Interview by Philip Cosores
Little Dragon’s ascent has been about as steady as you will find in all of modern music. When Nabuma Rubberband comes out on May 13 on Loma Vista, part of Republic Records, many will become aware of Little Dragon for the first time. Such is the power of a major record label. But the five-piece Swedish band hasn’t received a golden ticket or anything of the like. Hard work is just paying off and the band has done everything in their power over the years to get to this place, all without changing their identity to suit trends or more mainstream tastes.
Among those maneuvers is collaboration, something that the band has been open to for years, whether it meant guesting with Gorillaz, Big Boi, SBTRKT, or DJ Shadow. With the new album coming up, the band was placed high on the bill at Coachella and given a big tent evening performance. Between the two weekends of the festival, the band was staying busy.
This is where we find Yukimi Nagano, the 32-year-old half-Japanese, half-Swedish front woman of the group, and its namesake of sorts. Though she is very much the most recognizable figure in the band, most of her bandmates, Erik Bodin, Fredrik Wallin, and Håkan Wirenstrand, have been with the songwriter since high school. This makes Little Dragon nearly 20 years old as an entity. When considering the band in those terms, it’s not hard to imagine the opportunity to reach so many more ears is beyond meaningful. Sure, they are only four LPs in, but to survive as a band that length of time, and to only now make that dream come true, well, that’s a dream come true.
You guys are on your way to Amoeba Records, right? For a Record Store Day Meet and Greet?
How do those things work out? Do you get chance to relate to fans in those kinds of situations?
Yeah, I think so. We are music nerds ourselves. So we like being in Amoeba and we like collecting records so so we can relate.
I recently saw something about you meeting the singer Kelela back in 2008. I guess you talked to her and encouraged her to play music when she needed that push. Do you remember that?
Yeah, I do.
Do you think when you meet fans or strangers that you can have such a big impact?
I don’t know about that but I remember that she hung out with us for a while while we were there. We can definitely relate to artists trying to survive, and needing to get this courage and confidence to jump out there and do it.
Surely, and it has been such a process for you and your band to get to the level you are at now. Did you have anybody along the way give you a similar push to follow this dream?
Yeah, we are touring artists and have met many people on our journeys and kept in touch with them. It’s always those people that encourage you or can just relate to the things going on in your life.
I think as a woman growing up in Sweden, you take pride in certain things. Maybe that role is more natural for us, not having to be that girl on stage to sell her beauty. Instead, you’ve grown up having a lot of gender rights.
Next month is an interesting time for Swedish singers, particularly female Swedish artists, like yourself, Lykke Li, and First Aid Kit. It appears to be a a good time internationally for Swedish singers. What do you attribute that to? Is there something specific about Swedish performers that is speaking to a global audience now, or is it just coincidental?
I don’t know. I think there has always been a good music scene in Sweden. It’s pride. It’s Swedish pride. Just like Denmark has design, and maybe more fashion, Sweden can have music. I don’t know if it is specifically female artists to me. Swedish women are very strong, I think. Gender-wise we are pretty forward thinking. You can see that through The Knife. I think as a woman growing up in Sweden, you take pride in certain things. Maybe that role is more natural for us, not having to be that girl on stage to sell her beauty. Instead, you’ve grown up having a lot of gender rights. I guess that is often discussed in Sweden so maybe it comes natural for girls to be strong.
Yeah, I get the feeling that as artists—yourself and the others I mentioned—you aren’t really pushing your sexuality or looks, more your talent and songwriting. That’s often not the case, especially in America.
We are quite sensitive to that. Of course, we have those artists, but every culture does and if people are quite sensitive to that, it feels very predictable. You don’t want that. Maybe it’s the norm in America, but in Sweden it’s more obvious.
I spoke with The Tarantula Waltz last year and he was very aware of the role men play in misogynistic songwriting and made an attempt to come at songwriting from a different angle than what is often traditional. It’s interesting that a Swedish man would feel so passionately, too.
Actually, I probably meet more men who are Swedish and are activists for that thing than women. Maybe it’s because we let them, though.
You and your band have been together for almost 20 years, since high school. How do you stay creative for so long with the same people?
It’s pretty easy. To have that one thing is your favorite thing to do… I mean, of course you have those moments where you think maybe you’re not achieving what you want to achieve. Maybe it’s not as good as you want, or it has its ups and downs. But I never found hard to be creative. Maybe if the schedule fills up and there is not enough time. But it’s all keeping in touch with that world when you’re writing and being creative, it’s your moment to be in the future, to search more, challenge yourself, to see what you can do on different levels. Writing is the most challenging and the most fun.
Have you noticed a major change with preparation for new album? This is probably your biggest release yet and it’s your first one with the new label, Republic.
Yes. 100%. We never had a proper release, at least one like this, in the United States. We just never had the opportunity, and it is more work and a much better set up and there is more planning ahead and being creative on the marketing part of things. It’s a completely new and exciting.
I don’t go around juggling strategy and our music. I let my manager and label have the headaches about that. I try to stay creative zone as much as possible.
How have you been dealing with it? Does it complicate things with all the creativity required of you?
I don’t go around juggling strategy and our music. I let my manager and label have the headaches about that. I try to stay creative zone as much as possible. Of course you want to be on top of things and not unaware. You want to know what’s going on. But generally I stick with the things I do best.
From an outside point of view, you can notice the increase in the promotional things. Do you have to be vocal and tell people when enough is enough, when you’re been stretched too thin?
Yeah there are definite moments. That’s why you have to be involved and maybe not going around taking every opportunity that arises. Sometimes someone comes in with a new strategy and maybe it could be great for the band’s career to to get more so exposure at that given moment. But, it may not be the best thing for us as people. You really have to put things in check, but I’m not usually that person.
Who do you think the Little Dragon fan is? You guys play a really wide range of festivals to almost rave-type things. There doesn’t seem to be a particular limit to your niche but who do you picture your fan as?
It’s pretty much like you said. Our shows attract older music nerds, hip-hop fans, people who don’t even go to shows often, indie kids. I think any music fan that has a real love for music and isn’t limited by certain genre constraints will like us. When we make music, the inspiration comes from so many different places, so I think that’s why people from different worlds can recognize something they like in our music. I think of my music taste as something that is constantly evolving and changing. One part of your life you listen to one thing, then in the next chapter it’s something else. Hopefully people can listen to us and have their own growth and evolution along with the music.
What’s your music taste right now? What you been listening to you?
I haven’t been listening to too much lately. I listened this story about Robert Johnson that I really liked, and I’m not a blues fan. I’m just never got into the blues at all but I was really struck by this podcast. It had me asking, “How could I have missed out on this?” It is so dark, in just the opposite of the vibe you get from gospel. It was kind of more sinful, more walking next the devil, crackling sounds. There’s no real song, or there is no peak or chorus. It moves steadily like a trance. It was so dark and mysterious, and even though it hadn’t been my type of music, when I heard it I thought, “Oh my god, this is really mind blowing.” So, Robert Johnson is my newest discovery.