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KONGOS enjoys a little American success, finally

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Hit singles don’t usually happen for bands overnight. But they don’t usually take more than five years of pushing either, which was the case for “Come With Me Now” by KONGOS.

“The song has been in existence since 2008,” marvels Johnny Kongos, who sings, plays keyboards and accordion alongside his three younger brothers in the band. “What is it that’s different? I do think Mumford & Sons and bands like that did kind of broaden the expectation of what was allowed on American radio, so to speak, and with what people were OK with hearing. Maybe program directors had their minds opened a little bit to broadening the palette of instruments that were acceptable on radio and maybe that paved the way for an accordion.”

KONGOS originally recorded the song in 2010, and the album it appears on, “Lunatic” took off for them in their native country of South Africa towards the end of 2011, but it took several hearty tries before it caught on here.

“There were six or seven top 40 singles, with this massive thing happening for us in South Africa,” says Kongos, “and then we came back to the States and we tried to reattempt the plan for about a year or so, but nothing happened. We just couldn’t get any traction anywhere, so during that time it was definitely frustrating because we had seen it work, and as different as South Africa is from America, the charts and the music scene are reasonably similar in a lot of ways. So it had proven itself. We knew people liked it, we just had trouble getting it heard.”

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During that time, the band toured and wrote a lot of new material, but they weren’t ready to give up on an album that they believed in.

Kongos says he and his brothers receive a lot of words of wisdom from their father, who had found success as a musician in his own right in the early 1970s in South Africa and the UK. But he also never cracked the US.

“He was there from the beginning with every possible kind of advice, from actual musical advice and being a fresh pair of ears when we were recording the album — someone with a similar sensibility to us, but that wasn’t attached to the music like we were — and also a lot of business advice, trying to help us avoid obvious pitfalls that he had gone through and not having to have us necessarily re-do every mistake that can be made in a career.”

Eventually a few American DJs picked up on “Come With Me Now,” and Epic signed KONGOS in the States and re-released “Lunatic.” Now the band finds themselves starting to see the cycle of success they saw in South Africa repeat itself.

“Even though I’m bored of hearing ‘Come With Me Now’ — because we’ve been living with that song for so long — when we play it live, it’s really not about that as much as it’s about the energy of the crowd. That keeps it fresh every night.”

Sibling similarities

We asked Kongos to weigh in on some of the best known brothers and sisters in music.

Bee Gees: I’m not the hugest fan of them, musically, but they’re also one of those bands that I listen to and I just keep adding up the amount of hits and the gigantic success that they were and it’s mind-boggling.

Carpenters: I don’t know anything about the Carpenters.

Kings of Leon: We got to tour with them, and we’re like still nostalgic about that tour. Sometimes we’ll just throw on some Kings of Leon and Young the Giant on the bus and dream about that. It was such an awesome tour. They know what it’s like to be a band of brothers. We’re obviously from a totally different background and our music is also fairly different, but there’s obviously a lot of similarities, being in a band with your brothers that they’ve gone through and we go through the same old things that brothers go through. I think there was definitely a commonality there. It’s also cool to see where they are now. They really were an inspiration as far as what to aim for when putting on a show. It’s not just, ‘OK, let’s just show up with our instruments and play our songs.’ There’s more required to put on a proper show.

Jackson 5: I prefer a lot of Jackson 5 stuff to the later Michael Jackson stuff. The grooves, you just can’t understand how good they were for how young they were. Some people clearly are born with greater talent than others. And they’re a pretty clear example of that.

Haim: I really like them. I caught them live at SXSW a couple years ago, opening up for Vampire Weekend, and they put on a really great show. I haven’t caught them since. It seems like we’re crossing touring paths with them a lot. We just want Taylor Swift to latch onto us so we can get a little bit of that Taylor Swift effect.

Hanson: We always used to say, “We’re like Hanson, but with more balls, literally.”

Jonas Brothers: I’ve not really listened to them much, but we’ve learned as we’ve gotten more and more into this business, people are so quick to criticize things because they’re this or that and they have opinions about music — we’ve all got our opinions — but you really do begin to respect more and more anyone who achieves anything in this business. It is hard to do what those bands — Hanson and Jonas Brothers — have done. It’s so much hard work and time and sweat. It’s not coal-mining, but you begin to really respect what goes into building something like that.

 
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