Kongos On Turning South African Success Into U.S. Radio Hit

(Radio.com) It's not often that a band with an accordion climbs the American alternative chart, especially one with roots in South Africa. Meet Kongos; four siblings inspired to make rhythmic rock by their father John Kongos, a South African-born Londoner with hits in the 60s and 70s.

Having moved to Arizona more than 15 years ago, the foursome began mailing their music around the world in hopes of radio airplay. Finding open arms and radio play in their homeland, the band toured extensively for years in South Africa. But it wasn't until years later that their single took hold on American radio. Only thing is, it wasn't the song they expected.

Kongos' keyboard and accordion player, Johnny Kongos, spoke to Radio.com about their long road to overnight success. Radio.com: Was it a long journey to get "Come With Me Now" to the level it is now?

Johnny Kongos: The long story is that we wrote the song in end of 2007 and in 2008 we started playing it out live. So it's longer than even the two-year story. We knew the song had something because we trust our instincts. If a song makes us get up and move and get really into it then we trust that instinct. The road to having it become a big single in America was a bit of an accident because we had started to go with "I'm Only Joking," but then Denver picked up "Come With Me Now" and just kind of ran with it. We had to basically follow the momentum of that. The song had already done really well in South Africa. It was hugely popular across all different formats out there. At that point we were pretty convinced it had something but the American radio thing is a tough and difficult thing to crack into.

But for most bands, it's impossible to get the attention of radio. Why you? We ask ourselves that question. Like why was… cause we had sent the song around and people had heard the song in 2011 and 2012. Why was it the end of 2013 that it clicked for whatever reason? It's definitely just a huge element of luck and timing… why certain songs click and others don't and at what time they have to click. I think there was a certain point with "Come With Me Now" where the momentum became so great that then it was given the full shot to gain the exposure it needed. Once KROQ picked it up it was kind of game over. KROQ is such a massively influential station still that all the rest of the dominoes fell in line once that happened.

In the more than two years before the song took off, were you considering getting real jobs? Occasionally every now and then everyone in the band would have a thought about that and it was quickly dismissed because the thought of that is too terrible for a bunch of lazy musicians like us. If nothing had happened with "Lunatic," "Come With Me Now" and "I'm Only Joking," we definitely had another album or two that we would've given a full shot to. Like, it definitely wasn't over. We started to work on and write a lot of new material.

Before the boys in the family formed a band, did you ever have normal jobs? We've always had the band as the main focus with odd jobs. I did a lot of web design work and Danny did photography. He used to shoot portfolio stuff for models which isn't a bad side job. We made bar mitzvah videos for friends of ours and shot them all MTV Cribs style and did that for a while. We just did odd jobs so we could focus on the music. And also we were really fortunate to have a dad who was in the business and who was willing to support us long beyond where most parents would have been like, 'all right, that's it. You guys are done. Either go to college or get a job."

How do you decide where to put "Come With Me Now" in your live set? Right now we're playing it last I'd say ninety-nine percent of the time because people just don't know most of our material yet so I think it would be really, really hard to follow that song if we played it too early on in the set. They need to just hear more of the album to get into it. Even "Come With Me Now' is not necessarily the most simple song that people just immediately hear. There's a friggin' accordion and a slide solo and this weird African-influenced beat. But now I guess cause the song's doing so well everyone's like, 'oh cool it's a hit.' But it wasn't necessarily the first time people heard it. It's funny… People always ask if we're sick of these songs yet.

Are you? Not really. We always wanted these songs to be heard and given a shot so this is totally more than we could have hoped for right now. You know, I'm sick of hearing the song. [laughs] Because we've heard it through the entire writing, recording, rehearsing, all that. But playing it live every show is always exciting.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Radio.com is an official news provider for antiMusic.com.
Copyright Radio.com/CBS Local - Excerpted here with permission.

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