A year ago, the band Kaleo played its first shows away from their island of Iceland in small venues in Denmark and Latvia. A few months and a viral “All the Pretty Girls” song later, label reps flew to Iceland attempting to sign the band whose name means “the sound” in Hawaiian. Kaleo signed with Atlantic records, moved to Austin in March 2015, and in four months they have toured with Vance Joy, played South by Southwest, Bonnaroo, The Road to the Hangout in Orange Beach, and Sloss Fest in Birmingham. Next month, they return to Iceland to open for Kings of Leon.
The band is adjusting to life on the road in the United States with seven guys crammed into a small van. The band is Jökull Júlíusson (J.J.) (vocals, guitar), Davíð Antonsson (drums and vocals), Daníel Ægir Kristjánsson (bass), and Rubin Pollock (lead guitar). In the days before they return to Mobile to for a show at Soul Kitchen on July 19th, they shot a video in a volcano in Iceland for their new single “Way Down We Go,” played in New York City, took the long way to Birmingham with a broken-down van and an empty gas tank, and played in a blast furnace shed on the inaugural day of Sloss Fest.
We interviewed the members of Kaleo at Sloss Fest. Their English is good, but they speak Icelandic to one another and it sounds nothing like English.
“It is terrifying to hear them speak together,” said their road manager from Austin.
“When people hear us, they think we are fighting or mad at each other,” laughs J.J.
TSR: A year ago you were an unsigned band. Where were you playing?
J.J: We were playing at the Faroe Islands. They are small islands with a population of about 50,000. We played a festival in a small town of 1,000 people but it was packed. Then we went on a small European tour of Latvia and Denmark.
TSR: Did you know bigger things were about to happen?
J.J. Not at all. That was our first tour outside of Iceland. We called it the “toilet tour” because it was a cheap tour, the gigs were small, and all of us were crammed into a rental car. It was fun, but I am glad we didn’t have to do a lot of those. We never would have dreamed that we would be playing Bannaroo and Sloss Fest a year later.
TSR: What changed and could you feel it?
J.J. “All the Pretty Girls” went on Spotify’s Viral Fifty, a list of the top 50 viral songs in the U.S.
Rubin: The labels pay attention to those lists.
J.J.: Last September was supposed to be a break for us because we had been touring a lot in Iceland.
Rubin: Which is three places.
J.J.: It is. Then you go again.We were really tired so we took a month off in September and went our separate ways. I went to Spain, Rubin and David went to Denmark, and Danny went to Thailand. All of a sudden it exploded and labels were calling and many people were trying to get us to sign something. We needed time to be cautious and think this through, but we were scattered and it was hard to reach everyone. We came home early to do showcases and people flew to Iceland from all over the U.S. to listen to us. A few days later we flew to L.A. and then to New York.
Rubin: It was a surreal time.
J.J.: It was crazy and stressful when we were trying to make a good choice.
TSR: Was your music ready?
J.J.: I think so. We released a debut album in Iceland and we had great success in a very short time. We were thrilled, but the ultimate goal for most European bands, whether they admit it or not, is to play in the U.S. It is the ultimate stage. We were ready, but it has been more than we ever expected. Overnight it went crazy.
(Kaleo released their debut album, Kaleo, in 2013 on Iceland’s Sena record label. Five singles reached number one and the album went gold.)
TSR: I heard “All the Pretty Girls” many times when we were in Colorado a few weeks ago. Sirius stations have you in heavy rotation.
J.J.: That is cool. I heard it once on the radio when we were in Nashville. I am not going to lie, the first time you hear yourself on the radio is a special time. For us, it was back in Iceland and we were so grateful. It is crazy that people in different countries now know our songs.
Rubin: It is so much fun when crowds here sing along.
J.J.: I love playing music festivals like Sloss Fest today where people come to listen and pay attention. Social media gives people a chance to get to know the bands and pick who they want to see.
TSR: You posted beautiful pictures of your trip home to Iceland a few weeks ago. What were you doing in the volcano?
J.J.: We shot a video in the volcano for the song “Way Down We Go” that we are releasing in August. That is one of the only places in the world where you can go inside a volcano and shooting a video there was an idea we had years ago. We carried in all of the equipment, the video and recording gear, lights and drumset and we played the song live.
July is a beautiful month time in Iceland. The sun goes down around midnight and comes up around 1:30 or 2:00 a.m.
TSR: You are here on four-year visas. What was the hardest part of moving to the U.S.?
J.J.: We didn’t know what to expect and we miss our families and friends at home, but we have come together. It is a lot to have seven of us together all of the time in a van where there is not a lot of space.
TSR: You have known each other since elementary school. Have you always played music together?
J.J.: We started jamming to cover songs when were were 16 and did a lot of gigs. At first Danny, Dave, and I played in a few bands. In November 2012, we started playing as Kaleo and Rubin recently joined in.
TSR: The ballad “All the Pretty Girls” is the song that brought Kaleo attention and a record deal, but your live shows are filled with rock songs with hints of Led Zeppelin. Those are the songs when it looks like everyone is having fun.
J.J.: Our influence is classic rock and we enjoy playing rock songs. Three of us have Led Zeppelin tattoos.
TSR: Have you always written songs in English?
J.J.: Yes, writing in English comes naturally, but I don’t know why. Maybe it is because we are inspired by Americans and the music we listen to is in English. It’s not something I decide, it’s just the way it comes out.
TSR: You are working on a new album. Are you re-recording songs from the album you released in Iceland?
J.J.: We have so much new material that we want to record but we may include a few songs from that album. We are recording now but it is hard while we are traveling so much. We have jumped in to studios in Chicago in L.A. but it is hard to set up and settle into a studio when we are on the road. We hope to have a few weeks in September to record without other things coming up. We should have an album out early next year.