No one in their right mind would have expected the future of soul music to come from Gothenburg, Sweden. But there it is in the dreamy, rhythmical, shifting, moody rainbow creature that is Little Dragon. Now the four-piece band, with their blend of R&B, new wave, trip-hop and even Swedish folk music, aren’t a soul act per se. But noted authorities on the matter from OutKast’s Big Boi and Raphael Saadiq to Damon Albarn of Gorillaz all recognize game—each has tapped the group to collaborate on recent and/or upcoming projects. It seems that the rest of the world is starting to catch on to what tastemakers from BBC’s Gilles Peterson and the DJs at Los Angeles’ influential KCRW have known for years.
They might have lots of boldface fans now, but Little Dragon built their name the old-fashioned way: slowly, and through word of mouth. Nagano, drummer Erik Bodin and bassist Fredrik Wallin began making music together as friends in high school, with no thought of becoming a serious, world-touring band. “Our way of spending time together was listening to or playing music,” Yukimi recalls of those days in the 1990s. “We weren’t so good at promoting or thinking of any kind of plan. All we knew is we wanted to just write and work as little as possible on anything else, so we’d have all of our time to do that.”
After adding Håkan Wirenstrand, a keyboardist from rural Småland, and moving in together at a Gothenburg art collective known as the Seal Colonie, the group took the name Little Dragon— a reference to Nagano’s fiery countenance during recording sessions. While holding odd jobs and contributing to other people’s projects (Nagano has sung lead vocals on numerous dance singles, and she and Wallin have collaborated with Swedish troubadour José González) to pay the bills, the four spent all their free time together crafting songs like the propulsive “Test” and the haunting minor-key piano ballad “Twice.” It was these two tracks that made up Little Dragon’s first release, a 2006 vinyl-only single on tiny Off the Wall Records. Though only 1,000 copies were pressed, the record’s impact was felt immediately in England, where Gilles Peterson began spinning both sides and London’s Peacefrog Records commissioned the group’s first album. With its unusual cover artwork (drawn by Yukimi’s father in the ‘70s) and playful, imaginative videos (for “Twice,” “Test,” “Constant Surprises” and “After the Rain”), Little Dragon’s self-titled debut offered a distinctive and wondrous visual aesthetic to go with its unique, enchanting sound. Despite their CD being available only as an import in the US, the group sold out clubs across the country during their first American tour in ‘08. A smattering of positive press clippings began likening Nagano and her understated yet unmistakable voice to such divas as Erykah Badu and Kate Bush.
Little Dragon’s second album, Machine Dreams, a more uptempo set with ‘80s influences like OMD and Tears for Fears working their way into the mix, followed in 2009. That same year “Test,” Little Dragon’s very first single, was featured in an episode of primetime drama Grey’s Anatomy, turning a new set of mainstream fans on to the group. An enraptured Damon Albarn meanwhile tapped Little Dragon to feature on “Empire Ants” and “To Binge” from Gorillaz’ 2010 album Plastic Beach, and, as the warm-up act—along with De La Soul—for that album’s arena-filling world tour. Also in 2010, the group appeared on “If You Return” from Maximum Balloon, a/k/a the solo project of Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio.
2011 saw Little Dragon start the year off with a headlining tour of the U.S. and a performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in March, thanks to a recommendation from superfan Questlove of the Roots. In May, Yukimi appeared on the track “Just Don’t” from Raphael Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’, a record some are already calling the album of the year. Big Boi and DJ Shadow called to invite the group to work on new music. And in July they will release Ritual Union, an album which finds the jazzy, whimsical vibes of their debut LP colliding with the more upfront and danceable sounds of Machine Dreams. Lead single “Nightlight” sounds like Badu fronting the Psychedelic Furs. “Brush The Heat,” their most club-friendly track yet, is a dancefloor detonator with the most infectious cowbells since Jay-Z told us about his “99 Problems.” As with each of their previous albums, Little Dragon did all of the recording themselves at the Seal Colonie, the same place where they all lived together in their early days. “We’re all about writing in our space, our bubble,” Yukimi says. “We haven’t really recorded in any fancy studios. We’d rather be in our junkyard.”
While their recordings are always impressive, it is in the live setting where the Dragon really comes alive. Seemingly loose and improvisational but actually tight as nails, Bodin, Wirenstrand and Wallin dig a deep pocket that would make James Brown proud, their organic instrumentation blending seamlessly with programmed drum loops and Nagano’s dynamic vocals. Nearly as striking is the culturally diverse crowd that somehow turns up in every city. As if straight out of central casting, every Little Dragon show seems to bring out an unlikely mix of hip-hop heads in fitted caps, beautiful girls dressed for dancing, and studious musician types. “I think that’s kind of ideal,” Yukimi says of Little Dragon’s eclectic fanbase. “That’s how, if I wished for a crowd, I would want it.” And no doubt, if that crowd could invent a band, Little Dragon is what they’d come up with.