Gothenburg, Sweden, is a city of contradictions. The Scandinavian metropolis teems with a cosmopolitan art scene and also hums to the tune of cargo ships and factories. It is pummeled by snow and enshrouded in darkness in winter, yet the long summer days are temperate and bright. The city is world-renowned for its jazz scene, as well as being the death-metal capital of the world (also possibly the black-metal capital, and never mistake one for the other to a fan, ever). And now this city of opposites has spawned a new worldwide sensation: a trip-pop outfit called Little Dragon.
On their two full-lengths, Little Dragon and 2009's Machine Dreams, vintage synths mesh with the propulsive percussion, while minimal guitar and staccato bass lines punctuate these seemingly simple songs that hold up singer Yukimi Nagano's icy/soulful voice.
Comparisons fall short with Little Dragon. How about "the Residents fronted by Björk minus aggrandizing self-indulgence and heady experimentalism"? Or perhaps "Sade meets Kraftwerk." Sadwerk?
Little Dragon's sound has few analogs, but that's the way they want it.
"We are not trying to become a part of anything," bassist Fredrik Wallin says. "We are just into making music and sounds that we like. I think that when you're trying too hard to fit in, you lose your identity."
Wallin is crashing on friends' couches in L.A., just a few days before the band begins a new American tour starting in San Jose, then opening the National History Museum's First Fridays series on Jan. 7. Los Angeles has been good to the band, which received heavy rotation on KCRW before they had released a proper record here.
"First show we did in the U.S. was at the Roxy," Nagano says. "We played there with no record out, no press, solely on the support from KCRW. It was a full house and we were a bit shocked. I think it proved the power of radio support."
While lounging in L.A., Wallin has been listening to the radio, going to shows and taking notes of what the city — vastly bigger than Gothenburg, with a population of about half a million — has to offer.
"Just found this band called Odd Future from here, really like their sound," Wallin says," and [TV on the Radio's] Dave Sitek is a unique artist and wonderful guy. Also working with bands like Nite Jewel, DâM-FunK and Flying Lotus would feel natural and fun."
Collaboration and cross-pollination are hallmarks of the band's creative process. Little Dragon recently completed a three-month stint with Damon Albarn's multimedia project Gorillaz. Earlier in the year, Albarn had selected Little Dragon to collaborate on two songs on the latest Gorillaz release, Plastic Beach, making them the only musicians to play on more than one song on the album. Wallin and Nagano then joined as part of the Gorillaz' backing group and the rest of the band arrived in November to act as a supporting act for the remainder of the tour. Wallin says the experience provided some lessons for the band's recording sessions for their new album.
For the new record, due out in the spring, they recorded in their home studio in Gothenburg, taking cues from the city that helped these high school friends cultivate their band back in 2006.
Nagano says the geographical isolation and creative climate of their hometown helped to shape the evolution of Little Dragon. "I think even if it feels like we are in our own bubble, we are still very influenced by the Swedish music scene. But we try to do something that we never heard before, so hopefully it doesn't sound like what they're doing in the studio next door."
For Wallin, the basic foundation of Little Dragon's surprising global success is Sweden's official cultural policy, which works equally to support its pop stars like Robyn and Sweden's metal icons In Flames. "Sweden has an amazing and diverse scene," Wallin says. "I can't explain why, but the socialist and welfare system definitely has something to do with it."
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The Swedish government has many grants for musicians and subsidized housing for artists, providing support for musicians ranging from ABBA to The Hives. In a rich but peripheral country whose language is facing the distinct possibility of eventual extinction, the government has looked to rock and pop music as a way to disseminate "Swedishness" to the world. It considers popular music a distinct art form worth saving and sponsoring.
But as Little Dragon shows, this notion of Swedishness is broader than any Nordic stereotypes. Cultural juxtapositions obviously play a big role in Nagano's personal journey. "My [American] mother has Swedish roots from my grandfather's side and she lived in Sweden for 15 years," she says. Her Japanese father moved to Sweden in the early '70s and still lives there.
"I was born in Gothenburg and I feel very Swedish," Nagano adds. "But moving around in my childhood made me experience a lot of contrasts in cultures. I think experiences from my past will often give me images for lyrical ideas. I like to mix up images in songs, a bit of the present, a bit of the past, a bit of a dream maybe."
Little Dragon play the Natural History Museum on Friday, Jan. 7, and the Echoplex on Saturday, Jan. 8.