As I meet cousins Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam, the Australian duo better known as Kllo, in a bustling cafe in Silverlake, Los Angeles, I'm immediately hooked by their relaxed demeanor and airy nature. This sits in rather stark contrast to their position as Ghostly International's premier pop act and the subsequent love they've elicited from fans around the world. As we talk, it becomes quite clear that as Kllo, Kaul and Lam, operate quite naturally with this nonchalant attitude, learning their craft via each release and live show with an uncanny accuracy and strike rate.
In 2014, with the release of the five-track EP Cusp, the young Melbourne duo burst onto the scene with a mature, self-assured sound that defied an act with only a handful of tracks released. For those in the know, however, Kllo were already on the map; preceding Cusp, they caused a stir in the blog world via a couple of stunning synth-pop cuts that built a dedicated fanbase across the world with a focus on the UK. In the years following, Kllo would swiftly rise to be one of the most exciting duos operating in the electronic pop realm via a 2015 single, "Underlie," 2016's Ghostly debut, Well Worn—which has received millions of streams worldwide—and a lauded European tour that included a slot at Barcelona's Primavera Sound.
Earlier this year, in the midst of another world tour, the cousins wrote their debut LP, Backwater. With an album's worth of room across which to spread, Kaul and Lam delivered what is their best work to date. As Bruce Tantum wrote in his review, Backwater is a refinement of Kllo's theme, "one that’s defined by gorgeous sound design (some of its synth washes can raise goosebumps), lush arrangements, soft-focus vibe and most of all, the album’s hugely emotive melodies and Kaul’s intimate, affecting voice." What better time to catch up with the duo?
To mark the release of their album, the duo also offered up album cut "By Your Side" for free download via the WeTransfer button below.
Chloe: Mine was mostly from my grandmother, she used to play records all the time. Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, that sort of thing. Also, I just always had a lot of music playing in my house as well. It was always a part of my life because my family was always playing it.
And Simon, you went to jazz school?
Simon: Yeah, I basically followed in my brother's footsteps from an early age into my early 20s. He went to jazz school so I did too; he was a guitarist but he can play anything, I’ll never be at his level. When I hit jazz school it was when I realized that I wanted to take a different path from him. I hated it.
Was it the theory or structure that killed it for you?
Simon: My classic drummer mentality caused me to hate the theory. I don’t mind structure but jazz is improvised music, so structuring improvised music didn’t really click for me; it seemed a little like an oxymoron.
What about you, Chloe?
Chloe: I studied music in high school and also did singing lessons. I started at about 15 or 16. I did it until I was about 18 when I finished school and kinda went my own way.
Sounds like you both got the basis of the theory down before going on your own and focusing on your ideas.
Simon: Yeah, I think we both worked on our own things and weren’t really thinking about where it was going, but then you kinda hit a point where you ask yourself: Ok where do I want to take my music? Before that, you’re rolling with friends and just doing whatever, but then it comes to a point, if you’re wanting to take it to the next level, that you have to pick your own path.
When you were at jazz school, were you producing solo work outside of it?
So you were gigging in bands before you started Kllo?
Simon: Yeah I played in a bunch, mostly rock bands and then experimental electronic things. We played at a few festivals but nothing too big. I had a short stint in London with one of the bands that I was in, but it didn’t last long.
Chloe: When I linked up with Simon, I was mostly doing my solo artist folk thing. I was very private about what I was doing because I was so shy and then I met Simon and making music with him felt natural and opened me up so much. I was opened up to this new world that I had never been exposed too, and now I’m so passionate about electronic music.
Well, now you have this whole musical world to explore that didn’t exist five years ago.
Chloe: Yeah, I feel like he saved me.
Simon: And I feel like my knowledge is so surface level too. Like when we come over here to the US and places like this, I’m just blown away by the knowledge and the history of everything.
Simon: Not really, I think groups like Cut Copy were a generation ahead of us. A lot of the influence came from overseas, there wasn’t a lot of bands like that in Melbourne when we first started getting into it properly—there were no real "Four Tets" or anything like that. Actually, This Thing Collective were making some really good lo-fi hip-hop influenced beats.
"The first tracks we made were a little more ambient or American-influenced, I guess. So it was a combination of learning what garage and the UK styles were and then incorporating it, and then came the most popular songs."
