It’s 10pm on a Thursday night in Camden Town. Inside the iconic Jazz Café, a palpably excited crowd is hushed, waiting in anticipation for tonight’s headline act, Little Dragon. As the band emerges on stage, with vocalist Yukimi Nagano clad in an arresting blood-red veil, it becomes immediately apparent why this band instills such profound awe from everything they have created thus far.
Not only are their soundscapes constantly transforming from album to album, but there’s a visible chemistry between the four band members which translates into a genuine connection with their audience. Yukimi throws herself around the stage, using her limbs and her irresistible voice to whip the crowd into a frenzy. The atmosphere is one of euphoria mixed with moments of brief sadness; these shifting moods are reflected by the music, which alternates between shimmering, synth-driven crescendos and quiet, restrained moments that allow Yukimi’s occasionally bruised vocals to take centre stage. Fans faithfully mirror the band’s energy, switching between sweaty, high-octane dance moves and calmer moments of self-reflection. The overall experience is nothing short of cathartic.
I describe this experience to the impressively fresh-faced band when we meet the next day in Central London. Yukimi arrives first; she’s just left an early morning photoshoot, yet she’s warm, engaging and so laid-back that it’s impossible not to relax in her presence. The rest of the band – drummer Erik Bodin, bassist Fredrik Källgren and keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand – arrive soon after, and they start conversation straight away. The mood is relaxed, the band are chatty, hilarious and unexpectedly honest; together, they unwind and discuss a variety of topics with the kind of candor that can be hard to come by in the music industry.
We chat about the previous night; the varied setlist, the fan response, the difficulties of choosing a combination of singles and fan favorites from their extensive back catalogue. “Oh, you felt like it was euphoric?” asks Yukimi, when I describe the experience from the perspective of a fan in the crowd. “That’s a nice vibe, I’m glad you felt that way. That’s definitely something to aim for, but I don’t think it was conscious.” “I think we probably try to aim for euphoric all the time,” adds Erik. “Maybe euphoric in that sense that it’s a concentrated feeling?” suggests Fredrik. “It could be euphoria, but it could also be melancholia.”
Lyrically, this balance is one which recurs throughout their latest album, Season High. “Sweet” in particular is an example of clever wordplay, linking love with addiction through the language of sugar; this interplay between bitter and sweet results in a conventional topic – love – being twisted, skewed into something interesting and original. “Sometimes I guess I am conventional,” admits Yukimi, “But I like the idea of not trying to repeat myself. Even if it is a love song, you can do it from another perspective and, obviously, as you go through life you gain new perspectives on the same subjects.”
The band talk about music in a way which is extremely technical yet also endearing; it is clear that it is an enduring passion for them all as opposed to a mere career choice. Hakån even creates his own instruments, although he is modest when it comes to claiming credit. “I guess I do a little… I’m interested in that DIY world,” he smiles. This same attitude bleeds into their recording process, which happens largely in a studio built inside a dilapidated house in Gothenburg, Sweden. “That’s been a really cost-effective way of doing things,” explains Hakån. “We always have our own equipment, so it’s just the rent for the space which is shared between us. It’s not so much, actually.”
Small details like these illustrate the fact that Little Dragon occupy a unique position in the music industry. Their success is sustainable in the sense that they mastermind their own music, record in their own studio at their own pace and rely on a stable core fanbase which, contextually, sold out tickets for last night’s show in just a few hours. There have been moments throughout their career which stand out; the chart success of their third album Ritual Union is one, numerous collaborations with Gorillaz is another. But their most industry-approved accomplishment came in the form of a Grammy nomination for their fourth release, Nabuma Rubberband.
“Tell me if I’m wrong, you guys, but there’s so much talk about the Grammy nomination,” says Yukimi. “I don’t want to sound like I don’t care, but I don’t know… It just doesn’t really mean anything to me. It would mean something to actually win the Grammy, and the nomination is definitely cool – I’m not going to say that I didn’t feel happy when I found out, because I did. But that feeling that you get when you make a song, or you have a great show… that, to me, is a bigger high than a Grammy nomination.”
Fredrik agrees, although he does point out that the nomination opened doors for the group. Erik furthers the conversation by highlighting that the Grammy Awards are emblematic of a wider conversation in the music industry: “It just sums it all up, because all we are doing is making music, but then it turns into this big competition. We sometimes notice that, even with journalists, so many times they have to write for themselves, to climb in some way – and that’s understandable, completely understandable. I sometimes wish there was a forum, though, where you could just poetically describe what you’re hearing. That’s the most interesting thing.”
