Steve Angello Talks Triumphs, Trials, & ‘Wild Youth’

With his platinum-selling, GRAMMY-nominated DJ group Swedish House Mafia, Steve Angello sold out the world’s biggest stadiums and headlined the globe’s biggest dance festivals. But after eight years of continued success, Angello left the group in 2013 to focus on his solo career, one that includes running his own label, Size Records, and putting full steam into his first solo release, Wild Youth. (Available on SIZE Records.)

That album drops Friday, January 22nd, and ARTISTdirect Interviews Gwendolyn Elliott caught up with the craftsman to chat about how it all came together.

Gwendolyn Elliott: Let’s talk about this new album you have coming out, your first solo album since departing Swedish House Mafia. You’ve said, “I’ve dedicated myself to this album for three years,” and you’ve called it “the soundtrack of your life.” Did you set off to record this album with such a large goal for yourself?

Steve Angello: Yeah, unfortunately. I think I’ve always wanted to do an album that represents everything that I stand for. I grew up looking up to artists that always did that, you know, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder; Pink Floyd to Depeche Mode, to Kraftwerk, to you name it. I grew up looking up to all these artists my whole life and realizing, David Bowie; how true he stays to himself and how honest and naked his work was. There was always such incredible time put into everything.

I think what mixing does today, because we live in a society now where we’ve gone really digital and music has become this feat of just picking food off of the table and not embracing what you’re eating, you know? A lot of people aren’t really respecting the fact that it takes a really long time to make music that’s on the cutting edge, that’s really original and tells a story and I think I just wanted to challenge myself in that.

Making music for 15, 20 years, I felt like it was a good time to take that experience and put all that hard work into action, where I know things a lot of producers don’t. I know how to create stuff a lot of producers don’t, I know how to make things sound a specific way, but I also need to really dive in deep and challenge myself so it was a big challenge and I’m the biggest critic of myself.

I wake up every morning and feel like I suck. And can I like kind of get back into work and feel like every day, every day needs to be a payoff where I need to feel worthy of what I’m doing. Luckily, I have pretty strong psyche so my thing is that it will probably break a lot of guys and maybe that’s the reason why a lot of people aren’t challenging themselves like that. But it needed to be done for me, not for anybody else, I needed to wake up and feel like I have accomplished something. I have done my best. I’ve done the best work I could possibly do, and I’m really proud of that.

I feel like there were easier ways. I could have just gone and done what I’ve done my whole life; just been a crowd pleaser and entertainer and go, “Hey, this is just tracks.” But that doesn’t satisfy me. I’m always on the verge of, if I wake up one morning I feel like I’m not doing something for the right reason, I’m not gonna do that. Just because I’ve done it for a long time.

GE: What you’re describing to me sounds like Imposter Syndrome, when a very high functioning, highly productive person thinks that they suck, basically, and that’s what drives them to kind of go to these lengths and do what they do. Because you’re an immensely successful producer and a collaborator and a label manager, is that the fire that motivates you to keep pushing yourself?

SA: I always want to be better. I never feel satisfied and I never feel like I’m the s***. You know, a lot of people out there are artists that sell a certain amount of tickets or certain amount of records, they go around thinking that they’re the s***. I haven’t felt worthy of taking a vacation.  I’ve been on two vacations, nine days in total, in the past 10 years. I don’t feel like I’m worthy of vacation because my work is not done. And I feel like I can always do better and I’m so happy about the situation that I’m in, that I’ve come from nothing and had all odds against me in life, but at the same time I’ve managed to pull through and [be] put in this position because of hard work.

This is not an overnight sensation, I haven’t had one big record and then all of the sudden I’m this guy on top. I’ve paid my dues and worked my way here like day by day for the past almost 15 years, 20 years. I feel like you need to put [in] that work.

I always reference myself with chefs and designers and I feel like if you are an amazing chef, why would you serve a Big Mac? Why would you go so low to serve something that’s so manufactured and easy to make and call yourself a chef after 50 years? I feel like that’s the same with music. A lot of people today [are] just crowd pleasers acting, they’re culture vultures. As soon as a sound shifts a little bit, they produce that kind of sound and they just write that way, and then as soon as something else happens they write that way.

My thing is, those guys, it’s not reality to me. I need to make sure that all this time that I put into myself and my work and touring and everything that I’ve learned, I need to put that to use otherwise I’m useless. I don’t know, it could be any kind of syndrome, but at the same time I appreciate craft. I appreciate things. I appreciate when somebody’s a car manufacturer who’s done cars their whole life, why would they do something that’s so shitty that they don’t kind of mirror their own experience and expertise? I feel like that’s with my music, why I put pressure on myself. I know better, I can better.

