They're an incredibly eclectic group of musicians, and they've been taking the world by storm over the past few years. Rock quartet KONGOS have had a very busy past few years touring the world in support of their studio album, Lunatic, which features the smash hit "Come With Me Now". After the song exploded onto the scene, the band began touring non-stop. Before all of the madness began, however, the band had settled in to write a majority of the material that appears on their newest record, Egomaniac. The guys will be stopping at The Regency Ballroom in San Francisco tomorrow evening (along with The Joy Formidable) for a powerful performance in support of the new record. Prior to their stop in the city, we spoke with member Johnny Kongos about the tour, the making of Egomaniac, how radio has played a big part in their career, and much more.
How are you doing today?
I’m good! Just getting towards the last couple days of the tour. But I’ve been doing very well.
How far into the tour are you?
We started September 23rd, I believe. So I guess that’s about a month? We finish up on the 31st and then we head to Europe for about three weeks. Then we have a little break, and then some radio Christmas shows, that sort of thing.
Yeah, all of those radio show lineups are starting to come out today. Sounds like it’s a very eventful few months for you right now.
Yeah! Busy since June. But it’s a good thing.
Congratulations on the release of Egomaniac. From my research, you guys are all from South Africa, and I was curious to know what role did music have in your childhood and teenage years when you were growing up in South Africa before moving over to the United States?
Well, three of us, the three older brothers, were born in London, and then we moved to South Africa, where our Dad is from. That’s where Danny, the youngest, was born. Then we spent about eight years there. We have kind of been all over the place, but South Africa was definitely a very important part of our childhood and our teenage years.
Musically, it was definitely an influence on us, but a huge influence on us was [the fact] that our Dad was in the music business. He always had a massive record collection. He’d always be playing the hugest variety of music from that collection to us. We heard all kinds of world music, not just South African music. Those were important, formative years.
There’s nothing better than going through a massive record collection and getting all of those different influences and genres on your musical palate.
Absolutely. I think that’s such an important part of it. You have to “eat well” in order to express well, and the way you do that in music is obviously by listening to just as much as you can.
It makes a lot more sense hearing that, because my next question was actually about how you guys are able to blend so many different influences into your music. When I listen to your music, I definitely hear a rock band, but I hear so many different things as well. How are you guys able to blend so many influences together when writing?
I’m not sure, exactly. We’ve never really thought about writing in any specific genre, we’ve never been tied to the idea that is has to be eclectic. We just try to make it about the music we enjoy playing and listening to. And because there’s such a diverse set of influences, and we didn’t grow up necessarily within any particular “scene”. We’ve been living in Phoenix the last twenty years, and there isn’t really a “scene” there. Like, if you grew up in Seattle in the 80s or 90s, you’re definitely going to be influenced and leaning more towards grunge, that sort of thing.
We were just kind of left alone, mentally, to just let everything simmer. I guess that when we start writing and playing together, it just comes out as this mixture of everything. It differs from song to song; we’re not only tied to African influence. Sometimes, it’s electronic-influenced, as we grew up listening to The Prodigy and that sort of English, electro stuff. It’s the way it comes out, I don’t really know how else to describe it. (laughs)
Since there wasn’t really a scene, where did you guys start playing gigs?
Well, when I say there wasn’t a scene, I mean that there wasn’t really a distinctive “scene” that you would find in a bigger city like Los Angeles or New York, where certain trends would happen. In Phoenix, there’s actually a very good and growing scene, and it’s quite an eclectic scene, which is great. We started playing in Phoenix; everything from local gigs around town to shitty dive bars to nobody, like most bands start off.
We did that for a long time. We did a lot of gigs at this one place in Downtown Phoenix, which was venue where you can maybe squeeze one hundred people in there, and you do these long, three to four hour sets. We’d play basically everything; we’d play a bunch of covers, a lot of instrumental jazz-jam fusion type stuff, and then we’d play originals. We started to develop a bit of a following in Phoenix.
Then, things really took off for us when we sent off some emails to some South African radio stations. They picked up “I’m Only Joking”, and from there, that built up a career for us in South Africa. It’s kind of like you have to go away for people to appreciate where you’re from, because once we came back, all of a sudden, we had a much bigger following in Phoenix. I think people had to see it and go, “oh, this is happening somewhere else.”
After the success of Lunatic, it took about four years for Egomanic to be released. How were you guys able to start the writing process for the recording in between all of the touring in support of Lunatic?