Naturally, there’s a disconnect between creating music for pleasure and packaging that music as a product to be sold. The band laugh when recalling one of the biggest lessons they have learned, which is that they almost have to market their own music to their marketing team. “When people who are not musicians talk about music, the way they do so is weird in comparison to the way we do it,” explains Erik. “It feels like, in a way, if you present your music with enough confidence, then they believe it. ‘Oh yes, it’s magical! It’s done.’ The thing is that music is never stagnant; it can always evolve into anything. Labels, they care about a finished product – is it done yet? When we say, ‘Yes it’s done’, it feels a little bit like we’re learning how to fool them.”
The other members agree, explaining that artists are often apologetic about their music because, in their own head, it’s never quite finished. This is part and parcel of the music industry, but they refuse to compromise or dilute their vision to score a higher chart position. “It sounds terrible, but you’re going to die someday,” says Yukimi. “You’ve got to embrace that ethos – if you’re going to go through your whole career being scared of losing that career, how can you even enjoy all of the cool stuff that you get to do? You think that if you make a certain record or do things a certain way then you might get some new opportunity, but success is, for me, about having a good show, still being together as a band and being happy. Who wants to be rich and miserable?”
This mentality also explains the risks they’ve taken with their brilliantly off-kilter new visuals, which reside somewhere between pop video and performance art piece. These visuals come courtesy of director Ossian Melin: “We were really happy to find him,” exclaims Fredrik. “He has done three videos, and it’s mostly his interpretation of the songs and the music together with us.” Erik praises his left-field vision, describing the trust they all have in his creative vision. “He’s definitely on the verge of making something that is almost ugly,” says Yukimi, “Somehow it’s interesting, and people either like it or they don’t. We have made videos that look super nice, but they don’t make you feel anything. I would rather have someone think the video is really weird and be unsure whether or not they like it than have them think it’s just another nice-looking visual.”
This willingness to experiment is exactly what makes Season High such an impressive album. It masters the tricky art of being sonically diverse yet cohesive, a lot of which stems from the band’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of music and their ability to add layers of electronic texture to their own distinctive blueprint. Their musical tastes are varied; collectively, they listen to everything from Big Sean and Swedish folk music to techno and old-school soul and disco. Yukimi has recently been listening to rap music in particular, and describes the experience of forcing herself to analyze the lyrics: “You’ve go to tune your brain in to take everything in when it’s said so fast, you know? It’s often very clever. I think what I like about Big Sean is that he is really clever – there’s double meaning everywhere.”
Despite touring and conducting the prerequisite promotional interviews, the band seems to move at its own pace – which is refreshing in the context of the music industry, which can seem to favor quantity over quality. Interviews often try to frame their work in a wider context, meaning that they, like most other musicians, can’t escape the usual questions about feminism, politics or ‘Scandi-pop’. Put simply, these conversations seem irrelevant – Little Dragon is a band which creates exceptional music driven by passion. There are no transparent attempts to be political for no real reason, nor are there messages worked into the songs for the sake of a press release. They are unwaveringly true to themselves, and it’s a formula that works.
“I always think it’s hard when people ask about your concept,” says Yukimi of other interviews. “If you say, ‘Not really’, you feel so boring, shallow almost. Really, when you’re making the music, you get so deep into it and the feelings are so strong. You don’t put that into words. Then, all of a sudden, you’re expected to talk about it and you can feel a little taken off-guard because, sometimes, you’re so into the song that you’re not used to describing it. We don’t say, ‘Let’s make a song which is a splash of pop and a hint of that.’ The genre can be whatever, you know?”
Ironically this pure, spontaneous approach to making music rooted in beautiful sounds and clever wordplay is precisely what sets them apart from their contemporaries. They don’t follow trends, nor do they succumb to pressure to create grandiose political statements which, paradoxically, say nothing at all. For Little Dragon, recording is emotional release – at the end of the interview, Yukimi admits that she’s itching to write again, and the other members seem to murmur in agreement. Their gig in Camden proved that their passion is infectious; whether or not they realized or intended to do so, they created an atmosphere of pure joy and escapism for the people in that room.
At its best, music does what few other mediums can – it creates a temporary high which lifts you away from life for just a second. It seems unlikely that the band will stop – after all, they have a studio, a fanbase and equipment, meaning that they could always continue to create magic independent of a record label. In an increasingly cutthroat industry, Little Dragon have achieved the seemingly impossible; they have nailed the kind of truly sustainable career that most artists dream of.
For more of our interview features, check out our chat with Beats 1’s Zane Lowe on the two year anniversary of his show right here.