FEATURE: Stockholm to Sundsvall & Back: 15 Hours with Wayne & Woods
â€œThis is the reason why we have so many producers from Sweden,â€ Iman Gilani, known to his fans as Wayne, says with a boyish grin. The 19-year-old DJ slides into the car to escape the downpour outside. â€œWith this weather, you donâ€™t go out.â€
His 22-year-old co-conspirator Simon Widman, AKA Woods, sits engrossed in Ableton Live on his laptop, preparing samples and loops for the dayâ€™s coming gigs. Together they comprise Wayne & Woods, the latest act Swedish House Mafia titan Steve Angello has signed to his Size Records label.
Today is a busy day; the duo is opening Airfestival in Sundsvall, a city four hours north of Stockholm. Canadian mega-producer deadmau5 is in town and the boys are also slated to headline his official after-party later that night at Stockholm club Ambassadeur. It adds up to more than eight hours of driving through freezing rain, to and from the northern Swedish hinterlands. Along for the ride are tour assistant Filip and Oscar, a videographer working on Size TV, the labelâ€™s serial video podcast detailing its artists’ offstage antics.
As we depart from Solna, talk quickly turns to Miami, where I first met Wayne & Woods backstage at Winter Music Conference. The duo desperately sought out the thick steaks theyâ€™d seen in Hollywood films, only to find subpar pizza and “horrifying” diner French toast. At least the diner looked â€œjust like Pulp Fiction.â€
Despite the culinary misadventures, their first American visit sounds every bit as inspirational as they claim. Wayne & Woods made their live debut opening the Size Matters pool party at Fountainebleau; the event featured the entire label roster with a headline set by Angello himself. Talk about first gig jitters.
â€œPeople asked if we were nervous, but I wasnâ€™t,” says Woods. “We went up and did our thing. It felt natural.â€
Wayne shows me a video of Steve Angelloâ€™s set taken backstage from his phone.
â€œWe got the real feeling when we stood there with Steve Angello and he said â€˜Congratulations, youâ€™re with Size,â€™â€ says Wayne. â€œMiami was the first time we had actually met him. I had seen him play live one year prior but I was just a crazy fan then.â€
Wayne gleefully recounts leaving the pool at the W and finding himself in the same elevator as Angello and his fellow Swedish House Mafiosos Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso.
â€œIt was a starstruck moment. I was standing in the corner being quiet, not knowing what to do, and then Steve was like â€˜whatâ€™s up!?â€™ and introduced me,â€ Wayne recalls with a massive grin. â€œWe were staying on the 12th floor so it took long to get up there. I started screaming when I got back to the hotel room!â€
He readily admits that the magnitude of the December signing hasnâ€™t fully sunk in.
â€œItâ€™s too big to say to myself â€˜Iâ€™m with Size,â€â€™ says Wayne, shaking his head. â€œItâ€™s too big, itâ€™s like a dream. People ask â€˜are you guys with Size?â€™ I say â€˜I donâ€™t know, check the website.â€™â€
Hailing from Solna, the same Stockholm suburb that produced Angello and Ingrosso, Wayne & Woods have known each other since they were six years old. Although they were not consistent friends throughout their childhood (Woods first taught himself to DJ after being inspired by his friend AN21, Angelloâ€™s younger brother), they reconnected as teens in Solnaâ€™s intimate production scene and began collaborating in their spare time. The pastime quickly became a passion, as the group turned heads with releases on less heralded labels until Size took notice.
â€œSteve told us he loved our tracks and asked where we were producing,â€ says Wayne. â€œWe told him in our bedroom with 300 KR ($43) speakers and a MIDI keyboard. He said â€˜Bedroom studios are great, thatâ€™s where Seb and I started. Stay there as long as you can because things are different when you move on. If the music is good, you donâ€™t need unnecessary things.’â€
â€œSteve has been a big inspiration as he comes from our same neighborhood,â€ says Woods. â€œFor those guys to get so far gives us motivation. If they can make it, we can make it too.â€
Although the duo has released just one remix on Size to date, they have plenty of productions in the pipeline. Woods plays me one of their unreleased tracks, a primetime electro house banger that I can easily envision shooting up the Beatport charts.
â€œWhen will this be released?â€ I ask, bobbing my head to the bass.
â€œProbablyâ€¦ 2015,â€ Woods says with a laugh. â€œItâ€™s a bit of a secret. The dates are loose but we know which ones weâ€™d like to release when ready.â€
As the track finishes, Wayne snatches the auxiliary cable to plug in his iPhone.
