Raw Power, Raw Emotion, More Experienced—The Evolution Of Little Dragon

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For some, Gothenburg Sweden can be an isolating place. Apart from a mild summer, it’s humid, gray and cold much of the year, a bit of daylight shines through from time to time during the midday hours. In the center of the city lies a 100 year old house, trapped between the city's busy tram lines. Because of this the city cannot tear it down. This is where Swedish electronic pop band Little Dragon has their studio and where their creativity unfolds. “As soon as we’re home we get stuck in there,” says Little Dragon drummer Erik Bodin. “We all used to live there and then it became very much a bubble, some of us didn’t go out for weeks. That kind of behavior or culture, it’s in the building and as soon as we open the door we’re trapped.”

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The new confidence we have right now is to not over polish things like we’ve been doing in the past. It takes courage to tell yourself that it’s ok the way it is.

Little Dragon, who just released their third album Ritual Union, works here for weeks at a time, a collaborative effort between Swedish-Japanese vocalist Yukimi Nagano, and her high school friends and bandmates drummer Erik Bodin, bassist Fredrik Källgren Wallin and keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand.

“I must say it’s kind of harder to get into the bubble than to get out of the bubble,” says Bodin via skype, from his home in Gothenburg where he lives with his wife and two children. “That bubble is not always the healthiest of bubbles. It’s always good to get some fresh air and get some response from people.”

In 2006 Little Dragon's first single was released on the label Off the Wall. In 2007 the band released their self-titled debut album Little Dragon on British indie label Peacefrog Records. An R&B, synth and jazz-hued downtempo soundtrack, the album instantly gained them a cult following. Yukimi’s soulful, emotive vocals would later lead to collaborations with TV on the Radio and Raphael Saadiq for the song “Good Man.” The band also contributed on the Gorillaz's album Plastic Beach and opened for them last year on the “Escape to Plastic Beach” World Tour.

In 2009, Little Dragon released their follow up LP Machine Dreams. Equally as beautiful and soulful as their debut effort, it took their sound in a more refined direction.

“We got a deal with a record label and we emphasized so much on making everything right, that in our perspective it made it more polished,” says Rodin. “In a way it took away some of the personality. It’s very interesting to try to get the best of both, that’s what we’re aiming for. We want to make music that feels personal and feels homemade—it’s made by these other guys in their little bubble in Goehternburg, rather than bringing in the super duper producers.”

The band’s latest album Ritual Union has done just that. Yukimi’s lovesick vocals are more assertive and loud, riding a stripped-down, dancefloor ready sound that echoes back to the bands experimental roots. “We feel like it’s ok to leave it a little bit rawer,” Rodin explains. “I think it has to do with us developing over time. The new confidence we have right now is to not over polish things like we’ve been doing in the past. It takes courage to tell yourself that it’s ok the way it is. When you’re working in your own home studio it’s not easy to look objectively what you’re doing. If you have confidence you can feel like ‘this is prefect let’s leave it the way it is.’ That’s the feeling that we all have on this album.”

We have our fans that we earned ourselves. It wasn’t a hype machine that got us here.

The album’s title track is clearly the breakout hit. Yukimi’s melodic croons, “Love’s sinking in the sand, Petals falling on demand, My feet are running like the wind,” are a universal backdrop for anyone who has questioned love and commitment. A life changing revelation—no, but Ritual Union achieves what it sets out to, tugs at your hear a little bit and makes you want to dance (the Tensnake remix offers a sex-dripped, bedroom-ready version of the tune.) The track “Brush the Heat” rivals many underground dance music offerings. Fiery bass and synth-heavy popscapes create an overall fun listening party and even better live show. It takes you on a journey more than to a designated stop. That’s what music is supposed to do.

We want to make music that feels personal and feels homemade—it’s made by these other guys in their little bubble in Goehternburg.

Magnetic: How do you know when it’s finished?
Erik Bodin: When you’re feeling like the song is there, the voice is there, you turn down the lights, you crank the volume and you dance alone, that’s ok. That’s when you realize that it’s done—when you’re having a party to your own music.

The real test is taking the act on the road—Little Dragon is definitely meant to be heard live. This fall they kick off tours in Europe and the US, already selling out LA and NYC shows. “We’re meant more as live musicians, that’s what we were at the very beginning. Then we became these little studio creatures later on. It is definitely two worlds. I think playing live is where we get most of our energy—to see the music bounce back to us from a crowd.”

What music do you listen to for inspiration?
A lot of house music. I never really understood the power of house music and techno until two years. My whole life I’ve been looking at other directions, so right now I’m just going on the Internet, starting with something I know in YouTube. We were on tour with De La Soul (on tour with the Gorillaz) and they showed us a lot of good Eighties R&B. That was a dream for us because we’ve always been huge fans of them. They were huge here. Now to actually spend time with them like we did on tour and listening to what they have on their iPods, it was amazing.”

Little Dragon is a product of the social media generation of band making. Gaining popularity and expanding their fan base, first with MySpace, later with Facebook and Twitter, the group’s organic growth is a testament to DIY manpower. “I think the Internet and all the mediums are very important. That’s the time we’re living in. The record industry isn’t alive anymore the way it used to be and people can choose what they want to hear. We have our fans that we earned ourselves. It wasn’t a hype machine that got us here.”

So what’s your definition of making it?
“It's weird because in a way we kind of felt that we made it when we got 2 songs released on a 7-inch. That was the big milestone in our lives, when someone wanted to release something that we wanted to do. And it was just 300 copies. We got high expectations when a little bigger of a record label approached us. We had a good manager who pushed us out there and we drove around all of Europe, all of America, a bunch of towns, in a van just using the drum kits that were provided at the places. What is the definition of making it? In a way that’s really making it. Because you made it! You survived the whole tour, nothing fucked up, you came back alive and you got a little bit of money to buy food. In a way you’re living your dream because it’s a very un-materialistic choice to be a musician. All of us are definitely paying attention to all of the buzz that’s created around us right now. With the good reviews and people contacting us saying we’re releasing this much on iTunes. Maybe we are making it right now but it feels like we already did. It was a lot of pain traveling around doing all of this when you have kids and family at home. It’s a big egoistic move and you feel like you have to pay back somehow, maybe it’s coming now that we have money to afford bringing families on tour, that’s really making it I would say.

Amidst the virtual world where sharing music is a universal community, Little Dragon believes the power of stage presence and taking something from a digital world and connecting with your fans. “What it comes down to now is to show that you actually exist in reality and go out and play live. Not only on twitter…with the Internet being so over social, people always have a need for seeing real people. It comes down to that experience that happens in the now, like when you’re doing a show. That’s where the money is being made, for us actually. For any band that really wants to make it they need to get out there and work it live. That’s the future. Which is a good thing.”