Little Dragon married young, you might say. It was at high school, still in their teens, that the Gothenburg four-piece met, a good decade before they'd captivate future collaborators like Damon Albarn, Raphael Saadiq or Big Boi from Outkast with their unique mash of alt. R&B and ice-cold electronica. They were, quite literally, too cool for school. Some things never change.
“Me and Erik thought we were extra cool,” says Fredrik Källgren Wallin, the band's bass don. He, drummer Erik Bodin and vocalist Yukimi Nagano were all on the same programme at Hvitfeldtska, an imposing public school to the south of the city, founded in the 1600s and known for its excellence in music.
“You have the normal high school education, but instead of taking extra languages or something, you focus on music. It was a bit like Fame. Lots of jumping around.”
Does he still have his leg warmers?
“Yes, of course. I'm wearing them.” You can take the man out of the performing arts school, but you can't take the performing arts school out of the man.
Much of the endeavour at their school was classical-based — Fredrik was studying the double-bass — so immediately they were the outsiders.
Nagano, born to a Japanese father and a Swedish-American mother, was a year or so below them. Fredrik and Erik had both seen her in a local band and, rightly so, were 'blown away' by her soulful but somehow eerie vocals. It was over a shared love of Weather Report, the '70s jazz fusion legends, and other old fusion bands that Fredrik and Erik first bonded musically.
Erik then introduced Fredrik to hip-hop, the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. “Then you end up searching out all the samples they used, and discover all those old soul and jazz records.” he says. Earlier still, from his older brother, he was being exposed to synth-pop like Depeche Mode, listening to shows he'd taped off the radio.
But growing up in a small working class town outside of Gothenburg, there was the obligatory, rebellious metal and punk phases too. By the time he was nine or 10, he'd formed a punk band.
After high school, Fredrik went off to study jazz at another school near Malmö, while back in Gothenburg Erik hooked up with keyboard player Håkan Wirenstrand and bought an MPC2000, the staple hip-hop sequencer. When Fredrik came back to Gothenburg, around 2004, Little Dragon began to fall into place.
He'd had an epiphany of sorts after Erik had invited him up from jazz school to play electric bass with an ad-hoc band he'd put together with a singer from Zimbabwe. “It was sort of like dance music,” he says. “In that first show, everyone was up and dancing within like one minute. I was blown away.
This was what music was supposed to be. I'd been studying jazz and doing jazz shows, and that gets really intellectualised. It was like a revelation almost. A party. I realised it was what I should do. So I dropped out of school and moved back to Gothenburg.”
The next year, Fredrik, Erik, Håkan and Yukimi were offered the chance to record a seven-inch single, at which point they thought they'd probably better become a band and make it official. The seven-inch single got them noticed by Pete Hutchinson, one of the luminaries behind Peacefrog, the peerless, future-facing Hertfordshire imprint which had brought the music of Robert Hood, Dan Bell, Kenny Larkin, Theo Parrish, Luke Slater and Moodymann to the UK.
The label had just begun branching out of the techno world releasing material from the likes of Nouvelle Vague and acoustic guitarist José González, also from Gothenburg, with whom Erik had shared a studio and provided percussion, and Kimi had sung with for a time, notably on González' second album 'In Our Nature'. Little Dragon slotted into their roster neatly.
“At the time I didn't know anything about them. But now, and since I became interested in electronic music, I realised they have this amazing back catalogue,” says Fredrik. Peacefrog signed them for three albums. The self-titled debut, released in 2007, was full of soul and strangeness, echoes of Björk, Prince and Shuggie Otis. Their live sound was coming together too, more so around their second album, 'Machine Dreams'.
This was more ambitious, grander in production, the pop more lush and pronounced, like the massive 'Looking Glass' and the dreamy 'Feather', and the melancholic moments more heavyweight. But always, always soulful. It got them noticed, that much is certain. They hooked up with TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek for his solo project Maximum Balloon, after supporting them on a US tour. Then Damon Albarn asked them to join him in the studio for Gorillaz' third album, 'Plastic Beach', aligning them with a dizzying array of talent, like Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, De La Soul, Mark E. Smith, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, and the late Lou Reed. “Kimi didn't really know who Gorillaz were,” says Fredrik. “She knew Blur, but hadn't connected Damon with Gorillaz. We came over to London, me, Kimi and Håkan. First day we were a little bit nervous, we went to the studio, and it was pretty laidback. They played us what they'd been working on, and we picked the tracks we liked.”
