By Molly Barber
Photos By Molly & Courtsey of Kongos
It’s kind of a rock n’roll rule that bands with an accordion are not too cool, I mean when was the last time you rocked out to an accordion? Well, Kongos are the exception to that rule. The band that consists of siblings Jesse (vocals, drums), Johnny (vocals, accordion, keyboard), Dylan (vocals, bass, guitar), and Danny Kongos (vocals, guitar, bass) definitely know how to rock.
The brothers musical inspiration might be attributed to their father John Kongos who was a popular singer/songwriter in South Africa and the U.K. through the ’60s and ‘70s. They all play multiple instruments, sing and write the music and lyrics. On top of that they also produce, engineer and master their own recordings, as well as film their own music videos.
Having spent their early years in Johannesburg, South Africa you can hear that influence in their music. Later, the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona and thus the brothers continued to play music and delve into new genres on music.
It wasn’t until 2012 that the brothers really hit the airwaves with the release of their second album Lunatic. The two songs that really took off were I’m only Joking and Come With Me Now (both featuring the accordion!). There’s a good chance you’ve heard one of the two songs if not both. Come With Me Now has been featured in movies, TV shows and commercials, as well as having become a certified platinum single in the US.
In 2016, Kongos released their third album Egomaniac. Having been a fan of their earlier work, I wasn’t disappointed with this record. I wasn’t joking when I said earlier that these guys rock. They really do, but another really gravitating aspect of this band is the influences of other genres that you pick up in their music; that underlaying jazz sound, the strong Kwaito beats, the upbeat Maskandi groove, and body moving tempos of rock and pop.
I’ve listened to this band for years so it was an honor to get to interview Dylan about the new album, their music and just questions I’ve always wondered about.
Molly: The band’s music has a very distinct style to it, do you think growing up in South Africa influenced you musically?
Yeah definitely I think it did. I think it directly influenced it, you know from the music in South Africa that we grew up listening to, some of the more traditional music like Maskandi or later on the music we moved towards is Kwaito, which is kinda like House (music). Slowed down House music with like kwaai or Zulu rap lyrics over it. So you know, those grooves and those harmonies and a lot of the traditional music in South Africa definitely influenced us. And then, I think indirectly influenced us by just being in the country and having a certain vibe that Johannesburg particularly has. You know, it’s a really, really vibey city. It’s extremely multicultural. You know there’s 11 official languages in the country. There’s multiple tribes and people from all around the world. So it’s a really interesting place.
You guys all play numerous instruments and all sing but what was the first instrument you learned to play?
We all actually learned piano. Our dad started us when were about two or three years old, just learning fundamentals and just kind of the basics of piano and I think that was kinda the most important thing because if you learn the basics and have piano as a foundation, moving into all the other instruments is a lot easier.
Did you get to pick the bass or was it more thrust upon you?
It was definitely more thrust upon me. I was playing guitar at the time and we had a bass player who wasn’t a Kongos (family) member, but he eventually he moved to San Francisco and so we replaced him with a computer that was playing bass but that was a little bit stifling because we were locked into this specific bass part so eventually Danny and I were playing guitar and I kinda moved over to bass because I had bigger hands and he was progressing in the lead guitar department.
So did you have to completely like learn bass at that point?
I mean not entirely because at first all the bass parts are relatively simple. The biggest learning curve was learning to sing and play bass at the same time. Because when you’re playing rhythm guitar, it’s a lot easier to sing, there’s a mechanicalness to your right hand while you’re playing guitar that allows you to get into a rhythm so that you can sing. With bass it’s really, especially when you start, making the parts a little more complex, the singing aspect becomes a lot more difficult, you’ve gotta split your brain into two or three parts and that was the biggest learning curve.
I know you wrote the song, I Don’t Mind, which is like my favorite song ever. Are you singing lead on that song too?
Well, thanks (laughs). Thanks a lot, that’s always nice to hear. Yeah except on that song, I switch over to guitar and I give Danny the bass. So I sing and play guitar on that song.
