“Are the unicorns here yet?” a flustered man wheezes in a West Hollywood parking lot, his topknot slowly unravelling. The “unicorns” – two pure-white horses with fuchsia-dyed manes and crudely made spiralled horns – are standing outside a nearby house-turned-workshop-turned-guestlist-only-party, trying to maintain their dignity while intoxicated models take awkward selfies. Inside, Gothenburg digital-R&B practitioners Little Dragon work their way through some sushi prior to an oversubscribed DJ set for Levi’s. Discarded pink cat masks and silver balloons in the shape of cartoon horses give the homely surroundings the air of an animal-themed swingers party.
“The problem is, we don’t actually like horses,” mutters keyboardist Fred Wallin (tall; lives part-time in Berlin; nicknamed Freaky Fred by Outkast’s Big Boi). “There are actual horses here?” enquires half-Japanese, half-Swedish frontwoman Yukimi Nagano (enigmatic; likes dancing; can mimic Lykke Li) with the tone of someone who’d rather they just kept well away. In fact, it’s her fault the horses are here in the first place – unicorn images emblazon her bespoke designs for the denim brand and crop up throughout Dazed’s travels with the group.
As Wallin and drummer Erik Bodin (partial to a bumbag; obsessed with weightlifting; does a wicked English accent) spin their electro-heavy set, wannabe actors with cut-glass cheekbones glance around faux-wearily as the dancefloor is enlivened by a slightly refreshed young gentleman with 30 balloons tied around his waist sashaying around like an amped-up Tyra Banks. It all feels a hell of a long way from Gothenburg.
The next morning, driving around Echo Park, Nagano relives some of the stranger parts of the evening. At one point a man describing himself as a “creative” made a move on her using the line “I love your backstory but I don’t know your backstory.” This was followed by an on-camera interview with a self-styled artist whose questions included: “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say sexual apparatus?”, “Do I intimidate you?” and, finally, “Balance or chaos?”
“I said ‘balance’ because I feel like I have a lot of chaos in my life,” she laughs. The chaos is about to be intensified with the release of Little Dragon’s forthcoming fourth album, a sonic leap forward built around its gargantuan first single, “Klapp Klapp”. One of the song’s key lyrics is “girls who melt like my ice cream drip”, bringing to mind Kelis’s Milkshake with its gooey sauciness. “It’s actually not so sexual,” Nagano giggles. “I usually think of melting as the feeling you have when you emotionally melt. You know, like it could be a devastating feeling or a falling-in-love feeling and you just feel like a puddle on the floor.” Created in their own Gothenburg studio space – where Nagano currently lives – it’s an album that announces them as a bona fide globe-straddling proposition without ditching what makes them unique.
Little Dragon have taken their sweet time to get to this point. Formed in 1996 when Bodin, Wallin and Nagano met at high school, the band properly came together when Håkan Wirenstrand (former taxi driver; Jean Michel Jarre-obsessive; proud owner of a wizard-like beard) joined in 2000, and their debut single,“Twice”/“Test”, arrived six years later. The delay in getting around to actually releasing any music was down to spending time “being friends”, as Bodin puts it. Plus, there was the issue of Nagano overcoming her almost crippling shyness. “I’ve always been very determined and forceful in really knowing what I wanted to do but I’ve also had that shyness that I think I’ve broken out of,” she says, ignoring the understatement. “During early shows I really wanted to just lie down on the floor and crawl around and not give a fuck, and it took so many shows for me to relax.”
“It’s quite extreme all of a sudden to hear that André 3000 likes your music, especially when it feels like you’ve been struggling in Gothenburg with no one knowing what you’re doing”
Spending time within their tight-knit bubble of Swedish in-jokes, Lisa Stansfield singalongs and weed-fuelled weightlifting displays, it quickly becomes clear that, for a band on the cusp of being very big indeed, Little Dragon are entirely focused on doing everything their own way and on their own terms. Since 2010 they’ve worked with the likes of Big Boi, SBTRKT, DJ Shadow, Gorillaz (the Plastic Beach album and tour) and Dave Sitek’s Maximum Balloon project, but their last album, Ritual Union (2011), sounded like nothing else in its fusion of crystalline R&B, effervescent electropop and digital soul. Considering how insular they are when it comes to their own records – they rarely use outside musicians and are rumoured to have turned down both Diplo and Pharrell – their penchant for cropping up on other people’s albums seems simply to be a symptom of everyone else finally catching up. “We’ve been in our bubble for a very long time and it’s only in the last few years we’ve ventured out of that,” explains Bodin. “Before, we were the only ones appreciating what we were doing. There wasn’t much love coming from the outside so it was nerve-wracking for a long time. It’s quite extreme all of a sudden to hear that André 3000 likes your music, especially when it feels like you’ve been struggling in Gothenburg with no one knowing what you’re doing.”
In fact, being back in LA feels strangely like a sort of homecoming. Their first ever sold-out show wasn’t in Gothenburg or Stockholm but at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip, after the tender “Twice” (André 3000’s jam, apparently) became a playlist favourite on alternative radio station KCRW. “People never fell in love with us in Sweden so they can never fall out of love with us for having success,” states Nagano, blankly. “I don’t know, maybe it sounds big-headed to say it, but I feel like Swedes are not that extreme – there’s a phrase that means ‘just right’ in Swedish. People have style but no one’s crazy – everyone looks a little bit the same. There are also fewer subcultures in Sweden so it becomes a little smaller in that way, and we don’t really fit in. I feel like because we’re not so defined in our (musical) style it makes it hard there. It’s easier in places like LA where they have more subcultures for them to be like, ‘I kind of recognise this but I don��t know what it is, but I like it,’ whereas in Sweden it’s more square.”
