At Way Out West, Bladee played his first concert in Sweden in five years, a reminder of the internet star’s regional roots.
Way Out West in Gothenburg can only be described as un-vibey. Despite being in the beautiful Slottskogen, it’s a festival brimming with media folk in VIP sections, wristbands of various colors that denote your importance, and every square inch is devoted to a lucrative sponsorship. Coca-Cola, Oatly, Samsung, Visa, Zalando. Way Out West is a boutique festival—if the boutique in question sold Capitalism.
However, it’s one of the few festivals left in Sweden that still has a budget to book large international artists. This year’s line-up includes Blur, Pusha T, Caroline Polachek and Wizkid.
And this is where Bladee, the Drain Gang member and Swedish native, is playing his first solo show in almost five years. Last time was in Stockholm, 2018, and he had just released the collaborative album D&G with his Drain Gang affiliates Ecco2k, Thaiboy Digital and Whitearmor. Since then, Bladee’s music has constantly evolved, from the sublime trance-trap of The Fool and ethereal hyperpop of Crest to the off-beat drill and balladry on Spiderr. His lyrics used to be deeply depressing but now long for the sublime: “I tried to show ‘em that there’s beauty and there’s magic in the air,” he raps on “Egobaby.” What runs through all of Bladee’s music is a complete earnestness and dedication to simple, pure melodies.
As he and Drain Gang have leveled up, they’ve shaped an entire subculture in their image. Drainers flock to their sold-out shows, and their fashion influences make up a lexicon of online trends: Y2K-core, cyber-goth, 2013 era Chief Keef, eh, ketamine chic? For these zealous fans, Bladee is a demi-god.
As the fashion of drainers suggests, Bladee is an internet native. Phrases such as “very-online,” “extremely-online” and “ultra-online” get thrown around with Bladee a lot. This is partly because his early music was so directly influenced by internet rap elders like Lil B and Soundcloud veterans like Black Kray – and of course because he came up in the shadows of Yung Lean’s viral stardom. But it’s also because he has an elusive presence and his music has a celestial, cyborgian quality that feels like it could only come from someone untethered from the physical realm.
Yet Bladee is from Sweden, where I am from too. Bladee is not big here. Swedish Rap music is the country’s biggest genre, with super-stars like the late Einár, 1.Cuz and Yasin regularly topping the charts. But Bladee doesn’t rap or do interviews in Swedish or, evidently, really play in Sweden. By becoming big on the internet, you bypass the need for national recognition, which has the ability to make you massive but also somewhat lost in the ether.
But there has always been a streak of Swedish in Bladee, if you know where to look. There are throwaway references to his hometown (“I’m in Stockholm for a week I move discreetly”) but also his penchant for preppy Swedish brands like J. Lindberg and Gant, with whom Drain Gang has a collaboration (unsure who the target audience is). The album cover for his joint album with Ecco2k, Crest, is a small “falu” red cottage, the type you see across the countryside in Sweden. He has a love for the euro-trance of Basshunter (listen to his NTS show) and on last year’s euro-pop banger “Som Jag” with DJ Billy Bool, he sang in Swedish for the first time.
But his music has always felt difficult to contextualize in any form of Swedish tradition. For some listeners, it’s as simple as: “Sweden is cold and depressing, Bladee is cold and depressing,” but that has always felt like a copout, based on stereotypes rather than musical lineage.
Unsurprisingly it isn’t Bladee who has drawn 50,000 people to Way Out West. People are here to see another Swedish artist, Håkan Hellström, the de-facto headliner who is closing out the festival. Hellström is arguably the most famous artist in Sweden and this is his last stop of a summer long tour.
For some context, Håkan Hellström is a Gothenburg native and, in the ’90s, was part of Sweden’s then-coolest indie band, Broder Daniel. They sang in broken English about how bleak life was and how they didn’t fit in (sound familiar?). They spawned their own subculture of fans known as “panda-poppare,” whose fashion was a mixture of 60s Mod, ties and blouses, thick emo/scene eyeliner paired with doc martens and a pack of Lucky Strikes. Broder Daniel’s music never impacted outside of Sweden, but they captured the angst of growing up seemingly away from where everything was happening: “Oh this town / kills you when you’re young”, goes the anthemic “Shoreline.” To shout “play ‘Shoreline!’” at whatever gig you’re at is a bit of a running joke in Sweden – an IRL meme, if you will.
