On a placid inlet of the Baltic Sea, where swans glide by the European sports cars parked across the road, the Djursholm Country Club looms behind a red brick wall with a black iron gate. Built in 1907 with a fortune tied to the Nobel Prize, this villa was originally a private residence, and later a convent where Pope John Paul II stayed. About five years ago, a group of locals transformed it into a private oasis for the wealthy and well-connected in and around Djursholm — a district in the most affluent municipality in Sweden, where Spotify founder Daniel Ek and ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus are neighbors.
On this humid evening just before Sweden’s Midsommar, the clean-cut members and their guests socialize on the outdoor patio, their small children sitting politely at a separate table. But amid this sanctuary of Nordic gentility, in a corner of the patio closest to the designated smoking section, sits a trio of men instantly recognizable in Sweden and, once upon a time, to any dance music fan around the world: the game-changing threesome Swedish House Mafia.
Axwell (born Axel Hedfors), 43, is the fine-featured one with the dry sense of humor; wearing a striped shirt and shorts and sipping a beer, he blends in easily enough. His tattooed cohorts look more like off-duty rock stars: Sebastian Ingrosso, 38, has a booming laugh and wears stylish athleisure (black sweatpants, black T-shirt, gold neck chain), and Steve Angello, 38, the group’s sober member, drinks a ginger ale, occasionally pulling back his mane of graying hair to reveal the ink on his arms. Twice during a dinner of burrata, French fries, mushrooms, fish tacos and garlic shrimp, Angello and Ingrosso go off to smoke thin Vogue cigarettes. Axwell vapes at the table.
The Swedes, as they’re known in the dance music industry, aren’t actually that unusual a sight here: Axwell and Ingrosso are both members of the country club and live nearby with their wives and children; Angello and his family aren’t far away in central Stockholm. But their presence out in the open as a trio, sharing a friendly meal with two journalists, is far more unexpected. It has been eight years since they broke up with significant fanfare; about that long since they sat down for an interview as a group; and 20 months since they shut down their group social media accounts and essentially disappeared. Now they’re finally ready to talk about where they’ve been, what they’ve been working on and why, after one major false start, their real comeback is imminent.
“When we came back together again, it was like we had to rediscover what this was,” says Angello, sweeping his hand across the table. “We all have our different likings, obviously. [But then] Seb shows me something, or Ax shows me something I have never seen or heard, and it becomes this magic again that we had when we were young.”
More than any other act in modern dance music, Swedish House Mafia set the tone for the EDM boom of the early 2010s, taking the massive “big room” house sound cultivated in Europe to the United States. Here, they set new standards for what success could look like for dance acts, selling out Madison Square Garden twice (the first time, in December 2011, in nine minutes), gaining mass popularity as the first generation of digital natives flocked to mega-festivals like Ultra and Electric Daisy Carnival.
The scene was bright and loud, and between the music, confetti, pyro (and the drugs) at the Swedes’ shows, often euphoric. Almost from day one, Swedish House Mafia created a live experience “with even more swagger, more panache and more production” than had been attempted before by other DJs, says Pete Tong, the long-standing BBC Radio 1 host and dance scene legend. “The Swedes really aligned with the emergence and explosion of EDM in America. They were kind of the leading protagonists of what became the next big global wave in terms of the impact of DJs and what they could achieve.”
Incredibly, the group created all that on the strength of only a six-track, two-compilation catalog — with its last release, 2012’s “Don’t You Worry Child,” becoming its biggest hit by far when it spent three weeks at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. And then, at the height of its success in 2013, the trio broke up, devastating and shocking dance fans worldwide.
Five years later, it seemed like the group might reunite when it closed out Ultra’s 20th anniversary in Miami. But, as the members now say, behind-the-scenes problems at that show underscored just how much of a change a true reunion would have necessitated. Over the next three years, they made attempts at new music but were derailed at every turn — fighting their own well-known perfectionism, changing managers twice and ultimately leaving the label, Columbia Records, that signed them when they had only bits and pieces of new music.
