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Sweden’s Little Dragon brings big aspirations to Coachella

Why is Sweden producing most of the liveliest pop music on the planet?

There’s the Hives’ garagey grandeur, Dungen’s psychedelic folk, the digital tundra-treks of Efterklang and the indie-rock bang of the Shout Out Louds. Sweden is exploding with pop music. Thanks to the country’s extensive social welfare system, which includes provision for healthcare and even financial support for students attending music schools, unbridled creativity has the space to thrive.

Still, opportunities don’t magically appear on a silver platter. The story’s still the same for young bands the world over: If you want to make it, you have to work it. Even in Sweden, new groups such as Little Dragon have to hustle to survive.

The band’s new “Machine Dreams” is a slice of electronicized eclectica whose eccentric marriage of R&B, classic soul and dance hall is a futuristic flight from the pumping pop of its critically praised eponymous debut released in 2007. Little Dragon’s healthy album sales and quickly ballooning fan base increased when fan David Sitek of TV on the Radio 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.

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The Gothenburg-based Dragon started 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,” singer Yukimi Nagano says. “Any job we could get, from selling strawberries on the street to working in cafes, 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 government during their studies; students who need help to finance their studies also receive assistance. Nagano and keyboardist Håkan 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.”

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

“I have a lot of friends who are musicians in Gothenburg who get state funding for their creative work, but besides that they take any gig they can get,” Nagano says. “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 its 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,” Nagano says. “It was definitely word of mouth, people talking to us after the shows and then spreading the word to their friends.”

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Little Dragon’s appearance at Coachella (where it will perform with Gorillaz as well as playing its own set) is like a dream to Nagano, a dream she’s worked hard to see come true. And if by chance all that roadwork takes a 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 USA.

“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.”

BrandX@latimes.com


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