Broder Daniel – “Shoreline”
Hellström left the band and embarked on a solo career. His career has spanned jangly pop, Swedish folk songs, rockabilly, mixing the emotional earnestness of Jonathan Richman and the local rock-star hero status of Bruce Springsteen. Last year he played for 270,000 over four sold out shows at Ullevi stadium; the only other artist who has sold out Ullevi is the actual Springsteen. Hellström is perhaps the inverse of Bladee, a national treasure whose music has never ventured outside of Sweden.
Back at Way Out West, the vibes are still off. A free sample of an expensive shampoo has been forced on me, and I’m watching out for the guards that walk through the crowd to tell you to put out your cigarette. Boygenius is playing and it starts to rain. We rush to the Linné tent where Bladee is about to play, both sheltering us from the rain and enveloping us in the anticipation in the air–the tingly kind you usually don’t get with festival shows.
As Bladee’s set begins, the first sound the audience hears is not a cut from last year’s Spiderr, but instead a Broder Daniel song, the acoustic version of “No Time For Us”: “The world don’t understand / there is no time for us.” It’s a Swedish indie classic that has a major chord progression and an “aaaaaaaahhhhh” chorus which rings so clear you only need to hear it once to feel like you’ve always known it. I’m struck by how simple and beautiful it is. It also hits me how–for lack of a better word–drained out it sounds.
Broder Daniel – “No Time For Us” (Acoustic Version)
As the last notes of “No Time For Us” (which was played in full) ring out, Bladee steps out in a cloud of smoke, performing one of his first solo songs “Into Dust”: “I can bleed in the club/ I got weed in my luuuuuungs.” This is not a song he usually opens his sets with, but hearing it right after Broder Daniel felt like a cosmic continuum in Swedish pop music was cemented.
Bladee is welcomed home with open arms. People sing along to every word and coquettish girls and shirtless bros moshed in unison. He wears sunglasses and a scarf wrapped tight around his head. He’s not one for talking to the crowd, apart from a small “I’ll play one more” towards the end–it hits me it’s the first time I’ve ever heard him speak Swedish. The show ends on “Skin”, the acoustic guitar song that closes his 2016 album Eversince, a song he rarely plays live. “I don’t want to go back to that place again / nothing will ever be the same again,” he sings, almost overpowered by the crowd. This could of course be a Broder Daniel song.
Bladee – “Skin” (Live at Way Out West)
The idea of Bladee listening to Broder Daniel had never crossed my mind before. Now it felt obvious. For all the intangibles around Bladee, it’s easy to forget about the person behind the persona. Benjamin Reichwald, born 1994 in Stockholm, was obviously raised on Broder Daniel. The band’s emotionally baring lyrics, outsider-status, and simple melodies are in the DNA of Bladee.
Last year, Kieran Press-Reynolds wrote about the way Spotify curates playlists around contrived “genres” such as “Webcore.” This is a symptom of the streaming era, where the artless entity that is Spotify needs to increase engagement through endless editorial playlists. However, through trying to conceptualize and market niche music scenes, you get clumsy playlists where an Aphex Twin song gets put next to “Urban Outfitter bargain bin indie songs” because they all fit a vague notion of “the internet.” It ends up flattening the communities and contexts these songs come from.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bladee on such a playlist. He is, after all, “extremely online,” which could qualify him as, ahem, “Webcore.” But as Press-Reynolds points out, these playlists are “severing the tree from its roots,” de-contextualizing music with the aim to make it more digestible for streaming consumption.
Hearing Bladee blast a Broder Daniel song before his show felt like the antithesis of an editorial Spotify playlist–it added dimension to his music rather than flattening it. The choice of song is steeped in personal and cultural context and speaks to Bladee being an outsider in Sweden growing up with the music specific to here and nowhere else. It is the opposite of “a polygamous mishmash” of songs that exists for no other reason than to exist. It cast Bladee in a new light, like getting a close-up of a painting you’ve only seen on your phone; instead of pixels, you see the texture of the brush strokes and the quality of the hues.
Listening to Broder Daniel isn’t crucial to “understanding” Bladee’s music. But this moment of authenticity felt special, especially in the way it connected the audience with Bladee and with each other. My friends and I, like so many formerly angsty Swedish teens, grew up listening to Broder Daniel and they were the entry point to many other formative bands–Joy Division, The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain. Personally, I hadn’t heard “No Time For Us” since I was 14 and Broder Daniel posters lined my walls. I like the idea of Bladee as a demi-god, a digital spirit from the heavens, but knowing he also listened to Broder Daniel, and now hearing it in his music, felt like connecting with an old friend.
As Bladee walks off the stage, the crowd demands an encore. As per the strict rules around festival set times, he doesn’t return. But it doesn’t matter. Despite the glaring fluorescent lights coming on and ushering us back into the rain, the vibes are finally good.