Sibling Bond Strong For Kongos, As They Take Control With 1929: Part 1
Kongos' new album 1929: Part 1 signals a new direction for the band.
1929 Tour, with guests
When: Jan 13, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $25 to $265, at livenation.com
Kongos formed in 2003 in Phoenix, and put out their self-titled debut four years later in 2007. The sibling band — South African-born and raised brothers Johnny (accordion, keyboards, vocals), Jesse (drums, percussion, vocals), Dylan (bass, guitar, vocals) and Danny Kongos (guitar, vocals) — released Lunatic in 2012, topping the charts in their ancestral homeland with the single I’m Only Joking.
The album’s second single, Come with Me Now, hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart and launched the group globally with its upbeat, sunny energy. Kongos toured solidly for the next three years, and Come with Me Now has since been certified platinum.
Unsurprisingly, followup album Egomaniac (2016) wasn’t a smash of that level, although it still made the Top 100 albums in both Canada and the United States. As the group headed into the studio to record its next record, it took control of its affairs from its former label and greatly expanded its social media presence. Weekly podcast The Front Lounge began in November, 2017, and an official tour documentary, Bus Call, debuted on the group’s website in Jan. 2018.
Their fourth album, 1929: Part 1, is released on Jan. 18.
Contrary to the idea that Kongos write sunny, happy songs, Johnny says the members discovered they are far darker.
“We scored Bus Call with our own music, and found that the majority of our stuff leans toward rainy days,” he said. “So much so that we actually had to bring in some of our dad’s music to fill out the soundtrack.”
Dad is Johannesburg singer-songwriter John Kongos. The South African/British musician first hit the Top 10 in 1971 with the single He’s Gonna Step on You Again, and Happy Mondays later reworked the tune into their Top 5 single, Step On.
Before his children hit it big, you almost needed to be from the UK or South Africa to know who he was. Since Kongos took off, songs such as Tokoloshe Man, Ride the Lightning and others have been appearing on compilations. Before that, his synthesizer programming on Def Leppard’s monster hit album Pyromania was one of his greatest claims to fame.
“Dad never really cracked the US or Canada, but he’s really familiar to a few generations in the UK because of his first singles and then the Happy Mondays,” Johnny said.
“It’s cool that his music is being rediscovered, but it also means that people can go listen to it and realize where we stole half of our s–t from. There is a direct influence of looped African tribal rhythms, similar instrumentation, and a Dylan-esque lyrical sense.”
All of the above can be heard on 1929: Part 1, songs such as the single Pay for the Weekend with its handclaps and chants ebbing and flowing into a pulsing rocker that delivers a noisy message of the cost of good times.
Everything Must Go is a finely crafted mid-tempo pop song that has more than a bit in common with the radio-friendly sounds of the Killers. Real Life is a folk-tinged ballad that could have come from the Troubadour scene in L.A. in the early ’70s.
Clearly, the brothers are exploring all kinds of directions on the new album, which is going to be rolled out in separate parts over the next year or two. Johnny admits that there are some more prog-rock elements seeping into the sound.
“If you go listen to our self-titled debut, there are a lot of long songs there that run six minutes or more, and maybe were a bit self-indulgent,” he said.
“Jesse and I started playing professional doing improvised jazz three nights a week in these marathon three hour-long sets at a club in Phoenix where we mixed in everything from The Beatles to Miles Davis that leaned toward — dirty word — fusion. Everything Must Go has that mix of ’90s drum and bass with jazz harmonies and, since we are four writers, the new material will be going every which way.”
Going where the song wants to go and following it is not the prescribed path for a Top 10 pop band. That’s fine with Johnny, who says you can find out a lot about what is happening with the group as well as answers to many questions about what it’s like to be four brothers in a band, by watching Bus Call or listening to The Front Lounge. There are a lot of factors coming into play all at once with Kongos, so the need to get along is stronger than ever. Spoiler: It’s harder to break up brothers than it is just a regular band.
“For the past two album cycles, our response has been reactive to Come with Me Now, which makes sense when you have a huge song, because it’s what got us into this place we are at and — let’s be honest — is still a discovery point,” Johnny said.
“Songs come and go, and there seemed to be less attention with our team to developing the longer view, so we did. We’re still going to radio with a spearhead single, Pay for the Weekend, but we want to let people know more about us and our other songs.”
The podcast becomes a chance to hear the members talk about anything and the docu-series brings the brothers’ lives into focus as both individuals and a band, providing a context to showcase the music. These avenues can also be perfect for presenting new material. Free and clear from their label, although they are still with Sony management and publishing, the band is exploring all kinds of options for presenting new music.
“We realized we had a great vehicle with the series to debut 30 new songs that were meant to go with a scene rather than be a single or a track that Spotify or another streaming service would jump on,” he said.
“We are all writing a lot, and have all this material that has been tied up because of how the label wanted to do things that we can do what we want to now. It’s a very good feeling place for us.”
Fans can expect to hear all kinds of material from throughout the group’s career at the band’s Vancouver concert, and you can be certain that Come with Me Now will be in the set. The band all love the song, they just admit that the kind of success it had is all but impossible to sustain.
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