The Elasticity of Little Dragon

Published May 14, 2014

ABOVE: LITTLE DRAGON. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARCO VAN RIJT

Permanence is not something Little Dragon takes lightly. Since coalescing in Gothenburg in 1996, bandmates and high school friends Yukimi Nagano, Erik Bodin, Fred Wallin, and Håkan Wirenstrand have developed and fine-tuned a dynamic that emphasizes the collective first and foremost. “The core of what we do is a unanimous feeling,” Nagano says of their writing style.

Over the course of three self-produced albums, the band has carefully grown its sound right alongside its fanbase; 2007’s self-titled installment was a smooth jam imbued collection of soulful electro-pop; Machine Dreams (2009) and Ritual Union (2011) followed, injecting Little Dragon’s slow burners with a hefty dose of dance-floor bounce.

And somewhere along the way, their peers started to take notice. In 2010, the band teamed up with Gorillaz, then TV On the Radio’s Dave Sitek. 2011 found Nagano making guest appearances on records from SBTRKT, DJ Shadow, and Raphael Saadiq.

This week, the band releases Nabuma Rubberband, their quirkily named and seductively brooding debut for Loma Vista Recordings. Like past Little Dragon albums, Rubberband gamely wrestles with soul, R&B, and electronic music in a way that feels both rigorously road tested and coolly self-possessed. Bangers like “Paris” and “Klapp Klapp” successfully bridge the gap between the band’s recent past and present, but on the whole Rubberband wants to groove more than pummel—and Nagano’s buttery coo feels built for the job. Sure, this may be Little Dragon’s spotlight moment, but they’re not interested in hitting you over the head with it. Four albums in, it seems they’ve mastered the art of slow growth. Below we chat with a UK-bound Nagano about collaboration, stage presence, and musical endurance.  

ALY COMINGORE: Happy release day.

YUKIMI NAGANO: Thank you.

COMINGORE: You’re welcome. How was your afternoon?

NAGANO: It was good. We recorded a session at Maida Vale Studios for BBC. It was cool. It was this nice, classic studio and we did a few songs.

COMINGORE: With all the interviews and pre-release album streams, is there still excitement around the actual day?

NAGANO: Yeah. I’d say it’s still super positive and exciting. It’s like, finally—finally we can share it with everyone and not just journalists. [laughs] This time we have had more media than we’ve ever experienced as a band, which is pretty awesome, and I feel like fans really want to spread the word about the band. I guess when you’ve done three records, you feel that you really start to appreciate it. We’re looking at it all and it’s just like, wow. You appreciate it differently when you work hard for it.

COMINGORE: You guys built a new studio in between this record and the last. How did that go down?

NAGANO: There was about a month and a half where we just—I say “we,” but it was really the guys. They isolated the rooms, moved all of our stuff up one floor in our building, and kind of cleared a new space. Everyone has their own room now, which is really different from our previous studio where everyone was in the same room with their own setup in a corner. It was really impractical. If you were recording a jam and getting super excited, you couldn’t really pump it out of the speakers, because there was someone else working right next to you. We were always in our headphone bubble.

COMINGORE: After 18 years of making music together, is the songwriting process still super collaborative, or do you guys tend to go off and work alone first?

NAGANO: Both, I think. There are times when we write from scratch together, but everyone has their own lives, so it just seems to make sense when everyone starts an idea on their own and we sort of meet somewhere along the way. I’m at the studio all the time because I live there, but the guys will have different schedules. Fred comes in late, Eric comes in early. At least for the idea stage, for the sketches, it’s easier to not have all four of us in there. It’s easier to start an idea with your own thoughts, rather than having to compromise from the start.

COMINGORE: Are you a morning person, or an evening person?

NAGANO: I’m definitely an evening person, a night person. But if I wake up and someone is in the studio I can get into it. If I’m in my pajamas I’ll bring my breakfast in. Then all of a sudden it’s dark outside. [laughs]

COMINGORE: Living in your creative space, do you find it’s difficult to balance work time and you time?

NAGANO: I think that kind of comes with the process of growing together as a band. We love to write, we love to create, we love to play live, and I think we love and appreciate what we have together. How that evolves, and how we balance it, is something that’s come with time. At the start we were all like, “Tour tour tour. We just want to play. That’s all we want to do.” But once you’ve had a real taste of it it’s like, “Okay, it’s pretty amazing that we have real fans and we can go out and play shows,” but you start to feel a personal need, like, “Okay, I think it’s time to go home for a minute.”

COMINGORE: I feel like that’s kind of the nature of music now. If you want to do it, you throw yourself in blindly. If you’re successful enough, you can get a piece of your life back.