Now they’re returning to an industry that has changed considerably since their days in the Hot 100’s top 10. House, techno and tech house are the genres of choice within the dance scene — not the bombastic, often anthemic, larger-than-life “main stage” sound with which the Swedes made their name. Although initially all successful underground DJs in their own right, they “almost got hampered by their own success” as a vastly more mainstream supergroup, says Tong. “They defined a genre in such a specific way.” The marquee acts of their era — Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Skrillex and deadmau5 — survived by evolving their sounds and thus, well, never really going away.
Dance music, too, isn’t the U.S. market juggernaut it was in the early and mid-2010s. In 2016, the global dance music industry was valued at $7.1 billion — a historic high amid the U.S. scene’s heyday — and that same year, the genre accounted for a record 4% market share of U.S. recorded music. That number dipped to 3.6% before the pandemic, according to the IMS Business Report, and a 2021 IMS analysis of Spotify’s top 200 indicates that dance music is declining almost everywhere.
Still, while its popularity may have leveled off in the United States, it’s surging in developing countries like India and China, as well as in parts of Latin America, where the EDM boom arrived later and where streaming consumption is rising rapidly. And it’s amid these changing consumption patterns that Swedish House Mafia is starting fresh: a new team, a global tour backed by Live Nation, new music and, more crucially, a new sound — one the group insists will frame it as anything but a nostalgia act.
“It was just like, ‘What the f–k do we do? How do we come back? Do we just give them another [version of] what we’ve done before?’ ” Ingrosso recalls the group thinking as it mulled a comeback. “I was like, ‘F–k that; it’s depressing to go back. It’s disgusting to go back.’ ” And its first new single, “It Gets Better,” certainly doesn’t sound retro: A sleek, imposing amalgamation of punchy beats, walls of synth and quick 180s into drops composed of what appears to be cowbell, it is, the group promises, just the start of more new music leading up to Swedish House Mafia’s debut album, Paradise Again, planned for a late-2021 release.
It’s a make-or-break moment, one that will decide if the most successful act of the dance music boom — and part of the genre’s “first generation to get old,” as Tong puts it — can exist beyond that era. But the Swedes — who these days live quite comfortably in a country where their celebrity status is cemented — say they aren’t seeking massive streaming numbers or a big album payday. As they put it, they’re simply three restless, creative guys who want to finally get their music out, regardless of how it’s received, and to prove they can chart a new course away from mainstream dance music, which, laments Ingrosso, has of late all “sounded the same.”
“I’m not trying to like, satisfy the digital market,” says Angello. “My big play here is making an album we love and putting it out. I’m not going to go into the studio and call the guys and be like, ‘Yo, numbers are cold on the playlist.’ We don’t give a f–k.”
“We have no idea if people are going to like [the new music],” adds Ingrosso. “But we are just really proud of what we have done.”
Swedish House Mafia has never done anything less than full throttle, and even its last goodbye was outsized. In April 2012, two months after becoming the first EDM act to get top Coachella billing, the trio announced it was breaking up — but first, it would embark upon a 52-date, five-continent-spanning trek called One Last Tour, which ended up grossing an average of $1.18 million per show, according to Billboard Boxscore, and was chronicled in the 2014 documentary Leave the World Behind.
For fans, the doc was a kind of EDM Rosetta stone, offering some insights into why a group at the peak of its powers would just walk away. It positioned the Swedes as best friends who, while thrilled by their jobs, were often discontented with life on the road and, on occasion, with one another. In one scene, during a 2011 writing trip to Australia (where they plan to hole up in the studio and finish “Don’t You Worry Child”), Angello leaves a session to go get a neck tattoo — a move Axwell calls “retarded” once Angello has left the room.
“That was three hours,” says Angello today in his defense, the infamous angel tat peering out from the collar of his T-shirt. “The song took two years to make.”
