INTERVIEW

Swedish R&B band Little Dragon ask us to fill in the blanks around their forthcoming fourth album ‘Nabuma Rubberband’; their sleekest record yet, and the one that could carry them beyond the point of cult future pop group

littledragon

The clock strikes 9am as I sit in the dining room of Little Dragon’s hotel, listening to beardy keyboardist Hakan Wirenstrand attempt to get excited about the fourth series of Game of Thrones. Who does he want to claim the Iron Throne? “The dragon lady,” he shrugs before humming the monotonous theme tune. All the while Erik Bodin, the band’s drummer, is pushing cold scrambled egg around his plate with his fork and front woman Yukimi Nagano – usually so effervescent on stage – stares at the phone in her lap like a kid trying to hide it in school.

It’s clearly too early in the day for this Swedish quartet. What they need is a topic of discussion to get excited about – something along the lines of abandoning a member of the group. Yukimi looks up gravely and starts what bassist Fredrik Kallgren Wallin describes as a “sad story”.

“When we were going over the border from Canada to the US we were having a party on the bus,” the 30-something singer begins as Hakan adds that you have to get off the bus at passport control. “I had to go to the loo,” he says, “and when I got back I saw the bus disappearing.” It took everyone two hours before they realised he was missing. “I phoned my girlfriend,” Hakan continues, “because it was the only number I had in my head and she was calling my phone on the bus and everyone was getting annoyed that I wouldn’t pick up my phone.” The group all laugh at this, except Hakan, who, with a straight face jokes that someone got fired that day. At least I think he’s joking. This four-piece seem so staid the majority of the time, which could be down to their current fatigue, or the fact they take their work very seriously.

Since their formation in 1996, when the foursome met in high school, Little Dragon have been self-sufficient as artists. Around 2004 they built their own studio in an old house run by a commune in the centre of Gothenburg, where they’ve recorded and mixed each of their four albums to date, although it’s not the most ideal studio space. “When trams go by it messes with the electricity,” says Fredrik. “On the first [self-titled] album, we mixed it and the guy mastering it was like, ‘where are all these frequencies coming from?’ because the trams send out this electrical current that the computer picks up. We can’t hear it, but there are really sharp mountains in the frequency counter. But we love it, we want to keep our bubble.”

On May 12 ‘Nabuma Rubberband’, the group’s fourth record, is released and it’s the first time they’ve allowed someone else into the fold. Not just anyone, mind; De La Soul’s Dave Jolicoeur, who co-wrote the lyrics for ‘Mirror’ – the album’s ominous opener that boasts lost-in-space echoing and sparse percussion. “We met [De La Soul] on the Gorillaz tour and kept in contact,” Fredrik explains.

“It naturally happened,” Yukimi keenly expresses, as opposed to management offering artists up on a plate. “People we work with,” she elaborates, “if you say to them, ‘oh I love that person’s music’, they ask if you want work with them or meet them. It’s not like I necessarily want to meet them or work with them, I just want a perfect relationship with their music.”

That’s probably why it’s taken more than a decade for Little Dragon to loosen the reins when it comes to letting others in. “We’re used to doing everything ourselves, so it was a learning process in that way.”

Hakan explains that they’re more secure in their opinions as a collective now, which makes it easier to accept outsiders’ ideas. “I think it’s healthy to get some fresh air into the bubble,” he says.

This new approach has resulted in something refined, if a little over-polished. The overall feel, while maintaining Little Dragon’s soulful electro dance, is less choppy than their previous efforts, with more moody atmospherics, except for the 9-second seventh track ‘Lurad’, which apes cheesy Eurodisco, concocted from the mind of drummer Erik, who grins at its mention. “I was trying to express this kind of grey-skied, Eurodisco, Dutch feel. Like ‘oomph, oomph, oomph’ pumping, and me talking fake Dutch. I thought it’d be great to have an intro that has nothing to do with the next song – just epic Eurodance.”

The next song he’s referring to is the title track of the LP, a laidback ballad of sorts accompanied by strings from the Goteborg Symfoniker, which took a touch of inspiration from Erik’s eldest daughter, who can be heard shouting ‘Lurad’ – translated as ‘fooled you’ – at the beginning.

Another influence that has been talked up regarding ‘Nabuma…’ is Janet Jackson, which isn’t a surprising comparison when you consider the sweeping R&B vocals of third track ‘Pretty Girls’, but it wasn’t the first likeness to spring to mind for the band. “I just want to say that she wasn’t the influence,” Fredrik is quick to point out.

