LITTLE DRAGON IN LOS ANGELES, APRIL 2017. PHOTOS: WILLIAMS & HIRAKAWA/ART DEPARTMENT. STYLING: ANNINA MISLIN/WALTER SCHUPFTER MANAGMENT. HAIR: AMBER DUARTE AT WALTER SCHUPFER MANAGEMENT USING AMIKA. MAKEUP: HOMA SAFAR AT 3PLUS MANAGEMENT USING LAURA MERCIER AND MAC COSMETICS.
In April, Swedish four-piece Little Dragon released their fifth album, Season High (Because Music), a collection of tracks that once again proves the synth-heavy pop band is capable of both triumphant, upbeat numbers (“Celebrate (feat. Agge)”) and intimate, yet sweeping songs (“Gravity”). While much has stayed constant for the band since their 2007 eponymous debut LP—they still record in the same Gothenburg studio and collaborate with Swedish artists on their show costumes and videos—Season High was a more open process, with the band using outside producers (James Ford and Patrik Berger) for the first time. For Yukimi Nagano, Erik Bodin, Fredrik Wallin, and Håkan Wirenstrand, it was a learning experience.
“To be honest, I think if [Ford] hadn’t come in, we would have probably finished it, but it would have taken another two years. We’re always trying to be fair and always trying to discuss things,” explains Nagano. “He came in at a moment when the songs were there, all the sounds were there. It’s like you have this cake and you don’t know where to put all the toppings.”
Not long after the album’s release, Interview caught up with Nagano by phone. This weekend, the band performs at FYF Fest in Los Angeles, with U.S. shows to follow through the end of August.
HALEY WEISS: I read that you’re interested in both listening to and making music that’s somewhat escapist, that you get a high from that, and that’s where the album title came from. Can you tell me a little bit about your interest in transportative music?
YUKIMI NAGANO: I think it’s just the power of music, really; it could be any type of music. When it really affects you, it gives you that feeling, whether it’s a dancy club music or more specifically music that makes your fantasy go somewhere, even if it’s your favorite song and it’s Euro-disco or whatever, it makes you feel really happy and elevated. It’s the power of any type of music, that’s why it’s so addictive for people.
WEISS: What’s something you’ve listened to recently that has that quality for you?
NAGANO: I love Talking Heads and Arthur Russell as well. He definitely feels like something I listened to at a certain chapter in my life, and it always makes me think a certain way, it always make me kind of dreamy in that way that I was when I discovered the music. I really like a few tracks on Rihanna’s Anti album; I thought that was a really good album.
WEISS: Is there anything that working with producer James Ford taught you about your dynamic as a band, maybe what does and doesn’t work for you all?
NAGANO: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it was, but it did feel like we evolved from that experience of working with him. Somehow I think we also [learned from] being open to having someone come to our space, our studio, and feeling comfortable with that, not like they’re stepping on our toes. Obviously there are a few tricks that you can learn too, but somehow he worked very similarly to us. The biggest thing that he brought was that he was an outsider. Because everyone produces; we’ve always had a real pride in doing that and it worked for us. Why should we have a producer? We’re not that kind of pop music where we want to have ten different people work on one song. But for the band dynamic it was really cool to bring him in, and he’s super chill and a super nice guy. That made it really fun and easy as well.
WEISS: You mentioned your studio space. Is that space really important to all of you? That you have somewhere specific where you all go and spend a dedicated amount of time together just working?
NAGANO: Yes, it’s extremely important. We’ve written all our albums there. It’s our definition of our comfort zone, I guess, because over the years we’ve all lived there, so it has accumulated. It’s part storage: there’s one corner with all my hats and all my stuff, and there’s another corner with some boxes. Maybe you’ll find some photos from 2005 or whatever, and there are so many instruments that we’ve accumulated touring, the gear starts stacking up for sure. It’s this little place where we feel like we have everything and it’s homemade and self-built. It’s not like a studio. The negative is that it’s not perfectly soundproof, but we tried to make it as soundproof as we could. When we lived on the bottom floor, for the first album, if you listened to the separate tracks you could hear some trams going by in the background, so it’s very homemade. It’s been on the radar that that building might be torn down, but it still hasn’t been. I think we’re going to be really sad when that happens because we’ve made all our albums here. It’s a symbolic place for us.
WEISS: It’s nice that you have that texture, too, being able to hear the train. That homemade factor is an intimate touch.
NAGANO: Yeah. It’s something that you’re annoyed at in the moment, but afterwards you realize that it’s part of the story and character of the music.
WEISS: How long were you in the studio working on this album?
NAGANO: I probably have the worst memory in the world, but it feels like we were actively writing for a year or so. We were just writing, writing, writing—songs and different sketches—making a big pool of stuff that we could go through and then pick out what songs we wanted to have in this album. Then it was refining those tracks and finishing them off.
