They say blood is thicker than water, that siblings and relations have a special bond, a telepathic otherness that replaces the need for words. But what happens when you’re a pair of cousins who don’t see each other very often? What if that bond doesn’t exist? How do you communicate?
That’s the position cousins Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam, who make up Australian electronic duo Kllo, found themselves in following the discovery that they shared a love of music and – legend has it – performed together for the first time at a family get-together.
As is often the case with (distant) cousins, they didn’t even have years of getting to know each other to fall back on, despite their mothers being sisters. It was all seasonal, all births, deaths and marriages.
“We met so young I actually don’t remember the first time,” admits Simon Lam, the production half of Kllo (pronounced ‘kloh’ not k-l-o). “Just the usual I guess, we saw each other at Christmas, Easter, that sort of thing. But we didn’t really hang out until quite late.”
Kaul, singer and lyricist, can’t help me out with a story of a first memory, a cherished childhood moment. “Yeah, same,” she demurs. “We didn’t hang until we started making music in the band. I really can’t remember him….hahaha.”
So Kllo, who are releasing their debut album Backwater this month, have no stories of developing their craft together over their early teens. The record is the sound of two people trying to catch up with a world which has thrust them into the limelight, a band trying to slow down as everything rushes past.
But let’s rewind and go back to the point where Lam and Kaul started to make music together. However nascent it may be, it was the start of Kllo’s dizzying journey.
“The first time we did anything musical I went to your [Chloe’s] house to record you playing your own stuff,” says Lam. “I hadn’t seen you in years at that point.”
“He recorded me playing and he made a song out of it himself,” continues Kaul. “Like, he sampled me, sort of made an electronic song out of my folk song and then sent it to me. He asked me if I liked it and if I wanted to make a song from there and I said ‘okay!’ We got in a room together and that’s where our friendship started really. We were always awkward, shy cousins before…”
"There wasn’t a direction….whatever happened, happened. It was just too early on for us to throw in any issues or problems or any real opinions out there. We just kinda made tunes." - Lam
Kaul and Lam continued to be awkward cousins as they tried to work each other out, and work out a way of making music together. The confident sound of Backwater, a ‘90s-influenced record combining trip hop, drum and bass, and electronic pop – led by a vocalist struggling to find a settled space in the world – took a while to come together.
It wasn’t though, down to arguments and dismissal of each other’s art. Despite Kaul’s folk music background compared to Lam’s more electronic leanings, bickering did not ensue.
“There wasn’t too much of that, just because we were so polite at the start” recalls Lam. “There wasn’t a direction….whatever happened, happened. It was just too early on for us to throw in any issues or problems or any real opinions out there. We just kinda made tunes ---“
“And trusted each other I guess,” says Kaul.
Lam continues: “I’d play something and turn around and be like ‘what do you think? Is that okay?’ and Chloe would be like ‘damn yeah, it’s great!!’ She might have thought it was terrible….and some of it was terrible!”
Kaul is not so backward in coming forward a few years down the line, and happily agrees with her cousin’s taken on the early days of Kllo. “Oh, some of it was terrible but I was like, nah, he knows what he’s going for and I’m gonna let it happen,” she explains. “It was just a fun band though. We never took it seriously at the start.”
With the rush-release of “Make Me Wonder” and the Cusp EP in 2014, Kllo had to start taking it seriously. It’s no surprise that “Make Me Wonder” was thrown out in to the world as soon as possible. The irresistible mix of UK garage beats and Kaul’s torchy, delicious voice meant the track had to be heard immediately.
“Well, we had written a couple of songs and Simon had our [future] manager on Facebook, who saw we had changed a photo and we’d made a Facebook page,” explains Kaul. “We hadn’t even released anything, hadn’t finished the songs yet…and he messaged Simon to ask about the songs, and then we sent them. We went for a meeting and we were both not ready for that. We thought we were just gonna meet this guy, get a bagel…..and it turned out this guy was starting his management label and wanted to sign us - and they just put out our first song on a blog. It got a lot of traction and from then on we just kept going because of the interest.”
