The sky slowly shifts darker and the heat subsides over a crowd of 200 slightly sunburnt, sweaty bodies in the backyard of an Austin, Texas bar. On the small shaded stage, Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano moves to the pulse of the music. Holding a tambourine in one hand, she pushes herself towards the left, where Håkan Wirenstrand stands behind a double-decker keyboard, and bounces her hands toward him. As the beat deepens she lifts her arms, and her body, led by the tambourine, floats back the other way to face Fredrik Wallin. He looks up from his bass nodding, a small smile spread across his face.
“Repetitive rhythms and sounds make you forget about time and then acknowledge it again, but in a rhythmic sense,” Erik Bodin, the drummer, said when we met in Brooklyn a month prior. On stage, the band is fully engaged with the rhythmic sense. Nagano’s small frame creates a third palpable wavelength above her softly booming lyrics and the vibrating synth. She conducts using her whole body, leading the crowd through Little Dragon’s world. “You just follow the drum. It’s a very natural feeling,” Bodin added to his dancing tips. Next, Nagano moves from Wallin to share the drums with Bodin. We’re in this together.
This is how a group of high school friends perform, with complete comfort and connection, a presence fully developed over 18 years. I asked how they still keep things fresh and exciting after all that time together, “We wrote naked,” Bodin half-joked.
The band was in the U.S. promoting their upcoming album, Nabuma Rubberband (“It could mean everything and anything. It’s nothing, so you give it your own meaning,” Nagano said), picking up fans who have missed the past three. The night before I met them in Brooklyn, they performed “Klapp Klapp” on the Late Show with David Letterman. Later, I catch them live at South By Southwest where they’re performing four shows to remind those who’ve been out of the loop since 2011’s Ritual Union that they’re still around and, just in case you’ve been worried, better than ever.
The past four albums have been experiences in tribal soul, psychedelic funk, and avant-garde electronic. On Nabuma Rubberband, the band’s sound has evolved into its fully formed and mature self. Not mature as in settled, safe, or conservative, but rather in the “Thank-you-very-much-I-can-take-care-of-myself” kind of way. Though they’ve collaborated with a diverse group of critically acclaimed artists like Gorillaz, Big Boi, and SBTRKT, Little Dragon prefer to create their own music in-house, between four close friends, using the same cheap equipment they’ve routinely gathered. For each of the past nine years, the band has bought one new $200 synth. Working on Nabuma Rubberband, they finally had the opportunity to create without deadline, without side projects, without outside influence—a first-time luxury for the band. “We just focused on recording and writing and had the freedom to do whatever we want,” Wallin said.
“You find a sound you like and you mess with effects, tweaking it and changing it. Then, all of a sudden it doesn’t sound like an original sound. It has your own character,” Nagano explained of the guys’ technique, lovingly calling them “sound nerds.” It’s that freedom to explore and experiment in a contained space that defines the band. Each noise is a Little Dragon original. They fill every second with a broad, lush aesthetic. Listening to an album is entering an aural playpen of new sounds to explore. Say, a South African drum beat inspired by Bodin’s wife’s hometown, or a Jamaican-influenced kick from Little Dragon’s previous life as a reggae band.
Nabuma Rubberband begins with a deep, repetitive thump. We’re walking down into a dark candlelit room covered with rugs, tapestries, and pillows as incense smoke wafts through the air. Once we fully step in, Nagano’s voice enters right behind. We’re surrounded by layers of interacting sounds—tinkling cymbals, drowning synths, starborn keys—lightly bumping, and bouncing off of each other. Both in the studio and on stage, all suggestions and impulses are tried, tested, and trusted. Building from a lifetime of friendship, Little Dragon have created a safe space for exploration. Four trusted perspectives valued over a posse of collaborators or fancy equipment. “Water. Electricity. Computer. It’s amazing how little it takes for you to go into a trance,” Bodin said.
Growing up in a small industrial Swedish town, there weren’t many options. “In Gothenburg, you can either play basketball or start a punk band,” Wallin, who at 6’3” could’ve made a decent point guard, explained.
Before they became Little Dragon, Nagano, Bodin, Wallin, and Wirenstrand were just a group of friends too embarrassed to perform in public. “If somebody else came in the room we felt like we were naked,” Bodin said. But in 2006, after ten years of practice, Christopher Berg, a friend of the band and a leading figure at the record label Off The Wall, persuaded them to release a record. “We were very good at floating without any sort of direction,” Nagano said. Unable to imagine that their music had an audience, Berg guided the band towards the public. “He definitely pushed us,” Bodin added. “We needed somebody else to get the confidence. I was always happy to make music, but we weren’t driven to promoting it.”
On stage, Nagano thanks everyone multiple times between each song, not really saying much else, instead allowing her dancing and lyrics to speak for her. “Writing simple love songs comes easy to me,” Nagano said. For Nabuma Rubberband, though, she expanded her repertoire. “It’s challenging for me to write about other things, but I tried to do something different than what I always do and what comes easy.” At its most basic, Little Dragon makes dance music, but Nagano’s lyrics add depth. “It’s fun when it can keep giving you new feelings,“ Nagano says of first experiencing the beat and only later understanding the words.
She works to match her metaphors with the images the music evokes. “It’s easy for me to see surreal, psychedelic images. The guys have a tendency to bring that out,” she said. “Like a ballerina dancing on a swallow that’s going full speed.”
Nagano recommends listening to the new album “when you’re on a tram or travelling or taking a walk,” so as to create “a live visual for the music. It can be dreamy and a really good escape.” Standing at the concert makes me think she might be wrong on this one, though. It’s during the live show where Little Dragon thrives, but it’s that same sense of motion—Nagano’s pulsating dance, the constant movement of a long train ride—that unites the two.
Back at the backyard bar, with Nagano and her tambourine as guides, the crowd follows suit with her loose, unselfconscious dancing, everyone throwing their hands in the air, palms curving to match the sinking synth. We become the young girl floating across the Nabuma Rubberband album cover, “It’s hopeful because the background is this very dark, gray Chinese city, and she’s just rising,” Nagano said. “She’s the future.” And so is Little Dragon.
What is your WILD Wish?
Erik: Two more days in the weekend and three more hours per day.
Yukimi: Flying. Or eternal life. Eternal life of the band.
Frederick: Three Girls.