Some albums hit you over the head while others sneak up on you. Backwater, the debut album released last week by Kllo, does neither. It’s a pensive, introverted record that shuns ostentation and brashness but nevertheless is quietly assertive, making it no sneak attack. What will surprise listeners most is that Kllo are, for all intents and purposes, a dance act, so their disinclination to crash-bang-wallop is unusual. Instead, Kllo’s music vibrates and shimmers, preferring to dance to the beat of a different and much more sombre drum.
The album starts with a sustained synth note that varies in pitch subtly, sounding like an old-fashioned pump organ. A light-on-its-feet rhythm shuffles along, helped by some detuned vocal samples. Next, a deeper synth note joins in, setting the key for the vocals.
Downfall, look beside you
Don’t crawl, do remind you
Downfall will come before
Anything at all
The lyrics ponder the risks of inaction, before deciding that the best course is to push forward regardless of the consequences.
Pieces of my hope
Blisters with no rope
Lifting ’til I float
I’ll cope, I’ll cope
Any optimism expressed in “Downfall” feels more like a glimpse of light at the end of a very long tunnel. When I interviewed cousins Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam, the Melbourne-based duo who comprise Kllo – pronounced “chlo”, short for Chloe – they told me that it was actually the last song to be written, when the album was almost completed. “It was a moment of relief, really,” Kaul said, “after everything we’d been through… Feeling like we’d come over that hump.” The pair had been under a lot of pressure during the writing and recording of Backwater, made worse by the fact their personal lives were in complete disarray – the musical cousins were going through messy break-ups with their respective partners around the same time and their emotions spilled into the songs. Kaul said the song lyrics were “almost like my diary”. It goes without saying that the long-distance life of a touring musician often plays havoc with relationships.
If “Downfall” describes the end of a stressful time for the band, the third song, “Virtue”, takes them right back to the start, when all their troubles began.
Inner demons I can’t seem to push aside
I can’t stop them, that’s why I need you here
I am no good, could you steer me clear
of my delusions?
Can I count on you to be there with me now?
I can’t bear the thought of losing you somehow
Please hold down the fort since I am not around
Can I count on you to be there with me?
You’re my only virtue
Even though the bittersweet lyrics reek of insecurity and melancholy, “Virtue” is musically the most extroverted song on Backwater. The strong melody soars effortlessly above its uninhibited UK garage-inspired beat, making this the nearest thing to a club banger on the album, though “By Your Side” has a deep dance groove as well. Lam cleverly chops up samples of Kaul’s voice and sets the pitch dial to the helium tone heard on ’80s house tracks. Kaul’s treated voice becomes a wordless chant behind her main chorus vocal, raising the energy level and probably raising many hands on dance floors along with it.
As a producer, Lam likes to push the envelope literally and figuratively. The entire album is a collage of manipulated sounds, with voices and instruments twisted and stretched, compressed, filtered and generally distorted until the original source is almost unrecognisable. For example, when I asked Lam about a stringed instrument I thought I could hear, it turned out to be a percussion sample. Lam just sighed. “Yeah, I have a bad habit— no, it’s not a bad habit,” he said, correcting himself, “it’s a hobby, of just screwing things up.” His work is always tasteful and very rarely obtrusive: sounds are heavily effected, without ever seeming affected.
One thing Lam doesn’t screw up is the clarity of Kaul’s voice in the mix. She is front and centre in every song, even though she sometimes sings so softly it’s more like a melodic murmur than conventional singing. Her unforced delivery gives the songs a wonderful intimacy, and her lilting melodies and delicate trills come across as gentle musing rather than a display of vocal prowess, something I usually find distracting or even annoying. I never tire of Chloe Kaul’s singing, nor do I ever tire of listening to Simon Lam’s inventive production.
“Predicament” is a change of pace to mid-tempo R&B, a style Kaul particularly enjoys. The spaciousness of the verse contrasts with the wash of backing vocals in the chorus, with sultry percussion percolating underneath another strong melody. Emotionally, the song goes further down the path of emotional discord, with the singer even less certain of her lover’s loyalty. Kaul ranks this song as one of her favourites on the album and it’s one of mine, too.
The tempo lifts again for “Last Yearn” but the atmosphere remains subdued. That is, until the last two minutes when it builds to an unexpected climax. These dynamic shifts occur naturally during the arranging process, Kaul told me. “We’re, like, ‘Okay, it doesn’t feel finished. It needs to go somewhere’,” she said. “And then, yeah, we just usually go off on improv tangents…[ We] really want to create a story, in that sense.” The sonic story their music tells is usually a novel one, based as it is around unorthodox song structures and an abundance of melodic invention.
