Icelandic band Kaleo talks blues, classic rock roots

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Alexandra Valenti/Courtesy

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“Kaleo” means “the sound” in Hawaiian, but in this case, it is the moniker of an Icelandic folk rock band that has skyrocketed to success throughout Iceland and Europe and will be playing at The Independent in San Francisco on Dec. 1. Though somewhat surprising for an Icelandic band, Kaleo is steeped in American music history, from the blues crooning of Robert Johnson to the classic rock icons of the 70s and 80s.

We’re all huge classic rock fans,” said singer/guitarist Jokull Juliusson, (aka JJ). “I think that was really the reason, back in the day, that we decided to start playing and jamming together.” Three of the four members of Kaleo hail from Mosfellsbaer, a small town of 8,000 or 9,000 people near the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, and they went to school together growing up.

Even though it’s close to the capital, it feels like you’re in the countryside,” Juliusson explained. “Everyone knows each other, which I really like. It’s a musical town. For the three of us that grew up there, it’s a special place.”

The band is far from Mosfellsbaer now — they recently relocated to Austin, Texas and have been recording their new album in Nashville. It’s an appropriate setting, given the influence of American folk-blues on their sound.

I listen to a lot of old recordings.”  Juliusson explained. “I’m fascinated by both how they were written and recorded as well as a lot of the soundscapes from the old recordings themselves. Blues is where it all came from, you know, all the way back to the 30s with Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.”

What makes the band’s sound distinct, though, is the way they interweave heavier rock techniques and styles into the folk-blues structure without compromising the latter genre’s powerful simplicity of character. In the live-recorded video for their single “Way Down We Go,” Juliusson opens singing “Oh, father tell me / Do we get what we deserve?” over a single strummed chord.

It’s an evocative presentation that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Western noir film. But as the song progresses, the influence of the classic rock begins to creep in through the ever-so-slight crunch in the bends of the guitar solos and the cascading drum beat, punching through into the final chorus. The chord structure and vocals are gritty blues; the guitar solo is indie rock.

All of these elements are made more astonishing by the setting of the video. The band carefully lowered all its equipment into the cavern of an Icelandic volcano, spending up to 11 hours at a time in the bitter cold to capture the exquisite acoustics within. The result is an utterly unique performance and a compellingly authentic representation of their sound.

You can catch Kaleo at The Independent in San Francisco on December 1.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected].