It’s taken a few years, but the rest of the world seems to have caught up with the globally-inspired, time-spinning music of KONGOS.
Made up of four brothers from Phoenix who grew up in London and South Africa (where their father John Kongos had success as a singer-songwriter in the ‘70s) the band has whipped through the rock airwaves like a gust of fresh air with their hit single, “Come With Me Now,” a swirl of Beatlesquesongcraft, African rhythms, accordion, and slide guitar.
But before the winds of change caught their backs, and they signed a major label deal with Epic Records (who re-released their second self-produced album Lunatic this past January, nearly two years after they recorded it) KONGOS learned to do everything themselves. And it shows, both in the depth of their songwriting and in their inspiring, brotherly bond as a band.
Recoil spoke with drummer/vocalist Jesse Kongos via phone last month about the band’s diverse influences, their unique upbringing, and their sudden, surprising success.
Recoil: Just to start at the beginning, what was it like growing up with a father who was a musician?
Jesse Kongos: Well, basically from a very young age we were learning music. Our parents wanted us to learn piano. Just like any other subject they thought it was important to be a part of our lives. So we grew up playing piano and having piano lessons, and also he had a recording studio in our house, so we were kind of around that environment. So there was just music all around. He played us all different types of music growing up, so we had a wide variety of influences. So it was a very musical, joyful upbringing really.
R: Being surrounded by all that music, do you think you had a better understanding of what it takes to be a band than most young people starting out with a band?
JK: I think it’s definitely an advantage and a luxury. The fact that we have access to a place not only to play and make records and stuff, but also to make noise at any time of the day. That’s a serious advantage. So moving across different instruments and starting playing together, music became a possible career. We all saw that and we were all attracted to it, especially not going down the road of getting a regular job, which wasn’t attractive. [Laughs] So the fact that we could go into the studio and make noise, we could learn by trial and error. And also to have our dad there to help us and teach us was definitely very helpful.
R: Did all four of you always know that you wanted to make music your careers? Did you always know that you wanted to be in a band with the four of you together?
JK: No. I mean, I guess maybe subconsciously. It wasn’t like some plan or anything. I think when we were teenagers and started jamming, the prospect of playing in front of people and getting some recognition, and also the long-term thought that it might be a career started to form. But it wasn’t like imposed on us, or some master plan, but it started to make a certain amount of sense when we all had a certain amount of musical skill, and we got along. Together the idea of us doing a band made more sense than each of us individually going and doing something. It was a stronger entity.
R: Do you feel like you’ve been able to learn from each other as you’ve explored so many different types of music, and explored how to write your own music?
JK: Yeah, definitely. We each have different skill sets in the band, outside of music even. I’m on the production side of the band. I do a lot of the mixing and mastering and stuff. Danny does photography and videography, and he’s really good at doing the videos that we do ourselves, and Johnny does Web design, and Dylan plays different instruments and is also very organized, so together we kind of fill in the gaps. Whatever’s lacking, another one of us is filling in.
R: What’s the best part about being in a band with your brothers?
JK: I think the best part is that it’s much harder to break up, because we’re so close and we know each other’s faults and we know each other’s strengths. So it’s literally a brotherhood feeling. That makes the project very strong, I think, because we’re all committed. It’s not like we’re just four guys who kind of randomly found each other. There’s also blood to tie us together.
R: What’s the hardest part?
JK: The hardest part is probably the familiarity. You spend enough time with anybody and they’ll get on your nerves. [Laughs] But we’ve learned to get through that. We still fight, and we still have arguments. The fighting has gotten less physical and more verbal, but we’re pretty quick at moving on from that. That’s something that we’ve worked at over the years, not letting things drag out and just moving on quickly. Everybody fights, every band fights, and I think that’s the hardest part, the familiarity.
R: Like you mentioned earlier, I’ve read that all of you studied music from all over the world while you were in school in South Africa. How much have you continued to challenge yourselves to expand your musical vocabulary?
JK: I think we have asort of mentality of not restricting where the sound can go. When you listen to such a variety of music, not only from all over the world, but from all over history – you listen to music that sometimes is even thousands of years old – you start to see what lasts and what doesn’t last and what has long term meaning. And so I think that’s ultimately something that we would like to embrace in our music is not putting a restriction on it because it’s a particular trend or whatever. It’s kind of a challenge almost to see how obscure our influences can get and still be a rock, or rock-pop band. So we’re open to everything.
R: How actively do you work to incorporate things that you discover that you’re excited about into what you already do?
JK: That’s kind of a theme for us, because we were raised on such a variety of stuff, and quite obscure stuff, you know like West African bands and music from Pakistan, and Greek music, and it’s very hard to make that fit into a Western pop band. So if we hear a rhythm or something that we really like we’ll try to incorporate it, and then there’s always the challenge of fusing that with a song that’s going to be accessible to our audience. So, we definitely see it as a challenge and each of us likes branching off into different areas of music and bringing it to the band.
