Not many bands can boast twenty years of friendship, but Little Dragon seem to have found the secret to making it work, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it.
“It gets stranger and stranger to work together and it gets creepy sometimes,” says frontwoman Yukimi Nagano. “Somehow, we’ve managed to stay together and change, all in different ways, and still like each other.”
Over the years, the Gothenburg four-piece have made a name for themselves as musicians’ musicians, collaborating with everyone from Gorillaz to Big Boi and featuring on tracks from SBTRKT, DJ Shadow and Kaytranada. It really feels like Little Dragon have done it all.
Coming off the back of their Grammy-nominated fourth album Nabuma Rubberband, however, the band were keen to take things back to basics for their next project and not let all the success go to their heads. “We’re trying to go back even more to the time when we didn’t have a record deal and we were just making songs for the fun of it,” says drummer Erik Bodin. “We’ve gone through phases and all of them have been equally important and part of our journey but right now, we’re not trying to fit in as much,” agrees Nagano.
Earlier this year, the band teased us with the first single from their new album Season High with the seductive, 90s R’n’B-influenced slow jam High, appropriately released on Valentine’s Day. But just when it looked like the band might be taking things in a softer, more mellow direction, they followed it up with the club-ready, electro-pop banger Sweet, just to keep us on our toes. “We always like to mix flavours,” says Bodin.
The band worked with surrealist filmmaker and frequent Yung Lean collaborator Ossian Melin on the videos for both singles and, despite admitting to not being particularly aware of his previous work, they appear to have formed a strong bond with him, almost like kindred spirits. “He’s a character and a real sort of tortured creative soul that we totally connected with,” says Nagano. “He has a strong artistic personality and his expression is very inspiring so we’re very happy we found out that he existed on the planet,” adds Bodin.
For the first time in the band’s history, they chose to work with outside producers on Season High, accepting a helping hand from Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford and revered pop producer Patrik Berger (Robyn / Charlie XCX / Santigold / Icona Pop / Lana Del Rey). Despite the calibre of those producers though, the band say they are always nervous allowing others into their close-knit circle to work with them on their music. “With our own music, we feel a bit protective because we really feel like it is already a big collaboration between the four of us,” says Bodin. “It’s a big process working with four strong-willed people, trying to get to a conclusion and we’re still working on that,” adds Nagano.
Once they’ve reached that conclusion, however, they don’t seem to feel that natural sense of relief most people would when completing something. “It’s always a bit frustrating to finish an album,” says Bodin. “You want to leave it sort of fresh and have a feeling that it’s a bit unfinished almost so it’s still open for taking it to the live shows and you can keep on developing it.”
The band’s process now sounds just like what it was when they first got together, one big old jamming session. So much so that one of their biggest struggles, they say, is trying to rein themselves in. “There are quite a few songs on the album that are over four minutes and there’s one even going on eight minutes, but it’s just showing our classic ability of not knowing when to end a song,” says Nagano. “An average song at three and a half minutes always feels too short to us… I think it’s like a little beautiful accident constantly.”
Just like all their albums previously, Season High was made in the band’s home studio in Gothenburg, which they built themselves and have continued to develop over the years. “There’s a personal touch to it and I think everyone feels at home,” says Nagano. “I think that kind of security is important when you want to somehow express yourself and not feel any walls or restraints, especially when you’re trying to find something new and dig within yourself.”
Having that studio space has also allowed the band to encounter fellow like-minded Gothenburg musicians, such as their studio neighbour sir Was, who features on the album playing clarinet on the track Butterflies. “He’s a bit of a Swedish Woody Allen, a beautiful neurotic person whom we love very much, so it was fun to have him on the album,” says Nagano. But the family affair doesn’t stop there, a childhood friend of the band, Agge, also features on the album. “Some of our first shows we actually did were with him, just at the local shitty jazz club or whatever. He’s someone who everyone in the band loves so for him to be on the album feels like the most natural thing ever,” adds Nagano.
It seems routine for the band to take a two- or three-year gap between each album, something they believe allows them the ability to maintain a fresh creative outlook and a healthy balance of work and personal life. “We really make music out of passion in our hearts, not to please anybody’s demand so I think creatively it’s better when you have time and that freedom, but we also prioritise life,” says Nagano. “It’s nice to step out and take a break from it because then you keep your ears and your mind fresh for when you come back and work with the music.”
For Little Dragon, the secret to being able to stay together for so long seems to be keeping things simple. By working in their own studio space and rarely collaborating with anyone outwith their tight-knit unit on their own music, they manage to avoid a lot of the pressures that may come with being a globally successful band and instead, focus on doing things their way, on their own terms.
Little Dragon’s Top Collaborations
SBTRKT – Wildfire
Much of Little Dragon’s mainstream success can be put down to their feature on this 2011 dubstep smash from the mask-wearing British producer SBTRKT. The track was such a hit that it even spawned a hip-hop remix from Drake, taking it to even bigger, but not necessarily greater, heights.
Big Boi – Higher Res
The band featured on three tracks on ex-OutKast member Big Boi’s 2012 album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours but this track, also featuring the ever-elusive Jai Paul, is certainly the best of the bunch. Nagano described working with Big Boi as “the most exciting collaboration we’ve done so far.”
Gorillaz – Empire Antz
Damon Albarn selected Little Dragon as his ‘star of the future’ for Dazed & Confused’s 20th Anniversary issue in 2011 after working with them on two tracks for Gorillaz’ 2010 album Plastic Beach. The subtlety in the production of this track brings Nagano’s vocals to an almost otherworldly dimension.
De La Soul – Drawn
One of the band’s heroes, De La Soul got them on board for a track on their 2016 Kickstarter-funded album …And the Anonymous Nobody. Kelvin ‘Posdnuos’ Mercer cited the track as one of the reasons DLS decided to crowd-fund the album, due to its experimental nature.