In just three years, Kaleo went from playing small venues in Reykjavík to signing with Atlantic Records, legendary home to artists such as Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and Alvin and The Chipmunks. As part of this development, the four-piece rock-and-blues band have packed up and moved to Austin, Texas, where vocalist Jökull “JJ” Júlíusson says they’ll live “for good.”
“We’re taking it all in, but I think living here might just improve and emphasise what we are already inspired by,” JJ tells me. “We haven’t been here long but we can hear a lot of blues out here and a lot of new inspiration.”
With a vibrant local music scene, Austin is one of cities in the American South where blues music has thrived, a genre that JJ says Kaleo is deeply inspired by. In Austin, the group is living in a house together like “one big family.” Their upcoming debut US tour kicked off with the largest showcase festival in the world: South by Southwest (SXSW).
Get in the van!
“SXSW was pretty intense but it was really great,” JJ says. “It was definitely different from anything we’ve ever played before.”
When JJ and I caught up after SXSW, his voice and demeanor were noticeably exhausted. His tiredness was understandable, though: Kaleo had just ground through eight shows over five days. Though the shows were “awesome,” he says they were going non-stop and “kind of just driving back and forward between shows and doing radio stuff.”
Nowadays, Kaleo’s schedule is fully booked. Their tour, plus finding time to record their upcoming EP and fitting back-to-back media interviews—he had to pause our call for a minute so he could order lunch—all while acclimating to their first-ever transatlantic move doesn’t give them much time to take a breath and reflect on the sensational yet dramatic changes that have happened to their lives in the last few months.
“To be honest,” JJ says of his experience at SXSW, “I didn’t really have that much time to check out shows as much as I would have wanted.”
After all, that was one of the reasons they moved to the United States and the South in particular: to connect to the local music and immerse themselves in blues music and culture. But JJ assured me that they would carve out the time to go to shows, jam with local musicians and experience the culture.
Like most bands, Kaleo has humble roots. Growing up, JJ and his friend Daníel “Danny” Kristjánsson (the group’s bassist) jammed on guitars together in their families’ Mosfellsbær homes. Exploring the artform, the two listened to thousands of tracks together—finding particular joy in classic rock, oldies and American blues—and spent hundreds of hours jumping down the Internet’s rabbit holes, learning more about music history and genres like the blues.
Once Davíð Antonsson (the group’s drummer) joined their jam sessions, they quickly transformed into a three-piece band, playing gigs all across Reykjavík. They performed everything from troubadour sets at small bars to cover songs at company parties.
“We took every opportunity we could,” JJ says.
In 2012, they made the decision to focus on their own music and picked up guitarist Rubin Pollock. They played together as Kaleo for the very first time at an Iceland Airwaves off-venue show.
They couldn’t have known what would unfold in the following three years. Their debut release, “Rock N Roller,” helped them garner a modest following, but it was a recorded cover of Icelandic campfire staple “Vor í Vaglaskógi,” for unsigned band radio showcase Skúrinn (“The Garage”) at Icelandic State Radio’s Rás 2, that propelled them into the country’s national spotlight.
“Everything went crazy,” JJ says. “They videotaped [the performance] and it went viral.”
They recorded a studio version of the song, which went live in June 2013, along with a music video that earned nearly half a million views on YouTube. Sena, Iceland’s largest record label, latched onto their growth and produced Kaleo’s fulllength debut album in an almost impossible time span of six weeks.
Iceland: It’s such a small market
By 2014, Kaleo had rocketed onto larger stages in Iceland and played at festivals around the country and even abroad. During all of these exciting developments, JJ says he took trips out into nature to “zone out and find peace.”
“The nature in Iceland is beautiful,” he says. “And you don’t have to drive far.”
His favourite spot was a summerhouse near Laugarvatn, an hour east of Mosfellsbær, which is where he wrote the visceral and emotional track “All The Pretty Girls.”
“It’s just such a summer sound,” JJ says of the song, which became the crucial turning point in Kaleo’s journey after the song went viral online, racking up more than two million plays on Spotify alone.
