ATWOOD ON TOUR
Goofing Off With KONGOS: Lunatic band talks brotherhood, food, musical influence, and the Illuminati
Watch: “Come With Me Now” – KONGOS
It’s a cold Sunday evening in mid-February, and I’m sitting backstage at New York’s Irving Plaza with the Kongos brothers – Johnny, Jesse, Dylan and Danny. Collectively, these four Phoenix-based South Africans make up KONGOS, a rock band that has been slowly shaking up the alternative/indie rock scene since the release of their sophomore album, Lunatic (2012 independently, 2014 via Epic). Songs like the taunting “Come With Me Now” and the high-octane “I’m Only Joking” showcase the charismatic musical and lyrical intensity that sets KONGOS apart as a unique force in today’s music world.
It’s been a whirlwind adventure for the Kongos brothers since Epic rereleased their record. After a year of support tours and opening slots, 2015 finally found KONGOS embarking on their first national headline tour. The band paired themselves with Atwood favorites Sir Sly and Colony House for the tour, which is where I found them on that cold New York Sunday this winter. Read below for Atwood Magazine’s exclusive interview with KONGOS!
Catching Up With KONGOSAtwood Magazine: Welcome to hell - New York in the wintertime. This is one of the worst we’ve had in a while.
Johnny: We were just in York, Pennsylvania. That’s not even NEW York, and it was even colder, so this is not hell.
Well you live in Arizona now, and you’re originally from South Africa. This must be a totally different experience.
Jesse: Yeah, plus we’re four little bitches.
Any favorite things to do in New York?
Jesse: Eat – you can find bad restaurants here, but you kind of have to try, you know? So when we’re on the road, if there’s a day off especially, that day off becomes all about eating, and finding the right place to eat. A lot of time it’s catered food, or it’s food from a runner and you’re eating a sandwich in your spare half hour. But if you have time to go and enjoy a meal, New York’s the place.
Did you guys have time today?
Jesse: [Kongos look at each other sadly] No… I think we’ll probably get a late night slice after the show, that’s kind of a tradition.
One of the more pervasive stereotypes of family bands is that you do everything together. Has that been the case for you?
Johnny: On three: …No. Well, there’s a lot you have to do together, but when we’re not on tour, we generally take advantage of the fact that we can split off.
Jesse: But even so, we still do a lot of stuff together. Our whole crew is pretty cool, like we get along and we’re all good friends. So when we have a day off, ten of us will go out and we’ll go bowling and do stuff together. We get along really well.
Johnny: You get so accustomed to a certain way – like, we’ve been on the road. For ten out of the last twelve months, we’ve been living on a bus with pretty much the same crew. So we’ll get back to Phoenix and have a week off and think, “Finally! I can get away from these guys,” and then two days later, you’re sending a text to the group chat saying, “Hey you guys want to meet at a local bar and get a drink?”
Watch: “Traveling On” – KONGOS
'I just miss everybody so much!’ Do you consider yourselves to be a family band?
Johnny: Well technically, yes… I don’t know what else you would call it? Yes, we’re all brothers. If you mean in that stereotypical family-oriented band where we cater to families and family values, and all that stuff, well… we have family values – like, we value our family! – but, we can say cunt too!
Danny: [laughter] What is this for?
Don’t you worry about it. So do you say ‘c***’ a lot?
Jesse: Oh, it’s our thing. Every other cunt! It’s our favorite insult. We’ve got a Scottish tour manager, and in the UK, it’s a word that everybody uses all the time. Over here, it’s got much more weight, but with a Scottish tour manager, you can’t not say that word – or at least not hear it.
Danny: You cunt not say it.
Jesse: It’s pretty bad – I mean, depending on where this is being read…
Don’t you worry about it. No need to hold back…
Danny: “O” magazine [winks]
Exactly. ‘Family and Values’… What about sibling rivalries?
Johnny: We’ve always had rivalries and stuff like that, but it’s always been kept in check. It’s never been excessive, and I think in that way, it’s probably a good thing. It’s good to be a little bit competitive. It drives the ship.
I would say that there’s a healthy amount of rivalry, where we push each other – especially when it comes to songwriting or production, or that kind of thing. We hold each other to pretty high standards and we don’t dish out compliments easily, so when you get one, you know it’s good. We have more sibling rivals with other siblings you know? [smirks] Jonas Brothers, we’re coming for you!
Is there any other profession that you could see all four of you doing together?
Johnny: Restaurants. We’re all about food and we like cooking – I don’t know if we have the work ethic to run a restaurant, but we could at least have four managers.
Watch: “Escape” – KONGOS
Last time you guys were in New York, it was at Mercury Lounge a year ago.
