Little Dragon loves synthesizers-and neuroscience.
“We’re a strictly no-guitar band,” says Yukimi Nagano, the winsome lead singer of Sweden’s Little Dragon. “If we didn’t have our synthesizers, we wouldn’t be the band we are.” Listening to the group’s music, which rides the line between live band and electronic production, it’s difficult to discern where a computer leaves off and a person takes over.
The band’s fondness for synths is only part of what defines it. The members—Nagano and Erik Bodin, Fredrik Källgren Wallin and Håkan Wirenstrand—have been friends since high school in Gothenburg. “We’d always be in a rehearsing room jamming or with a computer making up song ideas,” says Nagano of the crew’s teenage years. “We’re like a little family.” After a summer stint touring Europe with TV on the Radio, the little family headlines Double Door’s free 15th anniversary party Saturday 14.
We caught up with Nagano by phone from her L.A. hotel, where the band had just landed for its tour in support of its new full-length, Machine Dreams, on indie Peacefrog Records. “We’ve grown a lot from playing live,” the 27-year-old says. “The songs really take shape when we perform.” Where the band’s self-titled first album seemed more like exercises in soul, folk, electronic and indie rock, Machine Dream’s analog-meets-digital sound brings all those influences together into a mature, cohesive whole.
The band’s fascination with man-meets-machine themes extends beyond the studio. We can’t help but notice the new album title’s reference to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. “On a hobby level, I’m interested in neuroscience,” Nagano explains. “The human brain is often compared to a very complex computer so it makes the distinction kind of fuzzy. Maybe we’re the machines dreaming.”
The daughter of an American mother who moved to Gothenburg in the ’70s as an exchange student and a Japanese father who relocated from London to work as an artist and industrial designer, Nagano was 18 when she started singing professionally. Her first recordings were with producer—and friend—Andreas Saag, a.k.a. Swell Session, and later with downtempo act Koop. By her early twenties, she was traveling the world as part of Koop’s tour band. Of the newfound attention, Nagano says, “If you’re a session musician, you just record and that’s it.If you’re a singer, people define the music with you because it’s your voice.
“I developed a lot from playing with them, but I felt like someone’s tool,” Nagano continues. “I realized that was not the kind of music I wanted to make.”
When not on tour, she was back in the studio with Bodin and the guys. Eventually, fellow Swede Hird approached them to release a single on his Off the Wall label, which caught the ear of Peacefrog. “I’m sure that if [Peacefrog] hadn’t wanted to release our album, we might still just be in our studio all day, jamming and being poor,” Nagano says. “We’d spend so much time together that I’d have moments where I’d had enough!” she says laughing.
It’s small outbursts like this that garnered her—and subsequently the band—the name Little Dragon. “It’s with some irony, though. Whenever I’d get angry, the guys would just laugh at me. They weren’t really threatened.”
Little Dragon plays Double Door Saturday 14.