There was an early 90s one hit wonder that told us that “groove is in the heart.” For the members of the band KONGOS, this could not ring any truer.
KONGOS, the South African band currently ripping up the alternative charts with their infectious hit “Come With Me Now,” have developed a groove in their music that has sparked a magical connection with American audiences. The unique hit as well as many of the band’s other tracks, have this chugging, toe-tapping, head bopping groove has made it a ubiquitous and undeniable hit for personal playlists, radio play and countless commercials. But, more importantly, it has connected with audiences, who have fallen in love with this brotherly band.
Currently signed to Epic Records, KONGOS is about to embark on their first major American tour opening for Kings of Leon and Young the Giant. Pop-Break’s editor-in-chief caught up with Johnny Kongos to talk about making it in America, their father’s musical legacy and more.
Johnny Kongos: Hey Bill, this is Johnny Kongos.
Pop-Break: Hi Johnny. I’d like to admit something right off the bat, before researching you guys I thought that Kongos was a gimmick last name and you guys were like a South African version of The Ramones.
JK: (laughs) No man, that’s the name that is printed on my passport.
PB: I first heard KONGOS not long ago when “Come With Me Now” was used as the theme song for the WWE PPV Extreme Rules earlier this month. It’s such an infectious song and the record itself, Lunatic, is just a dynamite record. It was released in 2012 in South Africa where it was a big hit, but right now you guys are touring the United States playing songs that are well over two years old and people are considering this “new music.” Is it weird that people in different countries consider work you put together a few years ago to be “brand new?”
JK: Yeah, it’s a little weird. You know how hard it is to get a song out there. It’s so saturated and there’s so many great songs out, so it’s a little weird but a great weird. It’s a resurgence of the song for us because it ran its course in South Africa. The album cycle is done there so it’s been really great for us to have this resurgence in North America.
PB: Before you got signed did you guys do any tours in America?
JK: Yes, but not any major tours. We’ve been around the country two or three times. Just small band tours [playing] small clubs and a festival here or there. Nothing major.
PB: While touring the U.S. was there a moment or moments when it hit you that KONGOS was destined for something big or something big was on the horizon for the band?
JK: There was a couple of those moments and they continue to happen. The first really big thing was when we first played Chicago in February. They were spinning “I’m Only Joking” for only a couple of months. We saw radio was going well and we talked to our management about it, but when we got to Chicago and there were hundreds and hundreds of people singing our songs and not just “Come With Me Now” but other songs from the album, that’s when it really set in [and we said] “Oh wow, this is really connecting with people.” You can hear all the radio and sales stats that you want but it’s not until you actually see enough fans lining up outside a show that’s when it feels real.
PB: “Come With Me Now” has exploded as an alternative rock hit in this country, peaking at #1 not long ago. If you can take a step back from being the writer of the song and approach it as a fan of music, what is it about this song that has people digging it so much?
JK: It’s hard to say, but what connects with me and I’ll assume that connects with a lot of people, is the groove. There’s this undeniable groove that was obviously influenced by our time in South Africa, particularly the style of music called Kwaito. I could listen to that groove over and over. The song is almost secondary to the groove for me.
PB: Speaking of influence, your father John Kongos had a number of hits in South Africa and the U.K. back in the 70s. When I heard them, I could hear a direct influence on your sound, but that’s just me. To you guys, did your dad have a direct influence on your sound and/or becoming a band. Or is this all a coincidence and just a thing how sons sometimes inherit things from their dad?
JK: It was definitely a lot of influence from the fact he encouraged us to learn music and piano when we were kids and always supported our decision to start a band. His own music — what he was writing, listening to and creating that definitely influenced our sound. If you listen to two of his biggest songs “Tokoloshe Man” and “He’s Gonna Step On You Again” you can hear a direct lineage of where our sound morphed out off.
PB: He’s got to be proud of what you guys have done. What’s his reaction been to all your success?
JK: He and our mom are completely happy and proud that we’ve managed to do this. We were lucky to have a dad who was in the music business. So when we said, “Hey Dad, we’re going to start a band.” He was really supportive. It was a real dream for them to see this all come to fruition.
PB: What’s the best piece of advice he gave you guys?
JK: He said don’t believe your own press, it was something one of his old managers had said to him. So just keep ourselves grounded. Which, shouldn’t be hard with three brothers in a band, giving each other crap the whole time.
PB: In regards to positive press and success, does all of this happening right now feel surreal, like this happening to someone else or do you feel that this is something you’ve worked hard for and have earned?
JK: We’ve worked hard, but I wouldn’t use the word “earned” or “deserved.” Obviously there are thousands and thousands of bands out there and there’s so much good music out there that a big element of it is luck and I think we realize that. We’ve got a lot of faith in our music and we think that it’s strong and it can connect with people and it has commercial potential, but at the end of the day a lot of it is luck. Someone heard it at the right time, it went to radio and this happened and that happened. There’s just such a massive that is beyond our control.
PB: You’re signed to a major label (Epic), something a lot of bands out there can’t say anymore. How was this label helped you guys succeed?
JK: I think we ended up being on a label in the best way. We met with L.A. Reid and it was just clear to us that this was a project for him and the company that was based on the music. It wasn’t based on some weekly sales numbers that were coming in and were good. Those numbers can go up and go down. They were just very invested in music. Of course, the power of a major label and the ability to get access to more ears, it broadens the ability for our music to get to more people. It’s something we couldn’t have done by ourselves.
PB: Another promotional tool you guys have is some fantastic music videos. My favorite song and video of yours is “Hey I Don’t Know” where you strapped Go Pros to your instruments during a live concert. Music videos, to many, seem like a lost art. Why put so much time and thought into them?
JK: It felt like for a little while that music video was dead, but with YouTube and everything within the past 10 or so years, it’s brought it back. It’s still what we found to be the most viral way to spread music these days. People don’t really share music as much on social networks as much as they do video. So it’s just a great tool to get music shared. It’s also a fun part of it, we often think visually when we’re writing the songs. It’s nice to see that come to life, for lack of a better phrase.
PB: You guys have had huge success in South Africa, but are still on the rise here. Do the crowds react differently the music here than back home?
JK: I say it’s a similar reaction. So far, the South African crowds are the best crowds we’ve ever played to. It’s just something about the energy that’s there. With that being said, things are just starting to pick up for us in the States, so I don’t know yet. But, they have yet to match the madness and enthusiasm of the South African crowds.
PB: There’s so much to come for you guys in this country, what are you most amped about that’s on the horizon for 2014?
JK: For all of us, this Kings of Leon tour. It’s such a great bill, to play with two of these bands, Young the Giant and Kings of Leon, that we’ve really been fans of for a long time. We’re playing all these legendary venues across the country like Red Rocks. It’s just a dream come to true.
PB: This band is a brotherly thing, a family thing. So, what you love most about performing in this band?
JK: Just the fact that you’re able to be in that moment and not do anything else there’s nothing I’ve experienced in my life that has come close to that. The feeling of connecting with people through music is a special experience. It explains why music that with all the technology out there and everything that’s come about, is still an important part of people’s lives to this day.
PB: Despite the record being new in the states, Lunatic did out in 2012 are there any plans for a new album any time soon?
JK: We’re always writing and demoing stuff and messing around. We haven’t started properly recording anything, but we’re always coming up with new music. There’s new material in the pipeline for sure.