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Kongos' Jesse Kongos talks 'Come With Me Now,' accordion rock, life in a family band and more
Jay CridlinJay Cridlin, tbt* Staff Writer

When you think about it, Kongos’ rise to mega-stardom all began in St. Petersburg.

Okay, fine, that’s obviously not true. It started in South Africa, where the four brothers in Kongos were born and raised; then in Arizona, where they moved as children and became a band for the first time.

But then! Then, after inking a deal with Epic Records, came a Feb. 5 date at the State Theatre, the first show of a tour opening for the Airborne Toxic Event. It was one of Kongos’ first East Coast gigs, arguably their first proper national tour date; they drove their own van three days across the country just to get here. And within weeks, the band had the No. 1 alternative rock song in the country — Come With Me Now, a boot-stomping, accordion-pumping, ferociously feral scream-along that’s taken terrestrial radio by storm.

So ... could the ’Burg get a little credit, maybe? Just a smidge?

“It was a great kickoff to the tour,” said drummer Jesse Kongos said by phone recently. “It was a nice run, that February run, and it was also good to start playing some of the markets that had begun to spin us. That’s a whole different beast — you go to a place you’ve never been before, and there’s people there who know your song.”

One of those early-adopter stations was 97X, which on Saturday will bring Kongos back to St. Petersburg for its annual 97X BBQ, alongside Bastille, The 1975, Sleeper Agent and others. It’s a younger-leaning lineup than in years past, and as one of the breakout rock acts of 2014, Kongos fit right in.

Dylan (vocals and bass), Daniel (guitar), Johnny (accordian and keys) and Jesse (drums) Kongos are the sons of South African singer-songwriter John Kongos, who had a minor hit in 1971 with He’s Gonna Step On You Again — a song whose rumbling, globe-trotting rhythms are also evident on the sons’ latest album, Lunatic. Since forming in the Phoenix area a few years ago, they became stars in their native South Africa, and thanks to the unexpected success of Come With Me Now, they’re poised to do the same in the States. They’ve already booked an opening slot on Kings of Leon’s fall tour, which includes a Sept. 5 date in Tampa.

Jesse Kongos called en route between gigs in Toronto and Albany, N.Y., to discuss the band’s meteoric rise and family ties. Here are excerpts.

What’s the best explanation you’ve heard for why Come With Me Now is hitting so big right now?

I don’t know if there is any logic or reason to it. We’ve been living with the song for several years. It was released two years ago. It’s the same song. All of a sudden, now it’s hitting. I think it is kind of inherently catchy, and it gets people moving right away. We kind of felt that making the record. We had a sense that there was a buzz about it. In our minds, we just knew that it needed to get a shot.

It’s No. 1 currently, and it could be the biggest rock song of the summer. How do you view your role in making sure that momentum doesn’t stop?

Obviously, there’s an element of luck and timing, especially where radio is concerned. We don’t have that much control over that aspect of it. But what we feel we can do is make sure that we deliver when it comes to touring. We remain of the mindset that we really need to do everything we can to support and catch up, really, to the radio process. Because radio, in our experience, makes a certain kind of connection with the fans, and then to actually solidify it, you’ve got to go and play, meet people, and get out there in person. That’s our plan, is to support it in the best way possible.

Is the relationship between the radio and listeners different in the U.S. than it is in South Africa?

Yeah, it’s very different. In the States, everything is so regional — you’ve kind of got to get market by market on board. There are radio chains and conglomerates, and there’s a whole structure to it, whereas South Africa, there are lots of different radio stations, but really, there’s one main BBC-type radio station there called 5FM. We got playlisted on that, and kind of overnight, the whole country was hearing our song. Then it spread to the regional stations. And the length of a single there is maybe 12 weeks, at best, whereas here, it’s six, nine months later, and still the same song is making its way up.

What was your age range when you guys moved to Arizona in '96?