After touring, your head is so in that zone, and you define yourself as this songwriter, and then you’re like, “Oh shit, I’ve been on the road for two years.” Imagine you’re a journalist and you don’t write for two years, and then suddenly you’re supposed to write and you’re awful, you’re suck. It takes a few months where you have to do a bunch of crappy songs just to get warm and remember what you’re doing, and be okay with sucking. You sort of define yourself with the songs you’ve made, but those songs have taken time as well, so being okay with that process—remembering that to evolve, I have to be okay with making songs that aren’t [good,] having fun and not being in that headspace of, “Is this good? Is this bad?”
WEISS: Part of what you wanted to do with this album was to recover that playful approach you had to music when you all started out, right?
NAGANO: Yes, absolutely.
WEISS: Do you think you succeeded in getting back to that mindset?
NAGANO: I think we did, yes. It’s like you have this little doubt in your head—that’s part of why it becomes harder to write with time—you have this little voice in your head [saying], “Shut the fuck up,” because you’ll be like, “I don’t know, maybe this isn’t that good.” If you listen too much to those doubts you’re totally lost. You have to be like, “Who cares? Let’s just be stupid and experiment and try a bunch of stuff and really be on the edge.” If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, do the next thing. Enjoy the process. When we first wrote it was without any pressures; you didn’t have a label or a manager or anything, you were solely writing to try to find things and explore stuff and have fun with it. Of course, you had your doubts about sometimes not feeling like you were good, but everything felt more simple. Now, you have fans and you know that you’re going to release an album, and all that stuff can mess with your mind somehow, put pressure on the creativity. You have to turn all that off and be silly and have as much fun as possible in the studio, actively trying to forget all that as much as possible, so you’re not like, “If you have that one song your life is going to change.” People in the business are going to say that to you and it can definitely affect the music in a negative way, unless you’re there with five-star producers and you’re really trying to make that song that every radio is going to play and be the smash. But that is not the kind of band we are.
WEISS: In terms of being open, experimenting, and doing what felt right or interesting to you, was there a particular process you did this time around or an instrument that you found really new and exciting?
NAGANO: We’re definitely in love with the synth, because the synth is so broad; it’s endless, like a black hole—you can endlessly find sounds. It’s so overwhelming that you have to make a choice sometimes and go with it. I think that’s why we love the synth, because it’s so versatile, it can be everything. That’s something that we all have in common—everyone in the band. But of course, in every song that we’ve ever made there’s always a human touch to it; we always put something that’s played by the hand. For this album we did try different things. We definitely tried to put ourselves in awkward situations. Usually a song starts with a beat and a chord that someone’s been sitting by the computer and making, and this time we tried me and Håkan sitting by the piano together writing and pretending like he was John Lennon and I was, I don’t know, Steve Nicks or something. It didn’t really work out exactly, but it was fun. We tried to rehearse little sketches; we would take some sketches that were really early and play them and see if we could evolve them that way. We definitely tried different processes and experimented with doing things backwards.
WEISS: Have you listened back to your past albums recently?
NAGANO: No, I never listen to any of my music after it comes out, unless I hear it in a cafe or whatever. I’ll think, “I forgot how it was so slow or how minimal it felt compared to how it’s become live,” because you start having a relationship to the songs live. After an album is finished, I really let go. You listen to it so much while you’re mixing it, you start dreaming your songs, literally talking your songs, and then you start getting sick of them. Then I’m like, “Bye-bye, never see you again. Off my computer, off everything.” If I hear it somewhere that’s great, but by then the relationship is with the live [version] and the next album for me.
WEISS: I’m curious about something you mentioned in the past, which is about Swedes being able to see the beauty in melancholy. Why do you think that is?
NAGANO: I’m not sure exactly why. It has to do with the culture. In movies and music you have a kind of romanticizing of melancholy. It could also have to do [with the fact that] we have pretty gloomy weather; that’s a boring explanation but it’s inevitable that it affects you. When you’re in constant sunny weather that affects the music and everything else as well. That kind of grayness gets you thinking. It’s not that instant, it has to come from the inside almost, like, “Hmm, it is actually beautiful when it rains.” [laughs] Maybe that’s a simplistic explanation, but for some reason there seems to be a lot of art from Sweden that has a connection, even if it’s dance music, you can tell that there is somehow an element of that.
WEISS: What do you think is to be gained for the listener by sitting in that melancholic space, investigating and trying to find the beauty in it?
NAGANO: I think it is really helpful to see the beauty in every situation. I guess it’s being able to see it in unexpected places. If you’re fed too much of an image of what beauty is then you might define it as a certain specific thing, but when you have your own idea of what it is, or your own feelings of what beauty is, then it becomes so wide and so indefinable.
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