Published Aug 03, 2011Having known, played and lived together since three quarters of the band met in high school, electronic Swedish quartet Little Dragon seem to finally be reaping the rewards of their hard work with the release of their third album Ritual Union. While Swedish-Japanese lead singer Nagano may have been previously known to electronic music fans as a featured vocalist on music by Koop in the early aughts, the group members, also featuring drummer Erik Bodin, bassist Frederik Källgren Wallin and keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand formally came together in 2006 as Little Dragon after various other musical excursions (naming the band after Nagano's penchant for studio temper tantrums) and have not looked back since, releasing a critically acclaimed self-titled album in 2007, followed up by the new wave-fuelled Machine Dreams in 2009. With their initial offerings only available via import in North America, word of the group began to spread slowly, but when it did it reached very influential ears. Now the band can count esteemed musicians such as Questlove of the Roots, TV on the Radio, Raphael Saadiq, Big Boi, Erykah Badu and Gorillaz as not only peers, colleagues and collaborators, but as ardent fans of their music. Drummer Erik Bodin took some time on a brief stay back at home in Gothenburg to talk with Exclaim! about the group's musical journey to this point and their work with other artists.
How has the number of outside collaborations affected the band?
I think in our real world and everyday life it hasn't changed much. We've been seeing things grow gradually from the very beginning. I mean if you look back at it now, maybe now, where are we a year after the Gorillaz release? Of course we can see at least some kind of step up with crowds and things, but in that case I think the effect is good, a lot of new people. Somehow, it feels like we are here because of what we are doing ourselves not so much because of the collaborations. At the same it helps. Collaborations have always been a bit of a nervous thing for us, because we like to feel 100 percent honest with what we do and if you bring in somebody that you don't really know, you don't want to feel like you're [too] polite, you don't want to feel like you are saying yes to something that you shouldn't necessarily have said yes to otherwise. I think we've been lucky, we're a bit of control freaks so collaborations make us a little "Uh... we're not sure" but there's been some really interesting people reaching out like Raphael Saadiq and Big Boi, people that we really, really admire so it's worth taking the risk.
It sounds like you are not approaching these people, they approach you.
Yeah, that's been the case, yeah exactly. We're like a little bump over here in Gothenburg on the wrong side of the Atlantic making our music and we don't really have the channels to reach out to these people, but somehow it isn't so difficult. If they could reach out I'm sure we could if we wanted to, but we haven't been trying so far.
With this record, there are no guest appearances from huge stars you've worked with in the past. Was there any temptation to do any of that?
No, There was no real temptation. There is always a wish from label people, "Why don't you do this or this?" Plus, what if we make a really great song with someone else? We really see ourselves as a live band and we go on tour and that person's not there, who's going to be standing in? It's kind of very practical, it may sound silly, but that's the feeling. And plus it's nice to know that it's still just the band, 'cos we're kind of sentimental with the whole band thing and being a band and all that that means, being a family. Collaborations are great, but in a way it's a kind of a business thing. On this record we wanted to do what we always did, experimenting in the studio, goofing around. It's easier done with old friends.
Can you tell me a bit about the recording process at the Seal Colonie art commune? I'm assuming you guys don't live there together anymore, but you go back there to record?
Yeah, that's what it is. I think we were lucky. About ten years ago a guy I was playing with, he wanted to sell his studio and I had been there rehearsing there. They were the originators of the whole Seal name, but they were the lazy guys just hanging around and then after we took it over, me and Håkan, the keyboard player, came first and then Yukimi and Fred came in and out. There's a lot of history in that place, it's nice we still have it. It's kind of between tram lines in Gothenburg, so I guess they should have torn it apart a long time ago because of where the place is located and it's kind of difficult to renovate with anything. But that's been our holy junkyard where we have all our synths and all our pieces and all the drums and everything. As soon as we are home from tour, we're very hungry to go back there and make more music. For this record, some of the songs were done maybe two years ago actually, but the process has been on and off. Every time we were home, we were there. Towards the end when we felt we had the right material to put the songs together for this album we started working on them in a group. Most of the time it starts with me and Yukimi or Fred and Yukimi or Håkan and Yukimi, in a duo kind of thing. So there's a lot of ideas in that format, but when it's time to make an album, that's when we start adding stuff, all of us, and coming with ideas and everything was done by ourselves, homemade.
No big-name producer came in?
No. I mean last time, last record, Fred knew another guy in another town in Malmo in Sweden and he used to mix a lot of stuff and we tried that out on that one. It was good, but it felt like we had to rebuild the whole thing and the process when we are making music is that we are kind of jamming, producing and mixing and writing doing most of everything at the same time. So to go into another studio to rebuild it, on the second album although it sounds good, it's like we lost something and on this one we were confident we could make it the whole way through ourselves.
I was going to say it sounds like this was stuff you guys worked on for a long period of time and went back to.
We are like three little duos in one band and it's good that way, because then we can keep up with Yukimi's productivity. I've never met anyone who works as hard as she does. The lyrics just come and the melodies and you know, it's good that we are three guys trying to keep up with her, so that's nice. I think that we want our music to have that longer expiry date than the usual pop music that we hear here on the radio. Y'know it's very kind of American Idol-oriented and it just disappears, or even before you've heard it you're tired of it.
