Scandinavian electro-soul superstars Little Dragon have been enjoying a marked rise in their stock this year. Bridging the fault-line between commerciality and experimentalism, band mates Yukimi Nagano, Erik Bodin, Fredrik Källgren Wallin and Håkan Wirenstrand brilliantly employ rhythmic variations and odd textures, with a constant air of self-awareness. They might be extraordinarily clever in what they produce, but won’t be rubbing our noses in it.
There’s certainly a Little Dragon shaped hole in the lexicon of modern music, and perhaps the world is now waking up to the Gothenburg four piece. “There was a time when we didn’t at all imagine such a thing,” singer Nagano tells me. “We sort of saw ourselves as musicians and writers, but we didn’t really have that confidence to be like: ‘This is what will happen to us!’”
Fond of singing since her childhood, it was always something she felt comfortable doing. As with many pop stars, she grew up in an environment filled with music. “I sang along to anything and everything on the radio. I just loved music. With an artful and clever look at how pop music should be constructed, Nagano drew attention after involvement with Gorillaz’s platinum album, Plastic Beach. This saw her beguiling smoky vocal talents set alongside Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, De La Soul and Mick Jones.
Their rise may have been gradual for a band formed in 1996, but now their momentum is becoming unstoppable. They’ve signed to Because Music, the springboard for bands like London Grammar and Metronomy, and a new album is capturing the public’s imagination. This release, the nimble, futuristic-sounding Nabuma Rubberband, sees an evolving mix of R&B, electro, pop, jazz and dance, underpinning the unearthly vocals of their unique front-woman. This fourth LP is more adventurous, but remains deliriously catchy. With odd game show-styled interludes, strings from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and spacious, lush arrangements, its 12 songs swing from the understated to the truly funked out. Some of it might be challenging, but occasionally confounding the listener has always been a staple of the great band meme. “…and having a vibe! I always feel it’s noticeable when people have session musicians in their band. When there’s a good chemistry between people, you can feel that on stage. They know that person’s language with how they play. You know each other and you’re relaxed with each other, and you play together in a way you couldn’t do with strangers.”
The Internet is a technology Little Dragon embraced enthusiastically, perhaps more than most. Early on, Nagano realised the potential of MySpace for more than looking at cats and ugly fonts. Realising social media was a portal for the overlooked, she’s been able to communicate with, and view the work of, countless geographically remote artists and designers. “All of a sudden there was this was this whole network of people. Just as much as there were up and coming bands, there was up and coming imagers and visual artists. I’ve met a lot of people online, even the guy who did our second album cover. Hideyuki Katsumata.” Without it, the band themselves might not have the public profile they enjoy today. “That’s the beauty of it. I think if you have an interest, everything’s in front of you to take.”
This year’s album has seen the band has significantly dented the charts, as well as delighting critics, on both sides of the Atlantic. So was there a lot of pressure to produce something so wonderful? “I think there was… Not from outside, but from ourselves. Especially when you’ve been on the road so long and you haven’t written anything. It’s like you’re doing shows, shows, shows and it’s a different beast when you come home and you’re like: ‘it’s time to write!’”
So the commercial breakthrough in Britain and the US is beginning to happen. As we’re speaking the band have arrived in Columbus, Ohio, Nagano enjoying a beautiful Autumn day, surrounded by yellow and red leaves, suburban looking American houses and a few students in college sweaters. It would seem she’s also enjoying the US tour. “It’s good, we’re visiting a lot of places we haven’t been to in a while, like yesterday was Louisville, Kentucky and before that was Philadelphia.”
Strangely similar success is not as forthcoming at home. Whilst the Swedish bands generally have an innate understanding of classic marketable pop, Little Dragon has chosen a less traditional path. Nagano’s amused by my firm belief every band in Sweden knows each other, perhaps socialising, living in the same apartments and high-fiving each other when passing in the street, “I’m a little detached to it, because I’m not home that often. It’s not like me, Lykke Li and Jose all hanging out together. I feel like everyone’s a bit: ‘it’s cold!’ and keep to themselves in their own little world. I find out more about Swedish music when I’m abroad, which is just a bit weird.”
The pressures of fame aren’t playing on her mind thus far. She’s still able to walk down a hometown street unharnessed. But even if people do recognise her, it’s not an intimidating experience. ”I guess we’re not that kind of band. On this tour you can feel, after shows, you’ve fans waiting for you. But when we’re walking around on the street at home? No. It happens mostly in LA.”
Even with less time to stop and take stock of their situation, Nagano’s still aware of the impact of their music has on people. “You can’t really step away from it. It’s so gratifying. We get to do what we love, without any compromises, and there are people who are into it.”
Little Dragon play Brighton’s Corn Exchange on Mon 17 Nov, 2014. Their album, Nabuma Rubberband, is out now.
Image by Nik Hartley