When Malcolm Kelley and Tony Oller met on the set of their hit Nickelodeon teen series Gigantic, their chemistry was already in sync. Oller had starred in a few films, most notably 2013 cult-favorite horror film The Purge; Kelly was best known for his role as Walt on the television phenomenon Lost. Yet, even with a growing pedigree of high-status acting roles, it was their off-camera singing that somehow always stole the show. “We just sort of hit it off,” Oller said of the moment he and Kelley first met. “Everything sort of came about really organically. We clicked, it was cool.” As their friendship unfolded, so did their musical collaborations. “We were just laughing and singing, and people started saying that we should make an album and go on tour,” Kelley remembers. So that’s exactly what they did.
MKTO’s self-titled debut album, which dropped in the US on April 1, 2014, recently debuted at number one in Australia—a distinction that the group is still both shocked and honored by. While the band’s quick rise is a brilliant example of what can come by following one’s instincts, for Oller, it’s all secondary to their initial goal, which is to just have a good time. “We kind of feel like we’re underdogs in a sense, being actors and going into music,” he says, “but we just wanted to focus on making great music. All we want people to get from this album is that we are having a great time. We’re having so much fun! It’s about getting out there and really winning people over, and that’s what we’re excited to do.”
The album is named both for the duo’s combined initials as well as the audience they believe their music speaks to most directly: “Misfit Kids and Total Outcasts,” which both Oller and Kelley are quick to self-identify as. “It is all about not being afraid and doing what you want to do,” Kelley explains. “We’re just following our dreams and making music right now.” The album represents dreams coming true for the pair, who had the chance to collaborate with famed R&B vet Ne-Yo. “We were like ‘Yeah! That would be crazy to have Ne-Yo on there!’ And a week later or something, Ne-Yo was in the studio with us and we had a track! It was really inspiring to watch and write and just see him as an artist.”
It’s easy to see that MKTO’s most valuable asset is not just their talent—it’s their close friendship, which has manifested itself into crowd-pleasing pop music that brings people together the same way it did Kelley and Oller. Keep an ear out for “American Dream,” a track the two believe captures the essence of their work, and has the potential to be a big hit. As they promote their new album stateside, MKTO is making sure to keep the party rolling. “We had just so much fun making it, and we just think you’ll have a great time with this album!”
Indira Cesarine: How did you guys form MKTO?
Malcolm Kelley: Well we first met on a TV show. We played best friends on there; it was for TeenNick, and it was called Gigantic. We were just making music, and we found out that we both had the same love for making music. We were just laughing and singing, and people started saying that we should make an album and go on tour. We thought that was kind of crazy until we met some producers and got signed to a label.
Tony Oller: Everything came about really organically. That was something we kind of enjoyed about this whole process, after the show it was probably a year or two of staying in touch and just being good friends, but every once in a while putting up a cover on Youtube. It came about that down the road we realized we wanted to do it, and decided to do it!
IC: The first time you guys met, did you get along immediately?
TO: Oh yeah, the first time we met. We met when we were auditioning for the parts we ended up getting for Gigantic on TeenNick. We just hit it off, we clicked. It was cool.
IC: Did you both have previous music experience before doing the TV show?
MK: It wasn’t something that we took seriously, but luckily via friends we found out what we both loved, and that was music. And then the opportunity came along where we could take it more seriously. When we got signed to a record label and producers, they signed us as writers, so we’re writing for other artists as well. A door just really opened up for us in the music world, and we loved it so much that we couldn’t turn it down.
IC: And what inspires your songwriting?
TO: Basically anything inspire us. We carry around a CD wherever we go, so anytime we feel like recording, we do. It’s just a matter of if it’s stuck in our head, and if it’s catchy enough – if it makes sense. And if that’s the case, we bring it to the studio and try to structure it properly and break it down, and go from there.
IC: You worked with Ne-Yo – can you tell me a little bit about that?
MK: Yeah, our producers had worked with everybody from Celine Dion to Ne-Yo, and our producers were like ‘Let’s put Ne-Yo on the record’ and we were like ‘Yeah! That would be crazy to have Ne-Yo on there.’ A week later, Ne-Yo was in the studio with us and we had a track …so that was really inspiring to watch and write and just see him as an artist. I think he did one take, and he’s on the record now. It’s a dance track called ‘Could be Me,’ and that song is one of my favorites.
IC: That’s cool. Who else did you collaborate with on the album?
TO: We had a really talented girl by the name of Jessica Ashley. Actually, one of the first songs that we had written, Malcolm and I started it and then brought it to the studio for the record, called ‘No More Second Chances.’ It’s a really cool perspective on a relationship coming from two dudes and then having a girl come on board to give her perspective of the situation. It was very diverse, we have basically eleven stories on the album and all different, but all with a good message at the end of the day.
