Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano has a voice both commanding and unique, a heady rush of audio that grabs your ears with soulful pop hooks and doesn’t let go until the music stops—not that you want it to. She’s also never succumbed to a mold, opting instead to reject any con- ventional labeling the music press has applied to Little Dragon’s out- put. In a similarly rebellious vein, Arto Lindsay helped define a new generation of brutal, primitive noise music in the late seventies with legendary no wave pioneers DNA and continues today to push the pro- verbial envelope as both a producer and consummate guitar noncon- formist. Together, Nagano and Lindsay in conversation are not as strange a pairing as you might initially think, as they seem to meld perfectly with dissolving barriers between mainstream and under- ground. Their conversation was both awkward and refreshingly obvi- ous: today’s avant-garde musician challenging yesterday’s, the oddities of influence, the need for escapism, and the frustration of limitations. Are we the only ones daydreaming of the collaborative possibilities?
Arto Lindsay: When I listened to Ritual Union, I really liked the way that you mixed electronics with conventional acoustic instruments from the very beginning. You’re also using music software and techniques that you can identify when you’re a musician, and you use them really well. It’s an exciting record, and it sounds like the band has a lot of pent-up energy. When the singing stops, the music just kind of bursts out sometimes. Like the band’s playing the song, and then suddenly there’s all this music, if you know what I mean. It’s a different kind of energy than what comes out when you’re singing, and that makes it feel like a strong band and not like tracks made by a producer for a singer.
Yukimi Nagano: The guys make a point of sampling all the sounds we have, so we can play them all live. We aren’t dependent on any kind of backing track; when we’re onstage we have the freedom of changing the tempos and changing the form. Not that we necessarily improvise to that extent, but I think that kind of openness is really what keeps it alive when you’re playing in front of an audience. And that’s really important, but it’s also frustrating because it takes a lot of time. If you only had guitars, you could learn whatever you need to learn and just play it. Now it’s a couple weeks of sampling all the sounds and learning to arrange it on the queue so you can actually play it live.
But it sounds much better that way. I’ll tell you, it does.
I think a lot of electronic “bands” these days have gotten lazy in terms of using a backing track. It makes everything sound and feel a little bit flat.
I absolutely agree. It sounds a bit karaoke. Like it’s shrink- wrapped; like there’s plastic between you and the song somehow.
People really do get lazy. You see a lot of big bands like this where the drums are coming off a computer and the drummer’s playing on top, but he’s just playing the hi-hat or something. So it looks like there’s a drummer, because audiences love to watch drummers, but . . .
There’s not much going on.
Singing is kind of an explosive job. You have to be able to explode on cue. It’s good therapy, actually. That way I don’t have to do it offstage.
What about this famous temper of yours when it comes to performing live?
It definitely helps.
Is this, like, an old story that you’ve already discussed in dozens of interviews?
I don’t think it’s that bad anymore. It’s certainly not healthy to have a temper.
I also read that you recently worked with Big Boi.
Yeah, that’s right. We’re huge fans of his music and the last OutKast album, so we were really excited about collaborating.
What does he do? Does he make beats and play an instrument, or does he just do a verse on one of your songs?
Well, this was for his album. We gave him one of our tracks, and then he had a track that I sang on. It was more a collaboration.
You recorded the track ‘Empire Ants’ with Gorillaz too.
Yeah, that was real cool because we went on tour with them, and we got to experience the whole Gorillaz madness.
It’s a huge outfit, the Gorillaz thing?
It’s like a traveling circus.
You’re from Sweden—but were you also born there? I’m from New York, but I grew up in Brazil. When I came back to New York I saw the city with fresh eyes. Do you still live in Sweden?
Yes, we all live in Gothenburg. My mom has been living in Sweden for fifteen years, my dad for over thirty.
But neither of your parents are Swedish . . .
My mom’s American, from Orange County in California. My dad’s Japanese. And tomorrow’s my birthday.
