After releasing the acclaimed synthy trip-pop Machine Dreams in 2009, the foursome attracted the Gorillaz’ attention and were featured on “Empire Ants” and “To Binge” on the animated band’s 2010 release, Plastic Beach.
Little Dragon opened as support for the second half of the Gorillaz’ worldwide tour. They lounged in five-star hotels and were chauffeured everywhere, a stark divergence from the frugal, DIY touring they’d previously known, says drummer Erik Bodin. Despite such spendthrift offstage activities and playing rapid-fire sets in massive arenas, they managed to keep the music true to their core beliefs. “Playfulness is a big part of our identity; that was the goal, even when we’d only have 25 minutes. We want to feel free,” Bodin says.
With a sensual stage presence, lead singer Yukimi Nagano snakes around miles of cables like a smooth serpentine. The jazzy songstress is backed by Bodin, Fredrik Wallin and Hakan Wirenstrand, who add in improvisation amid pop music’s constraints and noodle on various synthesizers like mad scientists unleashing their inner sound-nerd. That’s playful. That’s captivating. And that is also how they operate in the studio.
When Bodin pounds out the structure for a song, he’ll record himself solo, drumming away at great length, then splice it into several tracks. He’ll then work with Nagano on melodies. “She’s very quick, even before there are any harmonies. We then, mostly, work around the bass line and make it fit to whatever she does,” he says. The other two work with Nagano in similar fashion—like there’s three duos in one band—before the whole unit comes together.
“Once you listen to your song over and over again, you can get stuck in that bubble. I will say, ‘Yes, this is it; we don’t need anything more,’ ” Bodin jokes. “This is where the other guys come in with their angles.”
The finished products are fleshed out quickly and naturally—a chemistry they’ve developed since meeting in high school. In the recording process, perhaps, add in an occasional flare-up from Nagano, whose studio frustrations earned her the sobriquet “Little Dragon” years ago; it stuck, becoming the band name.
Adding fuel to this year’s bonfire, Little Dragon recently finished mastering their highly anticipated third album, slated for release this spring. It’ll sound more organic than Machine Dreams because programmed drums are absent and there’s less instrumentation overall. “I think it’s going to be some sort of weird Swedish soul. Yeah, definitely a soul album,” says Bodin, adding it’s a return to the style they loved and played 10 years ago but had moved away from. “We just want to do music that feels fresh to us and hopefully people dig in.”
Besides the Gorillaz, others have dug in. The song “Twice” was featured on the television show Grey’s Anatomy in late 2009. “It doesn’t mean so much in our artistic hearts,” Bodin says. More important to those hearts is when someone can take their music to create complementary, intriguing aesthetic works. For instance, Japanese designer Hideyuki Katsumata crafted the colorful, allegorical cover art for Machine Dreams and the video for “Swimming” to capture the band’s spirit.
And those inside Gothenburg’s phenomenal artistic scene have done the same. Sweden’s capital, not so surprisingly, makes for a perfect arts epicenter: It’s slightly removed from other major cosmopolitan areas, there’s a dismal amount of sunlight in the winter and Sweden wholly supports the arts.
For Bodin, worth mentioning as a memorable collaborator is Johannes Nyholm, director of the band’s 2007 “Twice” video. “We didn’t even know him or his name, and he lived just a mile away. He’s someone who’s doing these extremely beautiful and passionate films. We’ve been lucky the music has been drawing these kinds of talents.”