Jesse: The label bought out the whole show for us. A lot of them had never seen us, so the whole company wanted to come. It made it look like we had sold out the show, but –
Danny: Then they charged us back for that. [laughs]
Irving Plaza is a much different crowd than Mercury Lounge, and it’s been a whirlwind year for KONGOS.
Jesse: It’s mind boggling, to be honest. We actually haven’t played New York City since that Mercury Lounge show, so to come back under these circumstances and legitimately sell out a cool venue – you don’t get over that.
Johnny: It was unexpected, really – we knew our good markets – Denver, DC and Chicago always do well, but we didn’t know what to expect from New York. It was very encouraging, because it’s one of our favorite cities.
Danny: And if we can make it here… [everyone laughs]
Dylan: We can make it… anywhere?
Johnny: You get a bit jaded, I think, on the road, and selling out a New York venue still feels one of those moments of, “Yeah! We did it!”
Watch: “I Want To Know” – KONGOS
So why 'KONGOS' in all capital letters?
Jesse: The caps lock broke when we were designing the logo.
Johnny: It’s our last name, “Kongos.” We’re of Greek descent. A lot of people get confused about our name, or think we named it after the country or the drum. When you capitalize it, it stands out and looks symmetrical. You didn’t think you’d get such a detailed answer, huh?
But it doesn’t help that your lead songs do feature very heavily in certain either African or Nordic rhythms, quite akin to certain drums -
Jesse: Yeah, congos. So much for trying to check the hippie drum circle vibe.
Shall we talk about the music for a second?
You guys are a band. You make music!
Danny: We like colors!
Dylan: We play music.
As a songwriting group, do you create the songs together? How does that process work?
Jesse: We write individually, but we produce and record together. The sound of the record is collaborative, but the song is not, usually.
Lunatic is the second effort. Why the name Lunatic - beyond the song reference?
Jesse: “I’m Only Joking” is definitely, sort of, I guess the source of it. We went through a million names trying to come up with an album title. “Lunatic” just kept popping back up. It looked good on the album cover, and it hints at the lyric of “I’m Only Joking,” and it’s a good sounding word – a memorable word. That, and the Illuminati was kind of insistent.
Danny: They’ve been courting us, yeah – you know, we’re just holding off until we get a better deal. I know if you play your negotiation right, you get the second grade coupon books. It’s a bit of a buyers market right now, for souls.
What inspired that rhythmic chanting on ‘I’m Only Joking’?
Jesse: There’s some African bands that we listen to – Tinariwen from Mali, and another band called Tartit – and they have this hypnotic thing about the grooves that they play. Very often, it’ll be a phrase they repeat over and over again. It’s so hypnotic and entrancing, and we wanted to borrow from that a little bit.
Do you find that a lot of your influence dates back from South Africa?
Johnny: I think that it’s impossible to say where that’s from – a lot of that is just the record collection we were exposed to. Living in South Africa doesn’t mean that you get exposed to music from Mali, but there is a vibe that stayed. Like, on “It’s A Good Life,” that vibe – we’re trying to capture the same thing Paul Simon was going for on Graceland, and what he fell in love with is this joyful music (which is not cheesy).
Jesse: I think also the fact that we moved to Phoenix, which does not have the most particularly strong cultural identity… Phoenix is a great place to live, but there’s no unique, defining features of it, so South Africa sticks in our heads.
Dylan: [Phoenix is] very sterilized, so your influences can be selective. There’s no worry of contamination from local influences.
Listen: “I Want To Know” – KONGOS
Are there any sort of rituals you four will do together before a show?
Jesse: We get asked that a lot, and until recently we’ve not had time for any rituals. We’re usually running around, plugging our gear in and hoping that it works. Now that we actually have a crew and we can rely on them to make everything work (knock on wood), we’ll have to come up with some rituals – maybe sacrifice a goat or something.
What’s your most frequently-asked question?
Johnny: “Do you fight as brothers?”
Danny: No, we fight as sisters.
Dylan: Yeah, it’s something along those lines. Usually they’ll start a question with, “I know I have a brother I couldn’t get along with…”
Kings of Leon is one of my favorite bands. How did you feel about them tapping you on the shoulder?
Jesse: We already knew and liked their music, but going on tour with them took it to a whole other live. Watching their show every night… you come to really appreciate them.
Dylan: I didn’t know them – I knew the two big hits here, “Sex On Fire” and “Use Somebody” and that’s basically it, and I had never investigated further. After watching the first show, I went, ”Oh… holy shit! These guys are fucking good.” And then I watched pretty much every show after that, and listened to the records after that. It was one of those things were you see a band live, and it exposes you to the real thing – not whatever was the hype. We became legitimate fans after that.