Still, the moment underlined a recurring idea in the film: The guys pulled the plug because none of them could totally commit. “The problem was that Swedish House Mafia grew really fast, and we had our individual careers as well,” says Axwell. “Swedish House Mafia took over, and so we were like, ‘What are we doing? Are we focusing on this? But I have this other thing also.’ We were not good at balancing that, and we were also not ready to fully ditch our individual careers and commit to Swedish House Mafia, which it felt like it needed.”
The film also hinted at deeper problems, with the Swedes dropping vague references to “the elephant in the room,” “conversations that might never be had” and “the issue” throughout. Whether it’s the maturation years bring or collective revisionist history, they won’t get into the specifics of their squabbles, other than to say they weren’t masking any salacious infighting. “There were not really any issues,” insists Ingrosso. “There were just three guys that had been touring together for 10-plus years and needed to take a break. Now when I’m older and thinking back on it, it was just like, we were all tired. It’s a huge machine to carry.”
Ego may have accounted for some tensions. One summer night in 2011, Amy Thomson, the group’s then-manager, got a call around 4 a.m. after a show in Ibiza, Spain, from an incensed Ingrosso. “Steve’s got black leather seats on the plane, and mine’s brown — I knew this would happen,” he told her, according to Soraya Sobh, a former member of Thomson’s team who now works in esports. (Ingrosso says he doesn’t recall the incident, while Angello chuckles at the story: “I never heard that, but if it’s true, it’s f–king rock star.”)
Regardless of the reason, after its final show at Ultra in Miami in 2013, the group certainly looked like it had divided into factions. Angello was living in Los Angeles and forging a solo career managed by Scooter Braun, while the other two — again living in Stockholm after brief moves to L.A. — formed Axwell / Ingrosso. Intended, says Axwell, as “a smaller thing,” the duo played most of the world’s major dance music festivals and scored a global hit with 2017’s “More Than You Know.” Still, when asked if it felt the same as performing with Swedish House Mafia, Ingrosso offers a succinct reply: “No.”
The wheels of a reunion started turning in the fall of 2016. Angello, spooked by Donald Trump’s election, moved his family back to Stockholm. After a year without seeing one another — Angello chalks it up to touring, “finding a place to live, finding a school and daycare for the kids, restructuring companies and life” — the trio reconnected in December 2017, when Thomson, who managed Axwell / Ingrosso, was in town. The group — still so famous in Sweden that a public appearance together would generate TMZ-level hysteria — didn’t want to fuel speculation, so they met in Thomson’s suite at the hip Lydmar Hotel. “I remember when I got there, you guys were already there,” recalls Angello, “and the girl I know that works in Lydmar reception lost it. She was like, ‘What the f–k is going on?’ ”
Up in the room, the vibe was similarly charged. “I think maybe it was a little bit emotional, you know?” says Axwell of seeing Angello again. “It’s weird when you hang out with somebody every day, like we did in those last months of the tour, and then just… poof.”
“We just started to laugh,” continues Ingrosso. “One memory after the other, and then wine, and then meat, and then cigarettes, and then more wine. I think we came home at two in the morning.”
By the time the guys left that evening, Swedish House Mafia was back together.
The reunion was only supposed to be one show.
Ultra co-founder Adam Russakoff had approached the Swedes numerous times, and at 2017’s Ultra Singapore, he broached an idea to Angello: Why not get together for the 20th-anniversary event in Miami? A month later, Russakoff walked into the dressing room at Ultra Europe in Croatia and made the same pitch to Axwell and Ingrosso: “It’s time.”
After more back-and-forth, say sources close to the festival, a deal was struck: Ultra would pay the Swedes about $1 million for an hourlong appearance — and for keeping it secret. “I guess that was the biggest curveball we could throw,” says Angello. “ ‘Let’s come together and do a show.’ ” They spent three months in early 2018 preparing, leading up to a final week of rehearsals in a Miami warehouse space.
“We were staying in different hotels because we truly thought we were being clever,” says Axwell. But by March 25, the final day of Ultra 2018, rumors of a reunion were flying, and tens of thousands of fans gathered at the main stage. (Presciently, Angello had requested a police escort from the members’ hotels to the site. “I knew it was going to be so emotional,” he says. “We just need to get to the stage as fast as possible.”)