You’ve been friends with the guys in your band since high school?
I’ve known Erik, our drummer, since I was fourteen. The others I’ve known forever too. We’ve grown together and become sort of a little family.
Since 1996, right?
Yeah, that’s when we met.
What kind of places did you play in Sweden?
Little jazz clubs. Student venues. There wasn’t much at the time. We’ve played much larger shows since then.
Do you write the songs together?
Pretty much. I mean, it usually starts with me coming up with a beat or lyrics or some beginning of the song and then everybody just takes it from there. Occasionally the guys will come to me with something they’ve done, and I’ll write lyrics for it.
Do you play an instrument and write the chords too?
No, but I still feel very involved. Even though I don’t play anything, I’m still able to throw musical ideas around. Sometimes when people are jamming, they have a hard time saying what’s good and what’s not. I’m like the person on the outside who says, “Stop! That was good—can you play that again?”
I’m not so different myself.
What do you play?
I bang on a guitar, mostly noisier stuff. And I sing. With other people, I write pretty straight songs. Sometimes it’s me writing the melody and coming up with the chords, other times I just write the lyrics. Have you ever heard my music?
I’m not sure. I know you’ve been around for quite some time now, though.
Check it out afterwards. I’m also a producer, and maybe this allows me to hear things in abstract ways. Anyhow, one cool thing I’ve noticed about Little Dragon is that live, everybody in the band mouths the lyrics. I think that’s pretty neat. It would be great to watch you guys on stage with a giant video screen and have the cameras not on you but on the rest of the band lip-syncing while you’re singing. Like they’re your fans or something, singing along. For me it comes across as a sign of people who’ve really grown together.
Absolutely. It’s intense. Music is really the force that keeps us together.
What were you guys listening to when you first started?
Erik was listening to a lot of older hip- hop—A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes. Håkan was more into various synth wizards, Kraftwerk and stuff like that. We were all listening to a lot of soul as well. We’re all avid listeners, so we’re always showing each other stuff.
But you write all the lyrics?
Yes, and the vocal melodies as well.
Your lyrics are pretty literate. You must read a lot during the long Swedish winters, no?
Not as much as I’d like to. I have my phases where I’ll read everything I can get my hands on. Then I’ll stop. Usually it’s because I’ve read a bad book and I just get turned off from reading for six months or something.
That’s strange to get turned off from reading in general by a bad book.
I always feel like it’s not fair to not finish a book, so I feel guilty if I give up. It’s like if you go jogging, and then you stop in the middle. Do you read a lot?
I do. But I’m also the kind of guy who’ll just stop jogging if I’m tired. Are you sporty?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I like yoga, but I’m not really the sporty type.
I wonder, do you do these interviews all the time?
I haven’t done interviews for a while now. We’ve been home for a month just writing, being in the studio, you know—trying to write new material.
How personal are your lyrics for you? They sound personal to me.
I try to mix it up and not make it too obvious, but yeah, they’re very personal. I like a little ambiguity, you know?
I like ambiguity too. I think that one thing that makes a very good lyric is that you can hear it different ways at different times, and you can find new meaning in it, you know? You start to notice things that you didn’t notice the first time. But your lyrics sound good on first listen, which is also really important. They sound natural. They don’t sound . . .
Well, yeah. And they don’t sound formal.
Did you ever write about your temper?
You mean aside from the band name?
Maybe not directly. More in terms of writing about the many different sides of personalities within yourself, that kind of schizophrenic feeling. The good and the evil, the angry and the calm. All the different contrasts.
A temper-tantrum sounds like a good subject for a song. You wouldn’t have to have one; you could just talk about it.
I think I’m a very emotional person. I deal with a lot of ups and downs, and that becomes very present in my mind. That can become an easy subject to start working on.
When you started out, did you consciously model yourself on any particular singers, like soul singers or anything, or did you just get going?