Well, we had the lucky problem of nothing happening for us from 2012 until about the end of 2013. We had basically an entire album cycle in South Africa. We had six or seven singles; a massive thing had happened to us over there. We came back, we self-released the album at the end of 2012 in America, and nothing happened. Basically, for months, we kept trying to push and promote as much as we could. We said, “you know what? Maybe we need to move on and start writing new material.” So we wrote a lot of the time. Towards the third quarter of 2013, “Come With Me Now” finally clicked with American radio. So basically, we had written most of Egomaniac in that downtime, and then all of a sudden, Lunatic picked up for us here in the states and we toured until halfway through 2015. We were kind of ahead of ourselves in that sense. We still ended up taking quite a long time to record it; we just wanted to get it right. That’s basically all that we cared about, which was making sure that we got the record right. We learned a lot of things being on the road, and also just recording and playing a lot more. It was definitely an improvement on the technical side of things with recording. We mix, master, and engineer everything all in-house, by ourselves. We’re learning and constantly improving. We spend a lot of the money that we make on the road, and it basically goes back into equipment in the studio so that we can write more records.
That’s fascinating to me that you guys do everything in-house. I think that’s awesome, and a very DIY approach to making sure that the music you guys put out is one hundred percent to your liking.
Yeah, I mean for the longest time it was [done] out of necessity, because we were universally rejected by every record label, like most bands in the beginning. We had to do everything ourselves, and then we got so used to working that way that we can’t even imagine working another way. We’re honestly not interested in creative input from the outside when it comes to music. We’re very control freak-ish about that. That’s part of the reason [the album] is called Egomaniac. But it’s just something we do. Between us, we trust the four ears. We have similar [ideas], but at the same time, we come from slightly different places. If we can get all four of us brothers to sign off on something, it’s probably got something to it.
Something you had said earlier was that when “Come With Me Now” finally clicked with American radio, I do remember the year when that song started to really take off. What was it about “Come With Me Now” that really stood out for you guys as a single and a hit?
Our first single, actually in both South Africa and in the United States, was “I’m Only Joking”. That’s the one that really blew things up for us in South Africa. “Come With Me Now” was the second single. What we saw was that “I’m Only Joking” got this super excited base of crazed fans, because it’s such a weird song. “Come With Me Now” is actually a bigger song; it’s a bit more palatable to your average audience. It went wider and bigger. We always thought of “I’m Only Joking” as being the spear-head. We did the same plan here in the United States. Chicago radio was all over “I’m Only Joking” and it was going really well. But then, kind of coincidentally, Denver radio picked up “Come With Me Now”. So we were in this weird position where we had these two singles that were starting to have a life of their own. It just so happened that the Denver station that picked it up was part of the Clear Channel Change. So when it spread through Philadelphia and some of those other Clear Channel Change stations, you could see the power of that ‘monopoly’ (laughs), for lack of a better word.
We decided, ‘let’s just go with “Come With Me Now”, because this is growing like wildfire. We can’t squander that opportunity. But we were [originally] going with “I’m Only Joking”. We ended up going with that one after as a second single in America, but because radio is so slow moving and kind of antiquated in the way that they do things, “Come With Me Now” was still testing so well. They were doing these old-fashioned call out tests, and going “oh, ‘Come With Me Now’ is still working!” It basically got in the way of “I’m Only Joking” getting a full shot at radio. There were still a ton of stations that wouldn’t play “I’m Only Joking” because they were playing “Come With Me Now” and they didn’t have space on the playlist. In a way, we kind of screwed ourselves out of our second single. I mean, it’s a good problem to have when you have a single that is going so strong, but at the same time, it’s kind of annoying radio isn’t moving a little quicker and exposing more music to people. That’s the problem that we’re in fact dealing with right now, because people know “Come With Me Now”, but they don’t know the rest of the band. We’re kind of struggling and trying to get people to know the rest of our work.
It’s interesting to watch radio and the way that they pick up tracks. There are bands that released a big single a year ago. They’ve had other singles since then, but the station is still playing that first song.
Yeah I mean, the whole industry is very slow moving and not necessarily the quickest (laughs). We wrote and recorded “Come With Me Now” in 2008. It took close to six years before anyone caught on. It’s fine, and we understand that that’s the way the machine works, but at the same time, we don’t get discouraged. Just because a song doesn’t click with radio doesn’t necessarily mean anything to us. We’ve had it not click with radio before, and it works out later. Basically, we push through, we keep touring, and we try to connect with fans as much as we can in the most direct way. That’s what we find to be the most sustainable way to manage a career.
Last question to close things out: what does music mean to you?
(laughs). Well here, I’ll use someone else's quote because they’ve said it better than anyone else could say it. It was from Aldous Huxley. “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” That is, at its deepest and most profound, what music can be. I don’t think all music is that, but I think that ultimately it’s what a lot of people are aspiring to; to find someway to express the inexpressible.
To purchase tickets to KONGOS' performance at The Regency Ballroom tomorrow evening (October 27, 2016), click here: http://www.theregencyballroom.com/events/detail/310846
This has been another Shameless Promotion.