Roaming the lively streets of Berlin, Bladee has a clear mind. “I feel like you can think better when you walk,” he tells me over FaceTime. Behind him, motorbikes roar past, and a group of strangers drunkenly stumble by, all laughing about something in German. It seems like a peaceful evening in the city; there’s the comforting low hum of activity and anticipation that comes with the beginning of a Friday night — at least until the explosions start. Sounding off car alarms, the inexplicable detonations are deafening and confusing, until Bladee explains that they’re fireworks. “Here, do you want to see them?,” he asks, turning his phone towards the bright lights in the darkness. Through the five-inch screen of my iPhone, we both watch the sky fragment into colorful bursts of green and red.
There’s something uncanny about being on FaceTime with Bladee. The 25-year-old Swedish artist is notoriously enigmatic; his lyrics are abstract (“Eat the night, I feel like Kirby, I'm burning”), his visuals cryptic (just watch the music video for “For You”), and his social media presence is perplexingly arcane (he recently tweeted, “Chapter 1; A trash star in a trash world”). He’s refused to do virtually any press in the past; quite fittingly, it took multiple attempts for me to schedule this call with Bladee. But once we finally got on the phone, he began to open up. “I’m a private person,” he explains. “It’s hard because I really don’t like to talk about myself. I find it weird.”
Born Benjamin Reichwald, Bladee grew up in the Skanstull neighborhood in southern Stockholm; his mother was a school teacher and his father worked in restaurants. When he was 11 years old, he formed a punk band with his childhood friend and frequent collaborator ECCO2K. “We were just basically making noise,” Bladee remembers. “We didn’t know how to play music at all.” As he got older, Bladee distanced himself from the punk scene and turned to graffiti instead. It was around this time when he met producer whitearmor and rapper Thaiboy Digital through mutual friends. “We were just freestyling on [whitearmor’s] beats for fun,” Bladee says. “Some of us took it more serious than the others, so we went to the side and recorded.” After one long night of partying, Thaiboy and whitearmor brought forward the idea of forming a musical collective where they were “just going to sing in Auto-Tune.”
They changed their name various times: first they were Gravity Boys, then Gravity Boys Shield Gang, followed by Shield Gang. Now calling themselves Drain Gang, their style is singing depressive, often hedonistic lyrics over atmospheric production. They soon realized that another group in Stockholm — Yung Lean, Yung Sherman, and Yung Gud of Sad Boys — were creating similar music; after hearing Lean’s track “Greygoose,” Bladee and whitearmor reached out, resulting in Bladee’s feature for “Heal You // Bladerunner,” the penultimate track on Yung Lean’s 2013 mixtape Unknown Death 2002. It began a close working relationship between Sad Boys and Drain Gang, who, to the listening public, became intermeshed as the rest of the internet tried to make sense of the Scandanavian teenagers rhyming about their malaise in heavily Auto-Tuned accents.
As a teenager in Sweden, what was it like getting so much attention back in 2013 and 2014?
I never really blew up back then. I was eased into everything through Lean, because he blew up really fast. I went with him on his first tours in America and Europe, so I saw it secondhand. When my music started getting bigger, we had already been around it for a while through him.
How would you describe the wave that you and your collaborators started?
When I was thinking this shit up in my head, it wasn’t possible before us and Sad Boys. I don’t even feel like there’s a good genre to describe the music we’re doing. I just want to make popular music.
Do you believe in genre?
It’s definitely a bit outdated. Now with the Internet, everything is one thing basically, and everything is inspired by another thing. All music today takes inspiration from hip-hop. Genre is limiting yourself. Just be yourself and let that be the genre, and you can do whatever you want.
Would you call your music “experimental”?
We did experiment, so at some point it was experimental [Laughs]. But now it’s something concrete that exists. I have all the tools to do this Drain music. We created the whole universe and locked down the style, and now everything comes easy. I still want to experiment, though. I try not to get too comfortable. I’m blessed to be able to do a completely different style and have people still know that it’s Bladee.
Do you feel like your music has had an influence on the way American artists on internet platforms like SoundCloud sound and present themselves?
I see it, it’s cool. I’m just happy to put out an energy. I always had this idea of creating something beautiful. Now, I’m making it into something real that you can see and hear, and I’m happy that people can fuck with it and make it their own, or just get inspired by it.
Why do an interview after all this time?
I don’t like Twitter or Instagram to express myself, because every time I tweet something people reply and they missed the point of what I’m trying to say. So I was like, I’m just going to start doing interviews, and I think people want to hear what I say. I feel like I have something more to offer now, and I can put you on to something new and teach you something.
Everything comes into place — that’s something I want to say, too. I had a feeling all my life about your essence inside, and if you follow your essence you can take it to good things if you’re true to yourself. Being an artist and people worshiping you — that’s being a trash star. I don’t want to be worshipped or looked up to, I just want people to be inspired and find their own calling through my music and through what I do.
