One of the star attractions of Gorillaz' US tour last autumn was Little Dragon, a barely known four-piece from Gothenburg. Having been invited by Damon Albarn to contribute to the album Plastic Beach, and having co-written "Empire Ants" and "To Binge", they found themselves playing arenas.
Listening to Little Dragon's new album, Ritual Union, you can see why Albarn, pop's greatest experimenter, is a fan. It is hard not to be drawn in by the minimal beats and synth grooves of their electro-soul, which are overlaid with the airy vocals of Japanese-Swedish singer Yukimi Nagano.
The drummer Erik Bodin and bassist Fredrik Wallin were drawn to her at high school, in 1996. Nagano was 14 when the pair, two years older, invited her to join their band. "From the very start, we were struck by Yukimi's voice", says Bodin. "She was extremely shy, but she had this super-dark voice, she could sing very low." The keyboardist Hakan Wirenstrand came later, as did the band's name, which was inspired by an outburst from the feisty singer during a rehearsal. "Back then she had a fiery temper," says Bodin. "I think when you're young you don't know how to express what you feel and you get angry. At some point someone called her a little dragon."
Poised to enter the Top 20 with Ritual Union – their two previous albums went nowhere near the chart – Little Dragon might now have to relinquish their cult status.
"It's very exciting," says Nagano. "It feels like we've put so much work and heart into it. But I feel like nothing has happened suddenly. There hasn't been that one moment where suddenly our song was played on the radio and everything changed."
Instead, everything has changed over the two years since the release of the band's second album, Machine Dreams. It is not only Albarn who has been won over by their charms. TV on the Radio's David Sitek invited Nagano to collaborate on a solo project, Maximum Balloon, and the band also contributed to Raphael Saadiq's new album, Stone Rollin'. Andre 3000 is such a big fan that he tipped off Big Boi, who will now produce one of the band's songs for his new album.
"It's super flattering", says Nagano. "It's crazy how someone that you have listened to and has somehow shaped who you are has suddenly come back and said that they've been inspired by your music." As a teenager, Nagano loved Saadiq's R&B supergroup, Lucy Pearl. "That was kind of crazy to hear," she says, "that he thought our album was the best album of the year."
Such collaborations are sure to attract further attention but, says Nagano, "it's not intended at all. Almost the opposite. We've been determined to not have any guests on our own album. But being on the road and meeting other artists and inspiring people opens that door. I think if the vibe is there, and there's a kind of connection, then why not?"
They found such a connection with Albarn, who has a similar approach to songwriting. "It's very experimental and kind of restless and that's what we do as well," says Nagano. "It's all very much about being spontaneous. We want it to feel fresh."
Nagano describes Albarn's working methods with childlike enthusiasm. "His studio was real cool. When we were writing with him, there was a bunch of instruments, everything from church bells to percussion stuff to all kinds of different synthesisers, so the guys would jam something and you'd just record that. There's a spontaneous moment that you try to capture."
Little Dragon's studio is chaotic – the band built it themselves and it is where they are most comfortable. "It's kind of junky, kind of messy," says Nagano. "It's just a place where we feel completely at home and comfortable, it's the place where you don't feel afraid of trying stuff. It's our zone."
You might have imagined that Little Dragon would have upgraded to a shiny new studio, to parallel their climb to fame, but they like to keep things just as they were when they began.
"We'll stay there until we get kicked out," says Nagano. "If we were in some fancy studio and the clock was ticking away and it was costing so much to be there and you have an engineer – just having a stranger in the room can change the whole energy of your creativity. We don't mind the mess and the chaos, everything there is us and our past and who we are."
If the band feel particularly at home at the studio, that is because they lived in it, as part of a musicians' commune, before they made their debut album in 2007. Known locally as the Seal Colony, it was a place where musicians would rest their heads and hang out between gigs. It formed the foundations for many of the songs on the band's eponymous debut.
"It was intense in a way because we would almost never go out," says Nagano. "We were just stuck in our little place, writing music. We forgot to go to the post office and forgot to pay our bills and only went out to get food. It was a funny time in our lives because we really dived into writing music, playing music. That was all we did, we were just writing songs and jamming out. We became lost in there."
The stripped-back songs on Ritual Union strike a balance between dance party tracks and dreamy electro-pop. "We want people to dance, or listen to it really loud in their headphones," says Nagano. "Music is an escape for us and hopefully people will want to crank it up really loud and sing along." The album's sound was informed by everything from Brian Eno to Busta Rhymes to commercial pop and African house music, which Bodin picked up while visiting his wife's family. The trance-like, minimal feel of that music rubbed off. According to Bodin, though, it was Nagano who most shaped this album.
"She has developed a lot over time, but it feels like on this record she's very direct," he says. "It feels louder. We just try to decorate the music along with her voice. Since she's very direct, it made the music more minimal. Because we were doing everything ourselves on this album, we were confident to strip it back and have it minimal rather than adding and adding."
The band's home city, which Nagano says is "kind of boring" has spawned such artists as The Knife and José González but it did not inspire Ritual Union. "If you want to have excitement and you want to be inspired I don't think Gothenburg's going to give you that", Nagano says. "But if you want to inspire yourself and dive into your own zone like we do, then it's a good place because you don't really get distracted."
"It's grey and industrial," says Bodin. "But the winter, cold and darkness can inspire you to be creative and do something."
Having met Bobby Womack, De La Soul and members of The Clash while on tour with Gorillaz, Little Dragon are not ruling out further collaborations. "We all shared the same childish passion for music," says Bodin. "Bobby Womack said the simplest but wisest things, like 'It's unpredictable what's going to happen, just stay true to yourself', and it made a big impact on us. Paul Simonon said that he really liked the way we play because when we play live it's so dramatic. It felt really nice because that's what we are striving for – to have some fire, [and] dramatic, intense feeling."
So the band's name is still appropriate. "Exactly. Since Nagano's not so frustrated and angry anymore, now the name has more to do with us as a group, as a fiery little creature."
'Ritual Union' is out now on Peacefrog Records