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Little Dragon Dreams of Electric Sheep

From ABBA to Opeth to the Shout Out Louds to The Soundtrack of Our Lives to the Hives to Dungen to Club 8 to Peter, Bjorn and John, Sweden’s exploding with the most imaginative pop or rock or whatchacallit music on the planet. Why this should be the case is still somewhat cloaked in mystery, but here’s an angle on why it oughtn’t be such a head-scratcher: Fresh creativity is best nurtured in a place relatively free of money and health woes. Sweden’s “creative class” has largely benefited from the country’s extensive social welfare system, which provides for health care costs and financial support for artists attending music schools. Smor och brod gor kinden rod –– Butter and bread makes cheeks red.


But the story’s the same for young bands ’round the world: If you want to make it, you have to work it, and there are very few safety nets. Even in Sweden, new bands like Little Dragon gotta really hustle to survive.

The band’s new Machine Dreams on the plucky Peace Frog label is a spacy slice of electronicized eclectica whose coolly eccentric marriage of R&B, classic soul and dancehall is a futuristic flight from the pumping pop of their critically praised eponymous debut released in 2007. Little Dragon’s healthy album sales and quickly ballooning fanbase were aided immeasurably when fan David Sitek of TV on the Radio having invited the band to open shows on his 2009 U.S. dates; getting the track “Twice” played on Grey's Anatomy didn’t hurt, either.

The Gothenberg-based Dragon started out like a lot of struggling young artists, primarily concerned with keeping a roof over their heads in order to nurture their art.

“We’d been doing all kinds of stuff, anything so we could pay our rent,” says singer Yukimi Nagano. “Any job we could get, from selling strawberrys on the street to working in cafés, driving taxis. We would work any kind of job that wouldn’t take up too much of our time, so the rest of the time we could be making music.”

In Sweden, students can receive a periodic wage from the state during their studies; students who need help to finance their studies also receive assistance from the central government. Nagano and keyboardist HĆkan Wirenstrand had made several attempts at gaining entrance to music schools, though neither was accepted.

“We tried out for the music universities,” Nagano says, “but it was sort of an option in order to not have to work outside jobs; if you’re in music university in Sweden, you can dedicate all your time to doing what you like –– it’s like encouragement to do what you want.”

While Sweden’s increasingly overburdened welfare system has made opportunities for school support slimmer, it is there for a fortunate few, who’ll nevertheless still need to work to make ends meet.

“I have a lot of friends who are musicians in Gothenberg who get state funding for their creative work, but besides that they take any gig they can get,” says Yukimi. “In our case, it was working, like, five jobs just to pay the rent, but at the same time working as little as possible.”

Yet work, work, work the band did, pushing their first album with an intensive touring campaign aided by viral waves of fan support.

"We did everything from all the album covers to promoting the shows,” says Nagano. “It was definitely word of mouth, people talking to us after the shows and then spreading the word to their friends. But no matter if just 10 people came to the show, we’d just dive into the music and make ourselves proud, ’cause otherwise there was no point. And those 10 people would come and they’d all buy CDs, and then next time they would tell their friends, and they’d come back.”

Little Dragon’s tireless roadwork, which recently included an appearance at the Coachella fest (where they performed with Gorillaz as well as playing their own set), is clearly paying off for the band, sure –– but it’s like a dream to Nagano, a dream she’s worked hard to see come true. And if by chance all that touring takes a wee toll on her health, she needn’t worry: As tax-paying citizens of Sweden, she and her bandmates have health insurance that will fully cover their needs, even in exotic locales like the good ol’ USA. It’s a system that Nagano likes, and for which she doesn’t mind paying a relatively high price.

“Sweden has a really good system,” she says. “It’s not perfect, but they try to make it affordable for everyone. I have health insurance for whatever I need. That’s where you want your tax money to go.”

Photo: Seek Studios