When the lights came up, a huge rotating mirror flipped open like a garage door to reveal the trio, kicking off a nearly hourlong spectacle of fire and glowing LED panels. But it didn’t quite go as the Swedes had meticulously planned. “We had s–t tons of issues,” says Angello. Lights didn’t come on at their designated cues, visual effects timing was off, and at one point, a wall of fire torched some LED tiles, according to Angello’s recollection — though others present dispute that account.
Incensed, Angello fired the entire tour production team — despite its extensive experience successfully producing shows for acts like Radiohead and Massive Attack, and the fact that there were other issues that contributed to hiccups, sources say. “If I spend two weeks and a s–t ton of money doing something, I’m expecting somebody to do their job,” he says. The Swedes insist they spent every dollar of their fee on the production — “I don’t know the exact amount, but I paid from my pocket to play there,” says Ingrosso. “It was a f–king mess, but we’re like, ‘We’ll do it for our fans.’ ” (Angello says the Swedes also lost money on One Last Tour: “We grossed, what, $200 million? I think we spent $210 million.”)
Still, in the waning moments of the Ultra show, Axwell made an impromptu promise to the crowd: “It’s Swedish House Mafia for life, this time.” Backstage afterward, “There were a few DJs crying, literally crying,” says Ingrosso. “Adam was crying. I cried a little bit.” Fans worldwide began to wonder whether Swedish House Mafia was reuniting for the long haul. The Swedes were trying to figure that out, too.
A loose plan emerged to get back in the studio and tour, but the months after Ultra proved messy. Thomson, who had steered the act since its inception, sensed that Angello might want Braun to co-manage the reunited group, according to a source familiar with the matter. She spent about $25,000 to fly herself and a team of four from the United Kingdom to Los Angeles and rented a home in Malibu for a meeting in Los Angeles that Braun’s team had requested, though Braun himself turned out to be out of town when Thomson and her team arrived at his offices for the scheduled meeting, and the proposed co-management deal soured.
Later that spring, Thomson and the group began to pursue a label deal — and while the Swedes say many executives were eager to meet them, some were skeptical. In May, Thomson talked to Zach Katz, then BMG’s U.S. president, and Thomas Scherer, then BMG’s executive vp U.S. publishing. Scherer describes a group trying to leverage its past glory into a multimillion-dollar advance, which he called “unrealistic,” given its lack of new music. “They wanted to say, ‘We were there [in terms of] chart position and are still there,’ ” says Scherer. “But the music had moved on.”
That summer of 2018, Thomson resigned, and she and the Swedes amicably parted ways. “Somehow the flow that we used to have wasn’t really there,” says Axwell. “We are all still friends.” “I’ll always remember my time with them, but it’s time for the future for all of us and I wish the band all the very best,” says Thomson, now chief catalog officer at Hipgnosis Songs. Later that year, the band signed on with Patriot Management’s Ron Laffitte, who works with the likes of Usher, Ryan Tedder and Pharrell Williams but had no experience managing a dance music act.
Nonetheless, Laffitte — who Angello says “brought peace” to the group — continued the hunt for a label deal. That December, the Swedes met up with Universal Music Group executives for a lunch at Stockholm’s Ett Hem hotel. As one attendee recalls, one UMG executive there was shocked when (again) the Swedes asked for a multimillion-dollar advance but had no music to play. (Astralwerks Records GM Toby Andrews, who also attended the meeting, says he was aware of “bits and pieces” of new music.)
Still, UMG made an offer — ultimately losing out later to Columbia Records. (Two sources familiar with the deal say Columbia offered significantly more; Angello insists the offers “were all pretty even.”) “I think UMG dodged a bullet,” says the attendee. “The lack of new music and their [slow] release history made it rather risky.”