NAGANO: Exactly. It’s hard to start at that point and think about having balance. It’s a tough industry, and you have to work your way to that luxury.

COMINGORE: Given the course of last few years, I feel like this record had the potential to be this big, guest-spot-packed album. Was that something you guys even considered?

NAGANO: Not really. We’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of people to ask us to be on their records—so many artists and musicians that we really respect and look up to. And it’s been really special. But from our side, there’s so much that we’re still learning about ourselves writing-wise that I guess we haven’t had that need. Maybe it’s easier to have that desire if, for example, you’re a rapper and you need someone to sing the hook. I guess for us, it just kind of feels like we want to explore ourselves more. That sounds kind of cheesy, but I don’t know. I have a lot of artists whose music I have this perfect relationship with, and I don’t really feel like I need to meet them or get to know them or write with them because of it, you know?

COMINGORE: You don’t want to burst the bubble.

NAGANO: Yeah. I feel like there are a lot of artists that you could put together that you love, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make amazing music. Giving an artist a great theme to write about doesn’t mean the song’s going to be good.

COMINGORE: What makes a good collaboration?

NAGANO: I think it’s really, truly a vibe thing. The people who are most excited about collaborations are people in the business, people who are thinking, “This is going to be great press,” or, “This is going to expose you to all these people you haven’t reached before.” I prefer not to think like that. I’m more, if you meet the person, you like the person, you’ve talked to them, you feel connected, you feel like there’s a creative exchange, then it kind of happens by itself. I’m open to it, but it has to feel right. If it feels forced, then I’m fearful of doing it.

COMINGORE: What drew you to [Nabuma Rubberband collaborator and De La Soul member] David Jude Jolicouer?

NAGANO: It was just after the Gorillaz tour. We became buddies with De La Soul and just sort of stayed in contact with them. I’ve always listened to their music and really respected them as a band that stayed together for so many years. They’re classic. They may not be the hippest hip-hop act at the moment, but they make good music and they’ve sustained as a band, and it’s pretty amazing to be able to do that, especially in hip-hop. With David it was just kind of a natural thing. He was an easy person to ask because he’s our friend and he’s a fan as well, so he was super excited to hear the songs and tell us what he thought.

COMINGORE: Has that idea of longevity weighed into a lot of band decisions?

NAGANO: Yeah, for sure. But simultaneously, there were choices that we’ve made that we had to make at the time because we needed the money. I think everything has its context. It is way easier to say no to things now then it was five years ago, for sure. [laughs] Back then we were grabbing at every opportunity we could just to sustain a name and let people know, “Hello, hello! We’re here! Look at us!” It’s really sort of taken its time and grown, and it’s been a very step-by-step process. But there are definitely things that we have done that we wouldn’t do now, and situations that we’ve learned to avoid.

COMINGORE: As far as image?

NAGANO: Yeah. It can be tricky with branding these days, because everything is kind of branded. I think we’re a little bit protective in that way. You’re always trying to balance between what’s spreading the word about the band and what’s good money and what’s a shitty look. Is this good for the longevity of the band? Do people even care these days? We care, but do we care more about the money? [laughs] We’ve had a lot of discussions about things. It gets us into a lot of fights, but it also makes you question your own morals in a really good way.

COMINGORE: Do you feel like you take on an image when you’re performing?

NAGANO: I’ve never felt that, actually, but I definitely feel like it brings out another side of me. I think most people are many-sided; you have your evil side, your happy side, your spaced-out side. You try to stay on the positive side more—I mean, I try to— but I think we all have those different faces of ourselves. On stage, that for me is a space I really love to be in. It’s a time to really get drawn into the music and the moment with my friends. It’s the best reminder of the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing.

COMINGORE: Have you given any thought to what you want people to take away from Nabuma Rubberband?

NAGANO: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s a moody record. There’s a bunch of different feelings in it. There are slower songs, but also a few powerful, up-tempo tracks. I feel like maybe certain songs you can listen to once and get one vibe, and listen to it a second time and maybe you’ll notice something else, and maybe the third time you’ll start thinking about the lyrics and that gives the song a new perspective. I think most people get hit by the music first and you can be singing along and realize a song has this melancholy feel. As Swedes, I think we see a beauty in melancholy. You’re heartbroken, you’re looking out the window and you feel really at ease in the pain. I have so many memories as a teenager with music, sad music, but I was just so into it. It’s a kind of escapism, and I think this record has elements of that. Hopefully people can give meaning to the lyrics and get swept away with the sounds.

LITTLE DRAGON’S NABUMA RUBBERBAND IS OUT NOW ON LOMA VISTA RECORDINGS. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.