"We didn’t get to experiment and find our sound before putting it out. We were sort of keeping up with finding it as we were going." - Kaul
From that moment right up to the imminent release of Backwater, Kaul and Lam seem to have been trying to catch up to themselves. It feels sometimes that Kllo’s life was taken out of their hands in 2014 and they’re only just starting to wrest back some control in 2017. Cusp and the following EP Well Worn are the sound of Kllo still trying to work out what they are and where they belong, a work in progress happening right in the public eye.
“It was a bit of a shock,” admits Kaul, ruefully. “We didn’t get to experiment and find our sound before putting it out. We were sort of keeping up with finding it as we were going….like, I hadn’t played many shows and I was quite shy and just did solo stuff - and our first show was sold out. I barely even knew what I was doing up there! That was definitely a shock!”
Lam agrees that things were moving almost too fast for Kllo to deal with. “I think we kind of had a backlash from what could have happened,” he says. “After we released the first song, we had meetings with labels and things, went interstate [in Australia], you know – there were quite a few intense offers coming through and I think we both got kinda – well I definitely did – freaked out by it.”
Kllo were always a duo and as I chat to them they seem super-tight; they might have been playing catch-up with the familial bonds as well, but to me they couldn’t be closer. To have other people – too many people – involved seems to have left them all at sea. Lam explains the solution. “So, to stop being overwhelmed, we just decided to stick to us two and keep making music the way we’d been making it. Even though people knew about it now we weren’t gonna try and change what we were trying to do. We were launched into the cycle quite early.”
Kaul continues: “Every song we’d ever made was released…and that’s all we had haha!”
“Yeah there were no B-sides,” laughs Lam, still slightly stunned at the pace of things back then. “Our experimentation process was just made public!”
"Maybe I’ll always feel like I’m wanting to write the next thing that’s more progressive." - Kaul
Kllo had mentioned the fun aspect of the band earlier, but did that mean that as they were exposed to the wider world they had to take things a little more serious? To write more, and more often?
“I don’t think we tried to write quicker,” says Lam, carefully, “but I definitely think we took it seriously from the start.”
Kaul: “With the album we certainly had to write that pretty fast…but at the beginning we were pretty slow!”
Lam: “In the grand scheme of things we’re quite slow…we burned through a lot of material on those two EPs.”
Backwater feels different to those EPs simply because it’s a more fully-realised vision of what the cousins want Kllo to sound like. That in-public experimentation process seems to have had some positive aspects to it. Kllo are now always looking ahead rather than at what’s going on around them.
“Yeah, and I think we’re so much more confident and so much more mature that the album was easier to write,” agrees Kaul. “I sort of feel like the EPs were us finding our sound, figuring out how to work together….and now – maybe I’ll always feel like this – even just after this album I think, ‘okay…the next one IS the sound, we’ve got it now.’ But that’s what I felt before this one, maybe I’ll always feel like I’m wanting to write the next thing that’s more progressive.”
Lam is a little more circumspect about Kllo’s development “There’s definitely parts of us which are those EPs,” he gently insists. “Definitely whole parts which we have today but a lot of it, a lot of it…I feel like we’ve left behind.”
“Definitely,” says a concurring Kaul. “Although I think that comes from – honestly – just being more aware and more skilled, just by practising and working hard, seeing where you’re at and where you are now. It’s just developing, maturing…”
“It’s about finding your strengths as well,” says producer Lam, interrupting. “Sometimes we don’t know what a strong song is until we release it and play it live. I think we kind of had to play all these shows, had to release all this music to kind of get here. I don’t think the sound would be the same if we’d just wrote an album for three years without telling anyone.”
