April 16, 2024

Jesse and Johnny of KONGOS on Family, Food, and Their New Album

If you say haven’t spent a day walking around singing “Whoa, come with me now/ I’m gonna take you down/ Whoa, come with me now/ I’m gonna show you how,” in your head,  you’re lying. “Come With Me Now” was one of last year’s most catchy, and most popular songs. It’s doubtful you don’t know that 2015 anthem, but it’s very possible you don’t know enough about KONGOS, the band that brought us such a hit.

KONGOS is a band of four brothers: Johnny, Jesse, Danny, and Dylan. They just released their latest album Egomaniac, and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever heard before. Every time we listen to a KONGOS song, we fall deeper and deeper in love with these South-African studs. The same can be said the more we learn about them. We got the chance to talk with Jesse and Johnny of KONGOS, while they were in town for Taste of Chicago. Here’s what they had to say:

KONGOS plays Taste of Chicago. Photo: Rylie Terrion

How would you describe your band to someone who had never heard your music before?

Jesse: We’ve talked about this a lot, and there’s a few terms we’ve come up with one of them is a DJ in South Africa.

Johnny: Sort of a jungle rock

Jesse: Yeah that describes some of our songs, not all of it, but it’s alternative rock, with world influences, and an accordion.  

You guys are brothers, so you have been making music together for a long time, but how did you guys become officially involved in making music together?

Johnny: I think it was 2003 when we played our first gig, which was a talent show at our high school, well Dylan and Danny were still in high school, and we played with them. Luckily there weren’t any iPhones around back then to capture that terrible performance, but then in 2007 we released our first album, and I think that’s when we really got serious about it and decided this is what we want to do for the rest of our lives.

KONGOS plays Taste of Chicago. Photo: Rylie Terrion

There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being in a band together. Does sibling rivalry ever get in the way of making music?

Jesse: Not really. I mean we fight for sure, but I don’t know that it’s the sibling thing. I think it definitely helps us more than it hurts us because we’ve been fighting our whole lives, even before the band started. We’ve learned to resolve our arguments and move on, especially because we have a common goal.

Are you guys afraid the band will break up? That would make family dinners pretty awkward.

Jesse: Yeah, we’ve thought about it, but nobody wants to do anything else. There’s no other prospects for us, so we can’t quit.

A lot of bands credit each of their members for bringing in a different aspect of the bands’ sounds, from each member’s personal influence or musical taste. You guys grew up together, which means you probably have similar musical backgrounds and influences for your music. Is the lack of diversity something that has been a challenge for you?

Johnny: I think our influences are so broad, that it wasn’t a problem for us. I know what you’re saying, but our dad really encouraged us to listen to a massive variety of music, so between the four of us, it was such a broad thing, that we didn’t have that problem.

Jesse: Yeah, we’re on the same page musically. I mean, we each have different songwriting styles, and we have some influences that some of us like more than others, but the fact that we can sort of agree on what’s cool, what sounds good, the direction of the band, that definitely helps a lot. If everyone had a different idea, that’s what makes a band difficult.

KONGOS plays Taste of Chicago. Photo: Rylie Terrion

You guys introduced the accordion with your first record, so it seems natural for your fans, but it was actually an afterthought correct?

Jesse: We were working on the first album, before Lunatic, and there was a song where we wanted an instrumental solo. We tried every instrument, and it just didn’t work. But we had an according laying around, so [Johnny] picked it up, and we knew immediately that we wanted this sound. From then on it became a more integral part of the band.

So before the accordion, what was the plan for Johnny?

Johnny: I think of myself as a piano player really, or a keyboard player, so it was just playing that. But having picked up an accordion, and now, it’s become such a big part of the band, I actually really enjoy it – even more than a piano in this context. In a rock band, when you’re stuck behind a keyboard, you really feel like you’re trapped, and you can’t move around like the rest of the guys. I mean I know [Jesse] is stuck behind the drums, but the drums are such a big, physical thing, that I feel like he gets into it. The accordion lets me get up and move around like a real rock ‘n roller – despite the accordion.

Jesse: A rock and roll accordion!

KONGOS plays Taste of Chicago. Photo: Rylie Terrion

If you hadn’t become a successful band, what do you think your brothers would be doing for a living?

Jesse: We’ve definitely gotten into this before, and talked about our answers, so we all agree this is about right.

Johnny: Jesse would be doing something in film. Either that or working with other bands and producing. He does a lot of engineering in the mastery of our records, so I’m sure he could apply that to other bands if he could bear working with other people. Dylan would be doing something completely different. He does a lot of organic gardening and things like that. So we feel like he would lean towards doing something outside, or working outside, running a farm or something like that. Danny, probably also film and video. He directs more and is kind of a lead in all of our videos. As for me, we’re not sure. Maybe I would have kept trying to go for the Jazz and piano, and go down that fun, pointless, route. That or just be a waiter on a Greek Island.

You just released your latest album, Egomaniac, less than a month ago. What was the creative process like on that?

Jesse: We started working on some of the songs, even before the Lunatic tour. When we put out Lunatic, nobody heard it. We thought it was kind of dead in the water, so we moved on. Then “Come With Me Now” hit and it all started happening. So the songs on Egomaniac are bridged over a few years. When we finally finished the tour cycle on Lunatic, we came home and locked ourselves in the studio for a few months and tried to forget about the travel aspect of it. Even though we were writing separately, we started to see a lot of similar themes in everybody’s songs. We came together, and there was some sort of angle on egomania in a lot of the songs. Once we came up with a title, that helped us have somewhat of a theme in the production, but also lyrically.

The groundwork for this album started out so early. Do you guys have any plans started for your next album?

Johnny: Yeah, we’re obviously going to be working this one for awhile, but we have a lot more songs than we were able to fit on Egomaniac, so you know, there’s always new songs coming. It’s no definite plan, but it’s always something that’s in our minds.  

KONGOS plays Taste of Chicago. Photo: Rylie Terrion

Do you guys have any big plans for the future other than working on that next album?

Jesse: Definitely touring. Other than working on the albums, that’s pretty much it. I mean, for the next five to ten years of our life, I have a feeling that’s pretty much going to be the focus. Hopefully, it goes well enough that we can actually have a real life, as proper adults.

Johnny: Early retirement, you know?

Like you said, you have plans for lots of touring in your future, and you’re here for Taste of Chicago. Are you looking forward to doing anything specific while you’re here?

Johnny: Naf Naf Grill. We’ve been to Chicago a lot over the last few years, and it’s one of our favorite cities. We’ve done Lollapalooza and a lot of events in Grant Park, and it’s just the food! Chicago is all about the food and the nightlife, so we’re just trying to hit up all of our favorite spots while we’re here.

Jesse: I had the best Greek meal of my life last night.

Oh man, where? I need to go!

Jesse: It’s called Greek Island, it’s over in Greek Town. It’s amazing. Chicago is a godsend when you’ve been touring in the midwest. Honestly, the foods not that great in the places in the midwest but when you hit Chicago it’s like *puts hands on cheeks, eyes get as wide as deep dish from Lou Malnatis* 

KONGOS plays Taste of Chicago. Photo: Rylie Terrion

See? We told you. The more you know about KONGOS, the more you love them. Now all you have to do is download Egomaniac and listen to it on repeat, then you’ll be full on head-over-heels for the Kongos boys.

Maybe if you’re a true fan, KONGOS will say, “come (out for Greek food) with us now,” when they come back to Chicago to play Riviera Theatre on October 5th. Even if they don’t invite you out, their show is a can’t miss. So be sure to buy tickets now!