Seven years ago, the electronic soul quartet left its hometown, the second-biggest city in Sweden, and didn't take an extended break until coming off the road in support of its last album, 2011's Ritual Union. Things were going too well to stop. Its popularity was growing with each release. Artists from Damon Albarn to Big Boi tapped them for collaborations. If the band slowed down, there's no guarantee, in today's hyperspeed music culture, that it could pick up where it left off.
"For us, we toured so much, and haven't had the luxury of being able to stop because we couldn't afford it," says singer Yukimi Nagano, who just returned to Gothenburg following a U.K. press blitz for Little Dragon's upcoming fourth album, Nabuma Rubberband. "We were just on a roll, which is great. But you get to a point where you need to take a timeout."
Only after three albums did Little Dragon earn the capital to go home again. Nagano insists the band's members, who have been friends since high school, weren't on the verge of tearing each other's eyes out on the tour bus or anything. But they knew that, before going forward, they needed to recharge. And in a way, returning to Gothenburg brought the band back home musically as well.
Little Dragon broke through in 2007 with "Twice," a spare, drizzly ballad from its self-titled debut, constructed from little more than wistful piano and Nagano's drifting, spectral vocals. But the song turned out to be an outlier: Over three albums, the band has defined itself by a meticulous blend of trip-hop, electro-pop and futurist R&B, a sound suggesting Sade if she aimed her quiet storm at the club instead of the wine bar. Though frosted with a wintry Scandinavian cool, the mood, more often than not, is dialed up.
Nabuma Rubberband, though, finds the band circling back to "Twice" and exploring the slow-jam territory it had previously only grazed. Nagano admits that, in the past, the group felt self-conscious about bringing down the tempo, out of fear of getting pigeonholed. But that's the other thing success buys: the ability not to give a shit.
"Maybe there was that little paranoid feeling before, like, 'I don't want to make too many slow songs,'" she says, "but we've grown to the point where we don't really care.â
Not that slowing down was part of the plan. Moving into a bigger studio, the band worked up the music the same way as it always has: drawing rough sketches, picking the best of the bunch, then building them up into complete songs. For Nagano, though, the break from the road gave her time for self-analysis. "I felt a little tired of myself," she says. "I didn't want to sing another song about love and heartbreak. I can do that very easily, and sometimes you want to challenge yourself.â
And that's what she does right off the bat. "Mirror" opens the record with tense, crazy-making keyboard stabs and Nagano speaking directly to herself: You can practically hear her hands balling up before she declares, "I'm going to put my fist through this mirror"—a promise punctuated by the sound of shattering glass. Nagano workshopped that song, and many others, with David Jude Jolicoeur, better known simply as Dave of De La Soul, who encouraged her to get both more introspective and more universal.
"I'm very good at being all over the place with my lyrics. I've never really been able to write a story everyone understands," she says. "And the guys don't really pay that much attention to the lyrics. They're so zoned in to the music. They have a ton of opinions on how I sing something, but not necessarily what I'm singing."
Throughout, the music is some of the dreamiest of Little Dragon's career. But it's not all so floaty: "Klapp Klapp," the lead single, is the band's most propulsive song yet, riding a persistent, clip-clopping rhythm and snaky, thundering synth bass. For the most part, though, Nabuma Rubberband sounds like it's coming from band that's finally had a chance to relax and reflect. And what it's reflecting, in large part, is the stillness of its hometown.
"It's not like things are going full speed here," Nagano says of Gothenburg. "You come home, and you're like, 'What's happened?' 'Oh, everything's like normal.' It's like time is frozen."
SEE IT: Little Dragon plays Roseland Theater, 10 NW 6th Ave., with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, on Thursday, April 10. 9 pm. $28. 21+.