"I don’t think we like being too polished, and I think a lot of those synth sounds, a lot of those drums they’ve all got a grainy airy-ness to them – and we just kinda gravitate towards it." - Lam
Kllo’s sound is drawn from the ‘90s; there’s space and tension which recalls the Bristol sound of Tricky, Portishead etc, there are beats which draw from drum and bass and the early days of UK garage and in Kaul’s vocals the band has a star turn unafraid to bare her heart and soul, taking her folk roots and adding an enveloping, attractive darkness.
“There are a few influences which are really big for Kllo, and in our process,” says Kaul. “The ones that we both really connect to are the ones which shape our sound…because we’re both really on the same wavelength then.”
“The three big ones are Kelela, Little Dragon, and Jacques Green…” begins Lam.
“Also Four Tet, Caribou….they’re the main ones,” adds singer Kaul. Yukimi [Nagano, vocalist] from Little Dragon, she’s my idol…and Kelela is a queen as well.”
I mention that there’s maybe a sound which links all those artists and it’s one that draws from late ‘90s/early ‘00s. I wonder if it’s on purpose that Kllo sound how they do. “It’s somewhat subconscious,” says Lam. “I don’t think we aim to make anything which sounds particularly ’90s. But I think for what we wanna achieve, that sound really works. I don’t think we like being too polished, and I think a lot of those synth sounds, a lot of those drums they’ve all got a grainy airy-ness to them – and we just kinda gravitate towards it.”
“We just love those sounds, those warm sounds,” Kaul chimes in.
Lam continues: “Also we like space as well, and back in the ‘90s those synths sounds are all a little under-produced, they’re all a bit thin and I think using that sound creates a lot more room for a vocal. We’re not huge on super-modern EDM and that sort of stuff.”
A lot of Backwater was written and recorded on tour by Kllo; so alongside trying to work with each other, grow up and cope with their quick successes, the band also had to find a way to discover themselves while dealing with being away from home for extended periods. You can hear it on the record, particularly in Kaul’s lyrics. Whether it’s writers’ block, being away from all that’s most reassuringly secure and growing pains, Kaul deals with it all gracefully.
“I’ve definitely toured so many more places than I thought I ever would, that’s for sure,” she laughs. “Most of this album was written and finished on tour, and that had a huge impact on what I wrote about. A lot of it was about that, about having to grow up and being homesick and the effect that had on my creativity, my relationships, everything…it was huge. A drastic change.”
“It’s a really funny feeling touring because you’re doing so much, you’re working a lot, moving around a lot…but at the same time your personal life is kinda put in a time capsule for a little bit,” affirms Lam. “Your whole life is on hold while you’re away but on a career or professional level you’re doing 110% of what you can be doing, and for your own life it’s kind of like it doesn’t move for those months.”
"Being away is good because you can be inspired by constantly seeing new things…sometimes at home you can feel a bit dull." - Kaul
It’s becoming clear that Kllo have struggled a little with what being in a band brings to one’s life. But Backwater feels like it’s the start of something, almost a healing process, and more so for Kaul who has admitted to finding it hard to get the words down to describe what’s happened to her and Kllo in the past couple of years.
“It can be very lonely on tour,” says Kaul, warily. “And sometimes you just got to sing about it!”
Writing on tour for Kllo wasn’t easy, and they had to take advantage of any downtime they got. “It’s often when we get home from gigs and go for a big walk,” says Kaul of the times when her and Lam could write and record. “I’ll bring a crappy microphone and get ideas down, then we’ll properly record them in the studio. We work together in the hotel room and see what comes of it. You got to make sure you’re in the right headspace because it can get a little bit too much, doing it on tour.”
“This is probably another reason the record sounds like it does, because we made some of it away from the studio – a lot of it was made in bedrooms and lounge rooms in our Airbnb, breaking stuff!” laughs Lam.
The general feeling Kllo have around Backwater is that it was a rushed, pressured album. If that’s the case it just doesn’t show up on repeated listens. If bands are given more time to grow organically, it’s not the story Kllo has to tell us – yet they’ve made an excellent debut album.
