Little Dragon formed in high school, 11 years before their self-titled debut album saw the light of day. Gothenburg teenagers drummer Erik Bodin and bassist Fredrik Wallin were so enthralled by the airy soul vocals of their 14-year-old schoolmate, Japanese-Swedish Yukimi Nagano, that they asked her to join their new, experimental electro-pop band. The band name followed shortly afterward, as did keyboardist Hakan Wirenstrand.
It might have taken some time to get moving, but Little Dragon has since hit “unstoppable force” levels of momentum. In the two years since their second album, Machine Dreams, the band has attracted an avalanche of high-profile collaborations. First, Damon Albarn invited them to contribute to two songs for the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach. Then they appeared on Raphael Saadiq’s new album Stone Rollin, Nagano sang on TV on the Radio producer David Sitek’s solo project Maximum Balloon, and Andre 3000 tipped off Big Boi, who is working with the band for a song off his next solo album.
eMusic’s Elisa Bray talked to singer Yukimi Nagano about experimenting, working with Damon Albarn, and living in inspiring chaos.
Damon Albarn, Raphael Saadiq, David Sitek and now Big Boi. That’s a lot of collaborations.
It’s not intended at all; almost the opposite. We’ve been determined to not have any guests on our own album. But being on the road and meeting other artists and inspiring people opens that door and I think if the vibe is there, and there’s a kind of connection, then why not.
It’s pretty flattering.
It’s super flattering. It’s crazy how someone that you have listened to and has somehow shaped who you are has suddenly come back and said that they’ve been inspired by your music. [Raphael Saadiq's R&B supergroup] Lucy Pearl — I listened to that album a lot when I was a teenager and that was kind of crazy to hear that he thought our album was the best album of the year. And we’re huge fans of Big Boi’s own album as well as Outkast.
Damon Albarn contacted you to collaborate on a couple of tracks for Plastic Beach. How did you find working with Albarn?
I think we felt pretty comfortable because his way of writing was quite similar to ours — it’s very experimental and kind of restless. Everything was very spontaneous. His studio was real cool. Some people want to shape and write a song and then record it. When we were writing with him, there was a bunch of instruments, everything from church bells to percussion stuff to all kinds of different synthesizers, so the guys would jam something and you’d just record that. There’s a spontaneous moment that you try to capture. And that’s kind of how we work as well. We want it to feel fresh.
All your music has been — at the risk of sounding clichÃ©d — difficult to categorize, like how Ritual Union strikes a balance between dance party tracks and dreamy electro-pop. What had you been listening to around the writing and making of it?
Erik has been listening to a lot of African house music. It has a minimal feel; it’s dance music, but it has a tribal, trance-like feeling that you could just get lost in. So we’ve been listening to a lot of that. We’ve been listening to everything from Brian Eno to commercial stuff. When we were mixing it, we were listening to Busta Rhymes. We have a wide range that we love for different reasons. Maybe Busta Rhymes because it has a raw feel and a fast sound, and we love Brian Eno because when you feel tired you just listen to it and you can escape.
Is there a unifying theme to Ritual Union?
“Little Man” is a bit of a story about someone who is very wealthy and very unhappy. It’s said all the time that money equals happiness because it’s what many of us strive for and it’s just so wrong. I didn’t feel like writing a love song — writing love songs happens naturally for me, even though I don’t want to admit it. So “Little Man” was more of a challenge.
I’ve heard that your studio was originally a commune where you all lived together. How was that?
It was intense in a way, because we would almost never go out. We were just stuck in our little place writing music and forgot to go to the post office and forgot to pay our bills and only went out to get food. It was a funny time in our lives, because we really dove into something — into writing and playing music. We became lost in there.
What’s the studio like?
It’s kind of messy. We’ve built everything ourselves. It’s just a place where we feel completely at home and comfortable. It’s the place where you don’t feel afraid of trying stuff and you don’t feel afraid of making mistakes. It’s our zone. I think that if we were in some fancy studio where all the equipment was really amazing and the clock was ticking away and it was costing so much to be there — and also, you have an engineer — just having a stranger in the room can change the whole energy of your creativity. We don’t mind the mess and the chaos, everything there is us and our past and who we are.
So you’re staying put.
We’ll stay there until we get kicked out. They’re renovating a bunch of those old buildings. It’s a worry for us, but at the same time you know things have to change. We’ll find some other place to mess up.
You lived in New York for a year. Did you enjoy that period?
Obviously, there’s a kind of energy and atmosphere in New York that’s extremely different from Gothenburg, where we all still live. I moved to New York because I had a boyfriend who lived there. But I got restless and I needed to see my band. In the end, I didn’t care if it was the most exciting place on earth. I just wanted to be creative myself, play songs with my band, and that’s why I had to go back.
There are many successful indie acts from Gothenburg &38212; the Knife, Jose Gonzalez. Is it an inspiring place to be a band?
It’s kind of boring, actually, but it’s more about what you make of it — there’s a kind of quiet there that you can use your time to make something with. If you want to have excitement and you want to be inspired, I don’t think the city’s going to give you that. But if you want to inspire yourself, and dive into your own zone like we do, then it’s a good place, because you don’t really get distracted.