In early 2019, Swedish House Mafia signed with Columbia. At first, the group liked label boss Ron Perry’s way of thinking: “One idea that was great was to put up a record [on digital service providers] and then take it down,” says Axwell. “We love the untraditional ideas.” But soon, says Angello, they came to feel the label was too interested in “flirting with the past. And we’re not there,” he continues. “I think we scrapped like 12 ‘Don’t You Worry Childs’ [while making the new album.]”
After a few months in the studio, the group produced a handful of rough tracks, some of which it tested on the road during a 14-date spring/summer tour in 2019. Around May, says a source close to the trio, Laffitte’s team delivered five to eight songs to Columbia. “They were thrilled with them,” says Angello. “They wanted to put them out.” (Columbia declined to comment for this story.)
And the group was still hard at work on more new music: In June 2019, the members were in the studio with A$AP Rocky the day before he turned himself in to Swedish police following an alleged street brawl (and was subsequently held in detention for two months). Still, the group dragged its feet on releasing singles — it still felt the album was unfinished.
Then, everything stopped. The COVID-19 pandemic struck — and the Swedes, in a way, got what they wanted: much more time to work on the music. “Now we laugh about the early ideas,” says Angello. “We’re like, ‘Holy s–t — we were supposed to put that out?’ ”
The pandemic may have had some silver linings for artists, but the Swedes weren’t immune to its many downsides. Sweden never fully locked down and only recommended wearing masks in December — a controversial approach that has led to a death rate three times higher than its Nordic neighbors, though still lower than many other European countries — and in late March 2020, Ingrosso caught the coronavirus. He was sick for three months. “I had fever for 100 days,” he says, and wore a pulse oximeter “like all the time.”
In a world gone totally virtual, the trio’s nascent relationship with Columbia suffered, too. “We want to be in the room,” says Angello. “We’re on these FaceTime calls once in a while, and for us that means zero, you know?” Swedish House Mafia returned its advance — about $5 million, according to one person familiar with the deal — after the split, which a Columbia representative calls “mutual and very amicable.” In November 2020, the group parted ways with Laffitte as well. “The relationships all got disrupted by the inability to gather together,” says Laffitte, adding that everything was positive “until the world stopped.”
Swedish House Mafia’s bonds, on the other hand, slowly strengthened. The members gathered most days in either Axwell and Ingrosso’s studio in downtown Stockholm or Angello’s in the wooded outskirts of town. They made mood boards. (Quoth one: “If you want different results, try something different.”) Angello tinkered with his collection of custom synthesizers. (“The creative process is a little longer because we’re not super keen on software and presets of sounds,” he explains.) And sometimes, they just sat together, listening to music, including their collection of white labels dating back to when they started out. “We were going back in time, like, ‘Where did we come from? Who are we?’ ” says Ingrosso. “And just started to dig deep.”
The process involved its fair share of “anxiety, also,” continues Ingrosso. “It was tough — we’re getting older, obviously, and the whole EDM bubble for me has come to a point where nobody is taking risks, to be honest, including me.” The group’s famed perfectionism, he admits, “kills us also sometimes. But for us, it needs to be a certain way. And that’s why it takes time.” He recalls spending a year trying to find the right drum sound for one song — then deciding to mute the drums altogether. “And now, listening back to it, I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m so happy we did that.’ Sometimes, it’s like killing your biggest darlings is what makes the thing move forward.”
After many 18-hour days in the studio in early 2021, the Swedes came up with “It Gets Better,” which to them sounded like Swedish House Mafia 2.0. “When we did that record,” says Ingrosso, “I was just jumping up and down in here. It was like, ‘F–k, yeah, it’s happening.’ ” (The song’s simple lyric, “it gets better, baby” is a sample from the 1994 track “One More Time” by vocal group Divas of Color and is a radically revised version of a song the Swedes played live during their 2019 run. Although online track IDs tagged Pharrell as the vocalist on that song, the group confirms that Pharrell was never involved with the track.) Then last summer, two well-connected friends — Spotify’s Ek and Ash Pournouri, Avicii’s former manager — made a timely recommendation: Both told the Swedes to talk to Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, the larger-than-life founder of management company SALXCO, best known for guiding The Weeknd’s rise.
