At the end of two international tours for their breakout 2017 album ‘Backwater’, Kllo members and cousins Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam were worn out and sick of living in each other’s pockets. They’d been cutting touring costs by staying in the same room, hauling their own gear and catching cheap flights. They only had each other to bounce off. Exhaustion combined with two shy, non-confrontational personalities had led to a communication breakdown. It looked like Kllo was finished.
“We both sat down and just said we couldn’t do it anymore… we were just so exhausted and didn’t have any balance in our lives,” Kaul recalls to NME in late June. “It’s always been a little hard. But the problem is we never speak about it, the communication is not the best.
“When we feel stressed I guess we sort of consider taking the easy way out. I’m still trying to figure that out today, and I don’t know, maybe we’ll always have this relationship.”
On Kllo’s new album ‘Maybe We Could’, out this Friday, they move further away from their UK garage and 2 step-influenced brand of electronic pop, picking up shades of ’90s American R&B along the way and developing a more mature, subdued sound. The record is also a product of reconciliation: it documents the complexities of a working relationship born from family, not just creative ties, and how that bond can become frayed.
“It’s tough because family and business are two very different things. It would be really sad if business had a negative impact on the family side of things, that would be the worst thing,” says Kaul. “We’re so connected and we have a relationship that we don’t have with anyone else. Like, we kind of consider each other almost older brother and little sister. I think it makes things harder when [the relationship] is bad.”
It was music that grew their relationship beyond that of distant relatives, which added to the sadness of the near-breakup. Growing up, the second cousins didn’t know each other well, but their mums were close. Lam was studying sound engineering and his mum suggested he record Kaul, who was working towards becoming a folk musician. They were 17 and 20 years old at the time of their first living room recording session, both shy and introverted. There wasn’t a lot of speaking going on, just cups of tea and anxiety.
“We’re so connected and we have a relationship that we don’t have with anyone else” – Chloe Kaul
The plan was for Lam to go away, mix the sound and upload the video to YouTube, which he did. But he was also playing in the electronic trio I’lls at the time and had been studying jazz drumming. With his mind in the world of technical, rhythm-focussed music and inspired by what he calls the warmth, depth and colour of Kaul’s voice, Lam began secretly working with vocal samples taken from that first recording session, which produced a cover of Lykke Li’s ‘I Know Places’.
Lam had just discovered UK garage and 2 step, listening to foundational tracks like ‘Hobson’s Choice (Tune For Da Man Dem)’ by Active Minds and ‘Firstborn’ by Crazy Bald Heads, which he had found on Four Tet’s ‘FabricLive 59’ mix. Artists like Burial – who added textures and layers to the building blocks of UK bass music, creating something headier and more introverted in the process – provided him a blueprint for augmenting those UK influences to create something personal. It took time for Kaul to be convinced, but it’s now the lasting template for Kllo’s sound.
Now, about half of the instrumentation on a Kllo track begins with Lam taking a vocal sample – often a single note sung by Kaul – and stretching it out to create “drone-y synth” sounds. Lam enjoys working with the on-the-fly voice notes Kaul sends him, saying the basic smartphone microphone adds its own layer of texture. Sometimes Lam will use tricks to push the vocals into a different space, like creating a beat, shifting it to a different key for Kaul to sing over, before switching both parts back to the instrumental’s original key. The technique gives Kaul an unnaturally high or lower-pitched vocal range.
That process was taken to extremes on ‘Maybe We Could’ closer ‘Just Checking In’. Everything you hear, other than the delicate drumbeat, began with Kaul’s sampled vocals. The track’s ghostly strings, sounding more like a Mellotron than something of human origin, began with one sung note, which Lam then sampled, stretched out and played on a keyboard. It’s a song the pair felt was indicative of their newfound creative assertiveness – and also a track they had to fight to include on the album.
“It’s easy to get frustrated when [people outside the band] are not fully in line with your vision. Because a lot of the time, your vision just includes feelings and thoughts that no one’s ever really going to understand,” says Lam. But he insists he’s appreciative of everyone’s efforts: “At the end of the day they’re all trying to help, ultimately. And so you just try and compromise.”
Both feel their introversion and non-confrontational personalities meant they were less inclined to stick up for themselves when they were younger and the lure of chart success was tantalisingly close.
“It’s all a learning curve and I’ve learned to be assertive in my choices,” says Kaul. “I think Simon and I were quite indecisive because we’re just always scared of doing the wrong thing or hurting other people, but then we’d hurt ourselves instead.”
“A lot of the time, your vision just includes feelings and thoughts that no one’s ever really going to understand” – Simon Lam
Lam points to album opener ‘Cursed’ – one of the first songs they recorded after working on solo projects and deciding to reunite – as one instance on ‘Maybe We Could’ where the pair shied away from a big pop sound, gravitating towards something subdued and refined that more naturally fits their personalities.
“We both just love things that feel warm. I think we were both just looking for that thing that makes us feel nice and safe and at home. I think it’s just something we didn’t get to do a lot of previously,” says Lam, remembering months of touring in Northern Hemisphere winters. “It feels like a bit of a sigh, an exhale. A bit of a relief, really.”
Solo projects brought into focus the value of their creative partnership, and Kaul and Lam realised the only way to honour their relationship was to strive for creative honesty and make music their way.
While the individual songs on ‘Maybe We Could’ are often about the struggles of their personal relationships outside the band, the album as a whole is a document of working through hurt before finding reconciliation in the act of making. Kaul points to the lyrics of single ‘Still Here’ as a moment summing up their conflicted, but special, relationship: “I’m hopeless / I’m still here / Do you notice I’m not going anywhere?”
“I guess we’ve always toyed with the fact of leaving but we never really do,” she says. “A lot of those times it’s just letting each other know that we’re still here. And we always will be and we love each other a lot.”
Kllo’s ‘Maybe We Could’ is out July 17.