You have a noticeable UK-influence in your production style—where does this come from?
Simon: I think it was a time and place thing. When we first started making music, I had just learned what garage was. The first tracks we made were a little more ambient or American-influenced, I guess. So it was a combination of learning what garage and the UK styles were and then incorporating it, and then came the most popular songs.
Chloe: I think we like the sound of those gritty lo-fi drums and with Simon being a drummer, we gravitated to those styles like garage that had those types of drums. Using our skills to the best of our ability and loving warmth and that organic lo-fi sound.
Simon: I think with styles like garage, the drums used do allow for a lot of space. There's no booming 808, and it leaves nice room for vocals. We can say what we want to say and not use up too much space drum-wise.
"Rather than chasing certain intervals or notes, we’re chasing feelings and emotional content."
So with Simon being primarily a drummer and Chloe a singer, where do the striking melodies come from? It’s a very prominent part of your music and I thought it was fascinating that the melodic content from the synths really stands out for their emotion.
Simon: One thing I actually took away from jazz school is that people know too much about harmony and chords and they can get carried away and over complicate things, putting in content for the sake of it. I think with us, when we are composing the melodies, it’s just all by ear.
Chloe: A lot of it is ear. We both love the sound of minor chords and I think we are both on the same channel with what we want to create. So going by ear and improvising and whenever something resonates then we go with that.
Simon: I think that then pushes us into a certain realm. Rather than chasing certain intervals or notes, we’re chasing feelings and emotional content.
Many musicians say that you can know too much theory and that sometimes it’s about not following the rules that leads to the magic.
Chloe: Exactly. When it’s all feeling, it feels so much more honest. When you are thinking about technical aspects too much, you not feeling and therefore it doesn’t project that way and people listening won’t feel it either.
So how did the connection with Ghostly happen?
Simon: Actually, here in LA, we are staying at the house of the guy who found us and recommended us to them.
Chloe: We don’t really know or remember the exact details.
Simon: Yeah, we were playing Primavera Sound and our manager let us know that he just got an email from Ghostly. We found a secluded spot at the festival and signed it there and then. It was also probably our favorite gig.
It must be a pretty big honor. It’s not often that a largely unknown duo from Australia would be snapped up that quickly by a label like Ghostly and positioned as one of their main pop-leaning acts.
Chloe: Yeah, it’s really special and we feel honored to be on the label.
Simon: They said it was one of the quickest turnarounds from hearing something and signing an artist in the label's history.
It did seem like you guys kind of exploded out of nowhere with a few EPs, a tour, and an album.
Simon: I’m not sure what it was. I think that it was us holding on to some more of the vintage aspects of electronic music that clicked with them.
So you just attended the Ghostly music summit, bonding and jamming with the label crew and artists over five days. Can you tell us more about the experience?
Chloe: It was really beautiful! Coming from the other side of the world, we weren’t as connected as everyone else was because most of them see each other on a daily basis. It was so nice to come over and learn more about the culture of the label and Detroit. We were staying in Ann Arbour and looking out over the beautiful harbor.
Simon: We were there for like four nights. Sam [Valenti; owner of Ghostly] took us on a tour of the area, pointed out his dorm room where he started the label, then the next office when they got a bit bigger. It was really cool to make the whole thing more tangible and learning the ethos behind the branding and why it has such a strong “badge” branding. Detroit is the Motor City with all the car manufacturers, so they wanted to tie their logo to Detroit’s history too.
Chloe: It was nice meeting all the artists properly and connecting with them and having all the same issues as artists and feeling more personable with them. Writing music with them was great too.
Simon: It was all based around this place called Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, which is this center with a lot of music classes where we got to talk to a lot of scarily smart upcoming artists. Some of them were really mind-blowing, it was really inspiring.
Can you explain your writing process and how that evolved from the EPs to making an album?
Chloe: Well, everything that we have written so far has been put out. So those EPs were basically our learning curve for writing and figuring out what was best for us and our sound. Then the album is a more refined, more mature Kllo, I think.
Do you sit down and jam, or do you come with ideas and lyrics and work from there?