R: Having spent some of your time growing up living in South Africa, what was it like going back there to tour? And what did it mean for your music to be so widely accepted there first, before almost anywhere else in the world?
JK: It’s the best feeling I think. We grew up in South Africa. We only spent eight years there, but they were eight very important years, and we made some of our best friends there, and went to school there and it was a really unique kind of childhood. And then to go back so many years later with our music kind of blowing up on radio, it was kind of an unreal feeling. It was a really good excuse to go back there often, so we’ve been back five times since we kind of hit on radio there, and above and beyond playing big shows and being well-received and all that, it’s just really nice to be in the country and be with our friends and to experience everything that the country has to offer because it’s really an amazing place.
R: How different doesSouth Africa feel now?
JK: Well certain aspects are exactly the same. Just the feeling and the friends and all of that. But what’s amazing is in even fifteen or twenty years, the change that has happened there, the integration and the openness of it… You know there’s still a lot of problems there; a lot of crime and everything. But being away for so long, you really see the change and see the positive direction that it’s taken. South Africa has had a rough history and the transition to a proper democracy has been a bit bumpy, but it’s really on the right track, and it’s definitely improved.
R: Back here in the U.S., where “Come With Me Now” is having so much success now, what does it mean to you to be able to introduce some of these sounds that come from South Africa or other places to American audiences?
JK: I think it’s really cool, because I think American audiences are willing to embrace different stuff. Especially if it’s given some mainstream exposure. Americans are the breaking audience. So succeeding here is like a whole different thing. You can crack anywhere in the world, but really cracking America is the thing that counts the most. So that’s a good feeling, to just start making in-rows into that, because it’s such a big place, and such a huge market, and as far as rock and pop music goes, it’s the leader of the world. So that’s been exciting.
R: After you self-released your first album in 2007, you really focused on working on singles. What has it mean to have “Come With Me Now” take off on radio the way it has?
JK: There’s nothing like a hit single. The fact that we recorded it a couple years ago, and actually released it a couple years ago, and it’s the same song, same recording, but now all of a sudden it’s hitting, that just proves there’s a little bit of magic when there’s a hit song. It’s got to do with timing and luck and just the right opportunity. If you have the song and you have the record, it can still happen, even if it’s taken a few years. It opens so many doors. Radio play gets you fans coming out to your show, it attracts a whole different level of production that you can bring into your project.
R: I’ve read that the accordion wasn’t originally part of the band. Why did you decide to include the accordion in your music?
JK: Yeah, Johnny was a keyboard player and piano player, so most of what he was doing was keyboards. But there was a song on our first album called “The Way,” and we were recording and we were trying to find some sort of solo for this solo section in the song, and nothing was really working. Guitar wasn’t working, keyboard wasn’t working. We tried every instrument that was lying around in the studio, and finally we picked up the accordion, and within a few seconds we heard the sound and we knew that it worked. It just made sense. From that point on, he started playing it more and more and incorporating it into the band, and obviously it’s a skill that a piano player can have somewhat, but it’s also a different skill playing the accordion. At that point, it was such a unique sound that it became an integral part of the band.
R: Overall how do you look back on self-releasing your first album, and do you plan to re-release any of those songs?
JK: Yeah, we will definitely put it out at some point. When we signed with Epic, because there was so much buzz around “Come With Me Now,” and Lunatic we wanted all eyes on that. But we’ll put it out eventually. We’re still proud of it. It’s our first album; our first attempt at really professional recording, and I think we learned a lot along the way, and I think we’ve learned a lot since then, and we hope each album shows progression.
R: In your live sets you’ve covered some of your dad’s songs, as well as The Beatles and even some Dr. Dre, I do believe. What do you like about putting your own spin on those classics?
JK: Well when it comes to covering especially songs like Beatles songs that everybody knows, and everybody knows the records perfectly… so to try to do the same would just be like doing a shittier version of their song or their recording. [Laughs] So we always try to revisit them in some way, just to make it something a little different and not just a simple cover. So we’ve had a lot of fun mashing stuff up, especially Beatles songs, because they’re songs where you can almost do them in any way and the song still works. And I think that’s a sign of a good song. And then our dad’s songs, it’s really fun when we get to play them with him. That’s like a whole different kind of fun, and I know my dad enjoys it, too.
R: Looking toward the future, and with Lunatic being written and recorded two years ago, are you guys already writing and thinking about recording anything new? Or are you overwhelmed with all the touring and everything that’s coming your way now?
JK:We had a lot of down time after we finished the music and before “Come With Me Now” started to hit. We had quite a lot of downtime. So we did write and demo and came up with quite a lot of material that’s sort of ready to go when we’re ready to record our next album. So we feel pretty good that we’ve gotten ahead ourselves a bit, because the touring schedule now dominates every part of our lives now where we don’t have much time. But we’re always definitely looking forward to new material, and we play new songs occasionally on the road to sort of flesh them out.
For more click over to kongos.com