â€œI think this will be our opening song in Sundsvall,â€ he announces, allowing the words to hang in the air like a sample before a drop, then sets off a chorus of laughter by playing ‘Macarena.’
We pass a procession of seemingly endless evergreens, intermittently broken up by large swathes of blue-gray water and rain-slick rocks. The downpour remains unrelenting and the sky lies choked in a gray malaise of fog and clouds. As a patented Angello breakdown pulses in the background, we pull into a gas station for a snack and bathroom break. I stretch my legs and remark on the relative simplicity of the songâ€™s catchy synth line.
â€œLess is more,â€ Wayne says, nodding.
â€œNot every time,â€ Woods replies.
â€œEvery time Simon,â€ Wayne retorts, putting weight behind each word.
The duo’s evident youth is striking juxtaposed with their dance star status. Their iPhones are omnipresent in a constant flurry of texts and Facebook feeds; Wayne sports the Size Matters logo as his background, while Woods (who describes turning 20 as a “mid-life crisis”) features his girlfriendâ€™s smiling face. Inside the gas station, the ever-animated Wayne practices balancing a football on his head and playfully perches his Syracuse hat (â€œS for Sizeâ€) atop it. Woods tells me about tweeting Steve Angello pictures from his favorite Swedish fast food chain (â€œFuck you,â€ the star responded from the road). They both laugh at my Diet Coke purchase (â€œTypical American!â€) as we pile back into the car.
We arrive in rain-soaked Sundsvall and dash into the hotel that serves as the festivalâ€™s backstage. The finely decorated interior is a stark contrast from the cramped car interior, with a dinner spread and private artist lodges bedecked with complimentary beers, snacks and Jagermeister.
â€œWelcome to Hogwarts!â€ Wayne exclaims as we enter a foyer adorned with a grand piano. Without hesitation, he flips up the keyguard and begins playing the iconic eight note progression from Swedish House Mafiaâ€™s â€œOne.â€ After hitting an off-note, he sets his sights on three circular magnets stuck to a nearby whiteboard and arranges them in a line.
â€œSwedishâ€¦ Houseâ€¦ Mafia. Boom!â€ he exclaims.
We return to the artist lodge with forty minutes to go before Wayne & Woods take the stage at 8 pm. They are the first act on and the reality begins to set in that the itinerant weather will not likely give them a reprieve. Woods busies himself with an edit in Ableton. Wayne provides input and wanders over to the window to look out on the empty storm-soaked square.
â€œI think we will play to one person today,â€ he says with a sigh. â€œLook at it! I would not be there in this weather.â€
“I’m sure more will show up.” My reassurances ring hollow.
Wayne is right.
The group’s audience consists of a handful of nonplussed security guards in rain ponchos and a sound tech we initially mistake for a fan. To their credit, the duo do not mail it in. Tag-teaming the decks, they wisely treat the gig as a dry run for Ambassadeur and deliver an energetic set that even elicits a few dance moves from the bouncers. Experimenting in the pressure-free setting, they take looping liberties and pile on effects with broad grins. Their exuberant spirit is a refreshing sight in a genre plagued with the prepackaged and predictable.
As soon as the set finishes, we dodge raindrops to the car and reverse course back to Stockholm.
My jaw dropped when Woods told me Miami marked their first gig together; Â I am similarly surprised to learn that Ambassadeur will be their first show in Stockholm. Unlike America, where DJs and producers usually cut their teeth in local scenes before making it big, Woods explains that Swedish producers with high ambitions are actively discouraged from playing out at local clubs.
â€œThere’s a stigma about playing in Stockholm if you live there; you get written off as a â€˜Stureplan DJ,â€™â€ he says, referring to a popular nightlife street in the Swedish capital. â€œBut this gig is special because itâ€™s the deadmau5 afterparty.â€
Even Swedish House Mafia has never played a major show with their full line-up in Stockholm; they will make their debut there in November. As Woods explains how Angello and AN21 have relocated to Los Angeles, I begin to understand the seemingly paradoxical manner in which marquee stars depart their frigid homeland, while budding talents like Wayne & Woods and Size label-mates Qulinez retain their respective hometowns of Solna and Varberg as their base of operations.
Sweden acts an incubator for house talent, sheathing emerging producers from distractions with uncooperative weather and, at times, fleeting daylight. There is little impetus to relocate to Stockholm in the way that Los Angeles and New York draw DJ hopefuls on each American coast; ambitious Swedish producersâ€™ sights are firmly set on global horizons. Despite fierce patriotism and a sturdy support network for fellow Swedes, there exists a sober recognition that Sweden is too far removed from the action to contain stars of Swedish House Mafiaâ€™s caliber, especially contrasted with Los Angeles, Miami and other party epicenters with far more favorable climates. I ask Woods if he would like to live in America one day.
