When the streams of fire burst up from the front of Perry’s Stage at Lollapalooza, the heat feels close enough to touch, even standing 15 feet away. It burns clean with no lingering smell; and is momentarily blinding, obscuring the tens of thousands in the audience on the other side. When standing just down the steps from Swedish DJ sensation Alesso’s onstage platform, the smoke machines are louder than the music, billowing clouds forming with a hiss of intensity like a hydrant on full blast.
To stand on stage while Alesso goes to work behind four CDJs is to see just a part of a careful balancing act. The coordination between lighting, pyrotechnics, music, lights and visuals (the cycling images illuminating the wraparound screen that hugs the platform) takes place primarily over headsets, an invisible guiding hand which transforms 24-year-old Alessandro Lindblad — a slim, delicate Nineties baby — into Alesso, a DJ superstar who stands astride the world, his long hair slicked back, producing massive, moody anthems of emotional transcendence for an audience of millions.
Or so he hopes. Breaking in America, even in the wake of the EDM boom, remains a tricky maneuver for Europe’s biggest DJs. Like Sebastian Ingrosso, his mentor and member of the now-defunct Swedish House Mafia, Alesso’s profile is bigger overseas; and while he has a Las Vegas residency and no trouble packing festival stages in the States, true pop stardom currently eludes him. He’s collaborated with some of popular music’s biggest names — artists like One Republic, Ryan Tedder and Tove Lo. “Heroes (We Could Be),” his collaboration with the latter, has become his first song to reach the American Top 40.
Alesso was born in 1991 to a blonde, blue-eyed Swede and an Italian mother, neither of whom made music professionally, although his father did some DJing and dancing for fun. But as a child, Lindblad was always into music. “I used to dance, sing, you name it,” he says of his childhood in Stockholm. “Played the piano, everything.” When he was 14 or 15, he became enamored with house music through DJs like Erick Morillo, Roger Sanchez and Eric Prydz. “When I was drawn into this whole world around it,” he says, “it became like a drug to me.”
Even as a kid, Alesso felt apart from what he deems as his country’s laid-back national character. “It’s a positive thing . . . to be a typical Swede, to be very chill and be like, ‘I have my thing . . . I don’t want to work my ass off too much.’ Some people are like that and that’s great,” he says. “I’m not that guy. I’m the guy who wants to work my ass off.”
A few hours before he was scheduled to perform that night in Grant Park, Alesso and a portion of his small team navigated a white van through the congested streets of Lollapalooza weekend in downtown Chicago. He’d just arrived in the city that day: He was in the middle of a European tour and had made the trip across the world specifically for the fest. Everyone is, accidentally or intentionally, clad in black. “Team stage black” someone jokes. Alesso is slender, with skinny bird legs inside grey jeans and fashionable white hi-tops with a snakeskin texture. He wears a medium-sized silver watch; a ring; a bracelet. He has sharp facial features, and cleanly groomed scruff. His small-talk is nutritional in nature — Alesso is a recent convert to Bulletproof coffee, a recipe that incorporates butter and coconut oil, rather than the usual creamer.
It was explained that he would have “a bungalow,” but really, it’s a tent space with soft black carpeting and an AC that works more like a wind tunnel. His tent is positioned next to Metallica, although they remain out of sight. He and his team huddle around a laptop to coordinate for the night’s concert. The biggest challenge for a show like Lollapalooza, he says, is just keeping everything together. “That everyone knows what to do at the exact same time. Because it is important that for one hour and fifteen, people get 110% of what I do. That’s why we never get up there and play whatever. I want them to be amazed, and I think to do that, you do that together.”
That means aligning the music with his VJ guy, Josh Gallagher; his lighting guy, Ben Ward; and tour manager Carl Dreyer, who coordinates the whole show. Dreyer also handles the on-stage pyrotechnics, although he and Alesso have been discussing adding a fifth member to their stage team, in an effort to better free up Dreyer’s time to focus on managing the show’s many moving parts. Although his team has been working together now for two years, the Alesso concert experience came together quickly. Dreyer suggests that there wasn’t much grinding away on the club circuit before he hit it big. “Everything went really fast,” Alesso confirms. “Within a year, I noticed I was getting booked and doing all these shows. . . . I did shows in New York, Miami. It just got bigger and bigger, and within two years I was playing all these major festivals.”
