There is a moment in the song “Last Yearn” by Australian electronic duo Kllo that, in its transcendence, epitomizes what is best about dance music. The track is proceeding along nicely — a little quiet-storm r&b jam about the end of a romance — when, almost three minutes in, the floor falls out from beneath the beat, leaving just one churchy synthesizer and breathy ad-libs. Simon Lam, the duo’s 26-year-old producer, soothingly, methodically, serenely adds a series of elements. Finally, as the synths go from warm to hot, we are at a place so earned and satisfying it could only be called a climax. “Where are we going?” Chloe Kaul, 23, Kllo’s vocalist, belts in a way so soaring that it sounds not like a question about the future of a relationship, but a philosophical one about life. You picture her clenching her fist and closing her eyes: “Where do we go from here?” “It’s about going for it,” says Kaul. “I don’t really think about much when I’m writing. I’m lost in the moment. I’m taken in by a feeling, and I’m zoned out entirely. And when Simon’s there, too, feeling how he’s feeling, and we connect together, we’re both lost. You’ve got to be all feeling.”
Lam and Kaul are cousins from Melbourne, and “all feeling” is not a bad way to describe their debut album, Backwater, which is consistent in its flushed beats and Kaul’s soulful, soft singing about love or the lack of it. “I think what differentiates us from other electronic acts is that our roots are in emotionally rich music,” says Lam, referring to artists like Caribou, who manage to convey sweetness and heart through synths and beats. “We always say we’re club music that makes you stop dancing and start pondering.” As the two cousins were writing the album over the past year, both of them happened to be going through a breakup, and that strain of heartache pervades the album, released last month. Indeed, the raw lyrics to “Last Yearn” — “Since there’s creases on your side of our bed/I am longing for you” — are actually a loosely paraphrased version of a conversation that Kaul and her boyfriend had during the rough patch in their relationship that preceded its dissolution. “It’s true experiences,” she says, discussing why the urgency of her emotions comes through so clearly. “It’s hard to write about other things when this is the most important, the most crucial, thing. I think it’s OK to question things from time to time.”
As a kid, Kaul began writing songs not with electronic music in mind, but as a singer-songwriter — inspired by Amy Winehouse — pouring her heart out with an acoustic guitar. The two cousins had seen a lot of each other as young children, but their lives drifted apart in high school as each began exploring individual musical paths. Though she started recording her songs at around fourteen, she was too shy to do much with them. “I couldn’t sing in front of anyone,” she says. “I remember when I first got singing lessons, I’d have shake attacks. When I had to do little concerts, I’d hide in the toilet and have a panic attack before I’d get up.” Meanwhile, Lam, who went to college for jazz drumming, ended up falling for electronic music as an escape from his Melbourne university’s curriculum. One day, his mother suggested that Lam record his younger cousin to help hone his skills.
“I needed people to practice on, so I recorded Chloe,” says Lam.
“He recorded some of my folk music and ended up making a crazy electronic track out of it,” Kaul says. “I wasn’t too into it at first. He’d pitched my vocals all the way up. I was just like, ‘Why did he do that to my voice?’ And then I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s just give this a shot.’ ” As they began recording together, the cousins found common ground in a shared interest in electronic music grounded with soulful vocals, like Jacques Greene, Lauryn Hill, and Little Dragon. “At first we were worlds apart, but then we realized we were similar,” says Kaul. “I think working with him really opened me up and made me feel a bit safer.”
The duo released its first EP, Cusp, in 2014 on the Australian label Dot Dash. A choppy song, “Bolide,” from their second EP, Well Worn, wound its way around the internet on its own momentum. It was, as noted by critics at the time, remarkably and meticulously realized for two artists just starting out, and they built a strong audience through heavy touring. From the very beginning, they seamlessly stitched together their influences, which range from speedy U.K. garage to the digitized folk of James Blake. The elements have always been there, and Backwater is nothing if not spiritually consistent from the beginning to the end: the rigid but elegant use of structure washed by warm synth tones (in a genre that is often served cold.)
“I think with many of the artists we admire, there’s something about their thought process that you can hear clearly on their very first album. You can hear their personality and the way they like to work. We really wanted to make an album a start-to-finish thing,” says Lam, referring to debuts by acts like the xx. Kaul, though, chocks up their unwavering precision more to shared neuroses. She tells me with a bit of a laugh that they were even tinkering with songs on the day that Backwater was being finished and mixed. “I think we’re both perfectionists and we’re both really sensitive,” she says. “Then we both just feed off each other and end up going crazy. We like to keep going and going and going.” Lam laughs. “Sometimes it’s too perfect,” he says.
Some things they are less sure of: They are excited to be on an American tour at the moment — playing two nights in New York this weekend, at Elsewhere and Berlin — but are finding that their subtlety, though an artistic strength, doesn’t exactly attract the biggest spotlights in electronic music, which are usually reserved for more bombastic EDM acts and Vegas-ready party DJs. “With our music, we put what we truly want in it — long breakdowns with just chords and singing. That’s what we enjoy. And we kind of look at a lot of electronic bands, and they’re more festival-y, like four-to-the-floor bass music. I think that makes us question what we do,” says Lam. “It’s really hard for us to write anything that’s a pop hit. It’s kind of just soul-destroying. There’s opportunities you’d like to get, but they kind of fall through your fingers because maybe you’re not that sort of a festival band.”
Kaul agrees, but says their kinship keeps Kllo doing what feels right, as opposed to what will just sell records. “This is the career that we both want. It’s reassuring that we have each other. We question things but then we just keep doing what we’re doing. It never changes. I think we would die inside if we were ever to be untrue.”
For his part, Lam says working with your cousin makes it easier to explain to bewildered family members what it is they actually do to make a living as musicians. “People back home find it hard to fully grasp,” he says. “It definitely helps having someone else around to reinforce that touring is not just an extended holiday.” And the reality of being in a band with your kin has the added effect of turning a blood relationship into a true, deliberate bond.
“We couldn’t know each other better than we do,” says Kaul. Which, epitomized by that blissful existential moment on “Last Yearn,” is what Kllo set out to do in the first place: to know themselves, even when they’re lost in the music. “It’s OK to question what you’re doing or where you’re going. It’s so normal to feel that way,” she says. “People want to brush things under a rug and pretend like everything is fine. But sometimes it’s OK to surrender.”