â€œIâ€™d love to live in America,â€ he says. â€œI like Americans a lot. I feel like I can communicate well there, unlike if I go to a country like Spain. When I go to a country where people donâ€™t speak good English, I feel like an idiot.â€
The encroaching nightfall and raindrop rhythms punctuate his words. Woods flips the radio dial through a stuttering series of builds, beats and chords (even the Swedish pop stations play house remixes) to settle on classical music.
â€œI hate listening to house at home,â€ he says. â€œI listen to a lot of Mozart and Bach for inspiration. Now we have rules, this chord canâ€™t be with that chord. But I can hear feelings in every one of their tracks. It comes straight from the heart.â€
Wayne bursts into laughter in the front seat. He hands his phone to Woods, who cracks a grin and shows it to me in turn. A doctored and no doubt viral photo of the Swedish king with an exaggeratedly large head and a scantily clad girl.
â€œHow old is he?â€ I ask with a smile.
â€œToo old,â€ Wayne replies.
Although Sweden experiences long days at this time of year, Stockholm lies cradled in darkness as we roll into town after midnight. The rain has cleared the streets, leaving rippling puddles to reflect the full moon’s sporadic elegance through sheets of cloud cover. Wayne plays ‘Allein’ off Prydaâ€™s latest album, and then leaves the car in telling silence. The time for jokes has passed; the duo is firmly focused on the show ahead. We park along the usually bustling street where Ambassadeur is located and switch off the ignition.
â€œI always get a little nervous before, just a little,â€ Wayne says, taking a last gulp of water. â€œThe worst was in Norway, in front of 12,000 people. Alright, let’s go!â€
We enter the club through the back entrance and ascend to the backstage area aboard a grumbling freight elevator. Platters of food and drink await us, but they lie untouched as we prepare for the imminent set. The muffled bass of the opening act throbs through the walls, intermittently pierced by high pitched screams.
â€œI think this crowd will be better than the festival,â€ says a grinning Woods.
Understatement of the day.
As Wayne & Woods take the stage in a cascade of strobe lights and fog, they meet a thunderous ovation from the animated audience that braved inclement weather to pack Ambassadeur from front to back. The boys go to work with the same well-oiled professionalism they displayed in Sundsvall, unfazed by any pressure from the expectant crowd. Their hands snake across the mixer as one; fingers fluttering on effects adjustments and EQ tweaks with unspoken synchronicity. Sheathed in club-created clouds, they commence their set with muscular house beats that shift into progressions ofÂ primetimeÂ electro house.
The high-octane set includes plenty of unreleased originals, which are well received alongside such anthemic Swedish staples as ‘Antidote’ and ‘Calling.’ The bass is resounding; vibrations from the monitors cause sonic mayhem as the music gets harder. A bowl full of water bottles comically careens off a nearby table as its contents roll across the stage. The quick-thinking Filip intervenes to rescue a platter of Jagermeister shots from suffering a similar fate, but salvation is fleeting; the duo and entourage make quick work of them.
Shots become ubiquitous as the venue staff scurries to replace the platters. As they take turns mixing, Wayne & Woods also switch off festooning more drinks upon me than I could ever imbibe. I pass them out to the outstretched palms of the buoyant crowd, easily cementing my status as the most popular journalist in the joint.
The energy has escalated to a new paradigm of intensity. Wayne pummels the crowd with peak-hour favorites. Woods jumps atop the DJ booth and pounds the air with his fist as the blinding lights change hues on cue.Â After an unrelenting two hours, the duo leave the stage dripping with sweat and their fans’ adulation.
Now that the gig is in the books, we make good use of the neglected drinks backstage. Hugs and high-fives flow with the whiskey. EmptyÂ shot-glassesÂ wreath the tables. The boys mingle with their exuberant friends and revel in deserved praise. “You fucking slayed it. Massive… just… just… massive. Unreal mates!”
“So how did we do?” Woods turns to me with a confident grin, running his hands through sweat-matted hair.
“I love happy endings,” I reply as he wraps me in a bear hug. “You’re making my job too easy.”
After the revelry, the boys bid me farewell and disappear with their respective girls. I depart the club and step out into the shocking sunlight of a Stockholm dawn. It is 6 am, a mind-boggling 15 hours since our SolnaÂ rendezvous. As I pass the flashing grins of fellow clubgoers enroute to the subway, my thoughts turn to the legion of American EDM converts slumbering back home on our dark continent, peacefully oblivious to what the emergent stars of sleepless Sweden have in store for them.