Kongos Returns from South African Tour to Debut Disc Before Phoenix Fans
Published: Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Updated: Thursday, July 19, 2012 18:07
Kongos is the biggest local band you’ve never heard of. They top Rolling Stone charts, dominate radio airways, sell out shows and their music videos can be seen on TV. All of this success just happens to be in South Africa.
Band mates and brothers Johnny, Jesse, Dylan and Danny Kongos call Phoenix home but split their childhood between England and South Africa. They lived in South Africa for eight years and it’s where Danny, the youngest, was born. It was their talent that first got them noticed overseas but their intercontinental roots helped the South African public wholeheartedly embrace them as their own.
Last December, the band decided to play a couple of shows in South Africa because of their slight radio success, but mostly they hoped to vacation and visit their childhood friends. However, their plans soon changed as their music took off.
“When we went to tour there it just blew us away,” bassist and lead singer Dylan Kongos said. “We weren’t expecting anything like it. We played to sold out crowds pretty much everywhere we went.”
Originally, the band had only planned to visit for a month and a half but ended up staying closer to three. Kongos extended their tour and into late February, all the while building a loyal fan base.
“It really was a kind of organic thing that started with ‘I’m Only Joking,’ the first single on South African radio,” said piano and accordion player Johnny Kongos. “From there everything just got bigger and bigger. It really surprised us. It kind of had a mind and legs of its own.”
They played Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban among other cities in South Africa. They did plenty of local press and made friends with the radio DJs who kept their music in rotation.
“We’re use to kind of drawing relatively big crowds for Phoenix, but you know how the Phoenix scene is,” Dylan said. “A big crowd is nowhere near the size of a big crowd in one of the big major music cities in South Africa. We were drawing up to 3,000 people a show, which kind of blew our minds.”
Not only were they selling tickets, but they were actually selling music. Johnny said South Africa’s music industry is completely different than America’s as far as their distribution model. It seems streaming and pirating music isn’t as popular due to capped bandwidth, so CDs are still largely sold. In fact, South Africa doesn’t have iTunes yet. Radio stations are thus highly influential in introducing new music to their millions of attentive listeners.
Kongos released their debut, self-titled album in 2007 but only released singles for several years afterwards. They had been writing and recording songs as they went along but didn’t plan on releasing another album.
“We figured we’d just keep recording material and putting it out there because there just wasn’t enough of a fan base to warrant releasing an album,” Johnny said. “With South Africa, it got us to finish the album as a complete project.”
Having accumulated a collection of 20 to 30 demos, the band combined the five singles they had released since Kongos and picked seven more tracks that best completed their sophomore album, Lunatic. Dylan said it was difficult picking which songs ones would make the cut, but putting together the songs in such a way made for an interesting album that isn’t tied to a particular concept or style.
“The album is quite diverse in its sound, which it tends to be because we all write in the band,” Johnny said. “Everyone writes songs so we can hear all the sounds of each of us on the album, but also because we didn’t go into the album thinking let’s do one idea or one sound.”
Kongos is also fortunate enough to have their own recording studio where they can take as much time as they need to work on their music. They formed Tokoloshe Records with their South African singer-songwriter father, John Kongos, in 2010. Having the studio at their disposal isn’t always great for recording in a timely manner, according to Johnny.
“When you do have the opportunity to try things and unlimited time in the studio you can tend to disappear up your proverbial behind, as they say,” he said.
Still, it was completed and Lunatic was released last December in South Africa. Now the band is gearing up to release it in the US this Friday. Promoting the album in the US will be very different, and the band plans on touring the US in August but not before returning to South Africa for two more big shows.
“I think a big part of the reason we had success there was obviously because we have South African roots,” Johnny said. “It was as if they were rooting for a hometown band even though we’re in between countries constantly in terms of how we feel. We’ve been in America longer than we’ve been anywhere else, so we’re very much American, but we’re also South African and they really took to that.”
Dylan said after Friday, Kongos won’t be back to play Phoenix until November as they’ll busy promoting Lunatic in the sea that is the saturated American music industry.
“It’s a bit of a reality check when we go play in South Africa and we play to thousands of people and we’re constantly on the radio and stuff and then we come back to Phoenix and we’re still posting Facebook updates from our personal profiles saying, ‘Hey guys please come out to our show in downtown Phoenix,’” said Dylan.
Kongos Album Release w/Banana Gun, Iamwe, Future Loves Past, Crescent Ballroom, 308 N. Second Avenue, Phoenix, 602.716.2222, Friday, July 20, 7:30 p.m., $10 adv, $12 dos