- By Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
Can a band from Iceland be considered Americana? How about if they all pack up and move to Austin?
That’s the recent story of Kaleo, a foursome from the small town of Mosfellsbaer on the outskirts of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Guitarist-singer JJ Juliusson, bassist Danny Kristjansson and drummer David Antonsson were friends since grade school and began playing as Kaleo after adding guitarist Rubin Pollack.
They made a big splash in their homeland with their 2013 self-titled debut album, which mixed dark, bluesy rock ’n’ roll with brighter acoustic pop tunes. Now they’re out to break through in the United States.
They chose Austin largely because their management company, Triple 8, has an office here, but they also wanted to immerse themselves in “the roots of the music that we’re inspired by,” Pollack said last week over lunch at Threadgill’s. “We’re really into older music from the States, and a lot of that comes from the South. So it’s a great place to be.”
Though the band recently did some studio work for their upcoming Atlantic Records debut in London, they didn’t relocate there because “it just sounded a lot more interesting to go to the U.S.,” Juliusson said. “It’s so much bigger, and there is a wider (range of) cultures, I think.”
Most of the band’s material is in English. “We listen to so much American music, it feels natural to me to write in English,” Pollack says. But one prominent tune they played in their North American debut show at Lamberts BBQ on Feb. 26 featured their native language.
“It’s a song from the ’60s; we took it and made our own really different version,” Juliusson explained of “Vor I Vaglaskogi.” “That’s pretty much how we got successful in Iceland at first; it was our first hit single.”
Their latest iTunes single, “All the Pretty Girls,” is an acoustic tune that focuses on Juliusson’s striking falsetto vocal delivery. Though Antonsson says that the band “started out more rock ’n’ roll,” Juliusson notes that “we don’t want to limit ourselves to a certain genre. We think diversity is a great thing in music — to have the freedom of doing what you want and what comes naturally when you write.”
Showcase: 11 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, at Lamberts and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 21, at the Gatsby.
More Americana at SXSW
McCrary Sisters: Probably no other act at SXSW can claim to have worked with indie-rock phenoms the Black Keys, country chart-topper Eric Church and blues-rock guitarist Jonny Lang. That’s just a short list of artists the four McCrary Sisters — Alfreda, Ann, Deborah and Regina — haved worked with in a lifetime of singing together. Gospel is their passion as well, and that passion comes through strongly on “Let’s Go,” their new 16-track album produced by Buddy Miller. (10 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary)
Whitehorse: Both Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland were rising stars on the Canadian forefront of Americana music when they teamed to form Whitehorse. Their new “Leave No Bridge Unburned” follows a self-titled debut in 2011 and the acclaimed follow-up “The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss.” A hallmark of Whitehorse from the start has been an output of significantly more noise than their duo setup might suggest through the use of loops, effects and percussion. (11 p.m. Saturday, March 21, at Swan Dive)
Humming House: A five-piece Nashville band with multiple singers and songwriters and instrumentation that includes mandolin, fiddle and upright bass, Humming House is a natural Americana fit. Their professionalism shows on “Revelries,” due in late March on Rock Ridge Records and full of songs that combine country, folk and pop in a manner that adds up to a bright future for the ensemble. (9:15 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at Holy Mountain Backyard)
American Aquarium: Treading the more rocking side of the Americana line is this Raleigh, N.C., group that has toured relentlessly and gradually has become a top draw on the club circuit. After their Jason Isbell-produced 2012 album “Burn. Flicker. Die.” helped them break through to larger rooms and festivals, they returned in early 2015 with “Wolves,” full of songs about their road-warrior ways. (11 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, at Lucky Lounge)
The Stray Birds: Traditional instrumentation and three-part harmonies highlight the music of this Lancaster, Pa., acoustic trio. Three independent records helped them build an audience and attract attention from prominent indie label Yep Roc Records, which issued the group’s new disc “Best Medicine” last fall. (9 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at Continental Club)
Della Mae: The all-female quartet from Boston drew attention early on from Rounder Records, and it paid off when the group’s 2013 album “The World Oft Can Be” drew a Grammy bluegrass nomination. Their instrumentation includes guitar, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass, and all four members sing. A new record is due in May. (8 p.m. Friday, March 20, at the Gatsby)
Banditos: Seemingly tailor-made for Chicago insurgent-country label Bloodshot, the Banditos bring rock ’n’ roll fervor to material based in deep-country traditionalism. Twanging guitars trade licks with banjo behind the twin lead vocals of Corey Parsons and Mary Beth Richardson, with thumping bass and drums driving the train relentlessly. Their Bloodshot debut is due May 12. (10 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, at Continental Club)