“The thing was,” interjects Yukimi, “in the interview for the press release, I was having a moment with Janet Jackson, but if you imagine the whole evolution of making this record, this was one day of inspiration out of a whole year of inspired days.”

So if not Janet, then who?

“Eighties R&B is a huge ocean of undiscovered music for me,” says Erik. “I really like the soundscapes, the drums, the melodies and all the ’80s sounds. Because ’80s R&B wasn’t really played in Sweden, so going through YouTube is my little weakness.”

Yukimi describes hers as random places in the US.

“I like when you go to America and there are so many different radio stations there,” she enthuses. “I love the way they play Motown hits and so much music that’s not just Katy Perry or Rihanna, which you can hear in grocery stores. You can hear ‘Sexual Healing’ in Whole Foods in The States, or you’ll hear The Supremes in the gas station.”

“I’m a little bit confused by the word inspiration actually because it has two sides,” says Erik. “One side is the feeling you get when you’re into something – inspired to create – but inspiration could also mean influence.”

“Inspiration is an output from ourselves and influence is our input from other places,” says Fredrik, authoritatively. “Life gives me inspiration to create, it’s rare that a specific thing inspires me.” I turn to Yukimi who looks like she wants to get a word in. “For me,” she starts slowly, “it’s inspiring to hear music that makes you feel like, ‘this is just for me’. The Frank Ocean record – and I’m not saying this is the inspiration behind [‘Nabuma…’] – I felt it was so good lyrically. That was enough to make me want to write myself. It made me think: ‘I’ve gotta go and do something now because I can’t just sit and listen to someone else’.”

Little Dragon’s music is having that exact same effect on listeners too, if their fans are anything to go by. Yukimi reveals that they were given a poem three pages long in Germany and have seen their fair share of Little Dragon tattoos. “I feel proud that it meant something and hopefully they don’t regret it,” she offers modestly. “There was one guy,” Fredrik adds, “who discovered us through his girlfriend. She was calling him to breakup and in the background she was playing [one of the early singles] ‘Twice’, so he told us he discovered the band through the breakup call.”

It suddenly dawns on me that I have no idea what on earth ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ means. “What does it mean to you?” asks Yukimi playfully, but I’m as stumped as the band were at the start of the interview.

She helps me out. “Well, actually, it means everything. When we were looking for names, we felt that had a special tone to it.” Hakan informs us that they also have a friend called Nabuma and that it’s a Ugandan girl’s name. Yukimi carries on: “We were looking at ‘Mirror’, but Justin Timberlake has a song called ‘Mirrors’, so thank God we didn’t use that. I like that you can give your own meaning to ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ – it could be a rubber band factory, the name of a girl, a ghost, a state of mind, a country, even yoghurt or aliens.”

It’s a mysterious answer, but unsurprisingly so, because when it comes to naming things, I’ve seen Little Dragon give different answers to the same questions in interviews before. Their name for instance, is stated as Yukimi’s nickname on their Wikipedia page, for her renowned tantrum-throwing days, but Fredrik has previously said they picked names out of a hat and Little Dragon is what came out.

“It was Game of Thrones!” Hakan says to me. “We were so inspired by the little dragons, so that’s why.” Again, he’s not smiling, but I assume he’s joking – a feeling that’s solidified when Fredrik cuts in: “The real story is that we’d been jamming out for a while and living together. Then we recorded songs and a good friend of ours wanted to release them for us on his new label Off The Wall. So we thought, ‘ok, we’re going to need a band name’. It was very nearly Yukimi & Friends.” All but Yukimi burst into giggles as she shakes her head and denies it. “Yukimi Quartet!” Fredrik shouts. “Yukimi With Trio!” calls Hakan. Yukimi implores me not to trust them as Erik offers “Horny Corner” and suddenly the four stern songsmiths I first met this morning have dissolved into a puddle of amiable babble.

When Fredrik pulls himself together, he admits that he doesn’t know who came up with the name. “I think we just liked the dynamic of a dragon spouting fire, except it’s tiny and cute. That’s how we felt – that we have a fire inside, but we’re not aggressive.” Little Dragon’s role as a pillar in the electronic alternative music community is down to this dynamic – their ability to stick to their roots and not get swept up in giant record label madness. It’s kept people listening for the past seven years and ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ definitely feels like it will be their most widely accepted record yet.

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