It takes a couple of weeks before I hear back from Icelandic rock musicians KALEO. It’s early March; the band, signed to Elektra/Atlantic, has been in Paris deep in promo work, but as COVID-19 sweeps through Europe, the group had to quickly change their plans.
Not ideal for those who love being on the road. In the years since the release of studio album A/B (2016), KALEO has toured Europe and the US almost uninterruptedly. The record features tracks that tie nicely with an ice-cold whisky, downed in a miscellaneous, remote dive bar.
Grammy award-nominated opening track ‘No Good’ is a heavy-footed banger that demands a screeching audience; it’s followed gently by ‘Way Down We Go’, a tumbling, spiraling self-reflection that sets the pace for eight more folky, liquid melancholic tunes. KALEO’s rock-drenched Americana conjures dusty highways, beer bottles thrown from immaculate drop-top cars and a tour schedule that can’t – and won’t – sleep.
But as governments enforce stringent lock downs, gigs and concerts have been the first to get ditched. Fortunately, KALEO’s A/B, which catapulted the band into the spotlight, is the perfect antidote to quarantine ennui. An aux cable, an old speaker and a bit of bedroom dancing will have to do the trick, for now.
Lead singer-songwriter, JJ Julius Son, sits atop the peak of the band’s smooth Icelandic garage rock, penning wistfully. He’s reluctant to share much about the inspiration behind his songs, likely preferring them to speak for themselves. It’s something fans can find marbleized on the cover of the band’s upcoming, new album, Surface Sounds, where a volcano spews into the air, while beneath, a heart-shaped iceberg hides submerged in the ocean. Regardless of the details behind the lyrics, JJ authentically expresses his passions through falsetto screams and poetic lyrics on unrequited love, all backed by boot-stomping performances by his band. Like with most rock bands, expression and performance is key to a good show, even if it is through speakers, under isolation.
The band’s knack for performance is seen in two new tracks, ‘Alter Ego’ and ‘Break My Baby’, from the upcoming record. They’re loud and demanding of an audience, while the third, ‘I Want More’, adds a soft reprieve from the head-banging and air-guitaring. Set to be released this summer, Surface Sounds will likely be the soundtrack of most fans’ quarantine, should it persist: delivering raucous highs and lows laced with opulent and confident rock. “Our hope is that new music can continue to be a great unifier in the most uncertain times,” KALEO confessed on Twitter. As we speak, the band remains set to tour the album in the summer as part of its Fight or Flight Tour.
What have you been up to? What’s been keeping you busy these days?
In the last few months, I have been busy finishing the album. We had planned a radio promo tour, but obviously the ongoing virus (COVID-19) has affected us all so I am now in Iceland for the time being while everyone is encouraged to stay home.
For people new to your music, could briefly explore your beginnings? How did you start out as a band? What did you set out to do and do you feel you’ve reached that goal?
I have been writing music from a young age. I started taking it seriously around 2013 and after that, things happened very fast with local success in Iceland and then moving to the US a few years later. I think my goal is still the same: to make my music and record and perform it around the world.
Who were some of your early musical inspirations?
There are too many to mention, honestly. Blues, jazz, rock and classical music are all big influences.
So, there was a four-year hiatus between your last album and now – a lot of time was spent on the road, touring – how has this been? How has this time helped or influenced the creative process?
It has been a challenge. It can be tiring and we toured most of the year for many years. Therefore, I recorded part of this album on the road to get started. I jumped into studios around the world and tried to take something away from each place.
KALEO recently released I Want More / Break My Baby, a double single taken from your upcoming album, Surface Sounds. Could you tell me a bit about what made you choose these as your lead singles? How significant are the songs to the new material/album concept as a whole?
I think every song has just as much value on the album for me. However, these felt like good first two singles to show different colours as they are quite different from each other.
How is the second album coming along? What’s the creative process been like working on this?
It’s been a puzzle for me. As I said I started working on it while still touring around the world and then in the last year or so I have mostly split my time in studios in Nashville, LA and NYC. It has been very interesting as the songs are very different from each other and I have been able to work with a lot of great people.
You’re currently scheduled to embark on a tour for the album – the Fight or Flight Tour – what’s the preparation process been like? What are you most excited to perform for your fans?
I am excited as I plan on having more people on the stage, a bigger show and obviously more songs to play. There is a lot of new material [that] I am excited to perform, and I look forward to visiting new places along with some old favourites.
What has changed between creating your previous album A/B and the new project? How has the music evolved or changed, from your perspective?
It is perhaps hard for me to say as I live it every day and might be too close to the project to really judge that. But I think the difference in this album and the last is that I had more time to explore sonically on this album.
The new work seems to have been a transatlantic process – working from around the US to around Europe – how has travelling helped to keep your perspectives fresh?
I think it is important as you are surrounded with different people and different cultures and I think that has an effect on the final product.
What does expression mean to you in your music? Why do you feel it’s important for people to express how they feel in today’s climate?
I think it is very important that people express themselves. There are issues that concern all of us in today’s world where we all need to come together and unite. You can see that very clearly with the ongoing battle against the coronavirus and I would love to see the same happen with climate change.
How do you express yourself outside of music? Do you explore other forms of art and expression?
I hope to do more of it but in the last few years I have simply not had time for many things outside of music.
What does the band tend to do to switch off and relax away from work?
I try to stay healthy and eat well and exercise. I am also a big fan of soccer and have been from a young age.
What’s really important to you at the minute?
Like most others, I am concerned about this virus at the moment and hope we can get it under control and that it blows over as soon as possible.
Now we’re in a new decade, what music do you want to put out into the world? Why?
I can only put my own music out there and hope that people respond to it.
KALEO’s ‘Backbone’ – the latest track to drop from their new album – is out now
Photographer Doh Lee
Stylist Aurelie Mason-Perez
Groomer Maria McKenna