On the Road: Kongos
You may know Kongos from their hit single, 'Come With Me Now', or their tour with Young the Giant and Kings of Leon. From recording their first album on their own to being signed with Epic Records, a division of Sony Music, they have come a long way.
Kongos are best known for being a band of four brothers who make rock music with their own worldly twist. Although they are now touring the world and playing headline festivals to 25,000 people, they had an interesting background which helped shape who they are now. It quickly became clear when we talked with Jesse that his father, John Kongos, Johnny Kongos and the G-Men, played a significant part in leading them into a musical career.
When we spoke with Jesse, we were immediately impressed with both his articulateness and his knowledge of musical composition and the steps involved in the recording process. This might seem like a given, but these days it is a rarity and refreshing to speak with a musician who truly cares about creating a record which sounds great.
Currently residing in Arizona, it is clear that Kongos has integrated themselves into American life, but their upbringing in London and South Africa has shaped who they are as people and as a band. When you listen to Kongos' music, you can tell their mission to stay true to their intended sound and exploration has been successful.
Their songs don't just have one tone or beat or a backing track that was created on a computer; they seem to pull from a wide range of influences and genres.
The longer we spoke, the more it became apparent that his upbringing and rich musical history had impressed upon him greatly. Growing up, Jesse and his brothers were sat at the piano by their father at only two or three years old and showed where middle C was.
Piano lessons and music education was an integral and even required part of their childhood up until they were teenagers, as was listening to a diverse range of music. Being a musician himself, their father had an expansive record collection. He played them everything from opera and tribal music to the Beatles and electro in order to enrich their lives.
Although his dad may not have told them a career in music was the only way, it is certainly easy to see how they felt inspired to follow in his footsteps. As they approached adulthood, they decided amongst themselves that they would "rather put a band together and pursue a career in music than go the normal route of going to college or getting a 'real' job." With such a strong foundation and support provided by their father, it allowed them to make the choice that eventually led to their success.
It's clear that Kongos has been successful in combining different instruments and their own unique approach with the typical approach to western songwriting. The outcome are songs like 'Autocorrect', which has a clear influence from our current society's obsession with technology and an awareness of dependency and 'Birds Do It', which has more of an almost idiosyncratic sound. Their efforts to incorporate a variety of instruments and their ability to play them have paid off greatly, giving them such a diverse sound. Even going from song to song on the same album gives you a taste of their ability level and sense of creativity.
During the songwriting process, it can be difficult to avoid outside influences. Anything heard can go into their subconscious and be heard in one way or another in the music they create, especially during the writing process.
While they may not actively listen to other music with the specific hope of inspiration, Jesse continues on to explain that he does like to listen to really well-produced records. He does this with the intention of understanding what they're doing in the mix to influence the way he may approach a song.
This is a more technical approach than sonic, and he goes on to say, "When you hear a really well-produced record on a really good set of speakers, you hear what is possible. If you are just listening on a boombox or iPod/iPhone with headphones, you don't hear all of the work that went into it. On good speakers, you can hear how well it was done and what to aim for."
Clearly, they grew up in the right environment, with a father who was in the music industry, owned multiple recording studios throughout the years, and was adventurous with production. Jesse explains this was a fortunate aspect of his childhood.
Curious about how they've been able to achieve such a unique and diverse sound, we encouraged Jesse to give us a little insight into their writing process. The writing process is individual for each brother, as they each write songs, going off on their own to work on ideas and developing them before they come together. Taking from their father's style of 70s/80s rock with African influence and their own love for music from all over the world, they are able to create this special sound in each song and throughout their albums.
Inquiring about songs like Where I Belong' and 'I'm Only Joking', which seem to have interesting messages, we pushed a little deeper, curious if their songs are more often inspired by real life events.
Jesse says for him personally, it's different from song to song, but for the most part there is some concept behind the writing. Many songs begin with a specific concept and are developed from there, while others are not about life events but influenced by real life.
Being on a record label like Epic has also played an integral part in the band's ability to stay true to their sound and pursue creating the type of music they want listeners to hear. Having created most of their music before they signed, they had the freedom to make it however they wanted. They figured out their own way and the album was done when they signed with Epic. Having struggled to get signed for so many years turned out to be a fortunate problem in that they had their own musical freedom.
No matter what type of music you like, Kongos music starts to grow on you the more you listen. Their well-produced songs pair intricate lyrics and interesting stories with a variety of instruments in the background to keep you interested and on your toes. In the end, it's their energy and passion that comes out the strongest, like a lion at the front of the pride.
Photography by Jonny Marlow
Written by Daisy Marietta