Watch: iTunes 2013 (full concert) – Kings of Leon
Johnny: Every now and then, you hear it coming out of someone’s bunk on the tour bus – us and members of the crew, their Kings of Leon playlists because they’re all sad about the fact that we’re not on that tour anymore. Watching them just made it a fun tour –
Dylan: It was summer, the catering was awesome, the guys are really good guys and everybody was in such a good mood on that tour… and then we went to Stockholm, where they’ve never seen the sun… so people just have tremendous nostalgia for that tour.
Was it cool being with another family band?
Jesse: We barely met or hung out with them. We got to know Nathan and Caleb a little better than the other two. There was a family vibe, not just with them, but with the whole crew.
Now this is your turn - it’s your headline tour. Have you found yourselves taking leadership in making this your own?
Johnny: From the beginning, we tried to pick and choose crew members whom we can get along with on the road, and we’ve been pretty selective about that. We also learned some things from Kings of Leon’s crews that our guys either already had, or they took on quickly – like treating other bands well, treating the opener well, etc… You don’t get too far ahead of yourselves just because you’re the headliner.
As these things grow, you have to grow, too.
Watch: “Hey I Don’t Know” – KONGOS
Did you have a goal when you first formed the band? Any visions you collectively shared?
Jesse: We definitely wanted to be a big band from the start, you know? Like, stadium-sized. We’ve been slogging it out for a long time. When South African success happened for us with some of the records, within a matter of a year we went from playing 800-cap venues to opening up for Linkin Park in a soccer stadium of 65,000 people. Obviously that was their crowd, but there was a good portion of those people that were out there to see us. That spoiled us, because we’re just chasing that dragon now. There’s nothing like playing to that many people. So, we want to be a huge, fucking, stadium rock band.
It’s been two, almost three years since Lunatic actually came out. As a songwriter, I know I can’t go long without writing music. What’s been your muse - have you found time to write?
Jesse: It’s been kind of bittersweet, because we’ve mentally and emotionally moved on from Lunatic, but we’re still touring it and supporting it because that’s what we have to do. It’s one of those good problems… At the same time, it’s very difficult to write on the road. your day is broken up into ten- or twenty-minute segments, you know? With the VIP, and the press, and the acoustic sessions, and the gig, and all that stuff… I feel like we’re gathering a lot of material, even if it’s totally unfiltered. Eventually, the experiences that we’ve had, we’ll be able to turn into songs. We haven’t done too much writing, I don’t think, but I’d say we’ve gathered material for writing.
Johnny: Any time we get a break – if there’s a week here or there, and we actually get some silence and some space, then all of a sudden you hear that everyone’s written the song they probably would’ve written on the months prior, on the road.
Listen: “Escape” – KONGOS
Is there a difference for you, between the live show and the recorded material?
Johnny: In approach? Yes, because the live show is about that one event. It’s about that time period, and you’re designing that experience. On an album, I think we worry more about its longevity – its return, and what you get out of it, the more you listen to it. So the live show is more action packed!
I like that! What can I expect tonight?
Johnny: Well, it’s going to be different than anything we’ve ever done before. We didn’t have much budget for any production before, but on this tour, we’ve brought out a lot more production with us. We’ve tried to visually enhance the experience for people.
Watch: Lollapalooza Argentina 2015 – KONGOS
What is KONGOS’ biggest goal for this year?
Johnny: Third album – that’s what we want – by year’s end. More than anything, that’s what we want to do – work on that. As soon as we’re done with this tour – we’ve got it all written already, we just need to get it recorded!
Alive or dead, is there anyone one artist you would do anything to perform with?
Dylan: Dr. Dre – there’s this mashup that we do with some Beatles stuff, and I’d like to get him to do a verse or two, in between being a billionaire.
Jesse: I don’t think it’ll ever happen.
Johnny: Bob Marley? I wouldn’t mind just experiencing him play – just stand on stage watching him. I think a Bob Marley show is one that keeps popping in my head. I’ve seen some live footage, and nobody gets deep grooves like that band did.
Watch: “I’m Only Joking” – KONGOS
“Come With Me Now” – KONGOS
Afraid to lose control
And caught up in this world
I’ve wasted time, I’ve wasted breath
I think I’ve thought myself to death
I was born without this fear
Now only this seems clear
I need to move, I need to fight
I need to lose myself tonight
Come with me now
I’m gonna take you down
Come with me now
I’m gonna show you how
I think with my heart and I move with my head
I open my mouth and it’s something I’ve read
I stood at this door before, I’m told
But a part of me knows that I’m growing too old
Confused what I thought with something I felt
Confuse what I feel with something that’s real
I tried to sell my soul last night
Funny, he wouldn’t even take a bite
I heard him say (come with me now)
I heard him say (come with me now)
Lunatic – KONGOS
Learn more about KONGOS online at kongos.com