Simon: There are a couple ways really. One time we will do something like a voice memo, or a single beat. We like to come in the studio with a really small idea or just jam; otherwise, we feel it pigeonholes us a bit.
Chloe: Normally it will start on the piano and we will improvise and just roll with it. We aren’t that trained with chords and everything so we just feel it out and record it as a voice memo or something if we are away from the studio and then take it back and listen through to see what still resonates.
"....the album was that it was almost entirely written on the road, while on tour, in hotels and Airbnbs."
And your studio is in Melbourne?
Simon: Yeah it is, but the funny thing about the album was that it was almost entirely written on the road, while on tour, in hotels and Airbnbs.
Chloe: Yeah, because we booked this album tour before we had finished the album. We were stressed and under pressure to write a lot of it on tour!
A lot of the time that brings out the best work.
Chloe: Yeah a lot of inspiration and a lot of struggle and that’s what we put into it.
Simon: It’s the fun part. The biggest thing we’ve done was made in the most ghetto of setups.
I read that one of the tracks “Making Distractions” was about writer's block—how do you navigate that when you are stuck creatively? Especially with stress and while on an album tour for an album that you are still writing.
Simon: Well that’s it. We were on such a tight deadline and a few songs had us stuck and having the looming deadline didn’t help. We learned that as hard as it is, sometimes it’s best to just leave it and not listen to it and then make a final decision once you’ve had a little time.
Chloe: We actually changed a couple of the songs on the day of mixing and mastering. Trying to keep up with it all.
I think, with creative block, for me it was about opening up. When I was struggling and not saying anything about it, that’s when it was harder. So just speaking up and telling Simon I was stuck and getting reassurance that the writing was actually good.
It’s interesting to learn that the writing process of the album was so disjointed because it has such a coherent sound throughout.
Simon: Yeah, it was seriously all about pulling all the loose ends together. We had a friend back home help us do the tracklisting, which I think helps it make sense.
We mixed it ourselves; we booked a week in a mixing studio and mixed 10 songs in the seven days.
Chloe: Simon was like a zombie at the end of that week.
Simon: It was a big blur.
Mixing is one of those disciplines where there is no “perfection” per se—it’s always hard to know when it’s time to sign it off.
Chloe: Well, to start, we were already pretty confused with what singles to choose and what direction to take it in. We had to ask: Ok, how do we want this to sound and how do we do it ourselves?
You’re so close to the music, too, so it must be hard when it comes to technical decisions or stepping back to see the bigger picture.
Chloe: Yeah, we are looking at it all too close. It needs to be zoomed out. It’s very helpful to get someone on the outside to see it for what it is.
Simon: Having a different space is good for that too. There was actually one track that we pulled up to mix and when listening back after some time and space, we dropped it from the record and it felt really good to do that.
Chloe: That track could’ve been made better and made to work but you could feel it was rushed—it was a track that we tried to make work all tour, but sometimes you need to let them go.
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So, gear-wise, is your tour setup a direct reflection of what’s in your studio?
Simon: It’s actually kind of a separate thing and a different set of gear. I think in the studio we like using dedicated pieces—like a specific synth for a pad sound—whereas, on the road, we want it to be versatile and to be able to do a lot with one thing. It keeps it more fun, too, because if one piece of kit can do a few things then you can have less going on in the backing track and be more improvisational.
Chloe: And having a big analog kit on tour is just too hard. It’s too heavy with too many problems. Keep the heavy analog kit at home and take the easily accessible stuff on tour.
How much are you testing out new tracks and ideas on the road? Are you throwing in stems and ideas on the fly?
Simon: Yeah there were a bunch of times where we would be at an Airbnb working on a track in the day and feeling it and we would slot it into the set that night and see how it goes and then fine tune and tweak it again for the next time.
There are many producers and artists that aren’t comfortable writing on the road—it must be quite nice to be able to write on tour and test the tracks as you go.
Chloe: I think it’s so much fun. Even all the driving over here in the US, I’ve just been writing on the laptop and you’re just in a completely different headspace. When I’m at home, sometimes I can get too comfortable and struggle to find inspiration, whereas on tour I’m sort of out of my own head in a way.
Simon: You just have to embrace the limitations. A lot of the stuff you make on a laptop might not really have good natural chords because there’s no keyboard and things like that, but that will change things up and force you to go down another route.
