By Felix Hutt
Tim Bergling, alias Avicii, produced hits that became the soundtrack of the Instagram generation. At the age of 28, he took his own life. A year later, his family and friends look back.
On a summer evening in Ibiza, ready to give them what they wanted one last time, Avicii was hunched down behind the DJ booth on stage. His fans at the outdoor club Ushuaïa weren’t supposed to see him yet. They held up their smartphones, the displays glowing in the night, and pointed the cameras toward the stage. Avicii was about to play live and they were there — ready to post stories on their timelines, share videos and enjoy all the likes that started pouring in.
Avicii started the first song, “Without You,” a tranquil beginning. Only after half a minute did the beat begin — and Avicii jumped up, the spotlight revealing a blond, slim young man in a white T-shirt and headphones draped around his neck. With his right hand, he cheered his fans on, and with his left, the DJ pumped out 130 beats per minute. The crowd couldn’t have been any more excited at Ushuaïa that night — Avicii, was their king.
Not even two years later, on April 20, 2018, Tim Bergling would go to his room during a vacation in Maskat, Oman, and take his own life. The Swede was just 28 years old.
On that Friday, a superstar of the online age died. Bergling, after all, was Avicii, a prodigy who composed melodies and rhythms on his laptop and then picked out the artists to sing them. He worked with Rita Ora, Madonna and Chris Martin of Coldplay. He performed at the wedding of Swedish Prince Carl Philip and at the closing ceremony of the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. He modeled for Ralph Lauren and was featured in ads for Volvo; his songs have been streamed more than 19 billion times on audio and video platforms. Hits like “Levels,” “Wake Me Up” or “Hey Brother” can be heard on the radio, in stadiums and on Spotify. They are so mainstream that they’re even known by people who don’t know who Avicii is. In the United States, “some of us dance and sing to ABBA and Avicii,” then-U.S. President Barack Obama said at a reception for Scandinavian politicians at the White House in 2016. The Swedish are as proud of Avicii’s success as Germans were of Boris Becker’s Wimbledon victories.
But Bergling left us. And no one close to him doubted that that is exactly what he wanted to do at that moment in Oman.
But why? It is a question that, when asked of people who were close to him, leads to silence, like pulling the plug on a TV set. His father stares past you into the emptiness, his lips pursed. His best friend shrugs his shoulders and fumbles around with his wristbands. The head of the record label shakes his head. The phone goes silent.
But what happens if, in the search for answers that no one can provide, you instead turn the spotlight on the Tim behind Avicii? What was it like for a young man who had become the embodiment of a generation that edits their photos before posting them on social media? How do you satisfy fans who want you to be their round-the-clock, omnipresent party god? What does his suicide say about our era, when maintaining Facebook profiles seems more important than real-world well-being? Bergling lived a dream. But what if it wasn’t the right one for him?
Five weeks before the first anniversary of his son’s death, Klas Bergling is sitting on the terrace of a hotel in Las Palmas. It’s the low season on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, and elderly tourists in beige cargo pants stroll along the beach promenade. Bergling and his wife Anki Lidén, a well-known Swedish actress, have rented an apartment nearby. He’s 73 and she’s 72. They like the island’s climate and they wanted to enjoy their retirement here. Before Tim’s death, they used to listen to his music while taking morning walks, Bergling says, the beats helping them to keep a steady pace. Sometimes, they would just start dancing on the beach — but they can’t do so anymore.
Bergling wears his gray hair parted, and when he cries, his eyes redden behind the lenses of his black horn-rimmed glasses. But he won’t let the tears run down his face in the presence of a stranger.
Bergling doesn’t claim to be able to explain his son. He knows Tim didn’t tell him everything. What son would, anyway? Bergling is a practical man who used to run a wholesale office supply business in Stockholm and didn’t even know what House music was before Tim’s career. He took care of the financial side, the bookkeeping, always telling his son Tim to always pay more attention to net income than the gross figures. He would pull out and iron the filthy receipts from his son’s jeans because they could be used for tax write-offs. Looking back on his son’s childhood and youth, Bergling is unable to find any clues that can help him to better understand why he ended his life.
