Inside the Weeknd and Swedish House Mafia’s Coachella collab

The sofas scattered around the backstage artists’ compound at Coachella were still wrapped in plastic when the Weeknd and Swedish House Mafia gathered earlier this week to rehearse for the joint headlining performance that will close the first half of the annual desert mega-festival on Sunday night .

“Just like grandma’s house,” said Mike Dean, the veteran hip-hop producer, as he munched from a mini-bag of Doritos. Dean, who’s playing guitars and keyboards in the show, was talking gear with Steve Angello and Axwell of Swedish House Mafia, the Stockholm-based dance-music trio; the Weeknd, who paused production on an upcoming HBO series to perform at Coachella after Kanye West abruptly pulled out, was chatting about TV with a member of his team. (He hasn’t had time to watch much lately, though he recently caught the 2018 docuseries “Wild Wild Country.”)

A stagehand popped in to usher the crew onto Coachella’s enormous main stage, where a scrubbing disco groove boomed across the sprawling polo field — empty for now but soon to be filled with tens of thousands of music elated to be back in the fans desert for the first time since 2019. Angello pointed up: “We have nine lasers up there,” he said, “and we have nine lasers up there.” Somebody handed the Weeknd a microphone, and suddenly his high, pleading voice was floating out into the dusk.

“Can we start this one again?” he asked after a minute or two. Silence. Then: thump-thump-thump-thump.

For Swedish House Mafia — which last played Coachella in 2012, not long before the group broke up — Sunday’s performance with the Weeknd is a splashy way to relaunch a much-hyped reunion that had barely gotten started when the pandemic stalled the trio’s comeback plans more than two years ago. On Friday, it’s set to release a new album, “Paradise Again,” that stakes out a future beyond the kind of fist-pumping EDM with which Angello, Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso (who was late arriving from Sweden for rehearsals) made their names .

Through a representative, the Weeknd — who worked with the group on his latest LP, “Dawn FM,” and who appears on “Paradise Again” in the sci-fi-soulful “Moth to a Flame” — called Swedish House Mafia “the biggest DJs in the world” and said he was “ecstatic” to “have them as bandmates for this once-in-a-lifetime moment of collaboration.”

The Weeknd will headline Sunday night at Coachella alongside Swedish House Mafia.

(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

For the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, scheduled to run Friday to Sunday at Indio’s Empire Polo Club, before repeating April 22-24 with the same bill, the mash-up represents an elegant solution to the problem created when West bailed on the closely watched event with less than two weeks until showtime. Neither the rapper nor Coachella has officially explained his cancellation, though it follows West’s being disinvited from performing at this month’s Grammy Awards because of threatening messages he posted online. (Other top artists set to appear at Coachella, which is sold out, include Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Doja Cat, Lil Baby, Phoebe Bridgers, Megan Thee Stallion and Karol G.)

Swedish House Mafia was already booked to take part in the festival when the coveted Sunday-night slot opened up; Indeed, it was the first act announced for this year’s edition, which comes after the 2020 and 2021 shows were both called off due to COVID-19. The original plan was for the group to perform directly after Styles’ headlining set on Friday, Angello said in an interview before this week’s run-through. Seated outside at a ritzy Palm Springs hotel, he and Axwell vaped discreetly as they talked; at one point, Angello tucked a little pouch of snus under his top lip. “Abel was always coming too,” albeit in a smaller role, Angello said, using the Weeknd’s given name.

Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, who manages both acts as well as Doja Cat, said the idea to move the performance to Sunday and to expand it to headlining dimensions — on the Coachella poster it’s billed as Swedish House Mafia x The Weeknd — came together quickly in the wake of West’s withdrawal. “Paul Tollett and I spoke,” he said, referring to the president of LA-based Goldenvoice, which puts on the festival. “He’s a good friend. I’ve been going to Coachella for 10 years-plus. Never miss it. So this was just kind of natural.”

Asked to respond to a report in the New York Post that he’d had to push Tollett to pay the Weeknd what Tollett planned to pay West — $8 million plus a $500,000 production fee, according to the Post — Slaiby scoffed. “I don’t even know where that story started from,” he said. He similarly brushed off a question about negotiating Coachella’s radius clause, which prohibits artists booked for the festival from playing other gigs within a certain distance from Southern California for a certain amount of time. “Our focus was just on giving the fans a special show,” Slaiby said, adding that the performance will be unique to Coachella and not a version of the touring production the Weeknd will bring to Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium in September.

