The four-piece band Kongos has made an enormous impact on current rock and alternative radio with its hit song "Come with Me Now." The single stayed at number one on the Billboard alternative chart for five straight weeks, and is still spinning on regular rotation across the country. The band -- four brothers: Johnny, Jesse, Daniel, and Dylan Kongos -- employed a unique blend of world music (especially from the brothers' native South Africa), driving vocals, and classic rock riffs to create the tracks on its American debut album, "Lunatic." With a bit of Mississippi Delta slide guitar, accordion, African beats, and a whole lot of rock 'n' roll heart, it's easy to see how Kongos caught on like fire during 2014.
Kongos is slated to play the Main Street Armory on Friday, January 23, with New Politics, Walk the Moon, My Goodness, and Alien Ant Farm as part of the Rover's Holiday Hangover show. City Newspaper talked with Johnny Kongos -- accordion, keys, and vocals -- and picked his brain on how the band thinks about music, and what the members think about their new found success. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
City: The band's musical style is so global and eclectic, and you cover a lot of bases on "Lunatic." Who do you consider some of your greatest influences on your music?
Johnny Kongos: Our dad had this huge, diverse record collection that ranged from native African stuff, and not just South Africa, but from Central Africa, Burundi, and West Africa. And then obviously all the classics: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and all the classic artists that influence bands these days. So it was what we grew up listening to and it subconsciously made its way into our music.
Were you hesitant about how your music would be received on mainstream American radio -- accordions and all?
You know, we never really thought about that. We recorded this album a while ago, and we weren't really thinking that way. We just wanted to make music that we wanted to listen to and that we thought was good, and it was connecting with audiences when we played it live. But once we did start the whole radio process, the question was in our heads, "How is the audience going to respond to an accordion song?" But once it clicked, it clicked in a big way.
"Come With Me Now" has been a big success, having been played all over rock and alternative radio. Did you foresee how well the song would do when you were recording it?
When we wrote it, we all felt there was something there. We thought it was a hit, but we didn't know what a "hit" really meant to us. We just thought, "People will like this" and there's no way we had any idea it would do what it did last year. It's beyond all our expectations.
You all are brothers, but you all have distinct talents and sort of have come together after separate musical projects. How does the family dynamic tie in with the musician dynamic? Do you think it makes writing and recording harder or easier?
I think overall it makes it easier. We've gone through all the crap that families go through with sibling rivalry and fighting. We've gotten to a point where we trust each other more than anyone, so that allows us to be honest with each other and think in a way that's hard for others to do. It's hard to develop that kind of trust, so it makes the writing and producing process easier in the sense we can say to each other, "That sucks" or "That's great" and we know where we're coming from. If you can get your brothers to say they like something or think something is good, then you know you're on to something. You're not going to get a compliment out of your brothers unless it's actually worth something.
Being the sons of a musician yourselves, is music and performing something that came naturally and easily to you, or is it still something you have to work at as you go?
I think it is and should always be a process, at least for us, because even though we've been singing the same songs for a while, there's a whole new level you get to each week or two that goes by because you're not having to focus on things like, "How do I play this instrument?" Or "How do I move like this?" Or "How do I keep looking in the same direction." As you progress, you really get into more of the subtleties of the performance and you start to delve much deeper into it. It's ongoing for us, and the real enjoyment for us is continually trying to improve and get better.
Do you have a favorite part about touring and being in such a unique rock band like this? Do you think there's more room out there for the kind of experimentation that you guys delivered on this album?
Bands like Mumford and Sons a few years ago also opened the door to the idea of having different instrumentation on modern rock or pop stations. As much as people like to complain about mainstream radio, there is a fairly diverse amount of music out there. I think the fact that "Come With Me Now" did what it did is a testament to the fact that there is some level of diversity in what's played. It comes down to a DJ or a program director saying "I like this song," or "I don't like this song," and giving things a shot. That's what we got. I think the internet and streaming services have also widened the music that kids are exposed to and have access to. It's not just three or four CD's that came out that year like when I was growing up.
What are your next steps? Do you have any big future plans down the pipeline?
We plan to get into the studio after we get back from South America and finish recording our next album. We've got a lot of the songs written and we're excited to finally get some time to record them.
Do you think that your next album will have ethic influences as well, or are you planning a transition into more straight forward elements?
The next album has a lot of world influences but is already shaping up to be a bit of a new direction for us. It's taking influences from new stuff we've been listening to as well. It will definitely sound like Kongos, but from the future.