In becoming ever more strident and excessive, the chart-topping strain of dance music known as EDM may finally have hit a brick wall – albeit a wall adorned with several hundred lasers, strobes, confetti cannons and stadium-sized video screens. Where is the scene looking next? To a quiet Norwegian in a backwards baseball cap who plays slow songs on the grand piano, of course.
Kyrre Gorvell-Dahll, who calls himself Kygo, makes music that lingers around the 100 beats-per-minute mark (conventional house music is usually 128bpm) and only played his first DJ set in early 2014, after online buzz about his highly melodic remixes reached such a cacophony that he had to show his face. His sound gets called “tropical house” (though not by him – he’s of the “It’s just music” school) and is characterised by restrained beats topped with piano and washes of World Music-inspired instrumentation. It can get a bit Pan Pipe Moods, especially on his recent single Stole the Show, yet from the reaction he gets at his shows he could be a mighty rock god.
“I knew it was slow,” the 23-year-old from Bergen tells me of his first experiments with shifting down a gear. “When I made it I was thinking about people maybe sitting in the grass or on a beach and having a beer. I wasn’t thinking about playing in a club where people would jump up and down, but actually they do.”
When we meet, he’s busy at the grand piano in Chiswick’s prestigious Metropolis Studios, reworking his top 10 single from the spring, Firestone, into semi-classical form for a major advert that will soon be unavoidable on TV. He looks comfortable on the stool, carrying on messing around on the keys between takes. Piano lessons from the age of six to 16 mean he prefers to think of himself as a pianist, not a DJ. “I feel better on stage when I’m playing the keyboard. I’ve only been DJing for a year and a half, so I can’t compare to the people who’ve been doing it for 20 years. But the piano, that’s what I’m actually good at.”
This year he moved on from DJ sets to full live shows. He makes his live London debut next week at the 3,300-capacity Roundhouse, its size an indication of the scale of his rapid rise. Fans will go wild to singles such as the ballad Nothing Left, sung by Rudimental collaborator Will Heard, and the many remixes that first sparked attention in 2013. His unofficial takes on Let Her Go by Passenger and I See Fire by Ed Sheeran, peaceful and twinkly, have racked up 10 million Soundcloud plays and 48 million YouTube views respectively. He has also given his distinctive feel to songs as diverse as Dolly Parton’s Jolene and Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. All of this online activity led to an official commission from Coldplay, to give their song Midnight the same blissed-out treatment. Next up is Take On Me by his legendary countrymen A-ha.
He was 18 when he bought a Macbook, a keyboard and some music production software and started teaching himself to make dance music. At first he was imitating the bombastic EDM sound, trying to copy his hero, Swedish producer and fellow backwards cap wearer Avicii. “But I never sounded as good as him,” he says. “I think a lot of that EDM style sounds very much alike. I get a little bit tired of it.”
So he slowed things down and found his niche. Today it sounds effortless, even obvious, but it wasn’t at first. “I had a period of about seven months just sitting in my room experimenting with different sounds. I had a lot of cool melodies but didn’t know what instrument I would play them with. A piano sound was too boring. I found this dreamy, light synth sound. It sounded really good, and I guess a lot of people thought so because you hear it a lot now.”
It’s definitely catching on. When he first began playing DJ sets he hardly had any music to play that was the same speed as his own. Now there’s loads. Search for “tropical house” on YouTube and you’ll find dozens of mixes, all illustrated by sun-baked models in bikinis. He’s become a big draw at US festivals such as Ultra and Coachella, where he’s obviously not wild enough to close proceedings but can make the sunsets seem particularly beautiful. “My shows are more relaxed, not as intense, but there’s still a lot of energy there. I remember people crowdsurfing at early gigs.”
I still think his music works better at home, after the club, recalling the chillout boom of the early 2000s and surely destined for prominence in hotel lobbies the world over. Kygo is concentrating on making more recordings right now, with a debut album planned for the autumn. He seems unphased by how big he is becoming. He’s a calm, sensible chap, the fourth of five children to a dentist mother and a father in the maritime industry. When he decided to pursue music full time he was halfway through a degree in Business and Finance at Edinburgh’s Heriod-Watt University. The glitz of Vegas or Ibiza is nice to visit but he has no intention of moving from Bergen.
It’s an attitude that sets him apart from his air-punching, champagne-spraying peers. In his music, as well, he feels that he isn’t like them. “A lot of people think making dance music is just pushing buttons but I am actually sitting there playing the piano. When I play live, people can see I’m really playing the chords and the melodies. There are a lot of producers that don’t know how to play an instrument.”
He’s not one of them, and his songs aren’t like theirs either. These gentle, fluttering tunes are genuinely different from what else is around today, and believe it or not, they’re taking the dance world by storm.