They went on tour with the expanded Gorillaz band too, and played support in Europe, Japan and Australia. “We'd toured before, but not on that level. Me and Kimi shared a tour bus with Bobby Womack. Legend! It was amazing. He's such a humble, gentle man. Some of the stories. He knows everybody. He talks about it like it's nothing. He'd be playing songs on the couch with his guitar.”
Where some bands find the pressure of delivering albums and touring too much, Little Dragon seemed to stride into 'Ritual Union', buoyed perhaps by their ascending profile. It was their biggest album yet, critically applauded and set to break them in the US. R&B don Raphael Saadiq featured Kimi's vocals on his 2011 album 'Stone Rollin'', and DJ Shadow hooked her up on the track 'Scale It Back' from his set 'The Less You Know, The Better'. 'Wildfire', the collaboration between Little Dragon and post-dubstep luminary SBTRKT was a highlight from the latter's applauded debut set.
So while they might have got together young, it is perhaps the fact that they have something of an open relationship, when it comes to collaborators, that's kept them together.
Most recently, they hooked up with Outkast don Big Boi, after Andre 3000 had introduced him to their oeuvre. “That was really exciting for us,” says Fredrik. “We were in the US, and we passed by Atlanta. I think we had a show there. He invited us to the Stankonia Studio, which used to be Bobby Brown's old studio. He comes by once in a while, sadly not when we were there though.
“We worked on some beats and some ideas, and Yukimi went over for some extra time for a few days. He's a fun character. We had a lot of fun hanging out with him. We had to get used to how many people were in the studio. Engineers, producers, players who come in and lay down stuff. But it's great.
Like a social club, kind of hang-out party. Sometimes it can be tricky if you don't know anybody, just to come up with something on the spot. But once you know him, you're more comfortable to try out stuff.”
Their latest set 'Nabuma Rubberband', saw them take a year off their punishing touring schedule — and also sees them part ways with Peacefrog, hooking up with hot Paris indie Because Music instead, home to a diverse roster with Justice on the one hand and Charlotte Gainsbourg on the other.
“Playing the same songs, you long to create something else,” says Fredrik.
“Also we'd become a bit scattered. I'd moved to Berlin and had started setting up a studio there, so had been going back and forth. We'd send each other files, but it was better to be focused. So we found this house in Gothenburg and designed and built a studio from scratch.”
Having been immersed in Berlin's pervasive electronic scene, Fredrik let some of the sounds of Panorama Bar seep into his work. But not always for the better. “You can get a little addicted to it, then you come back to Gothenburg and end up having a little argument with Håkan, for example..
He doesn't really like the backbeat and hi-hat. So, that can create a little bit of friction!”
But rather than the big room sounds of Berghain, the set is seemingly indebted to the slow jams of Janet Jackson, Nagano has said in previous interviews. 'Klapp Klapp', the first single, was quickly dubbed by Radio 1's Zane Lowe one of his 'Hottest Records in the World Right Now'.
Where Ritual Union scored itself more than a few five-star reviews, 'Nabuma Rubberband' has much to live up to. Impressively, it nails it from the off. Opener 'Cat Rider' is fragile and melancholy, grand like Massive Attack. 'Killing Me' is a lolloping, abrasive anthem, heavy with synths.
'Mirror' has those Prince-style chord progressions, always threatening to unleash itself, but somehow showing an enviable restraint. 'Paris', meanwhile, is a simply glorious, joyous, soaring piece of electro-pop. It is, to use Page Three parlance, a stunner.
“We were more collaborative with each other, more than we have ever been before,” he says. “We hope it continues that way.” 'Nabuma Rubberband' was originally the working title for a track, named after a girl from Uganda that Erik, Håkan and Fredrik used to play in a reggae band with.
As DJ Mag speaks to Fredrik, he's packing for the US, where the band are booked on the bill for the Coachella festival. The US has become a key part of their fanbase in recent years, thanks in part to their hook-ups with the likes of Big Boi and Saadiq, but also after tracks of theirs appeared on primetime shows like Grey's Anatomy, Revenge and Being Mary Jane.
“The first sold-out show we ever did was at The Roxy in Los Angeles,” says Fredrik. “We were kind of overwhelmed and blown away by that. We try to go back as much as we can.
“We're trying out a little collaboration this time, but I can't talk about specifics right now. We're just going try it out for a couple of days in a nice old studio. That's also new for us, we mostly just work in our studio in Gothenburg. We'll just have a playful mindset and see what happens. This is maybe more of a project than a collaboration. But we'll see what comes.”
On a hot streak like this, we'll take all that they've got.