For Avicii, it was a chance to relax. On April 8th, after an extended period of recording, the Swedish DJ traveled to Oman, a country east of Saudi Arabia, where he visited friends in the country’s royal family. But Avicii seemed too excited about his work to take a break entirely. A day after arriving, he held a conference call with members of his management team, talking about which guest artists he wanted to recruit for new music. The conversation continued on e-mail over the following days. “All his notes were in happy mode,” says Per Sundin, the head of Universal Music Sweden, who was lining up meetings with possible collaborators. “He loved what he had created.” Avicii also posed for photos with fans at a resort and went kite-surfing and sailing with friends.
So it was a shock when, on April 20th, the DJ-producer – whose house beats, strong pop melodies and Nordic good looks made him one of EDM’s most bankable stars – died by suicide on an estate owned by the royal family. The suicide surprised those close to Avicii, who had shown positive changes after quitting touring to deal with health and alcohol issues. “The lifestyle he was living, everywhere he went was this massive party,” says collaborator and Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger. “But he seemed like he was achieving the balance he was trying to attain.”
Avicii was born Tim Bergling in 1989, the son of a Swedish sitcom actress and a businessman. As a teen, Bergling began posting tracks he made in his Stockholm bedroom to leading EDM sites, setting himself apart from his peers with sharp hooks. (According to Neil Jacobson, a Geffen Records executive who worked with Avicii, Coldplay were Avicii’s “gold standard.”) After hearing a friend refer to the Buddhist term “Avici” – the hellish area where dead sinners are reborn – he adopted it as his stage name.
In 2009, Avicii released a buzzy electro-house single, “Ryu,” and began making trips to Miami to spin at EDM parties. “He looked like a kid, with that baby face, and he was nervous, but he had the talent,” says promoter Louis Diaz. Avicii’s career really took off with 2011’s “Levels” – a progressive house single featuring an Etta James sample – which became the subject of a six-figure bidding war. He signed with Island and was soon being paid at least $250,000 per gig and appearing in Ralph Lauren ads.
As the EDM phenomenon blew up around the world, Avicii stood out for his willingness to ignore the genre’s boundaries. At Miami’s Ultra festival in 2013, he debuted a new song, “Wake Me Up,” a strummy anthem blending bluegrass and house music. He brought a band onstage that included banjo and violin – and was booed. But the song went on to sell 4 million copies and was a Number One hit in 22 countries.
“I don’t feel like I’m selling out at all,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013, discussing the blowback he got from dance-music purists. “This is the type of music that I listen to, and this is the type of music I love.” Avicii wrote “Wake Me Up” with singer Aloe Blacc and Einziger. “Watching him produce, it was like watching someone play video games,” says Einziger. “He was so fast. You would have thought he was playing Nintendo, except there was sound coming out and you could hear him shaping it.”
By 2014, Avicii was the third-highest-paid DJ in the world and collaborating with Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, Zac Brown – and his heroes Coldplay. He also became a brand name, selling items like Avicii condoms at his own pop-up store in Miami. “I never dreamed of making music or touring on this level,” he told Rolling Stone around that time. “It’s all happened fast. I haven’t half-assed anything. It has been very, very hectic. The workload has been insane, right from the start. I don’t really feel like I’ve had time to slow down.”
The pace wore on him fast. In 2012, he was hospitalized for more than a week in New York for acute pancreatitis, partly the result of heavy drinking, which the DJ said was to calm his nerves in social situations. In March 2014, a year after doctors suggested he have his gallbladder removed (Avicii put it off for work reasons), he finally had the surgery. “He really had pain,” says Sundin. “We thought, ‘What could it be?’ He was eating bad food, sleeping on a bus, having a drink. If you do that for a while, you want to take a rest.”
Avicii canceled a series of shows and returned in 2015, releasing Stories. The album wasn’t as successful as 2013’s True, and old friends saw signs of strain again. “He was almost looking like a walking corpse,” says Laidback Luke, the Dutch DJ and producer who was instrumental in Avicii’s early career, describing an encounter in Ibiza in 2015. “He was superthin. He aged in the last five years, man. I was shocked.” In 2016, Avicii announced he would no longer tour. “The productions became gigantic and overwhelming,” says Jacobson. “He had the duality of having a gigantic sense of theatrical ambition but, at the same time, being a very humble and simple guy. He was caught between the two, and the life began grinding on him.”
Freed from the pressures of the road, Avicii returned to making music the way he started: at home. He installed a studio on a vineyard in Tuscany, and set his sights on a comeback. He changed management and record labels and planned to put out three EPs; the first arrived last summer. Einziger sensed a change in Avicii while working with him on one of the roughly 300 songs the DJ left behind: “He didn’t look skeletal. He looked healthy, like he’d been out in the sun.”
Before he left for Oman, Avicii invited Joe Janiak – a songwriter-producer known for hits with Tove Lo and Ellie Goulding – to his home studio in Los Angeles. The two spent several weeks writing a batch of new songs, with Avicii playing piano and writing lyrics. Janiak got the impression Avicii was entering a new, productive phase. “You could tell he had spent a long time figuring out the puzzle, and he was trying to take charge of his life,” Janiak says. “He seemed pumped. That’s the shocking thing. He didn’t seem like a guy at the end of his days.” Avicii told him he would reach out when he returned from Oman, then went to pack his suitcase for the trip the next morning.