Bright Lights, Bladee City
Benjamin Reichwald, the Swedish musician known as Bladee and a founding member of the very-online music collective Drain Gang, is great at sending memes. According to his friend and countryman Jonas Rönnberg, who also performs as Varg2™, Bladee sends the best memes of anyone he’s ever known.
“Every time Benjamin sends me a meme I’m like, ‘Nah, for real.’ Because the thing is, he’s so quick,” says Varg. “We can have a conversation in the studio and then one hour later I’m in bed smoking and I will open my phone and Benjamin sends a meme, which is a complete low-blow on exactly what I was talking about. And I’m like, ‘Goddamn. How the fuck? Where do you store this?’ That’s something that translates well with us making art and making music. That’s the same quickness of Benjamin.”
Bladee met Varg through Stockholm’s tight-knight music and graffiti scenes, which also produced the rapper Yung Lean and his musical crew Sadboys, as well as Bladee’s childhood classmate and fellow Drain Gang member Ecco2k. All of these artists have racked up millions of streams with their hyper-processed, phantasmic music about the dull misery (and occasional beauty) of growing up in Sweden—which carries international appeal, given the dull misery (and occasional beauty) of growing up in most places.
Though Drain Gang formed in 2013, their popularity skyrocketed during the pandemic, when out of the fiery brimstone of Reddit, Discord, and TikTok emerged a new generation of Drainers, largely stereotyped as bored teenage and 20-something boys. For Drain Gang, Sad Boys, and their ilk, what began as sharing challenging, pitched-up songs on Soundcloud became, in the shadow of Abba, Robyn, and Max Martin, a continuation of the great Swedish tradition of making English-language pop music enjoyed the world over.
Bladee himself appeared on two tracks with EDM superstar Skrillex earlier this year, and now seems to be on the edge of real-deal pop-star success—or at least as close as any freaky artist can get in the streaming era. But when Bladee and Varg’s labels asked them to record an album a year ago, they started painting together instead. Now they’ve snagged a joint show in zeitgeisty gallery The Hole’s Tribeca basement.
On a recent afternoon, we’re speaking in an elegant communal room on the second story of Nine Orchard, a new boutique hotel in the pseudo-neighborhood known as Dimes Square, the multi-block area abutting Chinatown that’s become a popular target of online handwringing. Bladee, a soft-spoken 29-year-old, is wearing an Armani track jacket and a black trucker cap, his shoulder-length hair plaited loosely into two braids. Varg, 32, is a burly guy with face tats and a great laugh, who was just telling me about how he was prematurely awoken this morning by hotel staff delivering champagne and flowers to his room—a gift from his girlfriend who lives in LA. The bubbly was plan B after she failed to have them deliver Hennessy and Chick-fil-A. (This, we all agree, is deeply romantic.)
Though it’s a quarter past two on a weekday afternoon, the boys (as their team often refers to them) are more or less just getting started: they were up all night finishing pieces at a temporary studio around the corner, which Varg says was clean and new when they arrived in New York two days ago but has since turned into “a class-F, dangerous, toxic hole.” (In Stockholm they share a studio with a feminist witch, who Varg says “did a spell for the exhibition.”) Fueled by White Claws, VOC fumes, and adrenaline, they worked through the evening, administering layers and layers of spray paint, acrylic, oil stick, and resin onto large canvases and repurposed bed sheets.
Bladee (pronounced “blade”) grew up in Stockholm, while Varg (whose stage name is technically Varg2™ thanks to a copyright dispute, though you can call him Varg) hails from a small rural town in northern Sweden. Neither has spent much time in New York City. Here, Bladee points out, “everyone is outside all the time.” I tell them this is particularly true of Dimes Square. Now that I mention it, Bladee says he has noticed “the same people walking up and down the streets, just showing off their outfits and stuff.”
Not that the boys have had much time to meet new people. Currently, Varg’s hands are still smudged with pigment from the all-night art-making sesh, but it’s the spray paint that has a particular tendency to get all up in one’s sinuses. When Bladee blew his nose this morning, he saw a tissue full of chrome snot.
“I would say it’s quite literal,” says Bladee of the art show’s title, Fucked for Life. “We want to just attack and fuck up the canvas. We just go in and then we see what it becomes. We go over each other; I see something, what Jonas drew, and I bring that forward. And he sees something in mine, and we just keep changing it until it feels finished.”
“But it’s also this life, the life we are living, is the path chosen by us. It’s what it is and it’s a rocky road, but it’s interesting,” adds Varg, chuckling. “You know? Fucked for life.”
A couple days later and at last Varg and Bladee’s works were hung on the walls at The Hole, where members of the downtown scene gathered for a private opening party. Afterwards, the party migrated east to Lucien, the preeminent downtown locale for post-gallery-opening dinners (as well as the site where Kanye West once gave five Hermès Birkin bags to his then-girlfriend Julia Fox and her friends). Varg stops for a cigarette outside on this muggy, late-spring Saturday night. He reports that the floors at the gallery were slick with rain that caused everyone to slip-slide around while they schmoozed. He smiles. “Fucked for life.”
Inside the restaurant, he and Bladee take their spots at a cramped bistro table next to Ecco2k and Bladee’s brother Guz. Champagne flutes, dirty martinis, and platters of oysters are distributed. Guests have an entrée choice of steak frites or eggplant napoleon. My tablemate, eyeing Bladee, asks me, “I’m dying to meet him. Does he speak English?”
