On the streets of Stockholm, the faces of Axel “Axwell” Hedfors and Sebastian Ingrosso loom down from flags high on almost every lamp post. The pair, who dominated the global explosion of dance music as two-thirds of the DJ supergroup Swedish House Mafia, are returning to reassert their status as godfather dons of the brash scene known as EDM. They perform their first London show as the duo Axwell & Ingrosso at Alexandra Palace next weekend. Don’t expect a calm comeback.
“England has always been super important to us,” says Axwell, 37. “In some countries they love EDM for a while and then it wears off. In England you’re more used to it, but not tired of it. Every time we come we remember: this is how it’s supposed to be.”
Swedish House Mafia announced their split in 2012 after five UK top 10 singles, including the Tinie Tempah collaboration Miami 2 Ibiza and their number one, Don’t You Worry Child. They sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden in 10 minutes and played their British farewell show to 65,000 fans at Milton Keynes Bowl. It was an amicable divorce from third member Steve Angello, they insist today, forced by his desire to base himself in LA while the other two remained in Stockholm. A feature-length documentary, Leave the World Behind, showed them finding that life amid the strobes and pyrotechnics of the professional party starter is not entirely wonderful.
But there’s almost no sign of that contemplative vibe today as they bound into their Swedish record company, bursting with puppyish enthusiasm for the future. Both heavily stubbled, with hair licking their shoulders, pricey-looking watches on their wrists and box-fresh trainers on their feet, they have a summer of massive gigs in the diary and then, in September, a debut album. Swedish House Mafia never made one, just two mix albums that included a handful of original songs.
“The timing was so good to break it up, we couldn’t resist,” says Axwell of their big send-off. “We didn’t think it through so much, it just got us so excited. It’s not the greatest decision of mankind, some might say, but at the same time, it ended on a peak.”
The splintering doesn’t seem to have affected their status. The concerts are still much the same size, and now they can appear on the annual Forbes DJ rich list of “Electronic Cash Kings” separately. The business mag estimates that Axwell and Ingrosso made around $10 million each last year, with Angello on $12 million. They’ve made a few fun investments, including a range of alcoholic ice lollies called N’Ice which are still in the prototype stage, an Italian red wine which they import and rebrand, and two adjacent Italian restaurants in Stockholm named Un Poco. I ate in the more casual one this week and it’s a classy, low lit joint, full of dark wood and solid glassware. If you don’t care for their music, I recommend their linguine with meatballs.
Angello has a debut solo album coming soon as well. Why not release them on the same day, Blur vs Oasis style? “That wouldn’t be fair on him,” says Ingrosso, 32. He’s joking, but for all the smiles you wouldn’t want to cross him. He’s a big guy with a low voice who suits the role of action hero in the pair’s videos for their new songs Can’t Hold Us Down and On My Way. You can watch them having a bloody fist fight, a screeching car chase and a slow motion dash from an explosion on YouTube.
The clips suit their unsubtle style: bull in a china shop music forever on its way up to a thunderous roar of electronics. In concert, in between the fireworks, they’ll mix in EDM versions of Rage Against the Machine’s furious rock anthem Killing in the Name Of and Metallica’s Enter Sandman. They tell me that the best place to listen to their album for the first time will be in the car, and probably aren’t picturing my Ford family wagon. “If one song is a little bit down then you can drive through a rainy forest and chill, and when a kicker comes on you can, yaaargh!” says Axwell, miming a full depression of an accelerator pedal. He plays me a bizarre new song called Dark River on his smashed iPhone, which features a folky guitar, high-pitched vocals and whistling. “That’s a school bell,” he says about one key noise at the climax. “It was that or a monkey.”
“We want to make something simple but we don’t want to make something obvious,” explains Ingrosso. So far they’ve succeeded in making songs that thrill and deafen in the arenas but can also brighten up daytime radio. Pharrell Williams and the rapper Pusha T will appear on the album. I tell them that their supremely catchy next single, Sun is Shining, sounds like a pure summer pop song rather than an EDM banger, and earn a high five: “Thank you! Do you think so?”
Not that they want to spend too much time worrying about the opinions of critics. In a recent New York Times interview, Ingrosso appeared to call underground dance music “amateur” and won himself a barrage of internet abuse. He ended up backtracking at length online: “We love all forms of music, underground or mainstream, and if you know anything about us you know very well we’ve paid our underground dues enough, and for us to be ‘bashing’ and condemning where we come from is just ridiculous.”
“It seems to be okay to pick on people that’s having some sort of success. That’s the norm,” says Axwell today. “That’s how it was when we were Swedish House Mafia too. There was tonnes of shit coming our way for years.”
I agree that it’s practically impossible to be hugely commercially successful and universally liked. “Yeah. I don’t really think about it that much,” says Ingrosso.
There are certainly nicer things to think about. Both have wives and two young children at home. Ingrosso’s daughters put his music on, stand at the windowsill and mime the ear-clutching, air-punching moves of daddy’s crazy job. The pair are wealthy enough to take their feet off the accelerator, but according to the bigger man, “I’m more hungry now than before.”
“We don’t have that Sunday anxiety of people that need to go to work on Monday,” says Axwell. “We have Sunday happiness about going to work. That’s the best freedom, to be able to do what you want.” They sound even more upbeat than their songs. The Mafia may have disbanded, but the sun is shining again for these buoyant Swedes and they’re going to be unstoppable this summer.
June 6, Alexandra Palace, N22 (0870 444 5556, alexandrapalace.com)