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Avicii on Selling Out and His $1500 Laser Pointer

'It's never been my goal to just make more money and be more famous,' the DJ says

February 1, 2014 10:00 AM ET
Avicci
Avicci
Mark Seliger

Tim Bergling, the 24-year-old Swedish DJ better known around the world as Avicii, has had worldwide smashes in the past year with his album True and his folk-EDM single "Wake Me Up." When we sat down to talk with Bergling recently, he was waiting to film his cameo in the video for his single "Hey Brother." The shoot was in a cemetery in Bakersfield, California, and his dressing room was actually a bus decorated to look like an Ian Schrager hotel. "This chair is so comfortable!" Bergling announced, sitting in what looked to be an ordinary white office chair. "I should get some for the studio." Here he discusses his rise to stardom, what he looks for in a collaborator and why he had to have a $1500 laser pointer.  

See Where Avicii Ranks on Our 25 DJs That Rule the Earth

Why does so much music come from Sweden?
It's a small country, but it has such a culture of music, and so many influential producers and songwriters behind the scenes. And so many DJs have come from Sweden. It gives you hope that you can actually make it. It doesn't seem too farfetched. And it's very cold and dark for eight months of the year, and there's not really that much to do. If you're growing up in L.A., people go to the beach or start surfing. In Sweden, it's very easy to go into a studio and focus on that. I have eight months until something happens, so I might as well work, you know?

Do you spend most of your time in Sweden?
No, I'm back and forth between Sweden and L.A. I was just in Stockholm, in the studio with Wyclef Jean. We did fifteen songs in ten days. But that was for work. Every time I come back to Stockholm, I like it for a week and then I get bored. Stockholm is very slow, it's dark all the time, it's cold. 

I just bought a house in L.A. I've rented for so long, but now I have a place that I can decorate and make my own. The whole house is glass, so we can't put that much furniture in it. Every table or chair becomes an art piece, because there are so few of them.

What do you know now that you didn't a year ago?
I never released an album before. I've always known what a big machine the music scene is, but now I've gotten to see it firsthand. I've been fortunate to be on the good side of it: Universal and Def Jam have been the perfect partner for me. But I can also put myself in other people's shoes and see how this system could fuck other people. Next year, if I'm not hot or interesting anymore, I could see them switching priorities. Which is why you have to build a good relationship with everyone you work with and also keep delivering. If you stop making music, you're not going to be a priority anymore. It's just how it works.

How has your approach to making music changed?
Before, I would just make instrumentals. I wouldn't have a vocalist, and I don't sing myself, so I wasn't able to put vocals in it. The hook would be a synth, just because I needed something to fill up that void. And after, if these songs were good enough, me and my manager would send them off to singers who would write to the song and then send it back. Then we'd say "Oh, we love it" or "We don't like it." But now, every song I'm making with all these different people is from scratch. At the end of a studio session, what I have is a vocal, the melodies, and an acoustic guitar or piano. And then I take that home and build everything around it. It's much easier than before. It's mostly about making sure that the vocal is heard and the melody is heard, because that melody is the one I've refined the most — the main part of the song. The hard part about making music is finding something that is commercial in the sense that people want to listen to it and buy it, but that doesn't make me feel like a sellout.

Have you felt like you've been walking the line of being a sellout?
No. It's never been my goal to just make more money and be more famous. That's more my manager and his vision of grandness. It has always been about building for the future. Selling out is hurting your brand to make a quick buck. It's faster money, but you're probably going to end up making less. When you go into the mainstream, you will always lose some of the fans you've had from the start. If I wanted to make lots of money, I would just keep doing three hundred shows a year and keep reproducing [the 2011 hit single] "Levels." That would be a lot easier, but not as interesting for anyone.

What do you look for in a collaborator?
I'm pretty open-minded: I just look for talent. I can work with singers, but I get along better with other songwriters because it's a more creative environment. I'm very particular about certain things. Melody, I'm a super control freak. But rhythms and lyrics, I let go a lot more. So when I work with Nile Rodgers, we get along well in the studio because we complement each other. He's great with melodies, too. He's great with everything. Nile and I get along so well, even though we're from completely different generations. It's funny: Every time I'm with Nile, I say "It would be a cool to do a song like this," and I play him a song. Two or three times, he's said, "Well, that's me playing. That's me who wrote it." But it's Bon Jovi, or Duran Duran. It doesn't sound like him at all. "No, that's me." He's been a part of so much music. It's insane how many records have his guitar.

What's the most ridiculous thing you've ever spent money on?
I just bought a really awesome laser pointer. It's two watts, so it's five hundred times stronger than those regular green laser pointers. If you were standing on top of the Empire State Building with it, you could see all the way to Philadelphia. It's dangerous. You can't really play with it. You need to use goggles or you could go blind. But I saw some YouTube videos where it set stuff on fire, and I was like yes. It cost $1,500. That's not too bad for such an amazing invention.

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