In the wake of March’s Ultra Music Festival, one clear point of controversy emerged: Avicii’s new album. In the course of his 75-minute set at the festival Avicii decided, in advance, to unveil his not-yet-released album using a mix of DJing and live performances that included the guests who will appear on the album.
“It’s just been, for me, very interesting [as a] learning experience,” Avicii said in an interview with Radio.com. “I’ve been working with — instead of DJs, I’ve been working with musicians that come from completely different upbringings. Like, they’ve learned music differently and different ways of looking at music. Like [Chic leader/legendary producer] Nile Rodgers or Aloe Blacc or — I’ve been working a lot with [Incubus guitarist] Mike Einziger.”
Although he’d spoken to Rolling Stone in February and revealed most of the decidedly mixed guest list, which also includes vocalists Dan Tyminski and Audra Mae as well as legendary songwriter Mac Davis, hearing that new portion of his Ultra set open with nothing but banjos and Aloe Blacc’s vocals with nary a beat to be found sparked mixed reactions in the media.
Since his single “Levels” took off internationally this year, Avicii has been focused on bringing a mass audience to dance music. His use of Etta James’ vocal in the track was the first demonstration of his soulful side, which the DJ says continues to be an influence on the new record and manifests in vocals from Aloe Blacc, best known for his single (and How To Make It In America theme song) “I Need A Dollar.” Soul, rhythmic, hip-hop and R&B samples have long found their way into house music but the question is, will hardcore EDM audiences be willing to broaden their horizons enough to accept bluegrass in a club banger?
Radio.com caught up with Avicii, whose proper name is Tim Bergling, on the set of a photo shoot in Brooklyn for Ralph Lauren (he has been the face of campaigns for the company’s Denim & Supply arm for over a year). It was only four days after his Ultra Music set and one day after a bruising New York Times review.
“These last days have been so up and down,” he said. “This last month I’ve been — these last two months, actually — I’ve been in the studio. I’ve been in L.A., ensconced every day with different types of people. Basically every track on the album is a… fusion [of] house and electronic music with different genres. I have some folk-slash-house [tracks]. You can always hear the house, underneath everything. But there’s some folk influences. There’s a lot of soul, kind of R&B influences. And a lot of rock influences and stuff like that.”
He’ll call it folk. He’ll even call it bluegrass. But Avicii is very careful to step around calling the influences and sound on his forthcoming record country, because country might be a line too far to cross for mainstream pop audiences. This is especially true for audiences outside of America. Mumford & Sons might fly in the U.K. but that’s already a tough influence to sell to hardcore EDM heads, and it only gets tougher in the European market. He very plainly states that his album is not a country music album, despite the fact that he has member of Alison Krauss’ bluegrass band Union Station — Dan Tyminski — on his project. While the production and instrumentation of bluegrass is different from mainstream country as we know it today, it is still considered a sub-genre of country. And he worked with Mac Davis, a ’60s and ’70s-era country songwriter who composed pop hits “In The Ghetto” and “A Little Less Conversation” for Elvis. Davis has also written with Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, and got his start at Nancy Sinatra’s music company in the ’60s. Finally, there are vocals courtesy of country singer/songwriter Audra Mae.
Pairing up with collaborators who have roots in country doesn’t necessarily make Avicii’s album itself country. The argument, and perhaps sense of confusion during his Ultra set, comes 100 percent out of starting with Aloe Blacc singing along to a banjo and violin. But just because you heard it as country doesn’t mean it’s where Avicii’s head is.
“[The Dan Tyminski appearance is] why there’s so many people talking about if we were dropping country music at Ultra,” Avicii said. “We didn’t even, I don’t — my album isn’t a country album. Some would say there might be some country influence on certain tracks even, but we got the idea because Mike [Einziger] and his wife [ed: the project features Einziger’s fianceé] do some bluegrass stuff and it’s really cool.”
At first listen, Audra Mae’s tracks are less country and more brazen use of a female belter to give songs a hook to songs that are in fact hardcore dance tracks. Tracks like “Black And Blue” are more clearly rock influenced with a harder beat mashed with a soul vocal from Aloe Blacc.
“He wanted to make a record that was true to what he’d done in the past, but he also had this intense desire to do something drastically different and pave some new ground in that electronic world,” Mike Einziger said in an interview with Radio.com. “Being completely honest, I’m not all that familiar with the landscape of EDM music. The idea of a repetitive house beat…I just didn’t get it.”
Einziger is not the only one who “doesn’t get it” at first blush. While some rock bands have incorporated dance music into their sound, like Incubus and Linkin Park who both have DJs as full-time band members, the love doesn’t flow freely from rock to EDM. If anything, the lack of instrumentation is seen as a threat by most rock bands to the musical values they hold dearest. And if reactions to Avicii’s Ultra set are indicative, it seems to fly even less freely the opposite way, from EDM to rock. That is what makes Avicii’s new album such a bold experiment.
“Just in general, everyone [who collaborated on the album] has had an open mind to whatever we’ve been doing,” Avicii said. “They haven’t had a closed mind towards electronic music. A lot of people do. A lot of people are still very close-minded when it comes to house music or dance music in general.”
The general reaction on the Internet from EDM and Avicii fans was love for some tracks, namely his Lana Del Rey remix, and distaste for the idea of incorporating a live band into a DJ’s performance. While the recent GQ article (which negatively characterizes the type of people who’d pay to see Avicii DJ on New Year’s Eve while tweeting their ire when his arrival was delayed) about him seems to portray him as one of the laptop DJs of the universe, devoid of much character or discernible skill outside of being a charismatic presence on stage, Einziger paints a different picture of Avicii.
“He wanted to make this record that really had a lot of soul, but infused elements of folk music, country – all kinds of different sounds you wouldn’t normally find in his EDM universe,” Einziger said of Avicii. “He was really adamant about it, which is why it was such a good idea for us to work together. He’s so committed to the idea of not doing what everybody else is doing. That was exciting to me.”
In the end, this experimentation and commitment to operating outside of the confining box of EDM could pay off with a larger, more mainstream audience. After all, Avicii is attempting to marry the very profitable world of EDM with the burgeoning popularity of bluegrass music. Mumford & Sons, who freely admit to taking all their early inspiration from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, did have the fourth biggest-selling album of 2012, according to Billboard. Whether or not he’ll be able to pull off the mash-up of instruments and laptops remains to be seen. And as professional agitator John Lydon once said, “If you are pissing people off, you know you’re doing something right.”