Introductory biog written for Warner Music Sweden, December 2014.
“We think of ourselves as a cross between Abba and Eminem,” says Johen Rafael Tilli of Sweden’s genre-blurring duo Death Team. His colleague Mayka Edd takes a similar view by categorising them as “mainstream / hipster.” Both descriptions perfect encapsulate Death Team’s unpredictable musical odysseys: their songs flow with huge bubblegum hooks accompanied by unconventional productions and lyrics which precariously seesaw between kitsch simplicity and knowing social commentary.
Examine their track ‘Gold’ for evidence: constructed around the kind of piano riff that would feature on a Europop / house crossover hit a decade or more ago, it grows in stature with Mayka’s sweet coo of a vocal which complements the nursery rhyme hook “My shoes made of gold / My pyjama made of gold / My Kanye West made of gold / All my songs made of gold.” It’s a stark contrast to the opening line “I’ve got blood on my hands but no-one cares.”
“That song is a comment on society: how it doesn’t seem to care about stuff that’s important and puts a lot of focus on stuff that isn’t important,” explains Johen. It’s a theme that could be applied to everything from entertainment news to the internet’s collective love of cute cats, yet it also offers a second meaning as a loosely-defined yearning for all things materialistic.
“I dream of having everything,” admits the otherwise spiritually inclined Mayka, a bikram yoga and popular psychology enthusiast who is in the process of writing her first self-help book. “’Gold’ is about both critiquing and at the same time dreaming about success and an expensive lifestyle.”
Johen and Mayka first met when they performed at Spotify’s headquarters in Stockholm – Johen was playing in an electro-pop band while Mayka was a house producer and DJ. They both struggle to recall their first impressions of each other, perhaps due to Johen admittance that he snuck off with seven litres of alcohol that he pilfered from the aftershow party.
Nonetheless the pair soon bonded, even though their initial ramshackle punk direction (their first song was called ‘I’m So Drunk I Wanna Fight’) was jettisoned in favour of the sound we hear today. Hey, it worked for Daft Punk…
The reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that what was conceived as a fun side project soon became their career. Johen’s love of all things strategic – from chess to business to his appreciation of intricate thinkers in the world of fiction such as Breaking Bad’s Walter White and the Machiavellian dealings of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood – allowed him to plot Death Team’s future as soon as they formed in February 2014.
“Thinking of strategies, making the right decisions at the right time and communicating the right stuff is all really intriguing to me,” he admits. “All the time we evaluating where we were, what was happening and what we should do next. And that’s how we’ve got to the point that we are now.”
It’s a strong position, and one which allows Death Team to commit their entire focus upon their music. Already the songs are falling into place. The most striking example is ‘Bitches in the Hood’, an expletive-laden caricature of hip-hop braggadocio in which Mayka’s sugary rhymes brim with vitriolic words. It’s also probably the only rap track which explodes into a climactic piano solo that was inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis.
“I’m very very dangerous,” chuckles Mayka in a tone that suggests that she’s anything but. “We wrote that song in an afternoon. My mum loves it.”
The rest of the Death Team songbook is similarly playful. The cheerleading chant of ‘We Don’t Care If You Have Fun’ is a stab at any musician with a disregard for their audience, whether it’s a charisma-free indie band or an elitist DJ. Elsewhere, they hope that ‘So Fresh’ will boosted with an American guest star (anyone in mind? “Snoop Dogg! Or A$AP Rocky! Or Frank Ocean!”) and ‘Neverland’ sounds like it could soundtrack the end credits of a future Disney favourite. It’s all so energetic and life-affirming and block-capital FUN.
“Even the mellow songs have some kind of feel-good, optimistic feeling to them,” affirms Mayka, her seemingly eternally sunny disposition infusing her words like some kind of aural anti-depressant. “They’re not emo. They’re not sad and dark. There’s always a little twist that makes them naïve and beautiful and playful.”
As Johen concurs: “That’s something we try to capture in every song.”
“Some people dance to overcome their negative emotions. Just do what you need to do to feel good,” concludes Mayka. “There’s no place in Death Team to manifest your negative emotions!”