Tim Bergling grew up in Östermalm, a district in central Stockholm full of old apartments, galleries and organic bakeries. He was a shy boy who spent most of his time at home, sleeping for far too long in his parents’ bed. They would take him along on their trips to Gran Canaria, and photos of their boy on the beach are still hanging in the apartment. Klas Bergling has two adult children from a previous relationship; his wife has a son. They believe that each child must find their own strengths. They gave Tim a computer and later a moped. If friends from Gärdesskolan, the neighborhood school, dropped by for a visit, Tim’s parents would feed them — and they were welcome to spend the night if they wanted to.
A Love of Music and Gaming
His father is a music lover and the apartment was often full of rock and blues, Led Zeppelin, Toto and Ray Charles could be heard frequently. He gave his son a guitar as a present and they would play together, but soon he could no longer keep up with Tim. When Tim got enthusiastic about something, he learned quickly, diving in to become the best. But if he wasn’t interested in things, like homework, karate or golf, he didn’t try very hard — and there wasn’t much point in trying to motivate him either. When his parents wanted to punish him, they would restrict him from using his computer.
As a teenager, Tim became passionate about “World of Warcraft,” a multi-player video game where he played a fighter named “Important.” His friends watched as he played his way up to one of the highest “World of Warcraft” guilds in Europe. They stayed up whole nights in Tim’s room eating pizza and drinking cola. For relaxation, they would watch “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and “Entourage,” an American TV series in which a successful actor lives together with his friends in a mansion in Los Angeles. If he ever made it to L.A., his buddies said, he would have to take them with him. Of course, Tim told them. They even had him sign his name beneath that promise on a sheet of paper.
Bergling hadn’t reached adulthood yet when he discovered Fruity Loops, a program that he could use to compose music on his computer. He sampled well-known songs and started posting his remixes on Myspace, at first only generating a few clicks, but soon attracting hundreds. The idea that his music could reach the whole world from the bedroom he grew up in fascinated him and he would sit in front of his computer with almost obsessive concentration, laying down tracks, developing melodies and getting advice from online forums.
Soon, he decided his DJ name, Tim Berg, wasn’t cool enough anymore. Searching together with friends, he stumbled across the term “Avici” on Wikipedia, which stands for a realm of hell in Buddhism. That name had already been taken on Myspace, so they added an extra “i” to it. When his mother would remind him that he still hadn’t graduated from high school yet, Tim would answer that he was going to become a famous DJ.
Arriving on the World Stage
Framed gold and platinum records line the walls of Per Sundin’s Stockholm office, all of them awards for the millions of sales and billions in streams Avicii delivered to the Universal Music Group. Sundin is managing director for Scandinavia and the Baltic States and part of his job is that of discovering trends and signing young artists before they end up with the competition. He hunts for talent that can earn money for Universal in the same way a football scout looks for players.
Sundin is bald and has a full beard, his tight-fitting sweater revealing an athletic physique. A mountain bike is parked next to his desk. He sits down at the conference table where he first met Bergling and describes how the encounter came to fruition during that summer nine years ago. He had no idea just how highly lucrative the artist he had just landed would become.
A few weeks before their meeting, Sundin had been invited to an opening party on the island of Ibiza. Performing after pop star Kylie Minogue, three guys who called themselves the Swedish House Mafia appeared on stage. They didn’t have any instruments, only their laptops. Their music — EDM, or electronic dance music — sounded like techno, but it’s a bit softer and most of the songs contained vocals and a melodic refrain. Sundin stood on the dancefloor and could see how people were pumping their fists, just as they would at a rock concert. They danced, screamed and just let themselves go. EDM was also performing exceptionally well as a genre on Spotify, which was in the process of revolutionizing the music market. But the Swedish House Mafia was under contract with Virgin Records and Sundin needed to make a discovery of his own. When he got back to Sweden, an employee showed him clips from Tim Berg, who under his DJ name Avicii was considered an insider tip in the EDM scene and he had spun at the Techno Parade in Paris at the age of 20. So Sundin invited him for a meeting.
