An interview with Kongos
August 15th, 2011 by Liezel Thompson
“I’m only joking
I don’t believe a thing I’ve said
What are you smoking
I’m just fucking with your head
Only a crazy
Little thing I read”
Recognise this infectious chorus? If you don’t, you’ve been living under a sizable rock as the song, “I’m
only joking” by the band, Kongos is spun on just about every 5fm DJ’s show on a daily basis.
Having focused most of my attention on local music for the last two years or so, I have been neglecting
the international music scene quite a bit. My attention was recaptured by the brilliant opening
drumming sounds of “I’m only joking” – and not your conventional drumming either – it sounds like a
herd of elephants stomping around on wooden floorboards.
Just last week , in my review of Laurie Levine’s gig at The Waiting Room, I had this to say about
Kongos: “While we are on the topic of the accordian – I love how recently there has been a renaissance
of sorts when it comes to the revival of typically genre-specific instruments. Instruments such as the
accordian and the harmonica are being incorporated into music genres where you wouldn’t typically
expect to hear their sounds. Super-cool band Kongos also use an accordian and can best be heard in
their latest smash hit, “I’m only joking”. It adds a new dimension to contemporary offerings in an age
where we’ve just about heard it all. “
Of course the possibility existed that we had a ‘one-hit-wonder’ situation on our hands. I was relieved
to discover that “I’m only joking” was not the only great song in their repertoire. My second favourite
is “Come with me now” – it is impossible to sit still while listening to any of the aforementioned songs.
The band consists of four brothers and their surname is Kongos. Please note, as per their website, there
is no “the” in Kongos. I had a cyber-chat with Johnny Kongos and he had the following to say:
Introduce the band and which instruments does each member play?
Johnny – Accordion, Keyboards, Vocals
Jesse – Drums, Lead Vocals
Dylan – Lead Vocals, Bass
Danny – Guitar, Vocals
In the studio everyone plays a bit of everything.”
What are your ages?
“Johnny – 30
Jesse – 28
Dylan – 25
Danny – 22″
What is your geographical history? Where were you born, raised etc. until present?
“The three oldest were born in London. Danny was born in Johannesburg. We moved with the family
to South Africa in 1988 and then to Phoenix, Arizona in 1996. We’ve been here since.”
Apparently you come from a musical family? Could you please elaborate?
“Our dad John Kongos was a huge recording star in South Africa in the 1960′s. He moved to London
in the late 60′s and went on to score numerous hits in England and Europe including “He’s Gonna Step
On You Again” and “Tokoloshe Man”. As a song-writer, he’s sold 25 million records and the likes of
Mutt Lange, Def Leppard, Cat Stevens, Gus Dudgeon etc worked/recorded in his studio in London -
Are you all full-time band members or do you have other jobs/interests?
“We’re all full-time musicians as KONGOS, but we do everything in-house – photography
(www.danielkongos.com), recording, mastering, video-production etc, so it’s a full time job.”
How long has the band been going and what is the history of the band i.e. how did the band start
and evolve? “Our first gig together was in 2003 at a high-school talent show – we played 2 songs.
One original, that will never be heard again (thank goodness there weren’t iPhones back then) and a
cover of Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles. We spent a few years practicing, writing, recording and doing
occasional gigs – it wasn’t until 2007, when we released our first album, that we all really decided to get
serious. Soon after that we started playing more shows, including Los Angeles – we have a good friend,
Dean Raissen (also from SA, and manager of Rebelution), who was working at The Viper Room in
Hollywood at the time and he booked us on some shows with Just Jinjer as well a short West-coast tour
with Stealing Love Jones. We were happy to be voted “Best Rock Band in Phoenix” by The Phoenix
New Times that year. Since then we’ve been playing lots of shows and writing and recording material
towards our second album.”
How many albums do you have out? Are you guys busy with an album at the moment and if so,
when can we expect it?
“Our first album was released in 2007. There are 5 tracks from the upcoming album available for free
on our website exclusively for fans who sign up for our newsletter (http://www.kongos.com). The
second album will be completed by the end of the year. “
Kongos are coming to South Africa at the end of the year. Are any dates and venues confirmed
yet? Which towns do you plan on visiting with a show?
“We’re still working on all the details but we hope to hit all the major cities and perhaps more.”
Who does the song-writing?
“We all do. Everyone writes individually and we get together to flesh out the song for recording and
performance. This method allows our music to be quite diverse but all within the KONGOS sound.”
Your video for “I’m only joking” has just hit our screens in SA. What is the concept behind it
and what was the process in creating it? “We’ll leave it up to viewers to speculate on the concept
and meaning – we’ve heard some pretty interesting/funny theories so far. The process was really great
– we threw a big party/videoshoot with all of our friends and 12 hours later a bunch of drunk people
ended up in the swimming pool. There was a lot of preparation, though, that we did in the weeks
leading up (set decoration, storyboards, test shoots etc), as well as a week or so of editing.”
“I’m Only Joking” has one of the catchiest chorus lines ever. Did you ever think a song with the
word f**king would make it onto commercial radio and ultimately be your “break-through”
song? Wasn’t it a bit of a gamble – apart from the ‘f**king’ it is a pretty commercial song that
would easily make it onto radio – weren’t you hesitant to use such a word in the song? Seems like
a very gutsy move on your part.
“There was some discussion about it, but there was no other word that even remotely worked in its
place, so we said fuck it and went with it. Also, because so many people are getting their music these
days on the interwebs (as Ninja would say), it’s much less of a problem. Luckily the web has remained
largely uncensored… so far.”
Seeing that you’ve spent some time in South Africa while growing up, what are your feelings
towards the country? What are your fondest memories of SA?
“The years we spent in SA really were some of the best times we had. Even though we haven’t seen
many of our friends in more than a decade, we’ve remained close. Too many memories to mention
but… Kruger Park of course, seeing The Rolling Stones at Ellis Park, thinking I (Johnny) was “too
cool” at the Italian Club in Bedfordview, running outside and pretending to be Francois Pienaar
and Chester Williams after the Bokke won the Rugby World Cup, Mandela speaking at our school
(and especially meeting him!)… the list goes on. The community has also been so enthusiastic for
our “return” – we can’t wait to get out there to play some shows and catch up with friends.”
Why is the world only now realising who KONGOS are?
What are your plans ahead?
“We are finishing the second record and we’re shooting a video for ‘Come With Me Now’ soon. We
will be touring SA at the end of the year and we’re also planning a US tour early next year.”
Well there you have it folks, the Kongos brothers called South Africa their home for eight years! I have
a suspicion that I was lucky enough to catch this band before they gain massive amounts of fans all
over the world. Truly a band to watch out for and to watch – make sure you don’t miss them when they
tour South Africa at the end of the year. I can just about feel the vibration of those drums tingling in the
soles of my feet at one (or more) of their live performances.
Interview by Liezel Thompson