This happened with the help of EDM producer Ingrosso, who, alongside Axwell, is now also a performer signed to Def Jam, and similarly tasked with tackling the American pop market through EDM. Alesso, perhaps detecting a tendency in the press to associate him with his initial sponsor, doesn’t mention too many EDM acts when discussing the performers who’ve inspired him — Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coldplay and especially Michael Jackson.
Before his performance, Alesso has to run a gauntlet of interviews for publications and platforms alike: Instagram, Snapchat, Revolt, Vice and Vanity Fair have all arranged interviews. The employees of Snapchat are especially excited to make his acquaintance; he’s an active user, and is interviewed for Pillow Talk With Poppy, a Snapchat original program, in a tent full of Snapchat-logo-covered beach balls. (“We love Snapchat,” says Krista Carnegie, who leads him through this promotional obstacle course and handles much of his social media presence, “And they love him.”) In between, he’s stopped by fans, dutifully signs posters and poses for photos. By the time he makes it back to his tent, the sun is setting. He’s joined by his friend Mike, not present in any official capacity. He pours vodka and coconut water into a red solo cup. Alesso is not nervous about tonight’s performance. The much bigger Coachella audience made him nervous; his hometown of Stockholm made him nervous. “They criticize you so much in Sweden.”
As the sun sets, the team jumps onto go-carts, which surge towards Perry’s stage; passing through to the backstage trailer. Fans eager to pose with the young star push towards him. Once inside the trailer, just before his performance, he seems more tense, as a press of fans ask to pose for photographs. “OK,” he says, “I’m actually pretty nervous now.”
Soon Tove Lo arrives, her face bejeweled. Then her wings arrive, too, in a large shipping container — a prop from the “Heroes” music video. She’s the evening’s surprise guest. On seeing his friend, Alesso seems to settle down. “I love her songwriting,” he says about the artist he knew before her international smash “Habits (Stay High).” “It feels new . . . Right away I felt like she knows what she’s doing.”
Just before hitting the stage, Alesso is more relaxed, although there’s a tautness to his movements. He clambers up the ladder to the elevated DJ booth. Dreyer walks around in a headset. As a photographer snaps photos of Alesso as he begins, he’s instructed not to take pictures of the producer’s hands — for EDM performers, the fictional idea that they just press play is greeted with eye-rolling frustration, and photographs of the technical aspects of the job serve only to falsely reinforce the notion.
Young fans press up against the barrier, flames burst suddenly from the front of the stage. Girls are lifted onto shoulders; teens hoist unreadable signs and placards; a large pink kitty balloon in the audience floats to the end of its tether; rolls of toilet paper fly through the crowd. Backstage, Tove Lo dances in the wings in her wings. “The energy is incredible, it’s hard to describe,” she says about working with Alesso. “I haven’t worked with any other EDM producers, but he really goes with what he’s feeling, and that’s what I like.”
“Make some fucking noise!” Alesso says from the booth, and the crowd and the smoke machines respond. Spiderwebs of lasers shoot out across the sky. The mood is one of continual Peak Party. After some help from a barefoot Tove Lo on “Heroes” and a run through “Under Control,” his collaboration with Calvin Harris, Alesso bows on the table and makes his way down the steps. He kisses Tove Lo on the cheek, greets well-wishers and within minutes is back on a golf cart, sliding down the sidewalk behind the wall of Porta Potties while Metallica’s guitars grind in the background and the bus exhaust hangs heavy in the air.
Back in the white van, headed to an afterparty performance at the Aragon, there’s a post-concert giddiness from Alesso and his crew, a high that pervades the vehicle. Everyone is staring at their phones. Krista, who manages his Snapchat account, is putting together video of the performance to go out to his fans. “Everything you post,” she says, “hashtag Lolla.”
The Aragon smells like a basement, and passing through the maze of backstage passageways is like a scene from Spinal Tap. When they finally arrive in the green room, Alesso is suddenly hit by a wave of jet lag, and spends some time horizontally on the couch. His nervousness, he says, went away while he was performing.
“It is a big responsibility, that amount of people,” he says backstage at the night’s afterparty at the Aragon. “You need to be fucking sure what you’re doing, man. Because otherwise people can fucking hear that right away. Whether you’re a singer or a DJ. You can feel if someone isn’t 100% sure what to do or confident enough. Confidence is very important.”
Within the hour, the Swede who just wants to work his ass off is back on stage.