Kaul writes all the vocal melodies and Lam is often amazed: “Chloe has an incredible way of embellishing melodies,” he said, “Almost to the point where it’s too complicated, but always still catchy, and always still singable. Kind of saturated in harmony.” Kaul herself admitted that she gets a bit obsessive about it at times. “I went psychotic,” she said. “I get caught up with writing more melodies, more melodies and more melodies, because I always feel like there could be a better one to put in, instead of just being okay with it.” That obsessiveness occasionally surprised Lam: “There would be times when I would go for a walk in London, and [when] I’d come back it was a different song. ‘Whoa, where have you been, Chloe?’ ”
Kllo started at the end of 2013 after playing together for the first time at a 50th-birthday party for Lam’s mother. “Me and my siblings were kind of the house band,” Lam said. “Chloe joined in for a few songs and then we had some other cousins who aren’t as talented as Chloe join in after.” Later, Lam did an electronic treatment of one of Kaul’s songs and thus Kllo was born. That song, “False Calls”, was included on their Cusp EP in late 2014, and to date it has amassed nearly seven million digital streams on Spotify alone. Three of the songs from its follow-up EP, Well Worn, have collected 18 million Spotify streams between them, most of them outside Australia. Last week, on the day Backwater was released globally, Kllo were playing a gig in Detroit, beginning a three-month tour that takes them to 10 different countries. Times sure have changed.
Changing times, changing technology – the two are as inseparable as they are inevitable. Relationships under stress is the major theme of Backwater but a sidebar is the effect of technology on the way we connect with each other or, paradoxically, the way it prevents us from doing so. Two songs on Backwater address that specifically: “Too Fast” was inspired by a friend of Kaul’s who was always distracted in social situations by her compulsion to text her lover, frequently engaging in virtual fights over trivialities and thus poisoning their real-world relationship. “Dissolve”, the album’s latest single, was prompted by a Skype conversation that turned ugly.
One would think Skype would be a boon, helping a touring musician stay in touch with loved ones, but Kaul said she and Lam found the opposite was true. “There’s a disconnection and lack of intimacy, therefore things just can’t really be solved,” she said. “Simon and I had a lot of Skype sessions with our partners while we were on tour, and sometimes it was worse than not talking to them at all.”
Just as technology has unintended pitfalls for modern relationships, its all-pervasive portability can intrude upon the creative process, too. “Making electronic music, we can work on it any time,” Lam told me, “which is so dangerous. Like, we just go down rabbit holes. There’s no confined hours to it, we can work any time, work on it on the plane, you can work on it in bed… And there’s no wrap-up time – whenever there’s a flaw you can plug in and fix it. Or keep finding flaws.”
“Nylon” was one of the songs that suffered from overthinking for a while, going through dozens of iterations before the duo went back to basics and reimagined it as a simple ballad with barely any percussion, with absolutely beautiful results. Kaul’s exquisite melody and fragile lyrics make it an album highlight.
I don’t wanna die young, die young
Someone to rely on, side on
Don’t want no one to cry on
Stretched as thin as nylon
Lam used an old acoustic piano and Kaul kept things low-tech by recording it on her iPhone. Of course Lam couldn’t help himself afterwards, distorting the piano’s sound through electronic processors to make it more abstract.
“Not Like Them” is the conclusion of Kaul’s emotional journey and also of the album. It’s a declaration of independence and with that Backwater has come full circle. Along with its companion song, “Downfall”, there is a palpable sense of self-confidence and resolve with Kaul extricating herself from the debris of broken relationships, having learnt her lesson, and now finally ready to move on.
Desired to be in the energy
Closer than most to the enemy
I’ve been alone without recognising it at all
Cannot find a connection
Then there is no progression
But I’ve discovered what makes my happiness
Keep on going
“Not Like Them” indicates this particular journey is over, but for Kllo it is only just beginning. Musically speaking, they had to grow up in public, but along the way to success they discovered who they really are and, just as important, who they aren’t. Although Lam and Kaul are heavily influenced by R&B, UK garage and two-step, they have no interest in being purists, and their music is more idiosyncratic and interesting as a result. “That’s the thing, we’re still figuring it out,” Kaul said. “We literally had this conversation yesterday. ‘Is it okay that we’re doing all these things? Should we focus more on something else?’ Like, this is just purely what we love to do and it just so happens to be sort of inconsistent, I guess, but… we’re having fun.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until March 4
MUSIC Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues
Venues throughout Wangaratta, November 3-5
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until November 26
THEATRE The Father
Arts Centre, Melbourne, November 2-December 16
CULTURE Byron Latin Fiesta
Venues throughout Byron Bay, November 3-5
MUSIC Dragon Dreaming Festival
Wee Jasper, NSW, November 3-6
CINEMA Russian Resurrection Film Festival
Even Cinemas, Sydney, until November 5
Cinema Paradiso, Perth, until November 1
Event Cinemas, Brisbane, November 1-8
Capitol Cinemas, Canberra, November 10-15
ACMI, Melbourne, November 9-19
MULTIMEDIA Liveworks 2017
Carriageworks, Sydney, until October 29
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "On the down Kllo". Subscribe here.