Bergling’s manager Arash Pournouri, a dark-haired Swedish man of Iranian descent, accompanied him to the meeting. He had discovered Bergling’s music on the internet, wrote to him on Facebook and promised Tim he would transform Avicii into an international brand.
Pournouri had organized EDM parties in Stockholm as a club promoter and believed in the genre’s future. He was certain Bergling could become a superstar with his help. Bergling was to develop the Avicii sound in the studio, and it would be up to Pournouri to ensure that Tim’s music got to the people.
A Breakthrough Hit
At the conference room table, Pournouri did the talking, while Bergling said little. Sundin bought the rights for two Avicii singles and they made it into the charts. For the next song, “Levels,” Pournouri demanded an advance of a half-million euros. He told Sundin that he had other offers, but that wasn’t actually true. Either way, “Levels” became a global hit, reaching No. 1 in Sweden and Norway, the Top 10 in the UK and Germany and receiving a Grammy nomination. It was Avicii’s breakthrough.
Pournouri knew that money in the music business is earned primarily through concerts these days. With 100 million streams on Spotify, only about $400,000 in revenues is generated and only a part of that lands with the artist. But he could charge $250,000 for a single concert appearance by Avicii. Pournouri took a bigger cut than the 15 percent that is customary in the business, but the brand, after all, wouldn’t even have existed without him. He scheduled appearances, negotiated fees and took care of the travel arrangements.
Before long, Bergling was spending very little time in Stockholm, instead finding himself in places like Las Vegas, Miami, Brazil and Australia. He moved up from clubs to arenas, and soon enough, the newcomer was headlining entire festivals. Bergling would have an assistant carry his headphones and the USB sticks he stored his music on to performances in a gray-blue Louis Vuitton case.
Avicii connected with his fan community through live performances and social media. Initially, every message and comment on the Avicii Facebook fan page received an answer. Pournouri said he wanted the team to interact with people — it shouldn’t be a one-way conversation. They posted photos of Avicii together with his dog, Avicii looking thoughtful with a guitar. Fans liked them and they shared them. They posted a lot, sometimes several times a day, in the effort to invite fans to be part of their hero’s life. They would post a photo before a gig and one after — “Thanks, Miami,” plus a red heart. The strategy worked: Avicii soon had around 19 million followers on Facebook and 8 million on Instagram.
Avicii’s virtual image was as clean as that of his followers. He could be seen on the beach, traveling and having fun; they always had a cool vibe to them and there was never anything untoward. Some of the photos showed Avicii wearing a baseball cap backward, which would become his trademark look. He was slim and looked like the kind of guy girls would like, but nothing was ever posted about a girlfriend. His music provided the soundtrack to his fans’ gym workouts before they then flaunted their bodies at beach clubs. It was part of the charm of rock ‘n’ roll that artists could get high or wasted without having to think about the consequences. Kurt Cobain was allowed to be weak and fucked up. But not Avicii. He stood for a new kind of intoxication — one that wasn’t followed by a hangover.
At one point, Avicii played at Globen, Stockholm’s largest arena, to a sold-out crowd of 16,000 people and Klas Bergling was in the audience. A fan asked: “Aren’t you Avicii’s father?” and wanted to take a selfie with him. That was the moment he realized for the first time that his son Tim had become famous. The power of Avicii’s music impressed his father, but when he watched him backstage before and after the show, in the hustle and bustle, all he saw was his boy Tim.
