“Do whatever you want, whatever makes you happy.” That was the advice given to 12-year-old Steven Angello Josefsson Fragogiannis by his mother when he proclaimed he wanted to become a DJ. It certainly seems to have worked out well. Better known to millions of electronic dance music fans as Steve Angello (as well as one-third of super-group Swedish House Mafia), the Greek-born, Stockholm-bred superstar DJ/producer opens up about changing his sound and the SHM breakup before he continues his residency reign Oct. 27 at XS.
A little birdie told me you might be starting to focus more on making and playing tech house. Is that true?
[Laughs.] I know birds like to talk like that. I feel I’ve always been a guy who plays after-hours and after-parties and when I do that, I tend to play tech house. I’ve been enjoying it more lately because all the regular shows are becoming so big, so you want to go back to the dirty clubs and just go a little dirty sometimes. So to some extent, yes, I’ll focus more on doing after-parties after every big show. That’s where the tech house comes in.
With your Size Records label, you’ve probably come across some great lesser-known producers. If you had to put together a lineup of artists whose tracks you’ve signed, but may not be as familiar to the public, who would you throw on a bill?
Trent Cantrelle from the West Coast is amazing! I’ve signed tech house [tracks] from him for the label. There’s Nari & Milani that I have releases from on Size. They’re an amazing duo from Italy. I come across a lot of great artists; sometimes I wish I could clone myself so I could take care of all of them. I’m trying as much as I can, and we’re expanding the team, so there are gonna be a lot of good and big signings from us in the future for sure.
You created the catchy track “Greyhound” alongside Sebastian Ingrosso and Axwell as Swedish House Mafia for an Absolut vodka campaign. It’s actually in heavy rotation in the Las Vegas clubs. What came first, the track or the commercial pitch?
They work hand in hand. We started out with the track, and then we got into the whole commercial. We had to choose from five directors. We have a meeting, we see a pitch, they listen to the music … we just play ping-pong with ideas. It’s a different formula than when it is just a record and music video.
Is the emotion of the track affected (or even absent) when working on something for advertising purposes?
We didn’t think about it as advertising. We worked [based on] this guy’s creative CGIs. And he went all fucking wild on these animated dogs and stuff. We didn’t even think about that it would be Absolut. In the back of our heads, when we grew up Absolut was a super-creative company, and they still are. We got free creative control with the director. That helped a lot because if you just give me an ad and just see the commercial, I would go, “Well, I can’t really write something to this.” So, it was a little short movie with us and some animated dogs and a desert. It was pretty cool for us.
Speaking of SHM, the first time we chatted was before your trio’s Las Vegas debut in June 2010. Now SHM has come full circle, and the group is disbanding. Is this simply an indefinite hiatus or permanent?
We’ve had an amazing run. We’ve done a lot of things together, and we’ve accomplished a lot of goals. We’ve come a very, very long way. Swedish House Mafia was never planned. It was something that just happened. It got to a point where it became this big monster machine—and we just wanna have a good time. So we felt that we’ve done so much amazing stuff together that we could call it a day. I mean, we’re still us, we’re still here, it’s still us three individuals.
Do you think we’ll see a solo artist album from you in the next year or so?
I’m working on one now. It’s gonna be called Wild Youth.
What kind of a vibe will the album have?
There are a lot of different things in there, a lot of cool collaborators and every artist on Size: I’m doing records with Third Party, Kill the Noise, Wayne & Woods, Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano, AnN21 & Max [Vangeli]. We’re working on collaborations where we all are working on the same records. It’s a family thing. There’s some great music in there, there’s a lot of cool vocal performances on the album that we’re working on right now. I’m super excited. It’s gonna take some time, but early next year.
Let’s talk tattoos: What is the quote you have inked, and do you have any others with special meaning?
I have one quote that says, “I chose life and life chose me. That’s why I love my life and my life loves me.” I wrote that, and it’s the purpose of life for me. You don’t live to work, you work to live. You should just embrace life and have a good time. Focus on what you like and not on what you dislike. Life is not a mystery. Life is pretty simple. You just gotta take it upon yourself to enjoy yourself.
At the EDM Biz conference in June, you addressed the industry rumor that you aren’t really DJing in the booth, when in actuality you had to learn a new style of spinning without headphones because of hearing loss. Can you elaborate?
Almost two years ago, I was sitting locked in a studio for about six weeks. I had a couple of projects I had to finish, so I was in there 24/7. The way it is in the big studios, I had the console and speakers on my left. By the end of the sessions, when I went to bed, all of a sudden my hearing in my left ear just disappeared—and then it came back after a couple of seconds. So I called a doctor and he says, “That’s a warning sign that you have a lot of problems with your ears; you might want to come in and check it.” I just pushed it along, sat there for another week, and then one session it completely shut—my ear. I was like, “Fuck, I’m deaf.” I went to the doctor and they said, “The good part is that your ear muscles are actually reacting, so it closes not to let any more sound in. You haven’t damaged your ears, but you’re not gonna be able to hear for a while.” I asked, “How long is this gonna be?” “I don’t know. It could be a week, it could be a year, it could be 10 years.” I was thinking, “I’m screwed.” A lot of antibiotics, a lot of [time at the] spa. I had to walk around with cotton in my ear just to [protect it] from any sound. I couldn’t hear any music, I couldn’t use my phone, I couldn’t do anything.
