By Rob Goszkowski
Janet Jackson was in heavy rotation when Little Dragon went to work on Nabuma Rubberband, the album they released in May. That’s the Janet-era Janet — the sexy, sultry version of the R&B superstar — so it’s no coincidence that there are a few slow jams on the fourth record by the electro, soul, and synthpop quartet.
“I think we fit in right now at the moment. But we do love the '80s and the sounds of that era have been a big part of our childhood soundtrack,” explains drummer Erik Bodin.
At the moment of this correspondence, he and the band, including vocalist Yukimi Nagano, bassist Fredrik Källgren Wallin, and keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand, are “in Japan, trying out all the extra technical features everything has. Like automatic toilet cover lifts and such. We are also doing some shows at the Summersonic festival.” The lack of high-tech privies not withstanding, the band is excited about its return to the U.S. (They hit the Fox Theater for a sold-out show tomorrow, Fri/22.)
“We always felt love from California, and especially the Bay Area,” says Bodin. “People really seem to have an easy time getting down to our music.”
Indeed, much of Nabuma Rubberband is easy to dance to. It’s also restrained and mature in many respects, amid the bounce and clap of its soundscapes. It is — and feels like — an album recorded during winter months in Sweden. The beats can be sparse, the lyrics world-weary, yet they’re still fun. That dichotomy is well-represented in the album cover artwork by Chinese photographer Li Wei. It features a photo by of a little girl in a white dress in mid-air with her arms outstretched, the background a flat field of dormant, brown grass and traces of a smoggy/foggy city on the horizon.
And then there’s “Paris,” one of the album’s three singles, with its wonderful depth: a rollicking hi-hat and a danceable beat, but with somber chords and singer Yukimi clearly expressing that pulling away from the relationship in question.
It’s a workable songwriting strategy and they return to it over the course of the record. While there’s a solid groove in every track, the band may pair it with sober warnings about the greed (“blinded by the rubberbands”) or the risk in the pursuit of fame (“You’re aiming the royal scene/Fast luck /TV dreams/ Pretty girl, don’t get struck”) “It's all up to each and everyone to interpret the lyrics ... but of course we put a lot of consciousness into our lyrics and music,” Bodin says. “It's nice to mix it up and pair dance music next to deeper, more-serious lyrics.” (Nagano breaks down the meaning of the title track here.)
The band has deliberately not abandoned what made them creatively compelling when they first formed the group as high school students in Gothenburg, Sweden. Youth provides energy and unpredictability, which is great for creativity, but it can also lead to bad decisions that can hurt the group and its career. The band’s name is reference to Yukimi’s feisty personality — she's the youngest in the group. While the resulting tension has settled, Bodin contends that they haven’t changed that much since they started playing together in 1996.
“Fred is still the tallest. Yukimi still the smallest. Håkan is still the smartest (he thinks). Erik is still the smartest (actual fact). It feels like the circumstances have become different, though. We don't have as much time as we used to just playing, fighting, painting and such. It's both a good and sad thing. We feel it's important to protect the childishness and playfulness.”
Their spurts of levity aren’t hard to find. In their music video for “Paris,” the band halts its road trip through the countryside in an orange VW bus at a small roadside deli. Håkan, repleat with a magnificent red beard, loses badly in an arm-wrestling match to a petite, straight-faced girl. Why is unclear. “That is a question we all wonder about,” Bodin says, maintaining the band’s dry humor. “He is not so strong after all, it turned out.”
Or they’ll apply a few less-serious words with a serious message. A trifling man playing games with his lover is called “smooth cat rider.” A pretty girl hung up on “the free fantasy” of easy fame? That’s “Riding a unicorn through your Dali.” Bodin will neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of these interpretations during his interview with the Bay Guardian, only acknowledging that, “Fred wants to ride a cat, but the rest of us prefer the more reliable unicorns.”
Despite the diversion in opinion about which animal is more worthy of a saddle, the band is committed to being a single unit with the inevitable rise and fall of internal disagreement that accompanies it. “You get a buzz out of seeing all different wills and wishes clash and turn into a beautiful ‘trasmatta,’” Bodin says cryptically. “There is a hidden translation quest calling upon the reader in this answer.”
Friday, Aug, 22, 8pm, $29.50
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