With its sleek synth riffs, propulsive machine beats and digitally processed vocal melodies, the Swedish duo Galantis fit right into the electronic dance music that largely defined last month's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
But anyone listening closely as the duo played its club hit "Smile" might've picked up on a sentiment that sets Galantis apart from many of its peers.
"Smile, 'cause you ain't got nothing to worry about," advised the voice in the song, seemingly encouraging the sense of happy abandon heard in so much of what boomed across the festival grounds in Indio. Then the voice went on: "You don't know anything at all."
Pair that lyric with the "Smile" video — in which people experiencing what appears to be sexual climax are shown in exaggerated close-up — and a sly critique of EDM's brainless hedonism begins to take shape.
"You can interpret the song in a lot of ways," said the group's Christian Karlsson with a knowing chuckle. "But," he was quick to add, "it's not pointing fingers. Or if it is, then we're pointing the finger at ourselves as well."
That's only fair, considering that Galantis, which pairs trend-savvy veterans from the world of Top 40 pop, could be viewed as merely cashing in on the EDM boom. Though the duo's gigs at Coachella were among its first live performances — and came right after the release of its self-titled debut EP — Karlsson and band mate Linus Eklow aren't new to the music business.
As half of another duo, Bloodshy & Avant, Karlsson has written and produced huge radio hits for the likes of
Eklow, who often works under the name Style of Eye, was one of the studio hands behind Icona Pop's single "I Love It," widely licensed for use in commercials and TV shows; it even served as the theme song for
Acquaintances from the Swedish record industry, the two formed a more substantial bond after Eklow remixed a track by Miike Snow, the electro-pop band Karlsson shares with Pontus Winnberg (a.k.a. Avant) and singer Andrew Wyatt. They started Galantis as a way to bridge their love of songwriting and enthusiasm for DJing, which Karlsson said he got into while spinning records at after-parties following concerts by Miike Snow.
That timing also dovetailed with the commercial explosion of dance music in America, one that's made pop stars of
"Most of this kind of music starts with a beat, but we start with a song," Karlsson said a few days after the second weekend of Coachella. Now based in L.A., he and Eklow (who still lives in Stockholm) were preparing to set out the next morning on a brief North American tour that will wrap Friday with a sold-out show at the El Rey. "I want it to be good just reading the lyric."
Eklow said the journey from idea to completed track can be lengthy, as in the case of "You," which layers an androgynous vocal over ringing piano and sinus-clearing bass. "That went through massive changes, building it up then breaking it back down."
"The tools we have from all those years of writing and producing — it takes a while to pack them all into the same bag," Karlsson added. "It's not just throwing them in there."
The result is club-ready dance music with the catchy choruses and emotional dynamics of Top 40 pop, not unlike what English duo Basement Jaxx, an avowed Galantis inspiration, was doing in the late '90s and early '00s in hit singles such as "Rendez-Vu" and "Where's Your Head At." (In another sign of EDM's bankability, Basement Jaxx announced Thursday that it will release a new album, its first since 2009, this summer.)
Liz Miller, general manager of Galantis' label, Big Beat, said getting its music on pop radio — particularly the material she's hearing for an upcoming full-length — is "a very real possibility." But she also said that acts like Skrillex, a powerful live draw, have proved that "real fans and real careers can be built without radio in the picture."
Studio experts excited about playing more shows, Karlsson and Eklow insisted they're not concentrating on one experience over the other. Yet Karlsson admitted that his background making household hits informs his work in Galantis.
"One thing we keep saying is, 'Would you play this at home?'" he said. "We both DJ so much stuff that I would never listen to at home." He laughed. "We'll let other people write those songs."
Where: El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd.
When: Friday, 9 p.m.
Tickets: sold out