As we head to the El Rey for soundcheck ahead of the band’s first gig in 12 months, there’s a palpable sense of nervousness. Some technical business involving using in-ear monitors for the first time has got everyone in a bit of a two-and-eight. “For me personally, the band is part of who I am,” Nagano says as we wait at an endless stream of traffic lights. “This is my family and I bring the Little Dragon world with me. I intertwine everything I do with being in Little Dragon.” It’s for this reason that she spends most of the rest of the journey discussing aspects of being in a band that most bands probably don’t bother themselves with, like her plans to bring two dancers on tour next year – dancers she found and auditioned herself. Her passion for the band can only extend to so much waiting around, however, and after half an hour of watching Bodin, Wallin and Wirenstrand muck about with leads, keyboards and hi-hats, Nagano slopes off to a factory-sized wig shop next to the venue. Inside, faced with a Return to Oz-style floor-to-ceiling cabinet of decapitated heads, she settles for a lilac and turquoise number, a snip at $40. “It’s a bit like the mane of a unicorn,” she gasps, posing outside the venue.
Back inside and munching on an avocado sandwich in the band’s dressing room, Nagano discusses tonight’s support act, SZA, whose velveteen voice is floating around the empty room as she soundchecks. “SZA does her own thing – she’s kind of R&B but dreamy, and she’s not wearing a leather leotard on stage,” Nagano says when asked why she handpicked SZA for the support slot. This sense of “doing your own thing” also applies to Nagano and her female icons, people like Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell. “They’re very individual. They’re not artists that are put together – they are their art. I find that inspiring in all artists, female and male. Just someone being like, ‘This is me, I don’t care, you either like it or you don’t.’” Talk inevitably turns to pop's current troupe of envelope-pushing female singers. Does it feel weird to be working in the same industry and the same broad pop genre as people like Miley and Rihanna when your presentation is so wildly different? “No, it doesn’t feel weird because I can relate to it. It’s definitely each to their own. It’s not like I don’t get it. Sometimes it’s easier to hate because you feel like they’re sabotaging it for you, like ‘ugh’,” she laughs. “But I can appreciate it too, especially when I see people love it, like when I’m with my sister and her kids and they’re singing along to ‘Wrecking Ball’ with so much emotion. At that moment I feel it, I get it.” She’s happy to be part of an alternative, however. “It’s good to have a wide range of representations of women. That’s why it can be nice to see people who are getting props and love for doing the opposite. It’s healthy to have that diversity.”
Later that night, in front of a crowd that includes Kendrick Lamar, SBTRKT and De La Soul, the band debut one new song, the emotionally fractured “Killing Me”. It’s the highlight of a set that feels slightly trepidatious, like they’ve not quite clicked back into gear. By the time we land in San Francisco the next day for their second-on-the-bill slot at the Treasure Island festival, everyone seems relaxed and relieved to have the first gig out the way. That evening, as we drive around looking for a Michelin-starred taco truck stationed in a Best Buy car park, the band are squished into the back of a 4x4, Nagano draped over the guys’ laps, blissfully settled.
Set on a man-made island complete with its own marina and the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop, the festival is bathed in late afternoon sunshine when we arrive the following day, just in time to see Disclosure help some west-coast teenagers shed more layers. Later, during Major Lazer’s bizarre, prop-led set, Thom Yorke, who’s here with headliners Atoms for Peace, stands arms-folded watching as Diplo clambers into a giant hamster wheel. After he lets off a fire extinguisher, Yorke turns on his heels and marches off, suitably baffled. While this is all happening, Little Dragon huddle in their backstage portacabin, seemingly oblivious as what sounds like an air raid siren emanates from the stage. The sense of the band living in their own world is confirmed when talk turns to collaborator Damon Albarn and rumours that Nagano had never heard of him before they worked together. “That’s a little embarrassing to say, but it really is the truth,” she giggles. “My manager was like, ‘Gorillaz want to work with you,’ and I was like, ‘Who?’ Then he said, ‘The guy from Blur,’ and I was like, ‘Does he even still make music?’ I definitely wasn’t as charged as I perhaps might have been if I knew who they were. Everyone was telling me it was a big deal.”
Onstage, the band seem much more relaxed than they were at the El Rey show. Nagano, dressed in her bespoke unicorn-emblazoned denim jacket, whirls a tambourine over her head like an elfin banshee as Wallin and Wirenstrand eke out a textured mesh of synths. The mood is playful, to the point where later on, Wallin, pissed off at Atoms for Peace shutting off the backstage area, leaps over the barrier, greeting an oncoming security guard with a loud, “They’re shit anyway!”
It’s the band’s final night in San Francisco and they’re keen to mark it by going to Madlib’s Boiler Room aftershow, located in what looks like an old school-hall somewhere along a dark, misty backstreet. Inside, the makeshift club is coated in a warm weed fuzz, and the sweaty, cramped environs suddenly feel slightly unappealing when Madlib begins teasing out his headspinning mix of jazz, electronica and hip hop. We decide to leave after 15 minutes, and in the journey to the next club, talk turns once again to those unicorns, who crop up in the lyrics of the delicate new song “Pretty Girls”. “I think I just like fantasy generally,” Nagano says. “Anything that feels surreal. I’m kind of drawn to that ‘waaaaah’ stuff, you know?”
“Out of all the fairytale animals, why unicorns?” Bodin enquires, not unreasonably. Ignoring him, Nagano tries to give a serious answer: “I think that spaced-out vibe, whether it’s fantasy or when visions come to you or psychedelic music...”
“It’s all the drugs we take,” Wirenstrand deadpans.
“No, but I like escapism in a natural high way and I get that from music,” Nagano says, composing herself. “I see visions when I hear music. In that song I saw unicorns.”
Little Dragon's fourth album is out in May on Because