Johnny, the oldest, was 15; I was 13; Dylan would have been 10, I think; and Danny was 7 or 8. The youngest was kind of going into elementary school, and the eldest was going into high school. It was kind of that critical growing-up age — we left our friends in South Africa and moved to America and it was a little bit of a culture shock. Luckily we had visited quite a lot, so we were kind of prepared. But at that point, we were still basically teenagers. The band had not formed yet.

Now, at this age, 7 or 8 years is not that great a difference, but when you’re talking about 8 to 15, that’s a wide world of difference between the four of you. Was there anything you guys could agree on? Was there anything that bonded you guys?

Yeah, I think we’ve always basically been friends. Even when the age gap was more significant, like any siblings, we fight — we say four brothers fight like four sisters — but we’ve kind of grown up together. Especially when we started to play together, we started to see a future. Everybody came on board a little bit differently. Johnny and I were a little bit older and closer to reaching college and make decisions about our future, so it was a little bit easier for us to say, “Yeah, let’s do a band, instead of getting a real job.” But the younger ones got on board soon enough, especially when we started getting out and playing shows, and getting a little bit of fan response. That’s a big encouragement for young guys.

Did you all sort of intuitively know that you’d be a band with an accordion?

That was almost an accident, because Johnny’s a piano player. We all learned music on piano, and then we drifted to different instruments. I like the drums, and the other guys picked up guitar. But there was a song we were working on on our previous album, it’s called The Way, and there was a solo section where we just couldn’t get the right sound. We tried guitar and keyboard and all different types of sound, and nothing was working. We had an accordion lying around, and Johnny just kind of randomly picked it up, and as soon as we heard it, we said, “Ah — that’s exactly it.” From that point, it became an integral part of the band.

It’s become such a signature to your sound, especially on Lunatic.

Yeah, it’s a powerful instrument. It’s obviously not a traditionally cool rock instrument, but there are so many cultures in the world that use it in a really cool way, and we wanted to try and incorporate that.

Obviously the bigger they get, sometimes bands of brothers do quarrel — the Kinks, Oasis, even your future tourmates Kings of Leon have had their spats in the past. Do your parents have a role — or does anyone have a role — in keeping the work-family balance in check between you guys?

I think in our own way, we each have our own role. Our parents have been very good at maintaining a balance between us. They’ve been there to arbitrate. They have a very good sense of evenness and justice between us four. And so when we as brothers kind of get into a fight or whatever, they’re pretty good at arbitrating. But as we spend more time out on the road by ourselves, we’ve had to learn to work through any issues ourselves. We all, I think, have a fundamental understanding that there’s too much at stake. We all value this project and music, and you can’t let ego or personal issues break something that’s bigger. It’s bigger together than we are on our own.

Has your dad noticed any sort of an uptick in his own career since your band has taken off?

Yeah, there’s definitely been a revival of some of his songs. For a long time, people would find us searching for him, and now it’s kind of balancing out — people are finding him because they’re searching for us. That’s really cool, because you can certainly hear the thread in his music and our music. His style of production and his attitude toward making records has definitely gotten into us before.

I’m sure people have told you that a Kongos version of He’s Gonna Step On You Again would actually sound pretty awesome. There’s a very strong similarity there.

Oh, yeah. And we’ve definitely thought about recording it at some point, maybe even doing it as a collaboration with him. It’s such an iconic song, especially in the U.K., it’d be fun to do it someday. We play his other song, Tokoloshe Man, live quite regularly.

Was he honest in sharing with you what it was like having a hit song in the ’70s?

He’s been very honest with us, and we’re lucky because he’s seen the whole span of the music business and the music world. It started when he was 16 years old in South Africa; he was a teen star, so he grew from that into a professional artist in the U.K., both his songwriting and producing and owning a recording studio. So he’s dealt with every aspect, including all the contracts and the business stuff that you have to look out for. So he’s definitely been very honest in terms of warning us about the pitfalls and possible positive and negative sides of a business like this.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*