Firmly a phenomenon in their home country of Iceland, the four-piece band Kaleo is set to descend upon foreign shores in 2015, bringing their gorgeous blend of folk, blues, country, and rock to a wider mainstream audience in America. Their isolated heritage inspires a unique take on familiar sonic elements, resulting in diversity and freedom on each and every breathtaking track.
Best friends since attending elementary school in the small town of Mosfellsbaer outside of Reykjavik, bandleader JJ Julius Son, drummer David Antonsson Crivello, and bassist Danny Jones began playing together at the age of 17. Honing their skills, they played countless shows around the nation’s capital for a few years before adding guitarist Rubin Pollock to the mix in 2012. They named the band Kaleo, which means “the sound” in Hawaiian, and started their career in earnest with a handful of well-received shows at the 2012 Iceland Airwaves music festival.
They recorded their first pair of original songs in early 2013, the fiery “Rock N Roller” and laid-back, bluesy “Pour Sugar On Me,” which earned Kaleo some radio airplay and press in Iceland. Then, that spring, their cover of the traditional Icelandic ballad “Vor í vaglaskógi” during a live radio show was videotaped and posted to YouTube, where it quickly went viral. The band recorded a studio version of the song in June, which went straight to Number One in virtually every radio station in the country. “It’s a different kind of cover, more dramatic and the tempo is taken down,” says JJ. The buzz for Kaleo had begun.
The band signed to Iceland’s largest record label, Sena, in the fall of 2013 and recorded their full-length debut, Kaleo, in just six short weeks. Five singles would reach Number One and the album would go Gold, receiving high praise and sending the band to shows and festivals in Europe over the next year, including an appearance on the biggest stage in their home country, Culture Night, where they played to 100,000 people and reached 90 percent of Iceland’s population in broadcast. Then, in the spring of 2014, Kaleo recorded the lush, introspective song “All the Pretty Girls” and in one night their destiny to outgrow their small, island nation was cemented.
“It’s a very delicate song. It seemed to speak to a lot of people,” says JJ. “From there everything started to happen. We got contacted from other places: managers, labels, publishers—they all went crazy over one night.” Drawn to Kaleo’s multi-layered dynamics, their ability to play different genres with equal skill, the vocals and mood reminiscent of everything from Bon Iver and Iron & Wine to Coldplay and David Gray, and wise-beyond-their-years songwriting, the world came calling.
Now, signed to Atlantic Records in the US, Kaleo has moved to Austin, Texas, and will begin recording new material with producer Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys, Jake Bugg) in London for an EP due this year. Get ready for the sound.
I sat down with JJ to discuss how the band came to be, their upcoming album and what it was like playing inside of a volcano.
AltWire (Danny Benavides): Hey JJ, How is it going? How are you doing today?
JJ: Pretty good, how are you?
AW: You guys beginning your tour?
JJ: We are still in Austin currently, we drop down in Nashville on Saturday and from there, we start the tour.
AW: I know you guys are originally from Iceland and recently moved to the States. What brought you down to Austin?
JJ: Well, we got a record label here in the U.S. so it was a local move to come. Especially since we are doing a lot of touring. We also wanted to record our next album here. We were looking into a few places and Nashville and Austin were are top two choices and the most exciting for us. We wanted to be somewhere in the roots of the music we are inspired by which is a lot of blues. Also, our management company is based out of Austin so it was a good fit.
AW: You made a great choice. So I know you are working on the new album scheduled to come out next year. How did you get together with Jacquire King for the new album?
JJ: We are a big fan of his work and we had talked to him earlier about working together. Fortunately we all found a time in our schedule and its been going great so far. I look forward to finishing the album.
AW: Do you have a name for the album yet.
JJ: No we do not. That’s a tricky part.
AW: How did the band come together?
JJ: We are all from a small town in Iceland called Mosfellsbær in Iceland which is a suburb in the capital Reykjavik. It’s a small town of about 9000 people and we were all together in middle school and that’s kind of where we got started. Me, David and Danny had classes together. We got into playing cover gigs and developed as a band over the years. Kaleo formed about 3 years ago when Rubin Pollock joined the band and played guitar. That’s when we started to focus on original material.
AW: Who were some of your biggest influences coming up?
JJ: I would say a lot of blues music. All the way back to the 70s. Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolfe and the Brits that took over and the great bands from the 60’s and 70s. Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Ray Charles. We have influences from all over, we try not to do just one thing. We try to tap into different genres.
AW: If you have to choose one person, living or passed away, that you could collaborate with, who would it be?
JJ: Great question! Umm… It would be hard not to mention Paul or John as a songwriter. As a band, I think maybe Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands. I don’t know man, it’s tough. I think I will have to stick with John or Paul.
AW: So, I am a bit of a gamer, especially when it comes to FIFA. Are you guys gamers or fan of the game FIFA?
JJ: Some of us are. Yeah we do play FIFA though.
AW: With that said, I have to mention that for the longest time FIFA has had some of the best soundtracks of any games. It is how I discovered a lot of new music as well. I noticed your song “Way Down We Go” was featured in FIFA 2016. How exciting was that?
JJ: It was awesome. a year ago when we were signed we didn’t really know much. We were only playing in Iceland where the population is about 300,000. When we were asked from our publishing label, “What did we want to be featured in?” We said FIFA right away. It’s a pretty big thing in Europe. We are all big fans of soccer, especially myself. I don’t play too many video games but I do play FIFA. I have played since I was nine. We have it on the road in the bus so we can play whenever we want. We got some sore losers on the bus so sometimes we can’t play too much.
AW: Who is your go-to team?
JJ: Um, United. United, for sure. Also, our national team just qualified for the Euro 2016 for the first time. I’m disappointed they weren’t featured in the new game but maybe next time.
AW: Also, I saw you released a video for Way Down We Go back in August. I had to do a double take the first time I read that because it said “Live in a Volcano”. What was that like?
JJ: That was pretty amazing. We did a short trip back to Iceland back in July. We played a great show then we did the video which we thought was a great video. We played inside a live volcano. We reached out to the people there and they were all for it. It was a bit of a task than I had realized because we had to get everything down there. We did video and audio down there. We had to take all of our equipment down there. There was a very small down there, it takes 10 minutes to get down, 10 minutes to get up. It was a 26 hour day. The Acoustics down there were fantastic though, so we were really happy with the outcome.
AW: Who are some artists you are currently listening to?
JJ: It’s different across all of us but I’m into Alt-J’s new album a lot.
AW: You guys made your American debut last year during SXSW, any plans to repeat?
JJ: For sure, we had just arrived in the U.S. at that time. We played 8 shows during SXSW last year so yeah, hopefully we are back. It is in Austin after all.
AW: Thanks for chatting with us JJ and we look forward to hearing your new album out next year.
JJ: Thank you!