Read any article about Bladee and you’ll learn he doesn’t do much press. But these last few days, he admits, have been fun. Taking in the scene outside Lucien, it’s felt nicer than he expected.
“I thought I would like it less,” Bladee confesses. “I thought I was going to want to leave.”
“I like to put a performance on, though,” Varg, who’s just joined us, says.
Bladee concurs: “He complements me in these kinds of social situations.”
And while Bladee doesn’t normally like to reflect on how people might perceive his output, he seems moved that “everyone around us is very proud and happy.” That said, he still has that album to finish, plus several festival shows in play in Europe this summer. “Playing shows for me, it’s, uh…” He pauses, a smile creeping up. “Draining.”
They both reckon they’ll sleep off most of tomorrow, though “it seems so nice outside now” that Bladee wonders if he’ll feel compelled to do some exploring. Spirits are especially high now that the works are up—and, as Varg notes, hung properly in real frames. “This is something we’ve been doing since we were kids. You would never think you get to create this shit and see it in a gallery this way, you know?” he says. “I kind of felt sad when I started reading ‘sold’ on the paintings. I was like, ‘Fuck, I’m never gonna see this shit again.’”
The rain lifts the next day, when The Hole puts on a low-key public preview of Fucked for Life that it had promoted on Instagram. Though the boys used their government names for the show, Bladee fans were already on board. (One fan wondered in the comments whether or not they’d need to purchase tickets; the gallery replied that the show was “free and open to public all ages, come by!”) If there’s one thing that could entice teenagers to gallery-hop in Tribeca on a sunny, 70-degree Sunday afternoon, it would be Drain Gang.
Within the first hour, a couple dozen people were gathered in the basement, quietly surveying the artworks. Drainers tend to dress like a Depop feed come to life, and few here look older than 20 years old. The crowd is less dude-heavy than expected, and the outfits on display pair nicely with the pieces on the wall, which present colorful swaths of Drainer symbology: scythes, jokers, runic tags, chains, various figurative critters and spooky silhouettes.
Cash, a gregarious 16-year-old from Manhattan, is wearing black Prada loafers and a graffiti-print vest from Bladee’s collaboration with Marc Jacobs’s Gen-Z sub-brand Heaven. I notice him gesticulating at a painting to a friend. As it turns out, Cash’s dad just bought this particular piece.
“He’s a big art guy, so I put him on and I was like, ‘Yo, can we cop this painting for my birthday?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m down.’ I was like, ‘Holy shit. That’s sick,’” Cash tells me. He says his buddy Rahm, also 16, brought up a good point about this painting being less scary than the others.
The piece, titled Återfall (meaning “relapse”), centers around a Baphomet-like figure rendered in neon orange, flanked by girl-coded smiley faces and grinning cat-demons. (“The use of symmetry and loosely derived Christian occult symbols call back to the painters of Sweden’s past,” the press release reads, “from the Rosicrucian-affiliated polymath Johannes Bureus to the mystical abstract painter Hilma Af Klint.”) When I mention this description, Cash laughs and says, “I could be worshiping a Satanic demon purchasing this painting, but it’s also colorful as fuck, so, you know, it’s cool. It’s the contrast and whatnot.”
The enthusiasm in the room is palpable, even heartwarming. “What I love about Bladee [is] his aesthetic matches the music,” says Rahm. “It’s ethereal, colorful, and noisy, out there. It’s just awesome.”
“This one’s so tough,” says a lanky guy in a Budweiser flannel, pointing to a painting next to Återfall. Andrew, 19, took off work as soon as he found out about the show so that he and a few Drainer pals could drive up from Boston to see it, scooping up another friend in Connecticut along the way. They’ve been Drain Gang fans for four or five years now, and they are supremely jazzed to be here.
Andrew says he thinks the works speak to “what Bladee’s been putting out recently in terms of creative mediums, in terms of his merchandising, his tour and everything.”
“Whatever they do, whether it’s fashion or music or art, there’s always a crowd of people,” says Will, also 19, who lives in New York. “I’ve never seen an art show in the city that was at this scale [where] they’re hanging up spray-painted blankets with thumbtacks on the walls. I think it’s so unique, it’s so awesome. Everybody here is so respectful of the art. They’re just happy to be here.”
They’ve already run into several people today they know from past Drain-adjacent events. It’s a lively ecosystem of fans moving their internet obsessions into the real world. Liza, 19, sums it up nicely: “It really feels like you join the community when you start listening.”
To uninitiated (or unwilling) ears, Drain Gang’s music is illegible: synthetic and antisocial. But here in this room, this holy noise is communion—or, at the very least, makes for a very fun hang. This reminds me of something Varg said the night before, outside Lucien, when I’d asked him and Bladee about what the best part of this past week has been.
“We live in Stockholm, you know? Sweden is very isolated. Me and Benjamin, we’ll text every day, and exchange funny photos and shit, but we won’t see each other in a while. [But] whenever we get to pull out and do some shit like this, the homies get together, and just the energy in the room when the homies are gathered is beautiful. Because we got all these opportunities to do shit. And we get to just relax and be ourselves.”
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