unlike the majority of dance music, it has no roots in clubland. It exists entirely online and at festivals such as Belgium’s Tomorrowland. Coupled with the unashamed poppiness, it makes it an easy target for accusations of fluffiness, that it’s advert music, or, worse, music for shows like Made In Chelsea. Kygo won’t kick the scene that’s been so good to him (“People have different taste in music and that’s how it should be. It would be boring if everyone liked the same thing,” he says), but you get the impression that the reason he’s keen to move on is because he knows there might be some truth in the criticism. “Tropical house is still expanding,” he says. “It’s going to be around for a while because it works so well on the radio, like Justin Bieber. And then it will fuse with other genres. But it needs to expand with new sounds. A lot of big tracks have the same flutes, the same drums. You got to experiment and take it in a new direction.” You heard it here first. Tropical house is hot, but Kygo is hotter.
Catch Kygo spreading sunny vibes in the following fields
May 29 Radio 1’s Big Weekend, Powderham Castle, Exeter
June 10 Summerburst Festival, Stockholm, Sweden
June 11 Summerburst Festival, Helsinki, Finland
June 11 Summerburst Festival, Vilnius, Lithuania
July 2 Open’er Festival, Gdynia-Kosakowo Airfield, Gydnia, Poland
July 8 Kongsberg Jazz Festival, Konsberg, Norway
July 10 Wireless Festival, London