You calling yourself a trash star is a critique, then?
Yeah, I do a lot of things where I create them, and later I’m just like, Wait, that’s kind of symbolic. That’s how all my stuff is. This material world and material things — it’s all trash. The only true worth is what’s inside you, man. The rest of the shit is all just trash. The world is a trash island. You have the power to create your own reality. I just made all the shit up — like Bladee and Drain and all [that] shit — and I wanted it to become real and play out how I wanted it to. If you believe in yourself, you can really do what you want to.
After Thaiboy Digital got deported in 2015, what have your recent trips to Thailand been like?
I’ve been three or four times. Bangkok is crazy, man. There’s been times where I thought I wouldn’t make it home. It’s like Gotham city — it’s really extreme. The last time I was in Thailand, I got hit by lightning. It wasn’t a situation where I could go to the hospital, so I just went to bed. I was Googling it and all it said was you will die really painfully [Laughs]. So I was like OK, but it must have just grazed me or something. I was sure I was gonna die, but I didn’t, and it put me into this next level of seeing things in a weird way. I felt like an angel or something — everything made sense to me.
There’s a seizure warning for Bladee’s “Be Nice 2 Me” music video — specifically, “D_G Party /Visual *Seizure Warning* Flashing Lights.” The spastic 127-second sensory overload is an extreme example of the bizarre and captivating audiovisual world that Bladee and Drain Gang have created over the past six years. The song, taken from 2018’s Icedancer, follows a bubbly, uplifting melody, and he repeatedly wails on the track, “I don't wanna talk if you're not gonna talk to me nice.” In between the blinding flashes of light in the clip, Bladee’s face is almost impossible to make out. He stands on a balcony overlooking a shadowy skyline, wearing orange-lensed shades on his face and a beanie that says “Trash Island” on his head. He looks like the protagonist in an animated movie about a post-apocalyptic metropolis.
This worldbuilding — a mixture of both aspiration and real life — is part of what has always made Bladee’s music so fascinating. His own introduction to the musical worlds that helped shape him mostly came through the internet. “Just going down YouTube recommendations is how I find so much music,” he says, listing off Chief Keef and Glo Gang, Lil B, Beach Boys, Basshunter, and James Ferraro’s BEBETUNE$ as influences. Growing up in the Swedish capital, completely detached from any sort of rap tradition, Bladee was left to invent a new one, patching together his disparate internet influences and his imagination. Maybe this is why Bladee’s self-presentation has always been so difficult to understand for some: it’s been a result of his own making.
Since 2013, Bladee has released three mixtapes, five EPs, four collaborative projects, and two studio albums, each adding a new chapter to his ever-growing myth. “I like to reinvent Bladee,” he tells me. “When I get tired of something, I just want to move onto the next part of the saga.” The sound of his music ranges from the lo-fi cloud rap of his first mixtape, 2014’s Gluee; to the frostbitten futurism of his 2016 debut album Eversince, and the PC Music-meets-Young Chop melodic sweetness of his most recent solo project Icedancer.
“The world is a trash island. You have the power to create your own reality.”
He brings out a wide spectrum of emotion in between, usually steered by the remarkably forward-thinking instrumentals from his go-to producers: whitearmor, Yung Sherman, Gud, Ripsquad, and others. One dedicated fan on Reddit even made a helpful flow-chart of Bladee’s discography; it begins with Eversince — describing it as “cold, lonely, depressive, ethereal” — and then streamlines the rest of his catalog into “more of this” and “less sad, more bangers.”
Over the years, Bladee’s lyrics have often leaned into deeply depressive territory. On “Rip,” a song from Eversince, he agonizingly sings, “R.I.P. my hopes and dreams, I don't wanna wake up,” and his 2017 ECCO2K collaboration “Plastic Surgery” opens with an apathetic pre-hook: “Six in the morning and I'm thinking I should end myself/ 3 p.m. and I'm thinking I should get some help.”
But the parameters of the world he’s created also allow for an absurd sort of comedy. In the music video for “Apple,” released last April, he walks around with a bottle of Listerine, at one point taking a long swig from the bottle; the “Nike Just Do It” video from 2018 finds Bladee wearing a Boston Red Sox shirt with a silver New York Yankees belt. It’s these lighthearted touches — as well as the occasionally dazzling brightness of the production — that keeps Bladee’s most introspective moments from becoming claustrophobic. Once the whole package comes together, you pretty much either get it, or you don't.
Those who do comprise a steadily growing fan base, and describing this fandom as “cult-like” doesn’t do it justice. Due to his open embrace of occultism and various changes in appearance over the years, some fans have even started elaborate conspiracy theories that Bladee is either an angel or a reptilian shapeshifter. With all of Drain Gang’s social media presence consistently vague, fans are often left scraping to find any additional information about the collective. Whenever a member posts something indecipherable, fans will rush to Reddit in attempts to decode their tweets and lyrics. Calling themselves “Drainers,” they’ll share any photos or memes of Bladee they can find. “They’re crazy about me, man,” he says. “I don’t understand it sometimes.”
