Yukimi Nagano, singer of Little Dragon, is kinda, sorta from Orange County.
The vocalist's SoCal roots is a surprising discovery, given the electronic band has been Sweden's pride and joy since its eponymous set came out in 2007. Nagano was born and raised in Gothenburg, Sweden, to a Japanese father and an American mother, but as a kid, she lived in Orange County for a year with her grandparents in Santa Ana. “I don't really have Swedish blood, but I chose Sweden because that's my home and that's where I was born,” she says, “but this is totally home to me, too.”
It makes sense, when you consider how it all started for Little Dragon in Southern California. KCRW was the first station to play their breakthrough hit, “Twice,” off their debut. It ended up getting TV air time as well, featured on shows such as Grey's Anatomy, Revenge and The Vampire Diaries.
Fast forward seven years and three albums later, and Little Dragon's slow-yet-steady ascent into fame has pretty much turned the band from buzzy to major, selling out shows in venues across the United States. Their fourth album, Nabuma Rubberband, is the first one on a U.S. label, as well as the first to receive marketing support, Nagano says. “We'd never had that before; we always just toured without any marketing. It was just tour, tour, tour and word of mouth. So when we first came [to tour], our venues had no one, and then we'd come back to tour the next album, and venues were half-full, and we'd come back again on another tour, and it would be sold out. We definitely worked our way up there.”
Bigger venues, critical acclaim and more fans changed certain things for Little Dragon: their writing style, their performances and their expectations for the band–made up of Nagano, Erik Bodin (drums), Fredrik Wallin (bass) and Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards). “Music is just what we need to do,” Nagano says. “We love writing music so much that we would do it even if we had side jobs because that's just who we are. But sometimes, there's a certain amount of pressure that can be paralyzing, but it just means it takes a little longer to warm up than when you had nothing going on, when you were just doing it for your soul and there were no fans out there.”
One benefit of making a name for themselves was being able collaborate with people they admired, such as Dave Jude Jolicoeur from De La Soul, who co-wrote “Killing Me” and “Mirror.”
“I always loved that track ['Mirror'] but didn't know how to start on it,” she says, “so Dave pushed me and got me creative on that song.
“He's such a fantastic writer and great lyricist,” Nagano continues. Dave and Little Dragon became friends on the Gorillaz tour and kept in touch through the years. “He's one of those people I ask for feedback and ideas, and he's a fan of our music as well. It's super-cool to have someone you admire and look up to give an honest opinion of our songs.”
Nabuma Rubberband reflects these moments of maturity; unlike previous albums, it isn't a set of just chill-out songs or dance anthems. Instead, it's a mix of the dancey, rock-around-the-room songs (“Klapp Klapp”) and more atmospheric tracks such as “Mirror.”
“For this record, we were like, 'Fuck it, let's do whatever sounds fun,'” Nagano says. “If we feel like having three slow jams on the record, we're not going to be hindered by ideas that we have.”
And in case you were wondering: the phrase Nabuma Rubberband doesn't really mean anything. Nabuma is an Ugandan girl's name. “It was originally a working title for one of the songs when we were working on the record. We kept it because it sounded awesome,” Nagano says.
“Those words together are an odd, weird combination, and we kind of liked that it didn't mean anything and it potentially could mean everything. You could give it its own weight: It could be a name, a place, a euphoric state, a feeling, a dance,” she continues, adding, “We Googled it, and nothing came up, so rather than having a name that's already loaded with meaning, we can take over it as something that hasn't been said.”
Little Dragon perform with Dam-Funk at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Mon., 8 p.m. $35; the band will donate $1 from every ticket to Doctors Without Borders. All ages.