Drain Gang Interview: New EP, Tour, Gen Z Fanbase
Last month, in the sprawling parking lot of a door factory-turned-music-hall in Queens, I found myself immersed in a crowd of young people waiting to enter the second night of the music collective’s sold-out performances. Swedish Drain Gang in New York. The crowd chatted excitedly over each other, some chain-smoking and a few filming TikToks. They all shared a specific aesthetic sensibility: nods to 2000-era camp and goth-inspired pop-punk mixed with gender-neutral eyeliner, dazzling sunglasses and mittens. There were skater hats galore.
The current generation’s boundless penchant for self-expression felt, in no uncertain terms, duly embodied.
The four members of Drain Gang – artists Ecco2k, Thaiboy Digital and Bladee, alongside producer Whitearmor – were touring together for the first time across the United States. Thaiboy’s Swedish resident visa ended in 2015 (he emigrated with his mother from Thailand as a child) and he has since moved to Bangkok, where he had a daughter and continued making music with the remote group. And while they may have visited him over the years, seeing his longtime friends and collaborators together as a unit was enough to send most of New York’s Gen Z population into a frenzy. .
Just before their concert series, Ecco2k and Bladee released their joint EP, Crete. The record is a searing and ravishing triumph that feels like their most ambitious project to date. Sometimes simple songs unfold into ballads of elaborate and mercurial vastness. Delivered via Auto-Tune with Nordic overtones, their lyrics resonate with raw emotion: contemplative studies of love, pain, celebration and friendship that can border on dark poetry, aligning themselves with the canon of crooners timeless literary figures like Leonard Cohen or foreign musicians such as Daniel Johnston.
The album’s opening anthem, “The Flag Is Raised,” could very well be one of the best this year. An exhilarating and spiritually liberating homecoming, it symbolizes the announcement of a new chapter for the group. “I-I’m coming home, Virginia-inia,” Bladee, 28, croons. “I’m just a shell, baby, the hero is the soul.” Like almost everything in our post-postmodern era, Drain Gang’s music is an amalgamation of YouTube-looted references and incisive self-reflection.
Their sound lacks the eager, trendy energy of more polished young musicians, instead managing to find something organic in a synth-saturated world. Record Crete in the middle of nature, Ecco2k, Whitearmor and Bladee traveled to the ‘edge of Sweden’ and rented a cabin just minutes from the cliff-lined beach in Ingmar Bergman’s fantasy epic The seventh seal.
The location is fitting, as the EP is distinctly Swedish, a national pride that Bladee says the band utterly shunned in their youth. “And then on this album, we started to realize how much growing up in Sweden and being Swedish is something we can be proud of.” The project is not concerned with nationalism per se, more like an embrace and caring for its deep roots.
A few days after the show, the five of us sit in a Brooklyn outpost at Soho House, among millennial freelancers working on their laptops. “[We’re expressing] something really real to us, or something we actually feel. We never compromised on that. We will always do what we want to do,” says Bladee of their philosophy. The group was dressed in an eclectic mix of streetwear and experimental pieces. Ecco2k, former designer of the Swedish brand Eytys, wore a pair of Scrub-stylish black bunny ears and pink acrylics; Thaiboy Digital sported a Burberry plaid trucker hat over his shaggy bleached hair.
Drain Gang started when they were all in college in Stockholm. Bladee, Ecco2k, Thaiboy and Whitearmor – born Benjamin Reichwald, Zak Arogundade Gaterud, Thanapat Bunleang and Ludwig Rosenberg, respectively – started making music under the moniker Gravity Boys Shield Gang. Posting their songs and experimental low-fi music videos online, their after-school hobby led them to a chance crossover with other famous Stockholm collective, Sad Boys. This marked an ongoing collaboration with notable members like Yung Lean and producer Yung Sherman.
Their organic approach to collaboration through friendship is the keystone of their prodigious work. “Since we were young, [we’ve had] a collective world, or mythology. There were always so many inside jokes and island references that we almost couldn’t socialize with other people at all,” says Ecco2k. “And I think we’re still very similar to that. But now our common language and our common ideas [are] something we can choose when we make things.
The band’s multi-dimensional sound exists in a class of its own. You can hear elements of early Yung Lean-era “cloud rap” in the production – low-fi synths and drum machine loops serve as the soundtrack – but the band ventures everywhere and anywhere. where, allowing a stream of mood consciousness to infect the atmosphere with an otherwise pop-inspired sensibility. Take, for example, Ecco2k and Bladee’s single “Amygdala,” released in January. “I flirt with faith, I flirt / Crystal rings, my name / Valhalla calls, falls,” Bladee coos. “Beauty and the Beast / I walk and the astrological signs upwards, glory and glory / the Champs Elysees forever, the endless flowers sing the anthem.”
The lines are abstract, but it is precisely this enigmatic quality that has proven so compelling to listeners. Drain Gang has become one of those rare bands that exist both in and for a generation. As such, the group has seen a steady increase in notoriety and dedication over the past decade. Together they described a “snowball” effect that happened during the pandemic. Apparently, young people quarantined at home were discovering their music and becoming obsessed.
The group’s fans adamantly refer to themselves as “Drainers”, and their prolific devotion is clear if you scan briefly the comment sections of Drain Gang’s YouTube videos, or take a look at the colossal volume of dedicated DG meme pages. The drainers have responded to the enigmatic work of the group by forming a real ecosystem of their own. Most listeners I spoke to discovered the band through memes at the start of the pandemic, and only started listening to their music afterwards. A fan I messaged on Reddit told me that the band’s universe-building is so huge that he thought we “could write a book about it all.”
Perhaps you could say that we entered the most emotionally intelligent – or at least emotionally aware — period of recent history. The current generation of internet-saturated young people have all been nurtured to develop a deeper capacity for emotional nuance and expression through the digital realms of Instagram, TikTok and Discord. And while this shift has rendered scholarly definitions of terms such as “gaslighting,” “love bombing,” and “toxic masculinity” nearly meaningless, it is nonetheless impressive how young people have managed to identify and communicate emotions in a world in which it can seem so difficult to exist.
As the swarm of Drainers outside the venue in Queens grew restless, skies grew heavy with the imminent threat of downpour before opening up thunderously. The sold-out crowd would be baptized in the rain before being admitted. Eventually, with what looked like an entire generational cohort crammed into the room, Drain Gang took the stage, opening with the euphoric and widely-loved track “Western Union,” from their 2019 mixtape. Trash Island. Watching sweat-soaked bodies struggling in unison felt like some sort of blissful exorcism of the last hellish years. The Drain Gang members were pulpit preachers, and we were their fervent acolytes, hanging on to every line of the night’s sermon.