We met brothers Dylan, Johnny and Danny Kongos backstage in their dressing room before their show in Manhattan. The fourth member of the band, Jesse (yes, another brother! He is the drummer), was unable to make it. Danny plays guitar, Johnny plays accordion and Dylan plays bass. The Kongos are from Johannesburg, South Africa, and were in the middle of their North American tour.
It’s so cool that you are all brothers. Do you ever fight like my sister and I do? If so, how do you get enough space from each other?
Dylan: Getting space from each other is quite difficult because we’re all on a bus and there’s four brothers plus seven crew on the same bus. It’s kind of eleven of us living in a tiny little apartment. We do fight, but we kind of get over it quickly. We spent our younger years fighting a lot more.
Johnny: Punching each other.
Danny: We get a lot of it out of our systems when we were your age.
Does your band logo have a special meaning?
Dylan: Yes it’s actually taken from our dad. He had a song in the ’70s called “Tokoloshe Man” and we started a record label with him called Tokoloshe Records and if you read the word Tokoloshe that “OLO” is a little bit like two eyes and a nose. So Jesse came up with the logo with a little line underneath it to make it look like a face.
Johnny: “Tokoloshe Man” is like a legend in South Africa about this boggy man, this little monster guy that comes and goes under your bed and if he jumps up under your bed he eats you. So everyone in South Africa built their beds and they put them on bricks. Like if you go around the city you’ll see people put their beds up on bricks because they believe in this. It’s just a silly story everyone tells.
How did you decide who plays which instrument?
Danny: We naturally drifted to them. Johnny’s by far the best keyboard player. Jesse always liked drums, Dylan and I play guitar and then he just took over bass duties for live [shows], but in the records we split a lot of guitar playing.
Dylan: We all play piano. That’s how we all started. We kind of had that as a foundation.
What is your favorite song that you sing and do you think that’s different from your fans?
Dylan: Almost every city it seems different. We see the reaction from the crowd. My personal favorite song is “Sing.” I’d say probably “Out of Mind.” I like singing it. It’s a big range and it’s also pretty exciting and it’s fast lyrics. I don’t know what our fans like.
Do you enjoy traveling around the world performing? How do you like New York?
Johnny: New York is the best city in the world. I haven’t seen all the cities in the world, but I’d be willing to bet that.
Dylan: So far we haven’t seen a cooler city than New York. We love it but it does get tiring. We’re on tour a long time and we do months and months on end all on that bus. It gets tiring but there’s nothing else I don’t think anyone of us want to do.
What musicians have inspired you?
Danny: It’s a long list. The Beatles, Bob Dylan.
Johnny: Bob Marley, too many to name.
What made you use your last name for the band name?
Dylan: It’s easy to remember. We went through a bunch of other names for a band and they were kind of silly. In fact when things weren’t going so well we were kind of plugging away at this band for 5, 6 or 7 years and we’re like, “Maybe it’s our name. We need to change our name.” We came up with all sorts of silly names and ended up not going with them. And I think at the end of the day it was the logo that changed everything for us because we were on the fence about our name and then once we got the logo we said, “OK, that’s at least an image that we can run with.”
Johnny: You’d be surprised with the amounts of interviews we’ve done where people asked us why we chose the name Kongos and how we came up with it and they never did any research to know. So thank you guys for doing your research on that.
Do you like your songs being in movies or would you rather play at concerts?
Dylan: We love it. It’s a good source of income and it spreads the word. It casts a wide net for our music so we get lots of fans from it.
Johnny: We get to make the decisions about which movies. If someone comes to us and shows a movie or product that we don’t think works we can say no to that and we have said no a couple of times to certain companies, just because we thought it would mess up the impression of us as a band.
We know you like to write songs by yourselves. Has that changed recently?
Dylan: No, we’re all big egomaniacs so we still kind of like to write songs by ourselves. I just put my headphones on and don’t want anyone’s opinion. We never really tried writing together that much. Maybe on this next record we’ll give it a shot.
Johnny: It’s difficult, we find, to write because it’s such a personal thing and then to have someone change lyrics or words and that’s difficult for us to deal with. Some bands are able to do it. We just can’t do it. Maybe it’s because we’re brothers and we don’t like each other’s opinions.
What is it like to hear your songs on the radio and in movies? Do you sing along?
Dylan: No! Never sing along. It’s almost irritating to hear your own song because everyone else around you is getting all pumped up about it. It’s a little bit embarrassing. It’s cool to hear it but it’s almost irritating because we spend six months in the studio listening to the song over and over again. We get sick of the songs and we don’t want to hear them again. And we play them on the road for two years and then you hear it somewhere... we’re like you just can’t get away from this song. I’m sure a lot of people feel that way, too.
Danny: It’s kind of like reading back your own homework.
Did you sing and play instruments while growing up in your house?
Johnny: Yeah, when we were kids our dad and mom said that you have to learn to play music just like you have to go to school and learn English and mathematics or whatever. They said, “You have to learn music.” They didn’t really have an idea like, “We want you guys to be in a band or to do this for your job,” but they said, “We want you to learn music because we think it’s an important part of growing up and learning for your lives.” So then we eventually said we want to do this for a job and there’s nothing else we want to do so it worked out that way. But it wasn’t like a big master plan by our parents.
What made you write “Come With Me Now?”
Johnny: We were listening to some South African music and then there’s these grooves that we all really got into and I was just messing around with the accordion and the loop of a drum groove and this just kind of came from that. I found lyrics that worked and helped that groove become something that’s interesting to listen to. That’s about it. I wish it was a more interesting story, but that’s about it.