Everyone involved wanted to keep details about the gig under wraps; Coachella, with a minimum ticket price of $449, prizes its you-have-to-be-there quality, even though the festival is livestreamed these days on YouTube. But Axwell allowed that the show will feature Swedish House Mafia and the Weeknd both separately and together. And Angello said they’re going bigger in terms of stagecraft than when they were set to play Friday. “There were limitations before because Harry’s stuff was gonna be in there,” he said. Now, those 18 lasers are just the beginning.

Two men dressed all in black stand side by side

“We don’t have a hit record on the radio right now but we’re headlining Coachella,” says Swedish House Mafia’s Steve Angello, right, with Axwell.

(David Vassalli / For The Times)

Spectacle was perhaps Swedish House Mafia’s defining mode during the group’s first go-round, when it helped take club music into arenas and stadiums around the globe. “We were early [in] trying to outdo ourselves with production,” said Axwell, who formed the trio with the other two in 2008 after each had established himself as a solo DJ. “We always figured, you’re never gonna stand onstage and say, ‘Oh, I’m glad we saved money by not doing those pyro hits.'”

Music has changed in the decade since the group scored a Top 10 pop hit with the soaring “Don’t You Worry Child”; EDM, which in the early 2010s filled the Hot 100 with high-gloss bangers by David Guetta, Calvin Harris, LMFAO and others, eventually gave way to darker, weirder sounds. Yet demand for Swedish House Mafia remains strong: This summer, the group is touring Europe and North America, and they’re still playing arenas and stadiums even as many of their peers have downsized.

To release “Paradise Again,” Slaiby brokered a deal with Republic Records, one of pop’s most effective hitmaking machines. (In addition to the Weeknd, whose “Blinding Lights” spent a record 90 weeks on Billboard’s singles chart, the label is home to Drake, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Post Malone.) But Angello says he’s not interested in chasing what’s happening, for instance, on LA’s KIIS-FM, which he says he doesn’t listen to.

“We don’t have a hit record on the radio right now, but we’re headlining Coachella,” he said. “There’s so many artists that are doing more in the world than just having a Top 40 record. Look at Kanye and the ‘Donda’ album. Look at Tyler, the Creator. Look at Kendrick Lamar. A chart hit compared to cultural impact — they’re completely different things.

“I talked to Paul [Tollett] Yesterday, and he was like, ‘I booked you guys for the experience,’” Angello continued. “I’d rather be remembered for that than ‘for 2022 — they had a hit record.’ Who gives af—?”

He and Axwell say they modeled “Paradise Again” on the kind of immersive albums they grew up with — LPs by Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder and Gang Starr. (Daft Punk’s 2001 “Discovery” was a specific dance-music touchstone.) Beyond “Moth to a Flame,” which has more than 275 million streams on Spotify, the 17-track set features collaborations with Ty Dolla Sign, 070 Shake, Mapei , ASAP Rocky and Sting, who sings a few lines of the Police’s indelible “Roxanne” over a jackhammering beat in “Redlight.”

“We just stole the sample off YouTube, as a placeholder,” Axwell said of the song’s creation. “We thought it was cool but that we’d never be able to clear it. But then Sal said, ‘Hey, let’s try.’ Sent Sting the track and he said, ‘Let’s do it — I’ll even resing the vocal for you.’ And we slaughtered his song!”

The group recorded ASAP Rocky’s vocals for “Frankenstein” one day before the rapper began serving a monthlong jail sentence in Sweden related to a street fight that was caught on tape in 2019. “It was the elephant in the room,” Angello said. “But listen, he took it like a champ, and we ended up going back and forth on the track after he got out.”

“It would be easy to think he would have a grudge against anything Swedish,” Axwell said. “But no.”

Asked whom they’d like to collaborate with in the future, Axwell mentioned Willow Smith (“Great voice”) while Angello singled out FKA twigs (“I love her sonics”). The key to a fruitful partnership, they said, is finding someone willing to explore new ground, “so we’re both doing something we’re not used to,” Angello said.

That’s why Swedish House Mafia and The Weeknd works, they added. “It’s actually really hard to get people out of their comfort zone,” Angello said. “They say they want to in interviews, but it’s not the case. Abel, Pharrell — there’s only a couple of guys that really push boundaries.”

Swedish House Mafia members Axwell and Steve Angello pose for portraits in the Parker Palm Springs hotel.

(David Vassalli / For The Times)

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