“We were absolutely not thinking we were going to get that response from ‘All the Pretty Girls,’ it was a huge surprise,” he says. “You’ll never know which song is going to take you there.”
After the track’s release, managers, labels and publishers outside of Iceland took notice of their growing popularity and started reaching out to negotiate deals. “We didn’t know which way to look,” JJ says. “We didn’t even know the difference between a publishing company and a management company because Iceland is such a small market.”
Over the next few months, Kaleo’s then-manager Sindri Ástmarsson would enter negotiations with Atlantic Records, one of the biggest record labels in the world, home to legendary artists such as the Rolling Stones.
“It was a crazy roller coaster ride,” JJ says.
Finding their formula
After signing with Atlantic Records and exploring U.S. markets like Nashville, JJ says the band collectively decided on Austin to be their new home. Their current manager Bruce Kalmick operates out of the city, and JJ says they liked Austin’s music scene and history.
“It’s so easy to be inspired now that we’re in the land of where it all happened,” JJ says, referencing the history of American blues music. “We are in the roots.”
Just six days after arriving to Austin in February, they played their debut US show at Lamberts, a local venue that focuses primarily on blues music.
“We’re huge fans of Delta blues from the 1930s and all those great artists like Son House, Robert Johnson and Lead Belly,” JJ says. “They’ve been recording in some of the prisons even—it’s fantastic.”
JJ also showed his respect to Alan Lomax, who recorded many of the Delta blues artists in the 1930s and 40s with his father John. In his memoir, ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’, Lomax linked the birth of blues music to segregation and slavery, two themes that also provided inspiration for Kaleo’s track “Broken Bones,” JJ says.
“Broken Bones” starts off with sharp lyrics: “The devil’s gonna make me a free man / the devil’s gonna set me free.” Forty seconds into the song, a tambourine emulates the rattling of chains that many slaves were shackled by. The track cuts right through the flesh—down to the bone—with an authentic blues sound, which is surprising considering Kaleo formed more than 6,000 kilometres from the birthplace of American blues.
JJ says that with the advent of the Internet, it was easy to listen to and learn about music styles that existed outside of Iceland.
“If you look at it, we’re just a blues band at the end,” JJ says. “The same formula but with a different kind of vibe to it.”
Johnny Cash—also from the American South—famously sang the line: “Get rhythm when you get the blues,” which was quoted by Bob Dylan in his MusiCares speech this February: “Very few rock ‘n’ roll bands today play with rhythm. They don’t know what it is.”
Arguably, Kaleo is one of the exceptions to Dylan’s statement, as their rhythmic rock sound inspired by the blues was present throughout their debut record. It’s this raw talent that likely caught the ears of the many American labels who reached out.
Kaleo hopes to showcase who they are as a group with the release of their upcoming EP, which JJ says is expected to drop this summer. This is a particularly exciting record for the group since they’re collaborating with Mike Crossey, the same producer behind the Arctic Monkeys’ first three albums. Even before arriving to Austin, they spent a few weeks in Crossey’s studio in London, JJ says.
“We’re fortunate enough to work with some great people,” he says. “We’re going to also find some time to just keep making music and hopefully get further and further,” he says.
Perhaps Kaleo, whose name means “sound” in the Hawaiian langauge, will make it as far as Hawaii. “We’d love to tour there,” he says.
Definitely on the list for them this year, though, is the now-distant land of Germany, and JJ says they are “crossing our fingers to be able to come to Iceland for a few days this summer.”
“Kind of a shame to miss out on the Iceland summer,” he says. “I would love to at least come home and get a little taste.”
During the interview, JJ reflected back to his early days in Iceland, before the birth of Kaleo, in those simpler times when JJ and Danny just spent hours listening to American blues music. There’s so much that has changed since those beginnings, and though he says they’re excited about it all, he acknowledges it has been a wild ride. There’s still so much ahead of them, he says.
“We are very privileged and fortunate,” he adds. “We are just going to keep developing as a band, trying to get better in the studio and play as many shows as we can. That’s what it’s all about, right?”