There are defining moments in the life of any band, after which nothing can ever be the same again. For Sweden's Little Dragon, it wasn't so much being asked by Damon Albarn to feature on two tracks for Gorillaz's 2010 album, Plastic Beach, or even touring with the group; it was the baggage that came with it. Literally. Singer Yukimi Nagano, keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand, bassist Fred Källgren Wallin and drummer Erik Bodin are sitting around a table in the cafe of a horticultural garden in central Gothenburg, just across the river from their studio. "Me and Håkan were home finishing Ritual Union, our third album, and Yukimi and Fred were with Gorillaz on the US part of the tour," Bodin explains. "We eventually met up with them in San Francisco and Fred rolled in with a new, nice, green Samsonite luggage case – with wheels. I was like, 'Wow! This is a new level! No more bags that fall apart. We have made it!' And he looked like he knew what he was doing with that case; he didn't seem out of his depth."
Little Dragon, who make artful and clever digital soul music, have an impeccably self-deprecating sense of humour. Today, they're amused by the idea that 18 years after Wallin, Bodin and Nagano started making music together in high school (Wirenstrand joined the band soon after), and eight years on from the release of their debut single, they suddenly look set to break big with the their fourth album, Nabuma Rubberband. "A lot of stories have come out saying we're on the verge of greatness," says Nagano, who has a Japanese father and Swedish-American mother. "It's great, and it feels like something is in the air, but it's strange to us."
Having guested on SBTRKT's ubiquitous Wildfire, as well as with OutKast's Big Boi and the aforementioned Gorillaz, the stage is now set for Little Dragon's own emergence. Unusually for a band in the 21st century, their rise in profile has been perfectly gradual. "Brick-by-brick," as Wirenstrand says. After three albums on British electronica label Peacefrog, Nabuma Rubberband is coming out on Because Music, home of London Grammar and Metronomy. They made their Letterman debut in February, with Jools Holland following last week. "The best thing about TV," says Wallin, with typical wryness, "is that it's the moment when your parents realise you are doing something with your life."
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Little Dragon are primed to fill that gap in the grown-up pop market once occupied by Goldfrapp or Björk. Yet rather than consciously gunning for the mainstream, the new album is contemplative, refined and capacious, partly inspired by Janet Jackson's slow jams. Nabuma Rubberband is a poetic title combining the name of the sister of the group's friend Maddox, a Ugandan reggae artist, and a hip-hop phrase indicating a wad of cash. It opens with Mirror, the ominous lyrics co-written with Dave from De La Soul: "You know you're making me mad… You're gonna make me put my fist through this mirror." The album's first single, Klapp Klapp, has a chorus of "Fallin' apart, apart, apart, apart, apart".
Um, is everything okay in the Little Dragon camp? "Certain songs you think about, you scratch your head and it takes time to finish them," Nagano says. "With other songs, it's like, 'Pow! Pow! Pow!' There's something you need to get off your chest, and this album has a mix of those types of songs. It's more melancholic and reflective but I don't think it's depressing. As a band, we share values – on things like the environment and Palestine – and some songs, like the title track and Pink Cloud, reflect on those issues in some vague way."
'People have been asking us a lot about what the concept of this record was. We had no real concept. Should we? When we're writing, we don't think like that'
Pushed further, Nagano recoils from the idea of using her lyrics to spell out any kind of worldview. "We will never be the kind of band to tell people what to think or even strongly express what we believe in," she insists. "It's more fun to take inspiration from things, write about them in our own way and have people come up with their own interpretations. People have been asking us a lot about what the concept of this record was. We had no real concept. Should we? When we're writing, we don't think like that. You dissect the songs after you've finished them. It's intuitive when you're working."
While Nabuma Rubberband is likely to represent a breakthrough in Britain and the US, Little Dragon are not anticipating similar success at home. "We don't expect people to know us here," says Wallin, emphasising that there's a big difference between who Little Dragon are at home and the fuss surrounding them overseas. Nagano adds that they keep a low profile. Two of them (Bodin and Wirenstrand) have children, and they don't really hang out with other Swedish artists.
"Our sound is different," Nagano suggests. "If you take Lykke Li, for example, she has a very Swedish sound: pop, but also quite minimal and tasteful. Swedes are very good at getting a sense of classic pop, and Lykke does that really well. We have a very untypical, electronic Swedish sound."
"No one ever came in and cleaned away some of the unfamiliar edges we have," says Bodin.
"Also, because Yukimi has a cultural background of being in the States, you can't really hear that she's Swedish," adds Wallin. "Most Swedish singers have a Swenglish accent."
Do people recognise them in Sweden? "Hardly ever," says Wirenstrand, "although some kids point and me and shout, 'Santa!'"
Suddenly there's a big crash as a cacophonous school marching band approaches, playing entirely out of time. "It's the pride of Gothenburg," deadpans Bodin. "The best marching band we have."
This urge to undercut everything with humour is what keeps Little Dragon grounded. The B-side to Klapp Klapp is called Winners, seeming to poke fun at the whole concept of success, although Nagano insists it's not entirely satirical. "I'm definitely not saying, 'We are winners!' It's almost a cliche; it's saying the journey is what counts. The lyrics are: 'May the road be long/ Let something drag on/ Cos it's feeling so nice.' And that's exactly how we're thinking about things right now." Of course, Little Dragon would never be so vulgar as to chase success; all they want is the chance to keep making their artful, digital soul music. And maybe a new set of luggage.
Nabuma Rubberband is out in the UK on 12 May