The ascent of Avicii

It’s mid-afternoon on the first Saturday of summer and the sky over Melbourne Showgrounds is a brilliant blue. Looking out from the Stereosonic mainstage, the crowd is swelling in all directions. Hidden from view in the wings, Avicii takes in the scene. 3:30pm: time to step up. He crosses the stage, headphones in hand, and springs into view behind the DJ desk. A cheer ripples through the sea of raised arms and girls on shoulders. For the next hour, Avicii has the crowd in constant motion.

When his right hand isn’t at work, it’s stabbing the air, his eyes darting from the decks to the mass of bodies in front of him. From where inthemix is standing side-of-stage, the atmosphere feels delirious, but Avicii’s keeping it together. Skipping back from the desk, sweating through his blue flannel shirt and mouthing the vocal lines, he seems coolly aware of his own efficiency.

Then there’s the Levels effect: the melody chanted back across the Showgrounds, Avicii-branded beach-balls bouncing over hands, plumes of CO2 smoke and bubbles in the air, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Somebody That I Used To Know a cappella worked in to stretch it out. The festival’s only a few hours in and already Avicii has it at a fever-pitch. The weekend before, he’d looked out on a Sydney stadium at-capacity by mid-afternoon. The next day in Brisbane he’ll find another sprawling, chanting sea of people at the RNA Showgrounds.

As he later puts it to inthemix: “I found the crowds in Australia just completely insane.”

It took Avicii just a few years to go from anonymity to mainstages. That swift an ascent has required some learning on the job. It all started inauspiciously enough for the teenage Tim Bergling, making sketches of music in his bedroom and looking up to Swedish success stories like Eric Prydz and Axwell. What Bergling lacked in polish he made up for with an acute ear for melody.

Club promoter Ash Pournouri heard what the kid was doing and saw its potential. “I really loved his melodic progression, and could sense a talent that was rough and unfinished,” Pournouri later told the Vegas Seven magazine. He approached Bergling, who at the time was still in school, and an “unplanned partnership” began. Pournouri would educate his charge on the business, teach him how to DJ and help smooth the rough edges on his productions. The meeting of minds would later create At Night Management.

Soon, Avicii’s music had the attention of Australia’s Vicious Grooves label. “In early 2008 I was doing a Vandalism tour in Europe and did a gig in Stockholm, run by a guy named Ash, who is of course now more well known as Avicii’s manager,” Andy Van tells inthemix for this feature.

“After the gig Ash wanted me to check out a new ‘young artist’ he had signed called Avicii. Avicii hadn’t released anything with any label but I heard some good demos and could feel the potential. My role at Vicious is primarily A&R and I am always open to hearing new artists. I suggested to my business partner John Course and the other Vicious guys that we needed to sign this kid and we all really liked what we were hearing.”

“With Avicii we always knew his sound was strong and that he was developing towards bigger and bigger singles,” adds John Course. “Vicious also signed Dirty South way before anyone else even knew he existed and we had a similar feeling as Dirty’s career grew. There is a tipping point where artists suddenly seem to arrive out of nowhere, but when you look behind the scenes there are always people or labels that see the potential and fight to get the word out.”

Avicii’s first release, the seven-minute house cut The Sound Of Now, came out on Vicious Grooves in 2008 (Melbourne’s Mic Newman, aka Fantastic Man, provided one of the remixes). From there, Vicious Grooves would release a streak of Avicii singles, including Street Dancer, Malo, Jailbait and the Cassius-indebted Sebastien Drums collaboration My Feelings For You.

“Everyone at Vicious noticed that he was very melodic in his productions when many other producers were not,” recalls Andy Van. “That has arguably become his ‘signature’ sound, with such huge melodic-styled hooks being one of the main consistencies across all his releases.” That ‘signature’ was further honed when Pournouri and Bergling established the Le7els label, releasing Fade Into Darkness and Levels in 2011. It was Levels, with its midpoint sampling of Etta James and swelling, insistent melody, that proved to be the tipping point for Avicii.

“It’s definitely a strange lifestyle. You know, I’m not going to push myself to the edge like this forever.”

When inthemix gets Bergling on the phone ahead of his return to Stereosonic this summer, he’s just arrived in Las Vegas. It sounds like we’ve caught him in a rare moment alone. While a fleet of A-list DJs are signed to exclusive residencies in dance music’s new boom town, Avicii plays the field. Such is his cachet as an honorary U.S. superstar. “I do about 300-plus shows a year,” he tells us. “I think I’ll end up at like 320 shows this year.”

Surely that schedule doesn’t now feel normal? “It’s definitely a strange lifestyle,” he concedes. “You know, I’m not going to push myself to the edge like this forever. It’s something I love doing and something I’ve worked really hard for over the past six years. I get antsy when I just sit at home anyway.” Not sitting at home has its advantages, among them Vegas pay-cheques, the Tomorrowland mainstage, Ultra Music Festival Miami with Madonna as a special guest, selling out New York’s Radio City Hall and return visits to Ushuaia Beach Hotel in Ibiza.

DJing has become a necessary part of the job, but Bergling gives the impression he’s most drawn to the studio process. “For productions, I work every waking hour,” he says. “You pick up new tricks along the way, and my sound is constantly evolving. The sound and scene in general is constantly evolving. I’d definitely say now the tracks make a lot more sense than the ones I did back in the beginning.” And melody is still the guiding principle? “Yeah, I think that’s always where I start. It’s the main thing I’m after.”