IC: Can you tell me a little bit about the album?
MK: The album is self-titled: MKTO. We kind of feel like we’re underdogs in a sense, being actors and going into music, but we just wanted to focus on making great music, and what we want people to get from this album is that we have a great time. And we have another name for our band, which is “Misfit Kids and Total Outcasts,” which is about not being afraid and doing what you want to do. We’re just following our dreams and making music right now.
IC: Do you guys have any artists who inspire your music?
TO: Yeah, absolutely. One thing we always say is that we’re lucky that our parents raised us on great music. Our background is a lot of classic rock meets Ray Charles, from The Temptations to Muddy Waters, to Miles Davis. I mean, we listen to basically everything. I don’t think that there’s one kind of genre of music to listen to. I think that your job as a musician is to learn all of the types of music. And that’s what we like about MKTO – we get to collaborate.
IC: Out of the musicians that have inspired your work, is there any particular one that stands out as your favorite, like somebody that you would, for example, love to collaborate with?
TO: I love Justin Timberlake.
IC: What is the process like of making an album? How long were you guys in the studio?
TO: It was about, I don’t know, maybe a year. We’ve been done with this for quite a while, so we’re really ready for it to get out there. But process as a whole is just; we show up at the studio, we’d basically be in the studio every day, and just see where we go. We’d either come in with an emotion, or come in with a problem that we’re dealing with and break it down into a song, which as artists, is pretty much the only thing we can do – just put it into a song.
IC: Are you guys planning on going back into the TV/film world at all, or are you just going to keep your focus on music moving forward?
MK: Well that’s what we were trying to say about Justin Timberlake, and how he balances his career, and people like Ne-Yo. He’s tried stuff from acting to writing, to dance, so we want careers like that. We want to make names for ourselves.
IC: What would you consider your breakthrough moment with the band? Do you feel like you’ve had one yet?
TO: Yeah, I think something that was really amazing was the fact that when our album came out in Australia, it debuted at number one, which was an incredible feeling.
IC: And did you have any personal motto or words of wisdom that you live by?
MK: Our personal motto? What do you think?
TO: I would say, I think this is a good metaphor for anything: ‘Learn as much as you can, because you can’t fake intelligence.’ I think you can put that as an artist: learn as many instruments, learn as many songs, listen to as much music as you can because if you want to do something you should know every angle. I like that quote, that was a quote that, what was the dude that was in Twister? Do you remember his name, the dude in Twister with Helen Hunt? He was the one that said that. I sent a fan letter to him! His name has slipped my mind, but he’s the one who said that you can’t fake intelligence.
IC: Did you guys ever have a mentor who worked with you to help you develop your work, or were you just self-guided?
MK: Our producers who we got signed to are kind of like our mentors. We’ve grown so much, even looking at lighting and certain ways to format a song, we’ve learned a lot.
IC: What about your personal style, are there certain designers you like to wear, or are you picky at all with how you dress?
MK: Yeah, yeah, whatever. We’re comfortable with how we dress – wear some Jordans sometimes, some boots another day, you know…
IC: So you’re pretty laid back actually.
TO: Yeah yeah. I mean, if we’re on a date we’re going to wear a nice suit and tie, you know?
IC: This is our ‘Legendary’ issue. What, to you, is the definition of legendary?
TO: I mean, people that have put their mark in history, people that will forever be remembered. I think legendary can also be just being remembered for being good in a family. Yeah, I really like that word.
IC: Can you name some of your favorite legendary artists that come to mind?
IC: You’d be surprised by how dramatically it differs, from person to person, who they consider to be legendary. It’s actually quite personal. What are your current projects? Are you working on anything currently beside the album release? Are you going to tour?
TO: We’re about to do our first headlining tour in Australia, and then after that we’re going to hopefully work on getting something going out here after that, right now we’re just working on getting out there, but the coolest difference with this tour is that everybody is knowing the music a lot more, which is awesome, because that’s the best thing as a musician, to see people singing the lyrics to your song. It’s incredible. We’re having so much fun, and we love being cooped up in that studio in that creative way, but its about getting out there and really winning people over, and that’s what we’re excited to do.
IC: Out of the track list of the new songs on your album, what are the songs that personally resonate with you?
MK: I have a couple. I really love the whole album, but “American Dream,” I really like a lot. Also the song, “Nowhere.” I could go on all day – I love the album as a whole.
TO: “American Dream” is the song we’re really proud of. It’s about following your dreams, and it has a really powerful chorus too, so we hope everyone enjoys it.
This article originally appeared in The Legendary Issue of The Untitled Magazine (2014).