For a country of its population of about 330,000, Iceland has had a heap of newsworthy accomplishments lately. Kaleo, a band hailing from Iceland, sold out their first headlining tour in the United States earlier this year. As the band tweeted, this was “unbelievable for our first headline” but what most surprised lead singer, JJ Julius Son, was that there were always Icelanders in the audience in each city, “it’s amazing considering our population.”
Accompanying the success of Kaleo, Iceland men's national football team has also proved to be a surprise. In a telephone interview, a couple days after Iceland beat England (sending England out of the Euro 2016 mere days after they voted to exit the European Union); Julius Son shares “I’m so proud of our team. I played soccer so it’s an interest of mine.” Not only did first-time UEFA EURO participants, Iceland, make it out of the qualifying round, the win over England gave them a place in the quarter finals. Julius Son reports “94% of Iceland watched the game while it was actually being played.”
The members of Kaleo were not were not among them. They had already scheduled the rare opportunity to shoot a video for their song “Save Yourself” on a glacier lagoon. They were “extremely not lucky with weather.” It was very difficult, Julius Son says of their twenty hour straight shoot on the breathtakingly beautiful glacier. “I don’t want to say much before I see the results.”
They had previously shot a video in a volcano and that wasn’t a walk in the park either. “We make it hard on ourselves,” says Julius Son, though they feel fortunate to have the opportunities.
There was great news waiting for them at the end of the glacier shoot. The band and everyone involved with the video had agreed: no checking cell phones, any internet or news source, anything that would leak the results of the game. Post-shoot, they watched the Iceland-England game together projected on a big screen.
The glacier was about an hour away from his parents’ house where Julius Son has been resting the voice he lost in the United States.
His voice is on the mend. In fact, the next night Kaleo had a secret show at Graeni Hatturinn (the Green Hat). This is one of places the band started out in and one of Julius Son’s favorite places to play. It’s in a small city in the northern part of Iceland, Akureyri: a “second capital.”
When the band was first playing live, they performed covers for money. Julius Son can’t name a cover he liked playing. “I didn’t like covers. I’ve written my own songs since I was thirteen, fourteen.” It was about gaining the confidence to put their original work out there, though he acknowledges the covers were good practice.
Songs come to him in different ways: “some on the guitar, sometimes I just get an idea for a lyric, sometimes I write on piano."
Things exploded once Kaleo put out their own music. Their international debut album, A/B, was released in June. Their first limited edition album only came out in Iceland and is now sold out. Their first hit single 'Way Down We Go' hit #1 on the Billboard Charts as well as charting top ten worldwide and getting certified Platinum in sales.
The cover of A/B features a handprint of each of the four Kaleo members. “It took three days for the ink to come off.” The title A/B is an homage to the two sides of a record and a way to showcase the band’s diversity with A being more throttled up rock and B showing a folksier and ethereal side.
'Vor í Vaglaskógi' is only the song sung in Icelandic on A/B. It’s a classic love poem. Kaleo made their version “slowed down and dreamy.” In contrast, Julius Son points out the pop version from the 60's knocking around YouTube that some find funny.
“Because of my love of delta blues, it feels more natural to write in English. I’m not saying I’ll never write in Icelandic though.” Some of Julius Son’s favorite musicians are Sun Ra and “of course” Robert Johnson. Generally speaking, he’s inspired by the original Delta Blues recordings from around the thirties.
Julius Son’s father “brought [him] up well,” exposing him to good music. Their families have been supportive. Though it was the dream to make music a career and come to the United States, it’s not one they thought would actually be realized. “Often in Iceland musicians play in a few different bands and don’t make a lot of money, have a couple other jobs,” echoing a situation facing musicians in other parts of the world as well.
Julius Son can’t pinpoint one “this is really happening” career moment. It all happened so fast, within six months. He signed up to start university two times but couldn’t go because he was too busy with music.
Kaleo moved to Austin in 2015 and are probably going to move to Nashville, “a great rock n roll city” – though they still love Austin. When American friends visit them in Iceland, Julius Son gleefully explains they have a tradition of making them taste fermented shark and drink Brennivin. The seafood doesn’t usually get an enthusiastically positive response. Their alcohol, too, is an acquired taste. Jens Gudmundsson, an Icelander and actor who now lives in Los Angeles, backs this up. “It's flavored by caraway which is an herb that grows in Iceland. It's similar to cumin. It always goes down smooth. Other people may say it tastes like death.”
Gundmundsson saw Kaleo for the first time in Iceland. “They came in before Kings of Leon and they just seemed way more alive and fresh than the main act.”
At the end of conversation, Julius Son offers a reminder to watch the Iceland–France game. “I’m going to be bold and say 1-0 Iceland.” He muses he might even join the ten percent of his fellow Icelanders in the stadium in France. Iceland did go down in that game 5-2. France went on to the tournament’s final. But how can you really lose when this the kind of support your team gets? “A period of harmless French passing is soundtracked by the lustiest of Huh chants from the Iceland fans,” as Rob Smyth writes in The Guardian.
And If Julius Son wasn’t able to make it to France for the game, he’ll be there for sure to make some noise in November. Kaleo’s international headlining The Handprint Tour kicks off in the United State in September before crossing the ocean to bring their diverse, alternative, rock and blues sound to Europe.
Photography by Nitin Vadakul
Written by Vincenza Blank
Hair by Kelsey Zahn
Makeup by Alexa N. Hernandez