After about two weeks, my hearing started to come back. I went to the doctor and he said, “Whatever you do, never use headphones ... I would suggest that you stop DJing, because you can’t use your headphones when you DJ.” And I was like, “Fuck that, I’m not gonna stop DJing.”
I got into the whole technological side of it, was considering Ableton Live for a while because then I don’t need to mix anything. Then I spoke to Pioneer and they said, “There’s a mathematical solution how you can get the BPMs right: 0.8, 1.6, 2.4, 3.2, 4.0—that’s one BPM each. If it says the left CD that the record is 128 [BPM], and the one on the right says it’s 126, just take that up 1.6. And it’s 2 BPMs. The only thing you’ve gotta do is just trigger it right.” And I said, “I can do that.” I work in a studio; you just have to press it on the kick drum. I was practicing a while and slowly starting to get into it, then after a while I’m like, “Fuck headphones. I don’t need headphones.” I started to prepare my tracks, I knew how long the intros were, I studied the tracks a lot so when I get a new record, I check what key it is in, what record works with it. It’s a lot more preparation, but at the same time it’s not undoable. Now I just do that all the time. My hearing’s great, I don’t have any issues. Especially DJ booths, I don’t need to crank up the headphones to then crank up the booth monitor so I’m not killing myself, cause my ears are kind of my heart. Gotta keep those healthy.
What advice would you offer to not only other DJs, but fans as well to prevent what you went through?
Hearing is one of the most important things. Your ears are very delicate. You gotta consider your balance is in your ear. You should be careful. I spoke to five of the biggest earplug manufacturers in the world. I had their technical guy send me specs on which frequencies are usually harmed with loud sounds. I had a couple of professors send me papers on what to do, I gave that frequency list to my tour manager and sound guy, so every time I step in the DJ booth, they’ve regulated that, they’ve taken down all those [harmful] frequencies. I’ve been working that technological [side] making sure that in my booth, there’s nothing that’s gonna harm my ears, even how loud I play it. We use limits and limiters, and a lot of EQing going on. I’d say it’s really really loud, but it’s those frequencies that my ear can take and not those that harm them. You gotta be careful with the mids and the highs; it’s very sharp and it can be very harsh, especially at venues. If you’re an earplug person, you should definitely consider that. I don’t like [earplugs] because it feels like I have sunglasses on at night kind of situation, like I don’t really feel the music as much and I play a lot on emotions. If I can’t be by the crowd and I can’t have it loud in my DJ booth, I’m completely off. Some people are like that, some people are not. I’m a sound guy, I want it to be loud, I want it to be big, and I just have to push it that way.
What are your thoughts on mainstream media’s new interest in EDM and how they’re portraying the music/culture?
I’m happy to some extent that they actually care and they help us grow our music by telling people what we do, but then there are a lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing. I would suggest that probably the biggest mainstream media should get somebody who specializes in dance music.
What can the dance music community do to preserve the integrity, spirit and culture of what it used to be like back in the underground warehouse days?
That’s coming back, to be honest. I see a lot of people go back to the roots. After every big show, I’m gonna do an after-party, and I can tell that the crowd is still there. Nothing is gonna change. Nothing is being destroyed. It’s easy for those guys throwing those parties to look somewhere else, but you can’t lose focus. Dance music has never been this big, and we should just embrace it. We should just take it upon ourselves to keep it going. Like a train, there’s no stopping us.
You’ve been talking about after-parties. Will you do some kind of underground after-party after your next Las Vegas gig?
Maybe. I usually play a little underground at the pool parties before my big show; it’s either pool party or it’s after-party.
The pools are shutting down for the season, though.
Yeah, I know. We’ll find something to do.
Maybe Drai’s or Artisan, do a surprise gig?
We could go there, if you want. [Laughs.]
Do you have an opinion on fading celebrities and/or aging socialites attempting to launch DJ careers (I use the term “DJ” loosely)?
I’ve always said this: When I was 12 years old, and told my mom that I wanted to be a DJ, she said, “Do whatever you want, whatever makes you happy.” I think it’s the same case now—yeah DJs are trendy, a lot of celebs are trying to get into DJing, but who cares? They’re not gonna headline Coachella. Let them do whatever they want to. If I want to become a naked runner on the street tomorrow, let me become that. It’s everybody’s dream to do whatever they feel like doing: Some people do it because they think it’s cool, some people do it because they wanna be “in,” some people do it just because DJs are hot right now. You can see who’s a great artist and who isn’t. Who’s building their shows, who can DJ, who can’t. We don’t have to prove ourselves to anybody and other DJs don’t have to be scared [that celeb DJs are] gonna take their jobs, because they’re not. Ten to 15 years ago, people wanted to hang out with a rock star. It is what it is.