By Jason Lamphier
Little Dragon doesn't adhere to a standard pop formula. The Gothenburg quartet’s music -- a cocktail of funk, R&B, nu-jazz, lo-fi electro, and trip-hop -- will strike a chord with fans of Prince, Tricky, and the Eurythmics, but they've also carved out a unique niche. They sound retro-futuristic, like an interpretation of what 2065 will be like from the mind of a sci-fi director circa 1982. Their last two records, Machine Dreams and this year's Ritual Union, exhibit both chilly detachment and sultry charm. The songs have a steady pulse, yet their synthesized twists and turns and jam-band breakdowns mean that a hook rarely settles in without a little work on the listener's part.
"Most of the time when we go into the studio, we erase any thoughts of what we want to achieve," says front woman Yukimi Nagano, back in Sweden on a short break from the group's exhaustive fall tour. "We focus on experimenting, writing a bunch of skeletons of ideas, and afterward, feeling out which ones we want to add to. It's very intuitive."
Nagano has one of the most recognizable and underrated voices in indie music. Just ask the growing line of American and British collaborators who've tapped Little Dragon in the last year: everyone from TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, ?uestlove, and Raphael Saadiq to DJ Shadow, SBTRKT, and Gorillaz. The singer's sensual cooing anchors -- owns, really -- every track she guests on. Her lyrics have an urban bent, but while a lot of hip-hop and R&B serves as a vessel for braggadocio, Nagano takes a low-drama, introspective approach, questioning greed and label-whoring and waxing philosophical, such as on Ritual Union's standout track "Little Man."
" 'Little Man' has this neurotic beat and gave me this image of a person wanting more and more material things," says Nagano, whose artist father is Japanese and whose mother is American (the two met in Sweden, where Nagano was born and raised). "You get fed a lot of images of what is supposed to bring you happiness in your life. It's misleading. When you have media showing you 'Do this!' and 'That's going to be make you feel better!' you start thinking, If I only had a house or one more car or enough money to fix my face. I find myself really wanting a Chanel bag. And then I have to ask myself, Why do I want this Chanel bag? Why is it important for me? I'm caught up in it as well. I just want to be aware of it."
Even with industry big shots landing them exposure stateside (their cameos on the tracks "Empire Ants" and "To Binge" were easily the high points of Gorillaz's acclaimed 2010 album, Plastic Beach), it's doubtful that Little Dragon will evolve into some high-gloss mainstream production. In Nagano's mind, autonomy and a hard-nosed vision are what make the best Swedish songwriters alluring (see: Robyn, Fever Ray). She adds, "When we write we don't compromise and think, What do the fans want to hear? It's not because we don't want to please them. We started doing music because we were passionate. Once you start thinking too much about what other people are gonna think, you can get a little lost. You have to represent yourself first."