I don't know if you guys noticed it but at Wrongbar, a Toronto venue you've played a few times, Drake showed up at the club with SBTRKT, to perform his verse on his version of "Wildfire," a song that you guys and Yukimi's vocals are featured on? Do you guys get any extra exposure from that?
It's funny with that particular track, I don't know if I'm wrong, but it feels very local, very [much a] UK scene [thing]. I mean over here in Gothenburg, we're not very far away, but we don't...I don't know if we're too much in our bubble, but for some reason [in the UK] they really like it. It's a great song and everything. We haven't really noticed except for someone saying "Hey, you should see Drake just took the song and rapped over it, it's all on YouTube." And I saw it and looked at the comments and some people were like, "Anyone who likes Drake should stop listening at 51 seconds," so there's that whole YouTube beef war. I don't know. I'm sure it gave some kind of awareness of who we are, I don't know what to say really. That whole thing of taking a song and putting it on YouTube is very much anarchistic and I like it, there's a lot of energy in it. It happened to the song "Twice" [from our debut album] as well. A lot of people took it and put a beat on it and some raps. It's good, But at the end I don't know what it means for awareness about us, I'm sure it helps, it must do somehow.
How would you categorize this record compared to your previous albums?
It feels like we are more confident in doing simpler, rawer things on this record. I hope we continue in this way. I think most of all it's about Yukimi and her singing. It's very much more in your face on this record. It's kind of vocally driven. That made it easier for us to produce the music around vocals that are so intense and fiery, we kept it very simple. I know "When I Go Out" is a very different song. It's very important to us, it's a sign that anything can happen. It feels like that's a big experimental song. Most of the songs on this album came from... basically we have three computers. I have my set up, Fred has his and Håkan has his setup and that's how the songs start, on one of those setups. And most of the songs came from my end this time, so it has a lot of drums. I think it's just more... I hope that it's more direct. I think we are all into being as dance-y as possible. I think it's a dance record and I think maybe we are also touching on the pop [area], not necessarily the standard pop, but just because it's direct, it's more poppy. Basically, we are bunch of nerds experimenting in the studio. We kind of make the music for ourselves, for our own needs, switch off the lights and turn the music up really, really loud and just enjoy it and that's what we did. The analysis comes afterwards. We didn't really know what we were doing, we just knew that we liked it.
What music was helping consciously or subconsciously to direct you in some way?
We went back to R&B in our own iPod world. Back to Brandy, Faith Evans, really like commercial pop-driven R&B, but it's just because we can't help ourselves we really like it. Even The-Dream. Sometimes, it feels like he's the new Rick James.
He's got some interesting production stuff going on.
Yeah, he likes girls and trying to sort out the main girl from the side girl. Who would actually want to listen? But we do. You can't help it. That's been a big input actually.
Where do you think that Yukimi is coming from lyrically on this record if you could speak for her?
But you're saying her voice is upfront on the record. Were there any themes you think she was focusing more on this time around?
I don't know, I've known her for such a long time now. When I look at her sometimes it hits me that she used to be this Gothic girl when she was 14 years old. I think she was keeping a lot of herself into herself and the voice would still be there, the magic. But now kind of since she's grown out and feeling more confident talking about herself, not as in much of a serious way as usual. It's kind of becoming more and more direct and it comes together with her voice. It's becoming more raw and direct. I think the whole thing I said about confidence with her voice, her singing and her lyrics as well it's just what was on her mind. I'm not pretty sure [what that is] , but I guess I'm the last person in the band to know what she's singing about. I'm doing a lot of backup vocals, so god knows what I'm singing about. I don't know. I'm more focused to just be the doubling voice more and if I start articulating much it's gonna be messy. It's always been my case to hover in the background. I think she's got some interesting stuff. I don't really know why, but I never really ask. Sometimes I ask what the songs are about, but she's always been into kind of leaving it open for the ones that would listen to interpret whatever. But she says some interesting stuff, for example "When I Go Out" was about her putting herself in an old person's perspective and I didn't know that at all, I couldn't tell. So I think she's deep, she has a lot of stuff in her head. While I'm mixing and producing, well all of us are, she's the one who is out there in the poetry world.
The album's called Ritual Union, I was going to ask about the album cover. Are those your parents on the cover or relatives?
Yeah! It is. Parents... grandparents mostly. We thought that we would break out from the paint world [of previous album covers] into the photographic world. Thinking about ourselves first, but I don't know, it's kind of nice to represent your forefathers. It's funny that Yukimi's dad is appearing in two different pictures. On the vinyl at least. The cover was the last thing we came to and we were like "Oh my god." Everything was done musically and we'd mastered mostly everything and we needed a cover ASAP. And we came up with the idea, why don't we just put wedding pictures of our parents and at first we thought that maybe that's just a little too obvious. But then, the way it looked, we started loving it, because it has this sort of ... I don't know wedding pictures, they capture that weird expectation in life that you've made the right move, this is the beginning of something new. Sadly, most of those people are divorced. It's one of the many references to the ritual union. I think the wedding and those things are one thing of the ritual unions, but also I think we are also referring to music as a ritual union. Live performance is a ritual union, one of the few that still exists in the Western world. and yeah, we like it.
I was thinking it might have had also something to do with the fact that it's almost like a family vibe in the band at this point, right?
It is, it is. We are family. It's like a relationship, but being siblings at the same time and orphans, maybe? No [laughs]. We were kind of kids travelling around the world, finding ourselves. The bonds are really, really strong and they've become stronger every time, every time we travel away.