I think both. I had different periods where I really dove into one artist. Prince, Faith Evans, Jimi Hendrix, Depeche Mode . . . I wouldn’t necessarily say the classically “good” kind of vocal bands, but more singers that I loved, I guess.
Yeah, Prince is a super interesting artist, right? He’s so, I don’t know . . . It just seems to flow out of him. I don’t know if you know this, but supposedly he goes into his studio, he writes the song, he records the song, he mixes the song and then he goes home. So other people—musicians, technicians—just fall away. He needs a couple engineers, but eventually they can’t stand it, so they leave, and then somebody else comes in and he just keeps going. Twenty-four hours at a time. I worked with a couple of engineers that worked with him, and they had crazy stories. But he seems like a fairly tortured guy. There’s the classic kind of sex and religion thing going on there, you know?
And the Black American thing. Or just the American thing, really. You mentioned Hendrix before. Tell me a bit about him as an influence.
I like the psychedelic, otherworldly feel of Jimi’s songs. I’m drawn to music that takes me to another place—a place I can escape to. In my teens, I listened to so many of Hendrix’ albums, and forgetting the world around me is definitely what his music did—it helped me escape everything. I’d just put on a song really loud, and just, well, escape.
I had that same experience. I also love his rhythm. It’s so relaxed, and his feel is so loose but still so strong and confident. Do you work with music software yourself, or do you just listen and work with other people?
I like to work with people, bounce ideas back and forth and be able to develop ideas that way. I’m certainly not one of those do-it-all-myself artists. I think a lot of people have that confidence and that skill, but my confidence is in working together with my band, and with the people I make music with.
Can you tell me a bit about some of the other guys in the band, like what they’re good at?
Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Erik has a certain sound, obviously all the songs he starts out with almost always have live drums on them. I can hear in a second who did what, who started what idea. Most of the music on Ritual Union was written by Erik. The first album was more a mix of everyone. There were also a lot of songs that we didn’t intend to release at all, that were more like demo songs. When we signed to our former label Peacefrog, they gave us a little advance that we spent real fast, and then they said we had to use our demo material; it’s either the demos or nothing. So that wasn’t a very positive experience for our first album release, really. Everything got so blown up and sensitive, you know? It was a really big deal that we didn’t get to mix the songs, that there were a few songs that we didn’t intend to have on the album. That was difficult. But at this point, in retrospect I think it’s still us, at the end of the day. We made the songs, and of course we make a lot of songs that we wouldn’t want to share with the world. At the same time, that first album stands for a specific episode for us as a band, and the second album is more electronic. We got labeled with the first album as a bit “neo-soul” or even trip-hop; words that we don’t really like at all. We didn’t think of our music like that, and we didn’t want it to be like that, so for Machine Dreams I sang more minimal. It was more dancey and electronic. We wanted to play songs that people would dance to and not ballads that people would fall asleep to. The second album was more “do everything right” as a contrast from the first, and the third album is, I think, a little more confident in that we’re just doing whatever.
Did you switch labels after the first record?
No, actually we had a three-album deal with Peacefrog, unfortunately. We were basically stuck with a label that had no budget and no real marketing plan. They did the bare minimum and we did everything else. We just started from scratch, started playing places live and building it from there by word-of-mouth. We started touring in the US without an album out, and without any press. But we had support from KCRW on the West Coast. They had our first album as the second-most played after Radiohead that year, so that kind of showed us the power of radio. Los Angeles was the first place we ever had a sold-out show, and it was a shock.
So you guys had to do this whole thing on your own, almost despite the record company.
And now you’re free for your next record?
Yeah, we’re so excited. We’re completely out of this deal and talking to different labels, looking at all the options and trying to make a smart decision so that we feel like we have full creative control and, hopefully, some budget to actually make some of our visions possible.
Photo: Yukimi Nagano in her hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden. By Hans Martin Sewcz.
Published April 16, 2012. Words by Arto Lindsay.