Doing 300-plus gigs a year doesn’t leave much breathing space, so ideas take shape in airport lounges and hotel rooms. “I think of melodies whenever I can; small ideas,” he says. “From the point where I have the melody or the hook, it’s a really quick process for me. When I get back home, I usually have a bunch of ideas I can finish. I just came from Sweden, from my first time off in a long time. It was seven days and I finished four tracks. That’s how I’ve been doing it these past couple of years when I’ve been touring so hard.”

Avicii will be back in Vegas at Steve Wynn’s XS Nightclub (its tagline, “No extravagance is spared”, presumably stretches to its DJ roster) for New Year’s Eve, and then 2013 begins on a different tact. “Next year is going to be way more studio-oriented than this and last year,” Bergling says. “We’re going to slow down a lot. January and February are pretty much completely free, probably 10 shows all up. The rest of the time I’ll spend in the studio. I’m lining up collaborations right now. It’s going to be really interesting – it’s not going to be what people expect at all. It’s going to be completely different.”

Avicii’s year of being everywhere has not been without its critics. At the EDM Biz conference inthemix attended in Vegas this June, a recurring topic was whether the trend of DJ-headlined arena tours in the U.S. was sustainable. Avicii’s Le7els tour, which saw the DJ taking his 3D stage show around America, was considered by some panellists to be ‘too big too soon’.

Marc Geiger, head of music for WME Entertainment, argued that the tour was “an irrational decision fuelled by an irrational market”. What does rankle Team Avicii, though, is the presumption that the lightning-bolt success of Levels is all there is. An At Night-produced video in July titled “ENOUGH WITH LEVELS ALREADY!!!” wound up with the message, “You know there are other Avicii tracks, right?”, followed by a 71-strong list of the producer’s other efforts.

“People think it’s the only track I’ve done, in a one-hit-wonder kind of way,” Bergling tells inthemix from Vegas. “I’ve been releasing tracks for four or five years, around a hundred released tracks and always making new stuff, so it’s just annoying hearing all the time that Levels is the only track I’ve done. We were working so hard, and things were going well, before Levels, you know?”

When you’re already headlining festivals as a 23-year-old, the next consideration is making it last. For Bergling, the plan is just to keep creating music. His DJ sets are the vehicle for all that product. “I also have so much unreleased stuff,” he says. “I think my sets are 60- to 70-percent my own unreleased solo music. I just think it’s more fun to do that. The set becomes a journey through the Avicii sound.”

When Avicii DJs, you feel that ‘showcase’ mentality, his collaborations, productions, remixes and custom-built bootlegs dropping one after another. “I was a producer first,” Bergling told inthemix when we first spoke to him in 2011, “so I would say the DJing aspect of it is the thing that I feel that I’ve really learned.”

In 2012, it’s possible to see two camps of DJs: the ones whose edge is their own material, and the ones who define their job as Carl Cox did in his inthemix Guest Editorial: “I just hear a record and think, ‘Right, I really want to share this track and I want people to understand that I love this music.’”

It’s a contrast that Boys Noize touched on in a conversation with inthemix this week. “I think a lot of the new DJs haven’t got the experience of just being a DJ,” he said. “I can only speak for myself: I was always doing mixtapes at home, I was a warm-up DJ for many years. You get a good feeling for ‘the moment’ and how to play to it.”

For Avicii, it’s been a steep learning curve from the guy in his bedroom to the guy surrounded by LED walls and pyrotechnics, looking out to a vast crowd. When inthemix reporter Angus Paterson saw the Swede at Serbia’s Exit Festival this year, he found a DJ in control. “On the first of four nights, Avicii played a set at 3am that ended up being possibly the headline set for the whole weekend,” he writes. “I was pleasantly surprised by a set that was packing all the technical panache we used to get from the main-room house guys, before things got really silly in the top ranks.

“For entertainment value, his set was impossible to fault; a giddy ride of bouncy electro, big-room house, vocal mash-ups and sugary trance melodies. His set didn’t stop shooting in different directions for the two hours. As the sun began to rose at 4am, a truly crazy energy began to build in the Dance Arena, which is set inside the moat of an ancient fortress. When he predictably closed his set with Levels, the 20,000 mad Serbs reached critical meltdown.”

As for what’s happening way up there on the stage, Pournouri had this to say to Vegas Seven: “I take pride that my artists never play pre-recorded sets; they read the crowd and take them on a journey then and there. They do not press play and stand there for two hours.”

In just over a week, Avicii will be back on the Stereosonic mainstage, only this time his name’s right there at the top alongside Tiesto. After the blur of the last year, you could forgive Tim Bergling some fatigue. When he steps up to play, though, he’s clearly in the moment, and thrilled by it. “After a long time on the road, you start feeling exhausted and gigs start blending together, as with anything when you’re working really hard,” he adds at the end of our conversation.

“But after just a week home, you can’t wait to get out again. I guess it’s about finding the middle ground.” He mightn’t have found it yet, but the search has its pluses.

Avicii’s Manager Ash Pournouri will be speaking at the 2012 Electronic Music Conference; download the full schedule here. Stereosonic photos by Rukes, Exit Festival photo by Marko Ercegović.