One Last Rave: Backstage with Swedish House Mafia

“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.”

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