African rhythms and alt-rock collide in the music of Kongos, a band of brothers who spent their early years in South Africa before moving to Arizona. But the siblings’ hybridized sound in the hits “I’m Only Joking” and the chart-smashing “Come with Me Now” reflects musical roots beyond geographic influence.
Three of the four brothers were born in England, where their South African father John Kongos scored 1970s hits with “Tokoloshe Man” and “He’s Gonna Step on You Again,” a song that Happy Mondays recycled into its 1990 single “Step On.”
“He was doing similar things way before us, using African rhythms and finding this blend with rock music, so it was a direct influence,” says Johnny Kongos, whose accordion greases the South African kwaito groove of “Come with Me Now.” Not only did their father share a sprawling record collection (the source of the Burundi beat that inspired “I’m Only Joking”), but he provided the home studio where his sons still record. “He always encouraged us to do it yourself,” Johnny says.
“There was no idea that we’d be a band,’” says the bearded keyboardist/singer, the eldest brother at age 33, followed by singer/drummer Jesse, singer/bassist Dylan and guitarist/singer Danny, the youngest at 26. “[Our parents] wanted us to learn music because they thought it would be an enriching part of our lives, even if we went on to become something else. But you start playing in a band with your brothers and, for us at least, that’s as good as it gets. And to have the opportunity for a career and make money at it, that’s a bonus!”
The brothers weren’t drawn only to popular styles of music. Jesse and Johnny played jazz fusion in the vein of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew at Arizona State University. And when they rounded out a rock foursome with a teenaged Danny and began work on Kongos’ 2007 debut, Johnny picked up the accordion with the realization that they’d heard that sound in Pakistani Qawwali music as well as Astor Piazzolla’s modern Argentinian tango. “We found this weird blend that we liked of that stuff,” he says. “However, it came out through us mangled and bastardized.”
Their second album, Lunatic, yields more commercial potential, from tribal anthems “Come with Me Now” (with a melodic bridge that evokes British rockers Muse) and “I’m Only Joking” to the reggae-tinged new single “I Want to Know” and the McCartney-esque ballad “Traveling On.” All four members chip in songs that they write separately. “Everyone’s got their own style,” Johnny says, “that then gets somehow mashed into Kongos.”
But that bonus of making money took a long time to kick in, especially in Kongos’ adopted homeland. The Phoenix band released Lunatic in South Africa in 2011 after songs began to take off there, but there was “a year-and-a-half lull where nothing was happening stateside,” Johnny says. A Denver radio station finally jumpstarted “Come with Me Now” in 2013. Kongos self-released Lunatic in the U.S. that fall, spurring a major-label reissue in early 2014. Now the quartet finds itself performing to fresh audiences—from a tour supporting Kings of Leon to a Feb. 18 headlining date at House of Blues—with songs nearly five years old.
“It’s still exciting every night to go out and get a reaction,” Johnny says from a Texas tour stop. Success in South Africa prepared Kongos for its break in America, while Lunatic’s slow gestation gave members extra time to write new songs that they’ll record later this year, he says. “We’re very slow at recording. We do it all ourselves, and we have the luxury/curse of being in a studio with unlimited time.”
From their father, once again, the brothers learned that both hard work and patience pay off in the music business. “He also realized, from his own career, that sometimes all it took was a song, because it was that for him also,” Johnny says. “It’s interesting that as much as things have changed with the Internet and Spotify and piracy and all that, a song still has a lot of power to get things going.”