Chloe: I think, too, on the road you’re constantly being introduced to and listening to new music. Stuff you’ve never heard before. That’s the most inspiring thing for me. Like our tour manager playing her music in the car and opening us up to a whole other world.
When you’re on tour, you’re experiencing a lot of seasons and different weather, too, does that have an effect on what you would write?
Chloe: Yeah for sure. On the tour that we wrote the album on, we would go from freezing cold London to warm Croatia, so the headspace was always different and changing.
And did that affect your writing process?
Simon: Yeah definitely. In the colder cities, we would play darker and dingier clubs, which would end up influencing us to make some more driving dance tracks.
Chloe: Then the warmer places would end up manifesting more smooth and warm tracks, more relaxed and less abrasive.
How long were you guys playing live for in Australia before your first international gig?
Simon: I think the first international gig was The Great Escape, and at that time, we were still in single digit shows. I think we did about six or seven shows in Australia, that’s it.
So what do you think helped you break through so quick? Where were you uploading your music?
Chloe: Our managers caught on very early on, we hadn’t even officially released anything. They were really into blogs and that whole world, which is where they caught us. I think we might have posted our page with no music yet and Simon had one of our managers on Facebook and he asked to hear something. From there, our very first track went up on Earmilk and then all the blogs after that. Back then it was all about the blogs.
Simon: I think that’s why the UK caught on, there were a few key blogs over there that really picked up on the music. The first single off the second EP really connected with the UK.
What was the rehearsing process like? It seems like your whole musical career has been a case of learning on the fly. Are you going back after each show and refining and discussing what worked and what didn’t?
Simon: Definitely at the start we did a lot more of that. I think now we know how to make the set work at the time.
Chloe: Yeah I think we are just more confident now. All of that back and forth stuff goes on now at the rehearsal stage and then when we are on tour we just stick to it.
Simon: There’s still a bunch of moments in the set where if things are going a bit pear shaped we can nod at each other and move on from that section. Like, let’s not do this section tonight. We rehearse before but we normally cut it pretty fine. Normally it will take a couple of shows to warm up and get it together, but you never know. Every show is different and how you feel can change everything.
So what’s next for Kllo?
Simon: There’s already talks of tours and another record next year.
Chloe: Eventually. We'ere keen to be laidback and want to just write when we feel like it and not let any pressure get to us. I feel like now we have refined our sound even more and I feel good about the next time we do something.
Now that you have refined everything much more and the learning curve isn't as big, are you now looking to things like gear to keep it interesting or inspire a new direction?
Simon: Our gear really hasn’t changed much. If anything, we use less as it goes on. I think there are a few things that we always look back on and think maybe we would do it differently and then we carry that over into the next record.
So what are some of the key pieces of gear in the studio?
Simon: The voice. We do a lot of vocal sampling.
Chloe: Yeah and vocal melodies. Also, a Prophet, Juno, and laptop. The laptop is a new thing for us.
Well, the reality is that a laptop is a powerful instrument.
Simon: Yeah, you just learn to rule out things on it and really limit your use because otherwise there are too many possibilities.
Chloe: It’s really difficult to make things sound really good with plugins, so learning how to do that is a technique in itself.
Being able to master something that is easy to take on tour like the laptop is a big advantage because then you’re going to be constantly writing.
Chloe: People like Four Tet are super inspiring in that regard, he does a lot from a laptop. I saw a photo he posted showing the setup that he wrote, mixed, and mastered his new record with and it was really minimal.
Simon: I definitely think there is something to be said about having the experience with the real machines too. It always helps me translate it well if you know how the real thing should be reacting.
Is your stage setup and how you play on tour the same as in the video for “Virtue”? With you both playing, sequencing, and singing?
Chloe: Yeah, we try to do as much live as we can. Obviously, with two people we can’t do everything but we try to do as much as we can and we both keep very busy the whole time. Mostly because it’s fun and it keeps us entertained.
Have you thought about adding anymore live band aspects to it?
Simon: Ideally, for sure. It just comes down to money, time, and logistics.
Chloe: Having a sound guy and lighting is the most important thing we are wanting now.
Backwater is available now.