Q&A: Kongos Turn South African Success into a U.S. Radio Hit
by Jay Tilles
It’s not often that a band with an accordion climbs the American alternative chart, especially one with roots in South Africa. Meet Kongos; four siblings inspired to make rhythmic rock by their father John Kongos, a South African-born Londoner with hits in the 60s and 70s.
Having moved to Arizona more than 15 years ago, the foursome began mailing their music around the world in hopes of radio airplay. Finding open arms and radio play in their homeland, the band toured extensively for years in South Africa. But it wasn’t until years later that their single took hold on American radio. Only thing is, it wasn’t the song they expected.
Kongos’ keyboard and accordion player, Johnny Kongos, spoke to Radio.com about their long road to overnight success.
Radio.com: Was it a long journey to get “Come With Me Now” to the level it is now?
Johnny Kongos: The long story is that we wrote the song in end of 2007 and in 2008 we started playing it out live. So it’s longer than even the two-year story. We knew the song had something because we trust our instincts. If a song makes us get up and move and get really into it then we trust that instinct. The road to having it become a big single in America was a bit of an accident because we had started to go with “I’m Only Joking,” but then Denver picked up “Come With Me Now” and just kind of ran with it. We had to basically follow the momentum of that. The song had already done really well in South Africa. It was hugely popular across all different formats out there. At that point we were pretty convinced it had something but the American radio thing is a tough and difficult thing to crack into.
But for most bands, it’s impossible to get the attention of radio. Why you?
We ask ourselves that question. Like why was… cause we had sent the song around and people had heard the song in 2011 and 2012. Why was it the end of 2013 that it clicked for whatever reason? It’s definitely just a huge element of luck and timing… why certain songs click and others don’t and at what time they have to click. I think there was a certain point with “Come With Me Now” where the momentum became so great that then it was given the full shot to gain the exposure it needed. Once KROQ picked it up it was kind of game over. KROQ is such a massively influential station still that all the rest of the dominoes fell in line once that happened.
In the more than two years before the song took off, were you considering getting real jobs?
Occasionally every now and then everyone in the band would have a thought about that and it was quickly dismissed because the thought of that is too terrible for a bunch of lazy musicians like us. If nothing had happened with “Lunatic,” “Come With Me Now” and “I’m Only Joking,” we definitely had another album or two that we would’ve given a full shot to. Like, it definitely wasn’t over. We started to work on and write a lot of new material.
Before the boys in the family formed a band, did you ever have normal jobs?
We’ve always had the band as the main focus with odd jobs. I did a lot of web design work and Danny did photography. He used to shoot portfolio stuff for models which isn’t a bad side job. We made bar mitzvah videos for friends of ours and shot them all MTV Cribs style and did that for a while. We just did odd jobs so we could focus on the music. And also we were really fortunate to have a dad who was in the business and who was willing to support us long beyond where most parents would have been like, ‘all right, that’s it. You guys are done. Either go to college or get a job.”
How do you decide where to put “Come With Me Now” in your live set?
Right now we’re playing it last I’d say ninety-nine percent of the time because people just don’t know most of our material yet so I think it would be really, really hard to follow that song if we played it too early on in the set. They need to just hear more of the album to get into it. Even “Come With Me Now’ is not necessarily the most simple song that people just immediately hear. There’s a friggin’ accordion and a slide solo and this weird African-influenced beat. But now I guess cause the song’s doing so well everyone’s like, ‘oh cool it’s a hit.’ But it wasn’t necessarily the first time people heard it. It’s funny… People always ask if we’re sick of these songs yet.
Not really. We always wanted these songs to be heard and given a shot so this is totally more than we could have hoped for right now. You know, I’m sick of hearing the song. [laughs] Because we’ve heard it through the entire writing, recording, rehearsing, all that. But playing it live every show is always exciting.
You’re introduced as a South African band yet you’ve lived in Arizona for nearly 16 years. When do you give up that title?
I think that time is right now. We’re not a South African band. But at the same time I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re an American band. We’re all American citizens. Our mom was American so when we were born, we were born American citizens, but that was in London and then we lived in South Africa. We feel at home in American and in South Africa. it was kind of a lucky coincidence because we’d not been to South African in fifteen years. We sent songs to radio in South Africa and they took off, so then we had two year and five tours of South Africa and all the radio singles there. So then when we came back the story was developed in South Africa so I think people latched onto that. There really is a special place in our hearts for South Africa because it truly is an amazing place.
Have you ever brought your father on stage with you to perform?
We did actually get him up on stage playing a song or two in South African a year or two ago. There was a radio show that we did live on air for one of the big pop stations and it was going out to about two million people. And it was the first time he had played live in maybe thirty years. He was way more nervous than we were. We got to play one of his old songs that we cover called “Tokoloshe Man.” We’re always trying to get him to play more. He has an archive of unreleased songs that we think is his best stuff. It’s just never been heard. So hopefully now that we’re able to sustain ourselves with our own music, he’s going to have some more time to focus more on his songs which are good.
How did you pick up the accordion?
We were working on the first album, prior to Lunatic and there was a song with an instrumental section that needed some kind of guitar solo or something but nothing was working. Guitars weren’t working, drums, we tried everything. My dad had an accordion lying around that I never really played. We just picked it up and started messing around the sound just clicked. It was almost subconsciously we realized we’d been listening to so much music that had accordion in it, whether it was Argentinean tango music or South African maskandi music, all this stuff that influenced our music. So it just naturally fell into place with our sound. Plus, I really enjoy playing it at shows. Because as a keyboard player, you spend a lot of time just sitting there while the rest of the band is rocking out. You can’t really rock out behind a keyboard.
Ever thought of surprising the crowd with dueling accordions from you and Weird Al?
We would love that. That’s a great idea. We need to make that happen.
Kongos’ album Lunatic featuring “Come With Me Now” is available now.