Q&A: Superstar DJ Avicii on “Wake Me Up,” Partying Sober and Why He Owes His Name to MySpace

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Ross Gilmore / Redferns via Getty Images

Avicii in Glasgow, Scotland.

“I’m a DJ,” says Avicii. “I get the party started.” But six years after he started posting tracks online—back then, most people called him Tim Bergling—Avicii’s breed of DJ is more icon than everyman. At 24, he’s already performed with Madonna, released back-to-back-to-back hit singles (most recently, the bluegrass-tinged “Wake Me Up!”) and played six-figure gigs at clubs all over the planet.

He’s also, alongside elders like Tiësto and David Guetta, one of the biggest forces behind the rise of electronic dance music (EDM), better known as the soaring—or grating, depending on whom you ask—oontz-oontz beats driving new songs from Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Ellie Goulding and more. Time recently caught up with Avicii, a Stockholm native, as he revved up a tour to support his first studio album, True, out Sept. 17.

You’re famous for traditional EDM singles. But this album has hints of rock, bluegrass, country and more. What drove the change?
I love finding out-of-the-box inspirations and blending them with what I’ve done in the past. And when I started to experiment with genres, it didn’t sound forced. Maybe that’s because it’s all music that I listened to growing up, and it’s all music that I love.

Do you write your own songs?
I’m good at melody—I’ll write the top-line melody and ideal words I want to go with it. But I’m not that good at writing lyrics. I bounce those back and forth with songwriters or someone who can sing.

How’d that go with Mac Davis, who co-wrote two songs on True? He’s a 71-year-old country star who wrote Elvis Presley’s hit “In the Ghetto.”
Oh, he was great. We had to go in and change the melodies a bit, because they were really country-sounding. But I loved the potential straightaway.

Would you ever sing on your own track?
No. Maybe some background stuff. You won’t hear it’s me!

In theory, you could preset an entire Avicii mix before you perform. Do you?
I’ve never tried to hide the fact that I do a lot of planning beforehand—finding new tracks, making new bootlegs [remixes] for certain areas of the world. I’m a control freak. I need to know that stuff will work. But it’s never a pre-programmed set in the sense that I’m forced to play a certain way. I can still jump in and out of a set anytime I want, in case it doesn’t work or doesn’t go as planned. It’s not rocket science. It just takes time.

So what exactly are you doing onstage?
I’m mixing songs, and especially recently this past six months, I’ve started mixing a lot faster. It’s always constantly something—queuing up what I’m going to play next, and figuring out exactly where to go next.  I’m also playing with the effects and stuff.

What about engaging the crowd?
Definitely. I’d feel almost embarrassed if I didn’t.  People who are there, they want to see someone who is excited too, otherwise their energy—the same way I feed off the energy of the crowd, they feed off my energy, any energy I give out

What happens when something goes wrong, like a power surge?
People start cheering! It goes quiet, and people are like, oh oh oh oh. That’s what always happens.

They think it’s part of the show?
Either they think it’s part of the show, or they’re like, Oh, come on, put the music on. It used to be that I was always nervous about that happening.  Since I’ve experienced it, it’s really not the end of the world.  As long as you get back into it quick and people don’t lose the vibe that you’ve built so far with your set—as long as you don’t lose that, it’s fine.

You’re around parties all the time. How much do you actually partake?
I used to party a lot. Everyone does in the beginning when they’re getting accustomed to this world. Every night is a party. But I just realized that for me personally, my body or my mind couldn’t handle that amount of—like I wasn’t feeling good doing that to myself.

Drinking?
Yeah I was drinking way too much, partying in general way too much. Then I got a pancreatitis attack [at 21], which is very rare. So that forced me to do a 180 and stop drinking.

Does that ever get difficult? EDM culture is notoriously party- and drug-centric.
No, I mean, I can still party. I just—I can be sober and party. It’s all a learning experience. I’ve gone out partying sober and I’ve met my new girlfriend from day one sober, and I’ve done everything sober. And I see how drunk everyone else is and I feel like, I kind of like not being hungover tomorrow.

Why the name Avicii? What does it mean?
Avici is the lowest level of Buddhist hell.

And the extra i?
When I started out, I was Avici with one i. But on MySpace, that name was taken. And I had already tried out 60 others—

Like what?
Oh, I don’t remember. But I was kind of fed up with it. So I added another i, and it worked! Then once I met my manager and we started talking, it made sense to put an extra i there, because it was kind of like a reincarnated version of the old me. It shows that I’ve moved on to another level.

So you owe your extra i to MySpace.
Yeah. And my manager.

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