“When Daniel Ek hit me up,” says Slaiby, “I was like, ‘Yeah, bro, but you know I don’t know much about dance music as a manager.’ ” Still, the group’s strong touring history, lucrative past sponsorship deals (the video for its 2012 single “Greyhound” was also an ad for Absolut Vodka, and it had teamed up with Volvo for a video of the single “Leave the World Behind”) and overall cachet, convinced him to take the call. The four men spent three hours on Zoom getting to know one another (“We didn’t talk about business one time,” says Slaiby), and though Slaiby initially thought he might refer the Swedes to another manager, by the end of the meeting, “I was like, ‘F–k no, these guys are mine.’ ”
He then connected Swedish House Mafia with a new label, Republic Records. “Swedish House Mafia are one of the most creative forces in electronic music history,” says Republic founder/CEO Monte Lipman. “The new body of work is nothing short of spectacular and will only add to their legacy.”
At Republic, says SALXCO’s Dina Rahim (who co-manages the group with Slaiby), the trio has “their freedom. They are the leaders of the music.” Adds Slaiby: “Republic is very chill. That’s what I like about them.” The label is also home to The Weeknd, and, continues Slaiby, “that partnership is so great because they give [The Weeknd] that space. To me, Swedish House Mafia is like that. I feel like the more advice you give them, the worse it is for them. Let them do their thing. They’re going to figure it out.”
So far, SALXCO seems to offer the Swedes the attention they require. “With [Slaiby] always being available and his team always chasing us, it works really well,” says Axwell. “Sal’s on the phone from when he wakes up until he goes to bed. It’s kind of attached to his face.” The company’s experience with large-scale touring should help, too, with a planned 2022 global outing that will mostly hit Live Nation-affiliated or -aligned arenas and stadiums.
Slaiby is well-aware of the Swedes’ tendency to spend heftily on tour. “I don’t want them to change that,” he insists. “I love their attitude of wanting to do the best show and not losing anything from the creative.” So with his team, he’s figuring out ways to tighten the ship, raising funds through two sponsorships, among other ways “to trim the fat.” As for Live Nation (which declined to comment for this story), any worries regarding overspending are, says a source familiar with the group’s touring plans, likely offset by the promoter’s sense that “demand [for Swedish House Mafia] is very high, so risk is very low.”
Three years after Axwell declared it from the Ultra stage, the Swedes seem to finally be thinking about what “Swedish House Mafia, for life” really means. “Even if it’s not an album-driven genre, now I think we are an album act,” says Ingrosso. They each also have sizable individual solo catalogs, as well as their own labels: Angello’s SIZE Records has about 250 releases between his own and those of a few other artists; Axwell’s Axtone has about 200; and Ingrosso’s Refune has released the hit collaboration “Reload.”
Angello in particular says he has noted his peers’ recent entry into the booming catalog market — Calvin Harris’ sale of his publishing assets to Vine Investments for an estimated $90 million to $110 million and David Guetta’s sale in June of his entire recording catalog to Warner Music Group for about $100 million. “The idea has hit me, and I’ve thought about it since it seems to be a smart thing to do,” he says. “There’s a win-win for both parties. The buyer has an opportunity to work the catalog in new countries opening up for streaming and synchs.”
As dinner draws to a close, Angello and Ingrosso return from their second smoking break. Paradise Again, says Angello, is “just the beginning,” adding that they have enough music for a couple more albums yet. “You always want people to like your music, otherwise you wouldn’t play it to them,” says Ingrosso. “But the vision of the album, for me, it’s not really important if it sells 400 million [copies] or 10.” As Angello points out, they’ve already achieved something that, for so long, was more elusive.
“We’re together. We’re making music. We’re having fun,” he says. “The only thing that matters is that we are going to look at each other in a couple of weeks’ time. We’re going to have a barbecue and laugh, and we’re going to say, ‘Look at this f–king album.’ ”
Additional reporting by Dave Brooks, Sven Grundberg, Henrik Huldschiner and Melinda Newman.