When I grew up and started making music there [were] no rules, nothing. There was just, “Figure it out.” I think a lot of artists, especially in the dance community, get stuck in this follow-the-trends, and then once they find the trends they go so hard on it that they just kill a sound instantly because all of a sudden all these hundreds of artists are just making something and destroying it. Because they don’t have a sound themselves, they don’t have a character, they have their brand but their brand is supposed to be their music and all of a sudden they’re entertainers and everybody’s just trying to be, you know, comedians on social media; it’s like clickbait. Almost like a gossip magazine, you’re just trying to be popular. We got to have readers, we’ve got to have followers, we got to have people just liking us, not because we’re original but because we do things that people usually eat in society, you know? I know I’m taking it a little deep now, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

GE: It sounds like it. You have to be willing to put yourself out there and to make mistakes if you want to grow as an artist.

SA: I say it a lot, you know? I am willing to fail in my mission to be better. I’m willing to risk everything I stand for if I know I’m on the right path. And as long as I feel really happy with what I’m doing, nothing in terms of sales or clicks or popularity, I feel like I’m contributing to what we build. I don’t feel like I’m just following to be one of the guys at the party. I couldn’t care less about that, you know? I have kids, I have a life, and a career; why would I let all this 20 years go to waste just because I’m trying to make somebody like me? So I’m willing to risk everything all the time.

GE: You talked about the odds against you through life, how you paid your dues, your commitment to craft; how do you see that reflected in the new album?

SA: I think first and foremost it’s about the writing and how you make songs and music. I have a tendency to make it really hard for myself. I want to be original and I chose a very analog work process in this album where I wanted to create sounds that nobody could recreate. I wanted to use stuff that nobody’s used because I don’t want to do what other people are doing.

Yesterday I sat down and listened to the test presses from the album on vinyl and it makes me appreciate it, the body of work and the songs. I’m really proud of it because it took three and a half years to make and the thing is, I can listen to the songs I did first, three and a half years ago and it sounds exactly as the other songs that I did three and a half years later, sonically. So I feel like I’m on the right path and when I listen to the songs there’s not one single thing I want to change in them. So it’s the best I’ve ever done. I think that’s what makes it special to me, I can’t do it better, this is the best I could possibly do and hopefully that’s enough.

GE: Now as a solo artist, how is the process of putting something like this together different than with a band of your fellow DJs like Swedish House Mafia?

SA: I think it’s a lot harder because you’re taking another route. When you’re in a band that’s like Swedish House Mafia, you know, we put a lot of time into making the music, don’t get me wrong. But it’s also easier because it’s the sound of the moment and it’s the height.

I reference Katy Perry a lot, for example. She could do an average song, but it would still be number one because she’s so big. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best work she’s ever done. And I think that’s the difference here. I could probably get away with a lot more stuff just being a popular artist than you get when you want to kind of craft your experience. And I think it’s different times now. I think music has come to the point where, look at Adele, you know? Adele goes silent for two, three years then she comes with an album and she wins the world because it’s so authentic. There’s no bullshit. Look at J. Cole, there’s a lot of artists that are. As soon as it’s real you always win, you always win. Because you can’t judge authenticity, you can’t judge it. You can say “This was a shitty song,” yeah, but if you look at what the purpose of it was, you can’t say that because it’s a life story. Where it’s the meaning. We couldn’t judge Stevie Wonder’s songs because everything he sang was completely true. I think that’s the difference.

GE: That willingness to seek out the truth is interesting, as this album features a lot of very diverse, much smaller [than you] artists like David Garza, a Texas singer-songwriter. How did you get connected with him and what made you want to work with him?

SA: That song was a collaboration between me and Francesco Rossi, he had this weird collaboration that he was working on, another song, and I heard his vocals like, “Wait, hold on a second.” This sounds so interesting, intriguing almost. It’s like they speak to me in a way where it’s not about the success, it’s about the character or the voice or the story. I think that’s the difference in this album.

I have Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons [here too] but we actually did that song [“Someone Else”] before Imagine Dragons happened. So that had this weird, cool hybrid of just being interested in somebody and kind of, I want them to tell their story, as well as like their voice is their story.

I’m not trying to just go out and say, “Hey, we gotta sell records now.” I’ve been asked by every pop star if I could collaborate for this album and I said no to everybody because it doesn’t [speak to] me. It doesn’t [work to] just go out there and do a pop-packed album, it doesn’t tell my story and I want specific guys to tell that story, because I look up to them or I really appreciate them or they really inspire me. It had nothing to do with, you know, are they successful? Have they sold any records? It had nothing to do with that. I think that was a cool way of saying, these are people that stay true to their craft and that’s why I want to work with them because we talk the same language.

GE: I also really enjoyed Julia Spada, the vocalist featured on “The Ocean.” There’s something about her reach and her range that’s so expressive, and I think it really complements the soaring qualities that you create in that particular song. How you would describe the relationship between an instrumental EDM track and the vocals your featured singers contribute to it?

