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Escape Velocity

Fruit Coming To Flower: Little Dragon Interviewed
The Quietus , December 14th, 2010 11:42

John Freeman talks to Yukimi Nagano about she's gone from selling strawberries to getting songwriting tips from Bobby Womack.

Somewhere in the concrete bowels of the Manchester Evening News Arena is Yukimi Nagano, the singer with Little Dragon. It's a disconcerting place; an endless warren of breeze-block corridors and unused side chambers punctuated by huge, silver pipes that cling to the ceilings like a gigantic robot's entrails. All sense of direction is lost and by the time a kindly security guard locates the Gothenburg quartet's dressing room, I feel utterly disorientated.

Along with De La Soul, Little Dragon are providing support for Gorillaz on their travelling circus. The entire entourage has only just arrived - very late - due to a combination of the previous night's gig in Dublin, and high winds almost cancelling their subsequent ferry crossing.

Little Dragon have been friends since school. Along with Yukumi, bandmates Erik Bodin (drums), Fredrick Källgren (bass) and Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards) all failed to gain places at music college, so relocated to a studio-cum-squat in central Gothenburg and began to create music. Taking references from Yukimi's love of R 'n' B, and adding a subtle mix of trip-hop and electronica, their eponymous debut garnered acclaim and some notable fans including Damon Albarn and TV On The Radio's David Sitek.

Indeed, Little Dragon's rise to prominence has been based on their affecting sound and the power of word-of-mouth publicity. After touring with the latter to promote their second album - 2009's excellent Machine Dreams - the request for collaborations began to flood in. These included the Plastic Beach tracks 'To Binge' and 'Empire Ants' and on Sitek's Maximum Balloon project.

When I interview her, Yukimi looks more bag-lady than über-cool musician. Her beautiful half-Japanese, half-Swedish features are dampened by geek glasses, a vast fisherman's shawl and an alarming pair of white Shameless-style tracky bottoms. She's friendly (even with pre-gig nerves) and her English is scattered with Swedish sentence structures, making everything she's says seem slightly grander.

You've come a long way as a band... I believe Little Dragon have been friends since school, but you each failed to get into music college - why was that?

Yukimi Nagano: We weren't really that academic when it came to music. But we were optimistic in hoping they would oversee that. None of us really wanted to work day jobs; we just wanted to do our music. Music school was a way to get paid by just doing what you love to do and playing with other musicians.

And then you lived together in a sort of musician's commune in Gothenburg, which was called the Seal Colony - how did it get that name?

YN: There has been a studio there for many years before we came. The musicians there basically crashed out in different areas of the room; they just played music and that's all they did. A friend of ours visited there and he came in and there was one guy just lying on the sofa and he made the comment that it was like a seal colony.

So, did the rejection from music school kick-start you as an actual band? Or did you have to resort to normal jobs?

YN: In the beginning we didn't have plans to be a band. We were just friends and we were making music but I don't think any of us has ever thought of music as a hobby. It's been something that you love so much that you could spend a week doing and forget that a week had past. What bonded us together was that we were all equally passionate about that. At the time that we were at the Seal Colony, we lived together - now it's the studio and we've kept it - and getting side jobs was basically the last option.

Was it you that picked strawberries?

YN: No, I sold strawberries and Eric the drummer was a truck driver. It was something we would do as seldom as often and do as little work as possible, so we could spend all of our time making music.

And then you got involved with the UK label Peacefrog Records, who have released your first two albums. They must have had a huge impact on your career?

YN: [After a long, thoughtful pause] Hmm. Well, I'll say yes, because they were very good for us as a record label. At first it was Off The Wall, who were friends of ours and released a seven-inch single but Peacefrog were the ones who found us and believed in us. But it has been hard for us with an indie label, as I'm sure it is with most indie labels there is kind of pessimism and it is very tiring.

Peacefrog released your debut album (2007's Little Dragon) and you had a stockpile of songs from the Seal Colony sessions. How did you choose what to include on the album?

