A View From The Outsiders: Little Dragon

In conversation with Yukimi Nagano…

Ahead of their headline set on Clash’s stage at this year’s The Great Escape festival in Brighton – happening May 8th, details here – we sit down with Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano to discuss the band’s new LP ‘Nabuma Rubberband’, and the history of this Swedish success story…

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Little Dragon, ‘Constant Surprises’, from ‘Nabuma Rubberband’

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It’s been more of a marathon than a sprint for Little Dragon. The band formed in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1996, but didn’t issue so much as a single until 2006, with an eponymous debut album following the next year.

Since the release of 2011’s ‘Ritual Union’ LP, though, things have ramped up for the Swedes, fronted by the inimitable tones of Yukimi Nagano. ‘Ritual Union’ charted at 22 in the UK and broke into the stateside Billboard top 100. But rather than follow this success with a mainstream-embracing follow-up, this year’s ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ (review) finds Little Dragon more withdrawn than might be anticipated.

Darker, and a great deal more personal than what preceded it, ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ is an emotionally charged collection, replete with a clutch of samples and eerie atmospherics. “We always like something that gives it a twist, not too many clichés,” says Yukimi of the record, which was approached with, the singer confirms, “no real plans”. The result is a pleasingly organic experience. “With a lot electronic music, artists are just putting on a laptop and not taking risks with it,” says the singer, “but we’re not afraid to make mistakes.”

The ‘Nabuma’ of the album title is the name of a girl the guys in the band met in Uganda, while playing as a reggae group. It’s also a river in the Congo. As for the record’s content, the title track is feverishly beautiful, the best display of the achingly soulful bursts that appear throughout. Tracks ‘Klapp Klapp’ and ‘Paris’ also stand out, seamlessly meshing ’80s synth-pop and Little Dragon’s distinct brand of R&B.

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Little Dragon, ‘Klapp Klapp’, from ‘Nabuma Rubberband’

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But it’s Yukumi’s voice that lends the record its truly singular characteristic. There’s nobody else who sounds like this. She says she had voice training at school, but skipped classes and disliked her teacher.

“Vocals are too weird and fragile a thing to teach,” she says. “I didn’t really like to be told what to do vocally.” And as we talk, Clash gets the feeling Yukimi doesn’t like to be told to do anything. The band apparently took their name from her notorious tantrums in the studio.

Although she thinks this story has become “mythologised somewhat”, she admits: “We’ve definitely had our quarrels in the band – there’s been a lot of door slamming and fist fights. We still do, they’re just a little more civilised.” Everyone has their sides, she says, some of them less pretty.

Born to a Swedish-American mother and Japanese father, Yukimi is reserved and polite when we meet her. Indeed, she’s actually somewhat distant. Perhaps we’ve caught her off-form – and if so, we wouldn’t be the first. There’s a video online where she’s sat beside Damon Albarn, who is generously praising her band. But Yukimi just looks bored.

Then again, given the nature of Little Dragon’s new collection, which strays from the more upbeat motifs of past work, perhaps there’s a reasonable explanation for Yukimi’s occasional avoidance of our questions. Some of them she bats away with a curt “I don’t know,” and at other times she offers only a disinterested half-answer.

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We want to be inspired. We don’t want to make money out of making music

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But ask her about how the band has evolved to this point and she brightens up. She talks about the formative moments of Little Dragon, and what’s come since, like she’s charting a teen romance that blossomed into a lifelong love affair. She first met Erik Bodin (drums), Fredrik Wallin (bass) and Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards) at live music high school back in Sweden.

“One day they asked me if I wanted to play with them and I was over the moon - they were these cool older guys, in their last year when I was in my first year. After that we just hung out and everyone was really focused on trying to get as many gigs as possible. We ended up living together in this collective vibe, writing together and recording. We weren’t really thinking about releasing an album or anything like that, we didn’t have the courage. We just did what we loved every day and wrote songs.”

As we speak, the band is preparing to head to Coachella to play the US festival for the second time. The summer promises UK dates at Secret Garden Party, Glastonbury and Somerset House. For all the overseas acclaim, though, Little Dragon don’t have much of an audience back home.

“Definitely not,” says Yukimi. “Our biggest market is probably the US, then the UK. We’ve had a lot of support in the US, especially in the major cities.” There is something distinctly Swedish about Little Dragon though, and we’re not just talking about the Scandinavian inflections on Yukimi’s vocals. Like fellow Gothenburg artist Jóse González and Stockholm-formed duo The Knife, they are ambient while playful and experimental. Occupying a strange place between electronic music, R&B and indie-pop, there is no putting Little Dragon in a box.

But what is it about Sweden that makes for this organically eccentric pop? “Maybe that people have the time to create,” Yukumi suggests. “It’s easier to survive for artists just starting out. It’s cheap in Gothenburg. You can quit a side job; you can live minimally and focus on one thing. It’s different to living in London or New York. They are expensive. You have to work a lot to pay your rent. It’s easier to find time here to focus on your work.”

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Little Dragon, ‘Paris’, from ‘Nabuma Rubberband’

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As for other Swedish music, Yukimi recommends indie singer-songwriter El Perro Del Mar – “she writes good pop songs” – and Lukas Nystrand von Unge, who she describes as “a new electronic artist who is pretty awesome”.

When asked with whom she’d like Little Dragon to collaborate next, Yukimi is vague, claiming that the band have so much to explore with each other that they’re not eager to work with anyone else. But she can afford to be relaxed, given that she has some pretty impressive associations under her belt already.

In 2010 she teamed up with Albarn’s Gorillaz, singing on two songs on their ‘Plastic Beach’ album. A year later, her vocals featured on SBTRKT’s ‘Wildfire’. She also recorded with OutKast’s Big Boi, travelling to his studio – the infamous Stankonia – in Atlanta, Georgia, where they’d “work all night and sleep all day”.

More recently, Dave from De La Soul has co-written ‘Mirror’, the slow-build opener on ‘Nabuma Rubberband’, and the band has worked with world-famous director Nabil, who’s made videos for Kanye West and James Blake – he directed a double video for the songs ‘Klapp Klapp’ and ‘Pretty Girls’.

Having worked with the best, and broken into the hearts of a sizeable audience with ‘Ritual Union’, you might think that securing airplay for ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ was at the forefront of its makers’ minds. But, no – that’s something Yukimi isn’t concerned about.

“When you’re writing, you don’t think about making it big. I think it would be very weird to write a song thinking, ‘Let’s get this to radio’. People do write like that, in a structured, formulated way, where you have every ingredient that you need. But we want to be inspired. We don’t want to make money out of making music. We see ourselves as people who want do this for the rest of our lives, and whether or not we have a manager and a record we’d still be working side jobs and writing songs.”

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Words: Amelia Abraham
Photography: Mark Peckmezian
Fashion: Lola Chatterton

‘Nabuma Rubberband’ is released on May 12th through Seven Four Entertainment / Republic Records. Read Clash’s review of the album here, and find the band online here

Little Dragon headline the Clash stage at this year’s The Great Escape festival in Brighton – more details

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