Avicii's Next Level: Backstage With the Swedish Rave King

Behind the scenes and in the copter as Tim Bergling celebrates his biggest year ever

Avicii, RS Issue 1200
James Minchin III
Avicii
By |

There's nothing understated about an Avicii show. When the 24-year-old Swedish DJ-producer (whose real name is Tim Bergling) takes over L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl on a Saturday night, he brings smoke machines, dizzying roller-coaster footage on giant video screens and five straight minutes of fireworks to punch up his supersize EDM beats. "I love his music because it's so happy!" shouts the guy dancing next to me – unprompted by a question, just feeling the need to testify – as Bergling unleashes a pounding rave-anthem remix of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "The Tracks of My Tears." Then the confetti cannon goes off.

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Standing on top of a glowing video pyramid in front of a pair of turntables, Bergling races through dozens of songs over more than two hours. After driving the 17,000-strong crowd bonkers with his Top 10 EDM-country hit "Wake Me Up," he finds a microphone, quickly thanks his fans and slips offstage.

Sitting quietly in his dressing room a few minutes later, Bergling admits that he isn't much for stage patter. "I don't like talking," he says, sipping water to fight off a headache. "But I have to say something, otherwise it feels weird. Everyone says that when they start talking into the mic, it's addictive – they want to do it every second song." He shudders slightly, looking appalled by the thought.

Growing up in Stockholm, where his father ran an office-supply company and his mother was an actress, Bergling tried to learn guitar and piano but showed no particular aptitude for either instrument. As a teenager, he assumed he would end up doing something creative, but he had no idea what – art? Web design? Then, at 16, he downloaded the home-recording software Fruity Loops and taught himself how to make house music. "For eight months of the year, it's very cold and dark," Bergling says of his hometown. "There's not that much to do – during the winter, it's very easy to go into a studio and focus on that."

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As his tracks got more polished, Bergling began calling himself "Avicii," a modified spelling of the lowest level of Buddhist hell. (Today, he finds it off-putting when people call him that rather than "Tim.") His current manager contacted him in 2008 after hearing a few tracks online; soon, Bergling was flying around the world for gigs. After a career-making performance at Miami's Ultra Music Festival in 2011 and a string of big singles – including the global smash "Levels," built around an Etta James sample – he discovered that he was able to pull down $200,000 or more in a single night.

Everyone wanted to party with Bergling, and for a while he went along with it, drinking heavily at shows. "It was hard to make the distinction," he says. "Am I here for work or pleasure?" In 2012, he was hospitalized for 11 days with acute pancreatitis. Bergling says that he isn't an alcoholic, but he took the episode as a wake-up call nonetheless – he hasn't had a drink for almost a year.

Aside from that speed bump, Bergling's rise has been a remarkably smooth one. He's scored chart-topping singles around the world; he's headlined both Lollapalooza and the Electric Daisy Carnival; he's let Madonna appear onstage with him to get a piece of his cred. "What I initially set out to do," he says, "I've done over and over again."

Earlier this year, Avicii took a break from the road to record his full-length debut, True – working face to face with other musicians for the first time in his life. He was able to reel in some respected veterans from outside the EDM world, including Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, Elvis Presley collaborator Mac Davis and more. "Tim is one of the best songwriting partners that I've ever had, and that's no bullshit," says Rodgers. "I told him, 'You're the John Coltrane of Fruity Loops.' Before I met him, I wouldn't have considered somebody working in Fruity Loops as a serious composer – but this kid is absurd."

On a sunny Friday afternoon, Bergling shows up at an L.A. helipad looking totally wiped – he just got back from a 10-day writing session in Stockholm with Wyclef Jean, then stayed up until 4 a.m. working on a song with Chris Martin. He and his Guyanese-Canadian girlfriend, Racquel Bettencourt, listen patiently to a safety briefing and climb into a helicopter. As we head north over the Hollywood Hills, the couple point in the direction of the multimillion-dollar glass house they're buying.

After a 45-minute ride, we touch down at a cemetery in Bakersfield, where a film crew is shooting the video for his next single, "Hey Brother." Bergling parks in his trailer and talks about how he spent his 24th birthday in Vegas this fall. "We went out in the desert with, like, 30 guns and $400 of stuff we bought at Walmart to shoot at," he recalls. "Lots of cantaloupes."

The video's director arrives and tries in vain to talk Bergling into more screen time than the cameo he's agreed to. Next comes the stylist; the DJ balks at almost everything she suggests, politely but firmly. He won't wear a tweed jacket. He absolutely will not take off his backward baseball cap. And he refuses to wear anything but sneakers on camera, no matter how many times she asks him nicely to consider a pair of boots.

"Why don't you wear the boots for one fucking shot?" the stylist snaps at last.

"I don't want to," he says simply.

"I do lots of things I don't want to do!" she cries, exasperated.

Bergling shrugs. "But I don't have to."

From The Archives Issue 1200: January 16, 2014
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