YN: We didn't. We had some of them on a CD, and we gave the CD to our manager and Peacefrog got hold of them. By the time we had decided what our album was going to be, Peacefrog had already decided that that was going to be the album - the CD of demos they had. We'd already spent out first advance at that point, so we didn't have much say about it. At the same time, looking back at it, we love a lot of those songs. We did it, it is very much us, but it is very naked. If it was up to us we would have probably made them slightly different.

So, you weren't able to change the songs at all?

YN: No, nothing, not mix them or anything. They just mastered them and released them. That was a really, really difficult time for us. It was our first album and we felt like someone had just slapped us in the face. Slowly, we got a lot of recognition for it. I mean, half of the songs we wanted to have there, but we wanted to have them slightly different - zippier, more up tempo.

Machine Dreams seems more up tempo. Was that a reaction to what happened?

YN: Not really. Basically, we're in the studio every day, the guys throw a bunch of beats at me and different ideas and stuff and I'll just be writing to all of them. Everyone has different influences and we always get influenced by new music. When we hear something new that we love it has an effect on us creatively.

And who has been your biggest influence?

YN: I'm a huge, huge fan of Prince; Sign O' The Times is one of my favourite albums. As a performer and as an artist who is truly original and who is not afraid of musically just being himself 100 per cent, he has been very inspirational to me personally.

I believe you are good friends with David Sitek and collaborated with him on his Maximum Balloon project?

YN: Yeah, we stayed at his place a bunch of times when they were on tour with us. We have a really good relationship since we supported them and then David just asked us if we wanted to do something on one track ['If You Return'].

I'm intrigued by how you write songs. From your description, with the guys throwing new beats and rhythms at you, it sounds like you are reacting to them and also writing in the 'now', as opposed to going in with any preconceived ideas. Is that how it happens?

YN: Most of the time it's been from the now. I'm trying to change it and be inspired by new ways of writing. Even being on this tour has been inspirational - just talking to other artists. On the American tour we did, I had the privilege of riding the bus with Bobby Womack and he started to talk about how he writes. He always starts with the hook and it's a kind of classic way of writing. For me I could never think of the hook first. I write randomly; start somewhere and that will become a verse and I don't even think in terms of hooks. It's too much pressure. The hook seems to be something that would have to be so amazing. But then he was saying how he'd been inspired by Sam Cooke, who would actually pick pieces from what people had said. That discussion was really inspirational and I'm sort of looking into that way of writing.

Machine Dreams was released in 2009, so where are you with album number three?

YN: We've almost done the songs and we are deciding which ones are gonna be on the album, because there are lots. Then we are hoping to release it next year in May.
In terms of the music, how is it sounding compared to your previous work?

YN: Machine Dreams is almost a little bit anonymous compared to our first album which was a little too naked. The third album is gonna be a little bit in between. We are mixing this one ourselves and trying to make the sound more up tempo; dancier but soulful and with some tribal chants and stuff.

And lyrically, has anything in particular inspired you for this new batch of songs?

YN: Yes, for some of the songs, it wasn't so planned, but there are lots of artists who write maybe about fame and fortune, success and money and all the material things you can have, from a very positive point of view. I felt like writing about the more negative perspectives of consumerism.

But you must be delighted with the band's progress. Your tour bus is very impressive - it all seems a long way from the Seal Colony and selling strawberries?

We don't take our level for granted. We've worked really, really hard to get where we're at, without any real label support and just word-of-mouth. Things like this tour obviously help a lot. We are very step-by-step. We all believe in our music and we are passionate about it, and so hopefully we'll be fine. But, there is a reality - so, you never know.

And finally, the band was named after a nickname the others had for you in the early days - when you became angry or frustrated. If they were to name the band after your moods during the making of the new album, what would you be called?

YN: Ha ha. We'd be Quite, Calm, Harmonious Dragon.

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