It's a warm mid-summer day in sunny Southern California, and Malcolm Kelley, 20, and Tony Oller, 21, are indulging in lunch and banter outside of the Los Angeles studio where they record. Soon, they're playing tag with their manager's 3-year-old son, ping ponging to all corners of the studio. Initially, this time slot was allotted for an interview.
The duo aren't dodging their scheduled sit down—now on hold for the last half hour—so much as they're just being themselves, reveling in their current circumstances. With their actions and music, Kelley and Oller enjoy themselves, and do it on their own terms.
Recently signed to Columbia Records, the twosome offer a vibrant mix of pop, hip-hop and R&B, crafted in an undeniably organic way, which makes the music sound as fun to the listener as it was for the two to make--but there's an edge to it, too. It’s something that will be evident on their upcoming debut album, Role Models, as well as their lead single, “Thank You.”
“We're really happy with it,” says Houston-bred Oller of the single. “We’re still working on the rest of the album, but as of right now, I think we have most of what we want to get across. We have ballads, really soft, ‘Someone Like You’ stuff. We have up tempo party songs. We're trying to do a lot of sounds.” And it’s not just the sounds, but also the content: The two discuss the ups and downs that go with adolescence and growing up, navigating a territory that anyone coming of age can find relatable.
“I think there's a lane for everything in music,” Oller continues. “If people like it, great, but if people don't, we made a record we're proud of.”
In addition to their sound, it’s this sort of comfort in their own skin that defines MKTO, and informs not just the content of their music, but also the origins of their name. “It's simple,” Oller says of the moniker, which not only represents their combined initials (Malcolm Kelley, Tony Oller), but something more. “It also stands for what our album kind of is: Misfit Kids and Total Outcasts—just like the kids we were in high school.”
“Whether we like it or not, some kids are still gonna look up to us, and if I can give them a good direction to go in, or be a positive factor, then I'll be that,” Kelley says proudly.
Both accomplished adolescent actors (Oller’s credits include starring in the Disney Series As The Bell Rings as well as the movie Beneath The Darkness, while Kelley had major roles on ABC’s hit Lost as well as in the film Antwone Fisher), the two first met while filming Gigantic, in 2010, in which they played best friends. It was there that they first bonded and realized their shared love of music.
“While acting, you got a lot of down time, so we would just crack open the computer and start making some music,” Kelley recalls. He had been rapping with his friends since he was in his early teens, but had finally found a companion to help pursue the passion seriously.
“We used Garage Band a lot on our Macs,” remembers Oller, who has played piano and sung since his adolescent years, and even appeared on Showtime at the Apollo and Star Search. “We didn't know at all how to record. We loved music for the simple pleasure of loving music. Not trying to do anything, just enjoy creating it.”
Before long, the savvy upstarts uploaded a handful of videos to YouTube, displaying the unique flavor they offered by rerecording other artists’ hits and giving them a fresh spin. With songs like “Made In America,” “Just The Way You Are,” and “Champion,” they’d post videos of themselves recording the cuts, with Oller’s vocals easily distinguishable from the original and Kelley’s rapped verses adding an otherwise unexpected but fitting twist.
In early 2012, MKTO signed to a new partnership between longtime musical collaborators Emanuel “Eman” Kiriakou and Evan “Kidd” Bogart. The two, who stumbled upon the guys’ video for “Champion” online, have been responsible for hits from Beyonce, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Hot Chelle Rae, Sean Kingston, Jason Derulo and many more. MKTO felt that this formidable creative partnership was the perfect hit song breeding ground for their diverse song style.
Shortly after they initially linked up, the foursome headed to New York and took meetings with every major label, as MKTO wowed execs with their total package. In March, they signed with Columbia Records. “They showed us longevity in their artists,” Kelley compliments.
“When we worked on Gigantic, we always talked about what it would be like to do a show,” Oller reflects. “We had songs that we did and we'd sit in our trailers and have the mirror up and be like, ‘Dude, what if we f****in' walked out on stage and everyone started screaming?’ Everything we hoped for—three years laters, here we are. It's really just a dream come true for us.”
Watch MKTO Live on December 14, 2013 (Saturday) at Eastwood Mall Open Park, 4pm and Venice Piazza at McKinley Hill, 7pm.
This event is presented by Megaworld Lifestyle Malls, Eastwood Mall, Venice Piazza, in cooperation with Ivory Music & Video and Sony Music.