Little Dragon’s shimmering pop has escaped the attention of few
Little Dragon’s music is instantly loveable. It provides the immediate thrill that pop music satisfies so well, with enough of a beat to make you want to dance and enough intricacy to hold your attention. Their music is neither hard work, nor a guilty pleasure.
The Swedish band has secured themselves a sizeable and diverse fan base. Musically, they’re obsessively focused on detail, their perfectly crafted keyboard tones and beats winning them the appreciation of club kids and synth nerds. Frontwoman Yukimi Nagano’s attractive, faintly husky voice delivers R’n’B hooks that are infectious enough to please the ears of those addicted to the sugar-rush of mainstream radio, while their bohemian back-story authorises their hipster credibility. So it doesn’t seem like too much of an overstatement to presume that most music fans that aren’t into Little Dragon are just the ones who haven’t got round to listening to them yet.
Little Dragon give the impression of a tight gang of mates on the same musical wavelength. They originally met each other at high school back in 1996, while Yukimi was going through a goth phase. They all clicked and began making music together, and within a few years they were stationed at a studio space art squat nicknamed The Seal Colony in their hometown of Gothenburg, working various short-term day jobs on the side. How times have changed.
Crack catches up with Yukimi and drummer Erik Bodin in their dressing room just before soundcheck at Bristol’s O2 Academy. It’s one of many dates in a colossal tour, and comes only a few months since they were last in town … at the tail end of another colossal tour. Onstage, Yukimi is an incredibly charismatic and engrossing performer, yet despite high-energy performances every night, she doesn’t have a single complaint about touring. Conversely, she speaks passionately about being onstage. “The shows, when they’re good, are kind of euphoric. When everything’s right – good sound, good venue, good crowd and when everyone in the band is there mentally – it’s really one of those ultimate feelings.”
Little Dragon sound great live. They capture the sound of the record particularly well; they slow the tunes, speed them up and extend them. Erik explains the process: “In the studio we have so many synths, but we sample each sound, so you can play whatever you want on the keyboard with that particular sound. That’s one thing we really want to continue doing. Keep the music alive – especially when you’re doing long tours like this. You have to make sure that fragility is still there.” It all sounds pretty complex and time consuming, so does the equipment ever fuck up? “Oh yeah, all the time”, Yukimi exclaims. “Like last night, we got onstage and a synth just said ‘system error’ on the face so we had to reset the sampler. But, y’know, we’d rather go through all that than use a backtrack.”
This determination and relentless energy reflects the sturdy personality of the band, an initially surprising quality given the emotive, sometimes delicate feel of much of their music. Prior to releasing Ritual Union and achieving their current level of success – the respectable commercial performance of the record, the sell-out tours etc – Little Dragon worked on a number of attention-grabbing collaborations, which probably helped to fuel their ascent. Their appearance on TV On The Radio member and distinguished indie producer David Sitek’s solo album will have exposed them to thousands of Pitchfork readers. The band also featured on SBTRKT’s Wildfire single, receiving heavy airplay, and after Drake jumped on a remix, a certified club banger for a period. Little Dragon’s most talked about collaboration, and the one they’re frequently asked to talk about, is their work with Gorillaz, who also booked them as the support act alongside their heroes De La Soul for the arena-filling Escape To Plastic Beach Tour in 2010.
Of course, these are all interesting collaborations and really, Crack should feel obliged to quiz the band about each and every one, but there’s one particular collab that we really want to talk about. Last autumn Outkast’s Big Boi uploaded a video online of him and Yukimi hanging out in Stankonia studios, all hyped up about a bunch of tunes they’d just recorded, yet to be revealed. When Crack brings this up, the subject suddenly rouses Yukimi: “It’s the most exciting collaboration we’ve done so far. I mean, we’ve been in the position where great people have asked us to work with them, but if we had the dream choice then Big Boi would be one. And then he asked us. We were like, nervous to go. We’re really super, super fans.” So what was he like in person? “He’s chill, very relaxed. I mean, we only got to hang out for one day so we don’t know him that well. He seemed really sweet, really in love with making music. He’s always doing stuff that feels up to date, he’s still fresh.”
The conversation moves to hip-hop and R’n’B in general. Are there any contemporary artists they really dig at the minute, or do they prefer the classic stuff from the 90s? “Well, if you look at A Tribe Called Quest, you kind of like every single album, they’re classics. Whereas these days, with the new artists it’s more about particular songs.” Yukimi argues. “I wouldn’t say I like everything Drake does, but there’ll be one song I like that’s a party track, y’know. Or I’ll have my five songs by Amerie that I’ll play over and over, and I’ll have a favourite few Frank Ocean songs. When there was vinyl, you had four or five tracks each side that was all you could fit, the songs have to be perfect. Then when the CD came along everyone was skipping to the singles and now you know, it’s just like ‘here’s everything I’ve done.’ It’s just a lot to take in.”
Both Yukimi and Erik were once members of Swedish electronic jazz outfit Koop’s touring band. Yukimi’s work with Koop showcases her abilities as a jazz singer, as do some of the tracks on Little Dragon’s self-titled debut album. But when Crack asks her about her transition to a more R’n’B influenced singing style, she winces with Erik seemingly amused by the sudden moment of awkwardness. “I think I cringe because Koop is like … it’s almost like I don’t really think that is me. It’s not that I don’t love jazz music. The saxophone player in Koop was just the saxophone player, he played just what he was supposed to play in that band. And I was pretty much just doing the same thing. I was paying my rent off with those shows, singing the songs that someone else had written and just being that instrument in the same sense, but I really wasn’t part of that band. That’s really how I feel in my soul. So I was always happy to get away from that and sing my own songs with these guys, Little Dragon.
“And with the R’n’B influence it’s like, I’m not from the ghetto, I could never sing like Faith Evans even if I tried. But you become inspired, you pick all the influences from different eras but you find your own way. You’ve got to try and be yourself.”
But even by the time Little Dragon had a debut album out, they hadn’t yet maintained the sense of autonomy and artistic control that they possess today. Despite featuring the song Twice, a gorgeous ballad that might be the best song they’ve written, the first album is uncharacteristically shabby round the edges. Yukimi is in no way hesitant to clarify what went wrong. “We basically delivered the demos to our label, ten or 11 songs or whatever, and they just said ‘OK, this is it, this is the album. It’s done.’ I think for the second album we decided to find a way to never be in that situation again. So after that we never ever played songs we weren’t sure about to our label because we just didn’t trust them in that sense, because they might just decide that’s going to be released without our consent.”
So what about the next album? Is there any new material in the works? “Oh yeah, at the moment we’re writing. We’re just writing sketches, y’know, collecting ideas”, Yukimi responds. It’s an answer that suggests we’ve got a while to wait until album number four. But with these pop perfectionists, at least we can rest assured that only the best sketches will make the final cut.
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Words: David Reed