In December of 2014, the Grammy Awards released the names of the nominees for the upcoming ceremony. The Best Dance/Electronic Album category contained Aphex Twin, a 1990s legend returning after a lengthy hiatus; Robyn, the beloved Swedish pop star who had already been nominated three times; and Deadmau5, a mainstream dance-fest mainstay enjoying his fifth nomination. And then there was Little Dragon, a Swedish quartet that has never cracked the Hot 100.
“It caught us off guard for sure,” says lead singer Yukimi Nagano, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, where her group was rehearsing for a U.S. tour to promote their new album Season High. The nomination also prompted an aesthetic dilemma – what does a band that is used to being left of center do when the mainstream catches up to them?
The Grammy nod demonstrated how much pop had shifted in Little Dragon’s direction since the band released their first album in 2007. On that eponymous debut, electronic music and R&B lived happily side by side. This partnership turned out to be prescient: while these two forms had been mixing for years on million-selling records – Janet Jackson’s “Empty,” Kelis’ “Caught Out There” – the combination was still somewhat unusual for an indie group. A decade later, an electronic backdrop and a working knowledge of Aaliyah hits is more or less standard, even on songs by Banks and Maggie Rogers that get played on rock radio.
Nagano says that she, keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand, bassist Fredrik Källgren Wallin and drummer Erik Bodin arrived at their sound largely by accident. “I really had this dream of being an R&B singer,” she explains. “Håkan was just listening to Vangelis and Kraftwerk. Erik came in with more hip-hop references, Fred as well. Alone, we wouldn’t be that strong. If I would’ve sung on some big producer’s stuff, it would’ve been totally boring. [My bandmates] brought something special out of me, and I brought something special out of them.”
Other artists endorsed the combination. R&B polymath Raphael Saadiq – whose wide-ranging résumé includes years as a hitmaker in the group Tony! Toni! Toné! and production on Solange’s acclaimed A Seat at the Table – drafted Nagano to contribute to his album Stone Rollin’. “Their songwriting is great,” he says of Little Dragon. “A million streaming records come out a day, but Little Dragon was one of those ones that got me.” In 2016, the group worked with the veteran rappers De La Soul, the dance-floor maven Kaytranada and the Australian big-room producer Flume, another indication that multiple branches of pop are embracing Little Dragon’s approach.
Despite the band’s interest in collaborating with others, past Little Dragon records have typically been insular affairs with no guests. The band opened up more than ever before for Season High, even welcoming their first guest star: a high-school friend named Agge, who contributed a histrionic guitar solo. And Little Dragon also solicited additional production from both James Ford – a member of Simian Mobile Disco who has overseen albums for Arctic Monkeys and Depeche Mode – and Patrik Berger, a savvy studio presence with a winning credit list (see Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap”).
“It has taken us time to let people in,” admits Nagano. “I think it’s an ego and a pride thing – we’ve been very protective about not necessarily wanting people to touch our stuff. But we’re getting better at it. When you’re caught up in your bubble, it’s always good to have someone from the outside who has some distance to give some advice and some focus. At the end of the day, we want to evolve and learn new tricks.”
Season High is not a jarring, transitional album. This group has never felt compelled to induce whiplash; in fact, their willingness to lay back and luxuriate presaged a wave of reflective, unhurried pop that remains trendy today. “We have an easy time writing dreamy, slow songs,” Nagano acknowledges. “We always have too many.”
There are a few of these on Season High, just as there are on their old records. The most striking is “Butterflies,” where the band assembles a zen garden of serene synth tones. “I’m really proud of that song,” Nagano says.
Still, Little Dragon have never been as forthright as they are on Season High‘s club-friendly first half. The intro to “Celebrate” hints at both Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait” and New Order’s “Blue Monday,” while “The Pop Life” stacks galloping synth progressions, and “Sweet” – abetted by Berger – organizes zinging electronics and blurting backing vocals into a Eurodisco march.
These moments all serve as signs that the group isn’t planning to stay put and wait for the rest of pop to pass them by. “I know we have our sound, but I hope we can keep evolving and even if there is a genre that we’re in, not get stuck in that,” Nagano says. “In high school, we’d try to impress each other – have you heard this? – with any kind of music. We really want to be universal in that way.”