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Kongos Discuss Recent Success of “Come With Me Now”

“It’s great to see all the pieces of the puzzle coming together. Everybody’s happy and in a good place right now.” That’s Jesse Kongos, drummer and spokesperson for the band of brothers whose rockin’, stompin’, accordion-fueled wonder, “Come With Me Now,” not only knocked Lorde’s mighty “Royals” from atop the Alternative Radio Airplay chart, but has made history as the fastest ascent to the peak of that chart by a new band. However, it was a little over one year ago, in early 2013, that the Arizona-based Kongos brothers (Dylan – guitar; Daniel – bass; Jesse – drums, Johnny – accordion) were laboring like so many other unsigned bands––playing local gigs, recording tunes and sending them to anyone who might listen.

Today, with the unique, ubiquitous “Come With Me Now” rocking a sports arena near you, and as the band gears up for festivals like Firefly, Sasquatch, Lollapalooza and a high-profile tour with fellow sibling enterprise Kings of Leon, the band is, as Jesse put it, seeing “all the puzzle pieces coming together” in a big way. In the following interview, Music Connection dissects that puzzle to understand how this distinctive band broke through.

By Mark Nardone

Music Connection: We’ve been following Kongos’ rise for quite some time. We recently did a Signing Story on you guys, and over a year ago, back before you were signed, we reviewed your demo, which scored high and made it into our year-end Top 25 New Music Critiques of 2013.
Jesse Kongos: Yes, I remember. Good for us!

MC: You guys have an unusual story, in that you came from about halfway around the world to America to make it. Yet you settle in a city, Phoenix, where your mom now lives, which is not known for a music scene that’s going to catapult anyone to stardom.
Jesse: Yeah, in Phoenix there’s not really a lot going on scene-wise. So the good thing about it was we played a lot of gigs and got our act together there. We started making singles for our next album. And we started to send them out to radio stations. A DJ from a local Phoenix station––not a very powerful station––started playing “I’m Only Joking” and really got behind it and all of a sudden we went from playing to 40 people to playing to 400-500. We saw the power of radio.

MC: Which is why you sent your music to radio stations in South Africa.
Jesse: Yes, kind of simultaneously back in South Africa a DJ there picked the same song and started playing it. This was a national Top 40 station. So overnight we had an influx of fan response from there, and that pushed us to go ahead and finish our album. Once we did that we ended up playing some big shows in South Africa.

MC: That had to have been strange for you guys, to suddenly be popular half a world away.
Jesse: I think cracking a market like South Africa gave us the confidence that this thing could work, that our music could work in a commercial way. And it gave us all kinds of footage and stats that you need to show people that you’ve got a viable project.

MC: Looking at your new success here in the U.S., if you can trace it back to a key moment, a new music connection that you made, what would it be?
Jesse: In August 2013 we were playing a big South African festival, called Oppikoppi, and there was bit of a cock-up on stage where the stagehands thought we were Seether, and so there was a 45 minute delay as they had to reset the stage, and that caused Seether’s booking agent to come see what was going on and so he saw our set from the side of the stage. He really, really liked the music, and we signed with him the next day. He opened up a lot of doors for us, introduced us to our management in L.A. He got a bunch of people to come to our American showcases. It all took a year, but we were able to get in front of people.

MC: Your manager is Marc Pollack from The MGMT Company. How did you decide to go with him and that firm as your manager?
Jesse: What impressed us was the nature of the company. It has a structure and they all work together in a relatively small office, like a family, like a team. And they have people who are experts in radio, other people who are experts in online and all that. And also just Marc, we clicked with him philosophically and that made the decision relatively easy. [Pollack discusses Kongos at]

MC: Did he hook you up with Paradigm, the booking agency in the U.S.?
Jesse: He knew Corrie Christopher, our agent. She was still at APA (Agency for the Performing Arts) when we signed with her. She knew of us through AWOLNATION’s manager and others. So Corrie was interested in us at that point. A lot of thanks go to AWOLNATION and their team. We did some shows with them in the U.K. and they really sort of endorsed us and supported us. So we saw Corrie, did a showcase with her, really liked her and decided to sign with her. Three months later she moved to Paradigm.

Shot_08_Kongos_portraits_0028MC: Speaking of showcases, can you talk about your showcasing experiences, like at SXSW? As an up-and-coming band, what did you find was most useful––what worked or didn’t for you?
Jesse: Number one, the actual show is the most important thing. At SXSW in 2013 we did five shows, and three of them were totally shit. But we had two really good showcases there. And afterward, nothing really happened right away, but we knew we were now on people’s radar. There was some interest, but it would take more for any label to pull the trigger.
What I would say about showcases is that it’s very unlikely that someone will see you play and want to immediately whisk your career to the stratosphere. You have to garner their interest before they come and see you. If you’re able to get the people into the room, then the showcase can close the deal. There’s no formula for anything; that’s the way I see it.

MC: The album ends with a six-minute song, “This Time I Won’t Forget,” a rambling, multifaceted number. It shows what you guys can bring to the table, beyond the novelty aspect of “Come With Me Now.”
Jesse: “This Time I Won’t Forget,” that’s Johnny’s song, the accordian player, and like you said there’s a huge variety on the album. We never want to repeat songs––as in, create the same song twice. Each one of us writes and we each have our own sort of personal interests. As long as our music has the essence of what we call the Kongos sound—it’s not a set of guidelines, it’s some sort of essence that we sense. As long as the song has that, it is perfectly legitimate to be on a Kongos album.