Did it take any convincing of the other brothers or maybe even for you to start the band?
I think there was more convincing needed for the younger brothers, me and Danny because we were still in school, we weren’t necessarily thinking of prospects after school or careers or anything like that. We wanted to hangout with friends, basically we wanted to do anything but focus, so it probably took more convincing for us to you know, really dedicate ourselves to it. But then once you get those first few experiences of finishing the song you are really proud of or playing in front of a crowd that gives you some positive feedback, then you’re kinda hooked.
If you could collaborate with another musician who would it be?
Dr. Dre and it sounds strange because his production techniques and his production knowledge is so futuristic. Like we just feel he’s so far ahead of the times, you listen to The Chronic or 2001 they were just so far ahead of the times. Not just in Hip-Hop but in the production of every kind of music that came after it. So, that would be like an interesting collaboration for us because we’re totally not in the Hip-Hop world but we appreciate the production elements of it a lot and we feel like we could bring something in the song writing and into the sounds that we bring, and the musicianship to some type of modern groove based production.
I know you guys wrote a lot of Egomaniac on the road and you all write your own songs. The ‘Ego’ is kinda a theme throughout the album, was that planned by you guys ahead of time or just something that kinda happened?
I think it was definitely in our subconscious as we were all writing songs that, that theme was ruminating and it was coming out in all our songs but we weren’t necessarily aware of everyone’s songs because we write separately and individually and then bring the songs to the band and kinda present the finished songs before we go into the studio and work on the arrangement and production of it. But when we did that we noticed everyone had been writing similarly, not exclusively, about Egomania but a lot of the themes in a lot of the songs were based on that. So we decided to pick songs after we recognized that theme and make the album about that and that’s what dictated the choice in songs.
Who were some of your personal musical influences growing up?
I was really big into singer-song writers, still am. From Jackson Browne to Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, those types of people. Then really for groove- Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder. Anything that moves that other part of you- moves your body. I think that influenced us a lot when it came down to how we develop a groove for a song. Because we’re not only interested in making people think or feel, we want to make people dance as well.
Do you have a song you really enjoy covering when you guys play live? Do you guys do covers?
Yeah, we do a lot of covers. Actually when we were kinda getting our shit together in Phoenix, we’d play these gigs at this tiny little beer bar that could fit like 30 people and we’d play twice a month there on Fridays or Saturdays and we’d play about 4 or 5 hours. So we padded out all of our original material with a whole bunch of covers and we played 50 to 100 songs over the course of a night and we kinda, we played everything from Tears For Fears Mad World to U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday to some Jazz standards and a bunch of things. We do a cool version of Mad World. I find a lot of the versions out there are soporific compared to the original Tears For Fears version which is kinda this cool 80’s upbeat version. So we do this African groove, accordion version of Mad World.
You get challenged to a lip-synch battle, what song do you preform?
Challenged to a lip synch battle, I think I could do, I don’t know Tiny Dancer… but I’d change the lyrics to “Hold Me Close Young Tony Danza”
Getting to interview Dylan was so awesome. He’s such a cool and laid back guy with a great sense of humor. On top of getting the interview, I got to enjoy their show in Tahoe, which was AMAZING. The intimate venue was perfect for this experience and I was front and center to enjoy the show and grab some cool pictures of the fellas.
Their live show was a reflection of their music- easy to sing along with, impossible not to move to, and always leaves you wanting more. All of their albums are on iTunes and on their website www.kongos.com (there you can also find other legit merchandise like clothing, vinyl, and other goodies). If you find yourself interested in giving these guys a listen I have some suggestions for you. Escape is a mellow, good vibes tune that’s perfect for cruising on a summer day. I Don’t Mind has this really bluesy guitar in it, with a catchy tempo, and lyrics that are fun to sing along to. And I Want It Free is a little heavier than the previous two but with that accordion hook it’s easy to appreciate. I think those three are good intro songs to this band and they do a good job showing their diversity. So go listen- take it from me.