If you've never heard of Little Dragon, it's only because you haven't been listening.
When the Swedish electronic pop-soul quartet first blew through Tampa in March 2010, they were an indie band boasting modest success. Their haunting single Twice was featured on Grey's Anatomy in February 2009. Their second album, the bizarro '80s dancefest Machine Dreams, was released in August of the same year. Oh, and somewhere during all that, Damon Albarn called.
Now, after tuning up for their third album, Ritual Union, with a return visit in March and spending the better part of a year touring the globe with Albarn's Gorillaz, Little Dragon is returning for a third show at Crowbar on Tuesday. But even after sharing a caravan with the likes of Bobby Womack, Mick Jones of the Clash and the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music, playing an Ybor bar is hardly beneath them.
"I think we're still kind of the same way we've always been," drummer Erik Bodin said by telephone from Los Angeles. "We're in a position where we can treat ourselves a little bit better. But playing for any crowd gives you such a high. As long as we have a stage to play, everything is fine."
They've had quite the number of stages to play. When they're not out averaging five shows a week on their own tours, they were opening for and playing support with the Gorillaz Plastic Beach tour, which traveled everywhere from Dublin to Hong Kong to Auckland. It was a big break for the Gothenburg four, whose music caught the ear of Albarn's partner, Suzi Winstanley. She liked them so much, she told the former Blur frontman he absolutely had to work with sultry Japanese-American-Swedish lead singer Yukimi Nagano and her friends.
It was initially hard to get noticed outside the burgeoning Gothenburg music scene — although the group is adamant there's no real scene there, despite being the home of brilliant acts like Fever Ray, Junip and The Knife. "There's a lot of bands, but there really isn't a forum for us," Bodin said. "Everyone's kind of hiding in their studios."
Then came the real exposure: A shot on Letterman with Gorillaz. A performance of their own song Nightlight on Jimmy Kimmel. The interviews rolled in from there.
The group has banked plenty of artistic cred with its ubiquitous collaborations. While Nagano won her bona fides as a teen soul singer with Scandanavian outfits like Hird and Koop, Bodin, bass player Fredrik Kallgren Wallin and synth wizard Hakan Wirenstrand helped craft a sound that has paired well with indie-folk countryman Jose Gonzalez and London producer SBTRKT. Nagano has of late lent vocals to tracks by Raphael Saadiq and DJ Shadow.
"We haven't searched out for any of this," Bodin said. "We've been lucky to have a lot of really good artists work with us. You don't have a lot of time but it's worth it." It's worth it because work brings more work: The group's next big workout will be with Outkast's Big Boi. "We are going to meet him to see what comes out of it," Bodin noted.
Coincidentally, Bodin credits another group performing in Tampa Bay this week for helping them get noticed: "I think the first time someone reached out to us was when we toured with TV on the Radio," he said, alluding to their stint opening for the band in 2009. "We had a really good time; we really connect with them." So much so that TV on the Radio guitarist and producer David Sitek invited Little Dragon to contribute to his 2010 solo effort, Maximum Balloon.
These side projects have naturally lent a progression to the band's sound, which has shown a clear evolution from its eponymous debut to Ritual Union. While there's no direct progression from the band's soulful ballads to synth pop anthems to borderline off-key experimentation, the spare feel of its latest effort is definitely intentional.
"We wanted some songs that would leave a question mark. We wanted to put it out there so they don't know what's next," Bodin mused. "We want to be unpredictable."
That's an easy goal for a band that took so long to break out — Nagano, Bodin and Wallin formed the group in 1996, but didn't record for a decade — then found success so quickly. They've even added old classmate Arild Werling to help play support, although he's missing most of the U.S. leg of the tour to be with his newborn child back in Sweden. Bodin said it's entirely possible Werling may stay on for a fourth album, though. Considering Little Dragon's recent trajectory, it's not out of the question the arena shows it played with Gorillaz could one day be solo stints.
"We're getting up there with the big, big crowds, and it's special," Bodin said. "A couple of years ago we would be scared. Now it feels like home."