High Hopes: Introducing Icelandic blues-rockers Kaleo

Kaleo, band photo

Growing up in the remote Icelandic town of Mosfellsbaer, the four school friends who would become Kaleo grew up in a mind-messing climate where summer brings near 24-hour daylight, and winter plunges its 9,000 inhabitants into 24-hour almost complete darkness.

“We have long, very dark winters but extremely beautiful summers,” frontman and guitarist Jökull ‘JJ’ Júlíusson explains. “The time of year really shapes your mood and influences the kind of material you write.”

With his isolated homeland bereft of entertainment for a teenager, he picked up guitar. And it wasn’t long before he was jamming with future Kaleo bandmates Rubin Pollock (guitar), Daníel Ægir Kristjánsson (bass) and Davíð Antonsson (drums).

“I’m from a small town where there wasn’t very much happening, so we had to just make it happen,” Júlíusson says. “There was nothing to do at home and it was isolating sometimes. That was a factor in me spending so much time songwriting.”

Spending so many hours writing songs led to them ditching their covers band and forming Kaleo in 2012. Right from the off their roots-y vibe made them stand them out from Iceland’s folk-heavy music scene. Perhaps as a result, success at home came quickly. And it wasn’t long before the rest of the world caught on.

“Somehow All The Pretty Girls was included on some Spotify new music playlist,” Júlíusson says. “Overnight we had every label in the US calling us, as well as managers and publishers. We didn’t know what to do. We signed with a manager and he took us through this adventure of flying to LA and doing a load of showcase gigs.”

Since then Kaleo have playes across the US and scored huge commercial points by having their track Way Down We Go used in a videogame (FIFA 16), TV shows (Suits and Orange Is The New Black) and major ad campaigns (Boots No 7). Suddenly in high demand, the band laid down the bones for a new album in Nashville before fleshing it out at studio stop-offs throughout their ever-increasing US tour commitments.

The recording may have been piecemeal, but A/B is a strikingly cohesive album, and perhaps reflects Icelandic light and shade.

“The concept of the album is that it has an A side and a B side,” Júlíusson says. “The A side is upbeat rock’n’roll and blues, and the B side is softer ballads and more folky stuff.”

It certainly delivers on both fronts, its 10 tracks ranging from a raw rock stomp to modern folk via Delta blues, and is a record that suggests bigger things beckon for Kaleo.

“It was a dream to break out of Iceland and perform in Europe and the US,” he says, “but we never thought it would happen so fast. We got lucky. Things have moved so much faster this year than last year and we just hope that continues into next year.”

FOR FANS OF: The Beatles

Kaleo pack an intriguing meld of modern folk, classic rock and Delta blues, and Júlíusson reckons that stems from his childhood. “I got into music through my dad’s records,” he says. “I was a big Beatles fan and then got into Zeppelin and classic rock and then blues. There was so much good music to choose from back then.”

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Rich Chamberlain

Rich Chamberlain has written for Classic Rock, Musicradar.com, Total Guitar, Nuts, FourFourTwo, Billboard, Classic Rock Presents The Blues and Classic Rock Presents Country.