Pournouri demanded an advance of $5 million for the first Avicii album and Sundin agreed, also securing the option for two additional albums. On stage, Tim Bergling was now fulfilling the expectations of the fans and organizers. For the Universal Music Group, he did that in the studio.
After a 45-minute set at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, a veritable Woodstock for EDM fans, Avicii was joined on stage by a country band and the singer Aloee Blacc. It was March 22, 2013, the world premiere of “Wake Me Up,” the first song ever to be streamed more than 200 million times on Spotify. The next year, Forbes magazine estimated that Avicii made $28 million. What more could 24-year-old Bergling achieve?
He made good on the promise he had made to his boyhood friends and he was now flying with his buddies from Östermalm on private jets to his performances, and they moved into his Hollywood mansion with him. One became his personal assistant, another took photos for social media and still another filmed Tim’s life for a documentary that would stream on Netflix. Tim’s father Klas drafted employment contracts with the buddies to ensure there was some semblance of order. He would visit Tim in Los Angeles, drive to Whole Foods, grill rib-eye steaks and make salads with tomatoes and guacamole. He wanted his son to eat healthy.
Tim spent entire nights working in the studio. The second Avicii album had to be finished soon.
Fredrik Boberg, who goes by “Fricko,” pulls up the sleeve of his sweater. He sports a tattoo on his right forearm showing a boy and a girl facing each other as if they are about to kiss. Four black birds fly in the background. “Tim had the same one,” says Boberg, “we got inked in L.A.” Tim also wanted to have his shoulders and back tattooed. “When he got excited about something, he’d always get really into it,” says Boberg.
Boberg is sitting at a table in front of the Valhallabageriet bakery in the Stockholm neighborhood of Östermalm. Just across the street, children are running around in front of the Gärdesskolan, the school where it all began. Boberg says that Tim only realized that he wasn’t made for the stage after he had spent too much time appearing on them.
Friends began to see signs early on that Tim was becoming overwhelmed by the image he was meant to embody. When he began DJing, he would tell them he felt too stiff on stage. Tim wasn’t one for small talk in the first place and the shallowness of the parties got to him. He had never even brought a girlfriend home to his parents, but suddenly women were smiling at him from every direction.
Bergling began thinking alcohol could loosen him up and he drank before, during and after the shows. Champagne. White wine. Nobody remembers any drugs, but ecstasy and cocaine are to EDM parties what joints are to reggae concerts.
The partying went on night after night. When Bergling wasn’t spinning, he was in transit — somewhere on a plane or at the airport.
Bergling had to be hospitalized during a tour of Australia. It wasn’t the first time. He said he felt like someone had rammed a knife into his stomach from the front and the back. He was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, the result of his alcohol consumption, and doctors advised him to have his gall bladder removed and to take a break. Bergling, though, decided against surgery and instead turned to the painkiller ketamine. But a year later, no painkiller could help him any longer, and after a performance in Miami, Bergling had his gall bladder and appendix removed. He continued working with a laptop from his hospital bed, and soon found himself performing again.
A few years later, Bergling obtained a prescription for buprenorphine. The drug is used to help ween people with opioid dependencies off the drugs and it was supposed to help him get Bergling off his painkillers. Klas Bergling, though, had the impression that buprenorphine made Tim even more dependent: His son had become emaciated and looked like a junkie. This led Klas to speak to Pournouri and the tour manager.
Success Hasn’t Come without Its Bumps’
On August 30, 2015, Tim Bergling admitted himself for a two-and-a-half month stay at the Ibiza Calm addiction treatment center where he did yoga and meditated. He began questioning the touring, the many shows and even his role as Avicii. On March 29, 2016, Bergling wrote an open letter to his fans and posted it on his website.
“My path has been filled with success,” he wrote, “but it hasn’t come without its bumps. I’ve become an adult while growing as an artist, I’ve come to know myself better and realize that there’s so much I want to do with my life. I have strong interests in different areas but there’s so little time to explore them. I know I am blessed to be able to travel all around the world and perform, but I have too little left for the life of a real person behind the artist.”