There seems to be no in-between for your music — people either love it or hate it. How do you deal with this criticism?
The more comfortable you get in yourself, the more your true light shines through. Once you stop taking in outside influences and trying to please other people, that's when you can really start going crazy with your craft. People need to listen to their inner voice, because it can't be wrong if it’s true to you. I’m equally happy if someone loves or hates my music, because it's basically the same feeling. At least that means it does something.
What’s your reaction to Drain Gang and Sad Boys having a small yet noticeable alt-right fan base?
It makes me real sad, but also it’s out of my control. Politics is so boring — it’s just a distraction from our true purpose in life. It has a lot to do with these white boys that relate to me, because they’re sad and lonely and girls don’t like them so they fuck with my music. They make themselves victims. That’s what [the] alt-right is anyways: you feel like someone has done you wrong. I hope they find out and see that it’s fucked up.
Depression and anxiety are motifs within your lyrics. Do you ever struggle with your mental health?
No — I mean, I never had a diagnosis or problems like that. I’ve just been down bad. You know how it gets. Music was a really good way for me to vent, and it just sounded hard to talk about that shit. But now, I feel a little more responsible, because there’s a lot of young people listening to my music, and I don’t want to make it sound cool to be depressed or to dwell on these feelings. I also love life and think it’s beautiful to be here. I put the worst things that were in my mind into my music, but I know now that I don’t have to do that. I’m trying to change my approach a little bit, [to] being true to yourself. That’s what got me to where I am today — to where I can do what I love and I don’t have to work a job. I want to be more positive.
But I don’t want to take anything away from [those songs] either. You listen to sad music to get out those feelings, and a lot of people can use it to get the sadness out, but you mustn’t stay in the sadness and get even sadder. You should put your sadness out onto the song. Sing it out with me, and you feel better.
Drugs come up a lot within your lyrics too. Do you experiment with them?
I have used drugs, but that’s also something I’m trying to get away from. It was easy for me to slip into talking about drugs because it sounds aesthetically cool. But I definitely exaggerate shit too. I don’t wanna talk about pills and drugs in my songs, because I know I have really young fans. Drugs can be good, but most of the time it’s bad. I’m trying to move on from that — I’m trying to be on my healthy shit.
Icedancer is more positive than a lot of your discography.
Icedancer was over a summer and a winter where I was starting to be more positive. I was recording a lot of songs in between albums with whitearmor. Ripsquad was sending me a lot of beats, and it became a tape. I was like, Yeah, this is cool. It’s not my best work, but I’ll put it out just as a surprise. Now it’s my most streamed mixtape, it beat Red Light in a couple months with a double amount of streams.
How do you view the evolution of your music from Gluee to Icedancer?
I always like the new music we’re making the most. It’s always the songs I just made last week that I’m like, Yeah, that’s my favorite song. I really like Eversince, I still play those songs live. It’s a classic if I can say so myself [Laughs]. There’s also a lot of music that I wish I didn’t put out that I find not great, but it’s out and I can’t really worry about what I did a few years ago. You just have to live in the moment, you can’t overthink it. I’m just trying to put out as much as possible and keep it going.
A lot of your fans refer to your lyrics as poetry.
Everything is poetry — music in general, pictures. But lately I’ve been trying to say less in my songs. Sometimes I think I said too much, and it’s deeper if you can say less, because you really say more. When you’ve said too much, you’re getting away from the point. When you can express a feeling in the least amount of words, that’s what I want to be able to do with the lyrics.
I’ve noticed that change in your lyrics, especially on Red Light.
When I was making Eversince, I was always thinking lyrics in my head and writing them down. Lately I’ve been going off top, bar for bar, just punching in and going in the studio, listening to the beat and writing something right there. It’s automatic. I’m better at English now, too, so I’ve got more words in my vocabulary.
I can’t imagine how hard it would be to sing in your second language.
When we started, I was like, No one’s going to want to listen to my broken English. But people fuck with it, and now I got better. I lived in London for two years and [English] sounds more natural for me. My first project, there’s some shit I can’t listen to anymore because it sounds so broken [Laughs]. When you’re speaking a different language — or when I started, anyways — [it felt] like it wasn’t really me but a character. It made it easier for me to talk about shit and separate [it] from my own insecurities. English definitely helped me take that step into being an artist and being a public person.
Is Bladee different from Ben?
Of course, at some level, but it’s also me. Have you ever seen Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure? Bladee is like my Stand. It’s my soul, how I want the world to be — an extreme version of myself. Bladee definitely is me, but not on this plane. It’s me on a higher dimension. But it’s still me in some way, you know? I created Bladee first as a character, and then I grew into it and found how to be the truest version of myself.
Listen to Drain Gang's Trash Island project