“We pretty much came back from tour, had two days off…then I went to go and mix the record in a studio for ten days straight,” reveals Lam of the tight recording schedule. “Chloe was here in our studio finishing off the final vocal takes and Dropboxing them to me in the studio. I mean, it’s comforting because we have the setup here, the facilities here but there was no time to reflect on what we made overseas. We came back with the files and just did it.”
“It’s the headspace more than anything,” says Kaul of some of the positive aspects of touring. “Being away is good because you can be inspired by constantly seeing new things…sometimes at home you can feel a bit dull. And you’ll see gigs as well, you’d see music you might never see in Australia – and that always makes us excited.”
The album highlight is “Making Distractions”, the classic song about writing a song. There’s a beguiling mix of fragility and strength here as Kaul details the lengths she goes to avoid writing, and battle writers’ block.
“That’s exactly right; it is about writers’ block,” she confirms, “and just trying to figure it out while being isolated…and procrastinating as well! The thing is, I had writers’ block for so long – I had it for so long – and Simon and I did this whole album ourselves, we were quite private with it I think and I never really asked for help or anything. I just sort of tried to do it myself and I thought that was the best way to go about it. That pressure makes you not do any work! Like, just sit there looking at your computer, having writers’ block and then figure it out two days later and switch into freakout mode! That was the cycle. Seriously, that high pressure is bad…and then it gets really good a couple of days before deadline. Having more people involved didn’t help; I felt like I was writing for other people and I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
It’s interesting to note that the track which shares the album title is bang in the middle of the record, and is an instrumental track. I’m curious to know the reason and significance.
“It’s like the palette cleanser; it’s in the middle of the album and ‘Backwater’ to me depicts the album really well as a whole,” explains Kaul. “A backwater is a part of water connected to a bigger body of water where a current is flowing and this part is still. I thought that really suited this album as so much was happening around me but I felt very stagnant and stuck in a lot of ways…my creativity, my relationships, my lifestyle. There were huge transitions and I think a lot of those songs fall under that category. I think with ‘Backwater’ having no vocals, being in the middle of the album, just made sense. It was the still moment of the album.”
“It’s kind of got a watery texture to it… It’s a lull, a sort of hovering, limbo-ish feeling,” adds Lam.
Kaul continues: “I have visions of someone treading water, in still water….” She trails off but the feeling is clear. Kllo needed to write this song, to deal with the fact that while their lives are changing there will be some sacrifices to make, some dealing with stagnation.
“If you want to make music every day sometimes you’ve got to give all that emotional energy to that, and then you find it quite exhausting hanging out with other people." - Kaul
“That is what it feels like between tours,” says Lam of the notion of stagnating. “We go away and our relationships back home get stretched a bit, get a bit tough…and then you come home and you just want to sit still. You don’t go out much, spend a lot of time at home just being as normal as possible. And then you pack your bags, take a deep breath and go back out again.”
“The amount of friends that have changed or go off, hobbies that go, because making music is so emotionally draining is incredible,” says Kaul of her sacrifices. “If you want to make music every day sometimes you’ve got to give all that emotional energy to that, and then you find it quite exhausting hanging out with other people. You end up having a situation where your best friend is your computer. That’s not very healthy.”
I ask, finally, whether or not Kllo is happy with the end product, with Backwater and where they are now. “We’ll probably never be happy with anything!” laughs Kaul.
Lam disagrees: “Nah, there’s parts we’re really happy with….at the end of the day it feels a lot better to release stuff than sit on it.”
The final word, appropriately as the lyricist and glue which holds Kllo together, goes to Kaul. “As a whole there’s always parts to pick out and that’s where you gotta take a step back and just accept things,” she says. “Don’t be a perfectionist because that ruins everything.”
And maybe that’s Kllo and Backwater in a nutshell. Perfectly imperfect.