He hired a lawyer to dissolve his contract with Pournouri and his management company, and he cancelled gigs in Las Vegas. He intended to play just a couple more performances that he had already committed to. He rented a castle in Chianti, Tuscany, where he spent the summer with his family and friends. He played video games outdoors with Fricko. He had read the typology of psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and learned he was an “introverted person,” now telling his friends that he had been living this whole time in conflict with his personality.
Performance No. 813 on August 28, 2016, at the Ushuaïa on Ibiza would be his last. At the end of his set, Bergling had someone hand him a microphone. “I couldn’t have imagined a better last show, thank you,” he said. Some fans cried. At the age of 26, Avicii was ending his career as a DJ.
A Needed Escape
He wanted to travel without the pressure of time. A world that had evaded him because he never really got time to spend anywhere and was constantly on his way to the next place. He asked friends if they wanted to join him — and the ones who had time did. They traveled through Africa, to Costa Rica, Peru, South Africa and camped at the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert.
Tim Bergling had stopped DJing, but Avicii continued to exist on social media. Avicii’s followers traveled along virtually with him to Machu Picchu and Table Mountain in Cape Town. They could follow him at his home in Los Angeles at the piano or with his buddies in the desert. No matter how remote were the places he traveled to, his followers were always with him.
Bergling still needed his fans: He still had to fulfill his contract with Universal. And wherever he went, he continued working on his third album, “Tim,” which is due to be released posthumously this June. He would send Sundin mails with drafts of songs and he made suggestions for artists who could sing the vocals. “Peace of Mind” is one of his new tracks. Bergling’s lyrics read: “Dear society, you are going way too fast, way too fast for me, I am just trying to catch my breath.” But it didn’t stop. He continued posting and his followers kept piling on the likes.
After arriving in Oman on Monday, April 9, 2018, he held an evening conference call with Sundin and three other record label employees. Bergling said he intended to head back to Stockholm after Oman before then vacationing in Iceland with his half-siblings. He inquired via WhatsApp about Fricko’s father, who had been injured in a fall.
“Yoo brysh!!,” yo brother, he wrote Sundin on April 16, 2018, at 8:40 a.m. In the e-mail, he wrote that Sundin should take a look at an attractive singer. He attached a photo of the singer Arlissa, who he wanted to hire to do vocals for a track.
Bergling’s body was found four days later. An autopsy didn’t detect any foul play. “Our beloved Tim was a seeker, a fragile artistic soul searching for answers to existential questions,” his family said in a statement after his death. “Tim was not made for the business machine he found himself in; he was a sensitive guy who loved his fans but shunned the spotlight.” Bergling didn’t leave behind a goodbye letter, but he did leave a lot of questions unanswered — including the mystery behind his decision to die. And he left behind a legacy as an artist.
Avicii may be dead, but not on Avicii.com. The website has been transformed into a digital memorial for his fans, who are processing the loss of their hero by posting comments, rose emojis and photos of their Avicii tattoos.
“I love your music, it gives me strength and endurance. I’m glad you existed.” — Nick from Germany
“You are forever in our hearts. It’s strange, but you have a lot of fans in Iran. Thank you for waking us.” — Iranian Fan
“My autistic son often listened to “Hey Brother. I believe Avicii inspired him to start making music.” — Kayla
“Tim, why the hell did you do that?” — Jake
“When are you coming back?” — Berat
A brass plaque slightly bigger than a playing card is mounted on the fence next to the Hedvig-Eleonora church in Östermalm, not far from the Bergling’s apartment. It’s the place where people mourn Tim Bergling in the analog world. Klas Bergling and Anki Lidén plan to travel from Gran Canaria to Tim on April 20, the first anniversary of his death.
The plaque reads:
Tim Bergling: born Sept. 9, 1989, deceased April 20, 2018