FINDING THEIR INNER ENERGY Little Dragon

Just another buzzband
from Sweden,
right? Whoah – not on your life. The electro-soul quartet is accessible but
weird, and quirky but confident, and tons more.

 

BY RYAN REED

 

Erik Bodin, percussionist for Swedish electro-soul quartet
Little Dragon, is currently suffering from a nasty sunburn, having spent the
bulk of his afternoon exploring a Berlin hillside, rummaging through an
“old abandoned American radar station.” His band – which features the
unique, addicting croon of  Japanese-born
Yukimi Nagano – is in town for a headlining show the next day. But right now,
it’s Operation Relax and Recoup, what with a ridiculous schedule over the past
few months (and a globe-spanning multi-month trek up ahead). It’s clear Little
Dragon is on a bit of a creative high lately, having recently stolen the show
at Glastonbury and turned heads on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with its
mixture of tight, heady electronic grooves and a catchiness that echoes both
’90s girl-power R&B and the house music of an alien night club. At the time
of our talk, new album Ritual Union (Peacefrog) is still weeks away from
its release date, but the early buzz has already generated critical acclaim
across the board.

 

But Little Dragon isn’t just on a creative high – it’s easy
to tell from Bodin’s laid-back vibes that the band’s operating on a new level
of confidence and collective unity, feeling a level of personal and artistic
satisfaction that sometimes takes a band decades to achieve. Ritual Union has been finished for “a long time,” and instead of feeling anxiety
about the album’s commercial or critical reception, Bodin and company are now
“excited to show our little homemade masterpiece for the rest of the
world.”

 

Any time a musician refers to his own band’s album as a
“masterpiece,” it’s generally a dick move – arrogant at best,
repulsive at worst. But speaking with Bodin, I sense both an abundance of
humility and a total lack of pretension. Dude knows he and his longtime friends
have made a great album, and in this case, he’s just so inspired by their
creative drive, he can’t help but sing his own band’s praises. Plus, when it
comes to the band’s strengths, Bodin tends to give a majority of the credit to
the singular Nagano, whose soulful vocals do typically (and, perhaps, rightfully)
snatch up a bunch of the headlines. When I ask if the other band members
(Bodin, bassist Fredrik Källgren Wallin, and keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand) have any
input on her vocal prowess, he humbly takes none of the credit: “We
just sit back and enjoy the magic she’s coming up with. Sometimes we say, ‘One
more time, please!'”

 

Perhaps part of their chemistry is due to their long
history. Despite the fact that Ritual Union is only their third
full-length album (their self-titled debut came out in 2007, with a follow-up, Machine
Dreams
, two years later), the band initially formed over a decade earlier, in
1996, with alt-rock and MTV at the height of their cultural powers. They all
met as highschoolers in Gothenburg, Sweden, bonding over their eclectic music
influences. As Bodin puts it, “Everything from Prince to Jimi
Hendrix to Kate Bush to De La Soul to relatives and parents playing their
instruments.” Not to mention their fetish for slick R&B, the kinda
stuff some artists might feel a tad guilty about: “Anything from Faith
Evans to Ann Peebles to The-Dream to Cherelle.”

 

Flash-forward to the late 2000s, and Little Dragon is stirring
all those disparate influences into a sound that feels simultaneously nostalgic
and forward-looking, something familiar yet totally alien in its presentation.
Haunting piano ballad “Twice” (from the debut) made a splash on – gulp
– an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and the band itself began stirring a
quiet buzz. No less a tastemaker than Damon Albarn was turned on to Little
Dragon’s music after a recommendation from his wife; he was impressed enough to
invite the band to collaborate on music for his latest Gorillaz project, 2010’s
Plastic Beach. Two tracks resulted from the sessions – the psychedelic
“Empire Ants” and the lounge-y “To Binge” – and as a
result, the band was invited to open for Gorillaz on their Escape to Plastic
Beach World Tour.

 

More collaborations followed, including a track with TV on
TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek’s solo album Maximum Balloon. But, perhaps
somewhat ironically, working so much with other artists has made Little Dragon
a more cohesive unit on its own merits. “We are all proud of knowing each
other and that we get to share the passion for music,” says Bodin.
“We can be hurtfully honest and sincerely sweet, so it is perfect, most of
the time.”

 

With Ritual Union, they’ve gotten – by design –
weirder.

 

The last half of the album frequently displaces groove and
energy for clanky, repetitive soundscapes. The first half, in contrast, is home
to the band’s most melodic and danceable work to date – stuff like the slick,
infectious title track, as he explains. “‘Ritual Union’ [the song] was all
about echo on the drums and this boing sound. It created an atmosphere for both
blue and dance vocals.” The buoyant “Brush the Heat,” with its
crisp hi-hat and dog-whistle synth, “came out of boredom of
bassline.” Bodin pauses, then laughs. “Who needs a bassline when you
have synth toms, right? It’s about the fire and the trance and the heat that
needs to be brushed.”

 

The odd duality of Ritual Union, with the group’s
experimental and melodic forces pushing and pulling against one another, makes
it a difficult album to find a home for. It’s too weird for pop radio, too
hypnotic and insular for a disco, too melodic for a rave. Bodin, however, is
confident on that subject: “Actually, we make music that is meant to be
cranked in our studio, where we would
dance to it.”

 

In order to, in Bodin’s words, “evolve and stay
unpredictable,” the band explored some new sounds for the record, utilizing
vintage ‘80s and ‘90s synthesizers. The songs were generally constructed from
the groove up (a trait that shines through in the album’s quirky rhythmic
drive), utilizing beats set not to particular tempos, but to the “inner
energy… [from there] a harmony or a bassline on a synth would be the start for
the vocals.” Then, utilizing Bodin’s pre-recorded rhythms, Nagano would
enter the picture, and the musicians would fill in the sonic background, keying
off her singing.

 

“It’s been a lot of fun,” says Bodin. “As soon as we’ve
been home, we’ve been in the studio making something. It’s pretty much
recording, jamming, engineering, composing all at the same time. And
when we decided to release, we choose the tracks that would [make] for a nice
album and mixed it.”

 

For a bunch of masterpiece-makers, the whole thing sounds
pretty simple.

 

 

 

 

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