Swedish House Mafia Are Back To Save A World That Doesn’t Exist Anymore
The big room EDM that birthed the Swedish superstars has disappeared - so why are they coming back?
Eight years ago, Swedish House Mafia looked like masters of timing. In March 2013, after a few whirlwind years as dance music’s most bankable act, the DJs played their final set at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival.
Closing out the main stage on Sunday night, the trio of Axwell, Sebastian Ingrosso and Steve Angello scattered in all the anthems from their short but high-impact catalogue, then waved goodbye under an orgy of fireworks. At that moment, Swedish House Mafia apparently knew how to quit while on top. With big-room EDM still ruling America, they were going out as its hero hitmakers with nothing left to prove.
In EDM as in life, though, endings aren’t always that poetic. This month, Swedish House Mafia staged its comeback with all the fanfare of a well-funded pop act. (Never mind that they’ve been playing shows again since 2018 — more on that later.) The rollout began with sneaky posters everywhere from Melbourne to London and a not-at-all-sneaky billboard in New York’s Times Square featuring the trio’s signature three-dot motif and the date ‘7.15.21’. In a moody new profile picture uploaded to Instagram and Facebook, the DJs glower darkly, their faces half-covered like extras from the upcoming Dune remake.
All this hype led, unsurprisingly enough, to Swedish House Mafia’s first new music since 2012. The new era kicked off last week with ‘It Gets Better’, a curious swerve from their old sound into a kind of Chemical Brothers karaoke, followed by the slick synth-pop of ‘Lifetime’, featuring Ty Dolla $ign and 070 Shake.
With The Weeknd’s manager Wassim “Sal” Slaiby now in their corner, Swedish House Mafia’s debut studio album is coming in 2021. “WE ARE BACK FOR A LIFETIME,” the trio promised on Facebook. Fan reactions online have ranged from ecstatic to wary to hostile. With so much change in dance music since Swedish House Mafia’s peak years, it begs the question: why now?
Every Supergroup Starts Somewhere
The rise of Swedish House Mafia is an ‘only in dance music’ story. The trio came up in Sweden’s close-knit scene, throwing parties in tiny clubs and making mischief. (Their friend and unofficial ‘fourth member’ Eric Prydz would later work very hard to distance himself from Swedish House Mafia associations.) Their first releases as a trio, in collaboration with fellow Dutch producer Laidback Luke, were billed as Axwell/Ingrosso/Angello.
The Swedish House Mafia name was born on 2010’s ‘One (Your Name)’, with a bluntly effective synth line built for main stages. From there, the tunes got bigger and shinier, including ‘Save The World’, Knife Party team-up ‘Antidote’ and ‘Greyhound’ — which the trio sold to Absolut vodka. In this heady period, the Swedes challenged Ultra on its home turf with their own Masquerade Motel Miami events. All this momentum led to ‘final’ single ‘Don’t You Worry Child’ in 2012, an expertly engineered piece of EDM schmaltz that became their biggest hit by far. (Ample credit must go to its original songwriters, Michel Zitron and John Martin Lindström.)
At this time, Swedish House Mafia were legitimately huge. In 2012, Future Music Festival backed up the money truck to secure the group’s first-ever Australian shows. The next summer, Future’s rival Totem Onelove staged the Australian leg of One Last Tour. After three sold-out nights at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl, the Swedes packed out Sydney Showground — a feat previously only achieved by Daft Punk in 2007.
After One Last Tour, the three DJs got back to business as usual. Just two years after their teary Ultra farewell, Axwell and Ingrosso were back headlining the festival in a newly branded duo. As Axwell Λ Ingrosso, the pair dealt in the same emotive big-room house as the project they’d just retired — only this time without Steve Angello. (Angello, meanwhile, happily returned to life as a solo artist.) On the main stage at Ultra and elsewhere over the next few years, Axwell Λ Ingrosso rolled out new mash-ups of ‘Save The World’ and ‘Don’t You Worry Child’, wringing every last drop from past glories.
If nothing else, the trio was a marketing triumph.
Axwell Λ Ingrosso’s more moderate success speaks to the power of the Swedish House Mafia brand. If nothing else, the trio was a marketing triumph. In the merry-go-round of dance music headliners, novelty sells. Throughout the 2010s, EDM festivals essentially chose from the same shallow pool of big-name DJs. Supergroups and superduos like Skrillex and Diplo’s Jack Ü offered some relief from the same old, same old. Swedish House Mafia nailed the formula better than anyone. Instead of waiting for the next 19-year-old wunderkind, festivals could fight over a trio of seasoned DJs who were somehow much less magical on their own.
In the years after Swedish House Mafia, EDM moved on. While Avicii, Alesso and Kaskade kept up the gushy anthems, the genre splintered into the noisier drops of Knife Party and Hardwell and the limper tropical house of Kygo and Oliver Heldens. From there, it was a straight line from DJ Snake’s trap stylings to The Chainsmokers and Marshmello — nominal dance acts more focused on pop dreams.
America’s EDM bubble burst in the late 2010s, leaving only the hardiest festival brands. With the mainstreaming of tech-house and ‘business techno’, it’s tempting to declare EDM dead and buried. In reality, though, most of the same main stage players are still at it. If Swedish House Mafia want to re-run the glory days, they’ll have ample opportunities.
Don’t Call It A Comeback
The inconvenient part of all this “we’re back!” fanfare is that Swedish House Mafia came back already. For a handsome fee, the trio returned to Miami as Ultra 2018’s surprise headliners, re-running all the hits in a blur of mash-ups and updated big-room house. Without any new music out at the time, the set was unambiguously a cash-grab. (Who can begrudge Swedish House Mafia new Swedish houses?)
The group then launched their Save The World Reunion Tour in 2019, focusing on European festivals that would OK their production budget. The run began with three arena concerts in the group’s native Stockholm, featuring a floating DJ booth against a vast video display inspired by Renaissance art.
With a couple of last-minute cancellations and a mostly familiar setlist, the tour felt inert. Several clues pointed to Swedish House Mafia appearing as Tomorrowland 2019’s secret headliner, with rumours of a no-show seemingly confirmed by trance DJ Gareth Emery. Instead, the surprise trio turned out to be 3 Are Legend, aka Steve Aoki and Tomorrowland residents Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike. As far as EDM supergroups go, that’s like trading your Hamilton ticket for a high-school production of The Pirates of Penzance.
It’s an interview cliche in dance music for big-name DJs to complain “everything sounds the same”. The usual implication is that the DJ’s new project is a breath of fresh air. (Of course, this argument usually ignores all the good stuff happening outside their limited view.)
Sure enough, in Swedish House Mafia’s new Billboard cover story, Ingrosso delivers the fateful line. Elsewhere, he recalls thinking “it’s disgusting to go back” — a torment that seemingly cleared up before 2019’s backwards-looking reunion tour.
With an album’s worth of pandemic-era material, Swedish House Mafia can finally show fans their evolution. As the first big act of the EDM era to break up and come back, they’ll soon find out if anyone’s coming for the new stuff.
Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in Sydney — he was formerly the Editorial Director at Beatport and editor of inthemix. Find him on Twitter.