They've played with Gorillaz and scored soul-ful guest spots. Now Swedish electro-poppers Little Dragon are ready to breathe fire on their own.
Little dragon have some big friends. Though the Swedish quartet's music is stylishly slinky enough in its own right to be featured on Grey's Anatomy and help the band earn headliner status (a U.S. tour starts in the fall), the band has a few famous fans to thank for goosing its career. On the recommendation of his wife, Damon Albarn invited singer Yukimi Nagano to coo on, and her bandmates to lend electronic spice to, "Empire Ants" and "To Binge," both from Gorillaz's hit 2010 album, Plastic Beach. Then he asked Nagano, drummer Erik Bodin, bassist Fredrik Wallin, and keyboardist Hakan Wirenstrand to join him on Gorillaz's recent world tour.
Similarly, TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek was so taken with the comely chanteuse after Little Dragon opened for TVOTR in 2009 that he requested she add vocals to "If You Return," a track by his recent Maximum Balloon project. Even Diddy gave his due, popping backstage to say hey at a gig in Manhattan's Central Park. All the love "has been a big boost for our confidence," says the soft-spoken Nagano. "It's amazing to know that a lot of creative people believe in what we do."
That wasn't always the case. The band formed 15 years ago in Gothenburg, Sweden. Nagano, 29, whose peripatetic father is Japanese and mother is American, was a freshman in high school when she met seniors Wallin and Bodin. Kindred spirits, the three began rendezvousing after school to jam and play records -- De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, far-out jazz like Alice Coltrane's Journey in Satchidananda. "We were weirdos," says Nagano, "but we found each other and could be in a bubble together."
It took longer than they would have liked for that bubble to burst. After graduating -- and adding Wirenstrand -- Little Dragon waited seven years to release their first single, 2007's moody, down-tempo "Twice" (later heard on Grey's Anatomy). And that was only after a friend urged them to let him put out the song as a seven-inch. "During that time we were all working side jobs," says Nagano about the long gestation. "We didn't know what it meant to be in a band."
Indeed, rather than immerse themselves in the fecund Gothenburg indie scene that launched such acts as the Soundtrack of Our Lives, Jens Lekman, and Love Is All, they opted to play gigs with poets. ("Our circle of friends was writers," explains Nagano.) Once Little Dragon figured things out, though, they soared. Influential London record store Rough Trade tapped "Twice" as a single of the week. English label Peacefrog promptly inked Nagano and the guys to a three-album deal, of which Ritual Union, due in June, is the last and best effort.
If the band's self-titled debut was a demure introduction to their after-hours charm and 2009's Machine Dreams a sojourn into funkier forms, Union builds on the strengths of both -- it's equal parts chill-out-room dreamy and club-friendly fierce. The effect was intentional. "It's an album for multitasking," says Bodin, 31. "Our aim is to make music for people to escape into or dance to." Thus, "Light" tiptoes on sleekly propulsive bass lines and airy, lovelorn melodies, while "Ritual Union" shifts between burbling, kinetic rhythm patterns and Nagano's deeply affecting little-girl-lost vocals.
Her ethereal singing so impressed neo-soul star Raphael Saadiq that he reached out with a duet offer. The result, "Just Don't," appears on his album, Stone Rollin'. "Little Dragon puts me in a creative mood," raves Saadiq. "I would keep their music on deck during recording."
This summer, Little Dragon will continue to spread their wings with gigs at Glastonbury, the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia, and Denmark's Roskilde Festival. Beyond that, says Nagano, "we're just going to try to stay inspired." Here's betting they'll have a little help from their friends.