The four musicians in Kaleo may be from Iceland, but they share much more sonically with American roots and blues. Vocalist JJ Julius Son, bassist Daniel Kristjansson, guitarist Rubin Pollock and drummer David Antonsson have a growing reputation for their varied palette of folk, blues and indie rock. Kaleo accepts this description and even named their American full-length debut, A/B, for their influences.
The album, which will be released June 10 on Elektra/Atlantic, also features a version of the band’s first Icelandic hit, “Vor í Vaglaskógi.” The song does not contain any English and was originally released in the group’s home country in 2013.
Both of their U.S. hits, love ballad “All The Pretty Girls” and “Way Down We Go,” a video for which was recorded inside a volcano, are also both on A/B. The album was recorded primarily in Nashville with producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, James Bay), but as Julius Son and Antonsson told us at BottleRock Napa Valley last weekend, contributions were made in dozens of other cities while the band toured the world.
RIFF: A/B, the title of your album, has a certain connotation in Silicon Valley and in San Francisco. A/B testing; choosing one over the other. What does the name mean to you?
JJ Julius Son: It’s the concept of a vinyl record, you know, A-side and B-side. We thought it was a good way to show the diversity of the music. If you could catch the live show, (you would see) it’s pretty diverse. People like to label it into different genres here. So the concept was side A being more rock and roll and blues, and then side B is more of the softer ballads and folkier stuff, if you want to label it that way. Pretty much, hard/soft.
Let’s talk about the A and the B. The diversity in your songs. Now that you’re touring all these different songs, have you noticed how your fans react to everything as a whole? Are there fans who love the faster, bluesier side or fans that like the more down-tempo stuff?
Julius Son: I think since we were back in Iceland, we’ve always had a diverse crowd. People from being young age to older people come to the shows.
David Antonsson: I think the oldest guy we met at a show was 80-something years old.
Julius Son: It’s true and we’ve seen that happening here as well. So we just feel like that’s great. We didn’t have much music out there, but we’ve been putting out a few more singles now and, obviously, the album is coming out June 10th. We can hear people singing along with more of the songs now that they’re out, so that’s enjoyable for us. The last few months we’ve really seen a bit change and it’s been growing, more and more people come in and more and more people know the music already. That’s a thrill for us.
I loved the video you filmed inside inside a volcano. What volcano was it? Who had that idea?
Julius Son: It’s called Thrihnukagigur. … It’s quite close to the capital. However, you have to park your car and then walk 50 minutes through the lava. Yeah, we had the idea.
Antonsson: We didn’t know if it was even possible at first. It is (a tourist destination).
Julius Son: Yeah, you can go down there.
Editor’s note: This volcano, the name of which loosely translates to “Three Peaks Crater,” last erupted 4,000 years ago and lore says that only locals can pronounce the name correctly.
The most recent successful crossover to the U.S. from Iceland was Of Monsters and Men. Some of their stuff sounds a bit similar to yours. The rest, not so much. Do you get comparisons to those guys? What’s the music scene like in Iceland right now?
Julius Son: No, I don’t. They came to our concert in Alabama the other day, they’re great people.
Antonsson: Iceland has only population of 300,000, so you always have a mutual friend, if you don’t know the people already. The music scene is really great. It’s really diverse.
Julius Son: It’s been growing a lot. It’s become really big and obviously the focus is becoming bigger in Iceland because of Of Monsters and Men, or the Sugarcubes, or Björk breaking out of Iceland. That’s definitely helping the music scene as well. We don’t really get compared with a lot of Icelandic bands because we feel like we have a different sound. We think our sound relates more with American music, and blues music, and roots music.
You have visited 40 states in your first year in the U.S. What are some of the most interesting things you have seen? Has America been everything you expected?
Julius Son: We have seen most of the states. Every state is different, in my opinion. For a European, it feels like crossing countries sometimes. Some of my favorites so far are San Diego, Nashville (and) Chicago. I don’t think we really knew what to expect when coming to the States. It has been an adventure from day one, and we look forward to the future, whatever it may hold.
Three of you — yourself, Kristjánsson and Antonsson — have been friends since elementary school. Rubin Pollock joined in 2012. What made you get serious about making music as a career and what were you doing previously?
Julius Son: I had just graduated and some of us were working at kindergarten, painting and so on. I have always been serious about my music. I think it was just a matter of time before we were all ready to say, ‘OK, now let’s focus on our own music and get it out there.’ Thankfully, we were very lucky and got a great response, and the last few years have been amazing and adventurous for us.
Your first single, “Vor í Vaglaskógi,” rolls a little bit like “Stairway to Heaven.” Who are some of your influences?
Julius Son: I have a lot of influences. I’ve loved listening to music since I can remember and started writing songs when I was about 12 or 13. There are so many different artists that have influenced me along the way, but in my recent years I have definitely been digging into Delta blues and soul a lot more, and music from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
What’s the song about?
Julius Son: It is a love poem between two people and describes a special spring evening in a forest. The lyrics beautifully describe the nature and everything around them as well as the love they have for each other.
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.