MC: The song and the album it comes from indicates that you guys can go in other directions.
Jesse: On that particular song, maybe Johnny would be able to explain it better to you, but he wanted to blend sort of a Moroccan folk sound with an Irish ballad type tune. It’s definitely a unique song, and it closes the album well, in my opinion, brings everything to a close nicely. It’s quite an emotional lyric. It shows some range, hopefully. That we can do the in-your-face rock songs, but we can also do something that’s more subtle.

MC: Was Johnny also behind the accordion-based “Come With Me Now?”
Jesse: Yeah, anything that’s super accordion heavy, (Laughs) you can probably credit to Johnny.

MC: Let’s talk about steering Kongos’ career. Does everyone in the band need to be on board for a certain career idea to go forward? Or is there one leader?
Jesse: With us it’s all pretty democratic. We all interact with our management; we are four equals in that respect. When it comes to songwriting and the music, we like to say we’re a democracy with a temporary dictator. The songwriter is the dictator for that particular song.

For the career stuff, we all share duties; we each have different skills. For a long time we handled everything ourselves. For example, Johnny is really good with web design and online stuff. I do a lot of the mixing and mastering, the technical stuff in the recording studio. Danny is excellent with photography and cameras and studio production. Dylan handles a lot of the correspondence and interaction, our social media. A lot of stuff is being handed off now to others.

MC: As we understand it, the album put out by Epic was recorded before you signed with them. Did you need to do any re-recording in order for Epic to release it? Or add material, or remix it?
Jesse: Epic released the album as is. We did choose to change the track order for the American release, but everything else is the same. We signed with Epic because they really showed a belief in the band. I mean, [label head] L.A. Reid took a personal interest in closing the deal. When we met with him we could see that he was acutely aware of our music, he had spent time with the album, and that meant a lot to us. We felt like there was some genuine interest in us, not just another album to put in the catalog.

MC: We hear Reid really liked your video footage and the clip you made of the single, “Come With Me Now.” Is this why he felt he didn’t need to see you play live in order to sign you?
Jesse: The way I understand it is that someone from the management company played him the video and he really liked it, got it, immediately took an interest in the band and took steps to make a deal. And, yes, we did close the deal before he saw us play live. I’m guessing that there was enough confidence in the material and seeing our live performance footage, he felt we knew how to work a crowd.Shot_07_Kongos_trailer_0142

MC: A year ago you were unsigned and had a ways to go yet. Now it seems suddenly that everything is working. You’re on the radio, you’re on TV, you’re playing all these shows and festivals. A lot of our readers want to know: When do you start getting paid once you’ve broken through to success?
Jesse: I’m sure it’s different for every band, depending on the kind of deal. For us right now, we feel the escalation, [more money is coming in], but at the same time the costs are going up astronomically. I mean, when you talk about going up from a van to a bus, getting a full crew for the road, every aspect, there’s a piece of the proceeds that is now being taken out by a number of different entities. I have a feeling that when we get to actually headline a run of shows, that’s when you really start to make money.

MC: You’ll embark on a tour with Kings of Leon in the fall. Major band. Big venues. How did you guys get on a tour like that one? Do you approach them, do they approach you? Does your manager know their manager…?
Jesse: That was arranged months ago. I believe they were looking to put a bill together and, from what I understand, they wanted a sort of “family band” vibe, you know, and our agent Corrie, she knows the promoters who are putting on the tour and she knows the band’s managers. So she submitted us and fought for us. Over the next few weeks, we worked out a deal and solidified it. We were super-excited to announce it, but couldn’t for a month or two. (Laughs) We had to sit on that news.
A lot of it comes down to connections in the business. But you as a band have to bring something to the table, you have to bring something to the bill––otherwise you’re just being done a favor.

MC: What’s the most surprising thing about being successful? Is it all the hard work that’s still to be done?
Jesse: Well, we were already used to doing a lot of work before we became successful. Moving up from a van to a bus, I never realized how comfortable you could be on a bus! (Laughs) You get these cocoon bunks, really comfortable, and you wake up in a new place, well-rested every day. That’s been a real plus. It’s so helpful to be able to sleep well before the gig.

MC: And the bus allows you to be creative on tour?
Jesse: I think it will. When we hit our stride and get into our routines. At the moment there’s still a lot of work to be done while driving between gigs. The good thing now with the bus is that you can actually get up and walk around, sit at the table, get your computer out and answer emails or do interviews or whatever. That’s the real benefit, just having a place to go. Sit somewhere and do something––as opposed to sitting upright in a van with eight other people.

MC: Are you looking forward to possibly doing some recording on the bus? Basic tracks, at least?
Jesse: Yes, we definitely have those plans, because we’re going to be on the road so much, with very few days off for a whole year. You can’t go that long without having some outlet creatively. So right now we’re trying to optimize a little demo system on the road so we can at least get an idea down. We’ve got some acoustic guitars and stuff in the bus so we can get ideas down, so that’s definitely in the plans.

MC: Now that Kongos is a buzz band, have you been getting gear endorsements?
Jesse: I recently signed with Paiste cymbals. I’m really happy about it. They would have been my cymbals of choice regardless. Danny and Dylan are both working with Fender for guitars and amps and stuff. It’s really cool to be able to use the gear that you’ve always wanted to use, you know, with a little help from the company. It’s exciting for us because we’re all gear heads. (Laughs) We love new toys!