SA: Oh, she’s incredible. She’s a Swedish folk singer. I mean, I think that you have to respect the feature as much as you have to respect your song, and I think I didn’t just want to come out there and do bangers. I needed to produce and write the song in a way where it actually works, where a lot of people would’ve probably taken a different direction; they’d have just done a Top Ten beats for the banger and just slapped her vocals on it. At the same time, a collaboration is a clash of two worlds, I work with a folk singer, how am I going to make that work?

The only way I can make that work is to write melancholy music that would fit with her voice. And then a collaboration like that is very, you know, it’s the same with the Dan Reynolds record, everybody in the whole world, anybody in the dance community would do that song differently because they would take that Dan Reynolds vocal and slap it on a song that would be pop oriented.

I went a little darker, and more bold than a lot of people would’ve done. But that’s because that’s what makes me excited. That’s what makes me wake up in the morning and go, “This is fucking cool,” and I think it’s those things that you live for.

I’ve done it all, I’ve toured every stadium in the world, I’ve played every festival in the world, I’ve sold, you know, 35 million records, I have nothing to prove to myself. I know I can. For me it was now about I have to prove to myself that I’m a craftsman. And I think that’s what makes it work for me because I learned things everyday, I work with people and working with a lot of these features I sit with them in a dark studio and we have a guitar and we’re just, it’s that discovery. It’s that like mysterious discovery of magic which is music and you learn every day and I’m like, “Oh wow, I didn’t realize I could take it this way,” but in real life we could actually make it work with this kind of mellotron, weird sound, and it’s just magic. It’s really hard to explain, but sometimes you just do things that you can’t explain and this whole album’s been one of those for me. You step into this little world, you know? It’s kind of weird.

GE: You talked about the magic of music discovery and I think that’s a theme that runs throughout this album, especially when you look at some of the videos that you have produced along with your tracks. “Remember,” “Wasted Love,” and “Children of the Wild” all share this kind of fascination with fire and explosions. Are those a reference to your childhood?

SA: It is, it is. I had a very dramatic and dynamic life. I lost my dad when I was 14, I lost my step dad when I was 18. I’ve gone through hell and come out on the other side, you know? So for me, my childhood was really rough, but at the same time I’ve come out better on the other side where I’ve learned a lot and I’ve seen a lot and I’ve fought through a lot. For me, it’s about expressing that in a way where you take the beauty out of it and use that beauty and kind of express that in a way where people appreciate it.

I work creatively with my whole album and everything that I touch. So, I’m in the writing process of every video, I even go as far as picking the cameras and the lenses and the lights and locations. I’m really, really, really hands on when it comes to the creative stuff. For me, this whole world I’m introducing now is everything that I stand for. And I think I want to be real and I want to talk reality. We have issues, we have racial issues, we have political issues, we have financial issues. We have all of these issues in the world but nobody’s talking about it in a way where [it’s helping]. We have the biggest reach in the world in the dance community, but we also can help a lot and together we can change it, you know? And I just think that me telling my story is a little piece of, I don’t know, like self respect in a sense where you kind of put yourself out there just so other people can see.

I’m not a golden boy that grew up in front of a computer and had the best, all of a sudden had a Billboard number one and then became a DJ. I want to tell a story because all of us can relate to it, it’s reality. I think just growing up really taught me you realize that you appreciate it so much, that I’m proud of how I grew up. I’m proud of what I’ve gone through and I’m proud that I came through it. I want to tell that story because I think there’s other people out there, especially the youth that needs to hear encouragement and see that there’s something out there that kind of inspires them to become something. It doesn’t matter what odds you have, if you just go for it and you work really, really hard, I think you always come out the winner on the other side.

GE: Do you get that kind of response from your fans? I know that you have a pretty close relationship with your listeners.

SA: For sure. I talk to my fans a lot. Just because I appreciate them, you know? They’ve been standing by and have been supportive at times. The fans are what make you keep going, the fans are why you wake up in the morning. I guess my relationship with them is always gonna be special because I really appreciate them.

I don’t see them as dollar signs in either part of my life. I think the response has been incredible, especially on this album because even like looking at a lot of critics, people that I never thought would like this album have been really blown away and overwhelmed by the way the album sounds and how much of a step it is. I think it’s incredible to see that a lot of people are appreciating the body of work and not only because it’s successful but because it actually has a meaning. You get really humbled by it and I’m really happy with that.

GE: For someone who’s played all the stadiums and festivals, and sold millions, you’re only 33 years old. What’s next? How can you top this?

SA: I want to get better at making music. You learn every day and there’s things happening every day. I want to sit there in 20 years and feel like I’m still learning otherwise I don’t feel like there’s a point and I think that part of that is you’ve got to challenge yourself. You’ve got to go in there and if you can’t swim sometimes it’s better to jump in the pool until it happens. I don’t know what’s next, obviously this album comes out now, slowly on the side I’m actually working on the second one. Let’s see, really I have no idea.

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