17 Years After Splitting, Phoenix Ska Band Kongo Shock Returns
Kongo Shock, back in the day
Courtesy of Kongo Shock
For a band that hasn't been in working order for the better part of the past two decades, Bob Noxious and Barton Applewhite are certainly still well-versed in the rules of How to Run a Band, which they created many years ago.
"We had rules like: If we get mad at each other onstage, save it for after the show -- no daggers, no bad looks," Noxious says. "Or when you make a mistake, do it again. I wrote my best songs by making a mistake and trying to figure out how to do it again 'cause it sounded so good."
Of course, most of the rules of How to Run a Band don't apply when the mission statement is How to Reunite a Band for One Time Only. Instead of keeping the band working like a well-oiled machine, you keep everything light and loose so that it never starts to feel like work.
And for one night, Kongo Shock will reconvene with all seven of its original members, something that has not happened since the mid-'90s, when the Powell Brothers (not actually brothers) Shadrach Powell and Jason "Big D. Gree" Powell left the group.
"At one point, we were a nine-piece," Applewhite says. "We never made any money. Then we went down to a seven-piece and made a little more for ourselves. But when it was down to a five-piece, it was like, hey, you come home from Santa Fe with some money in your pocket."
With the five-piece came the innovative "five members, five nights of gigs" rule.
"If there's five gigs and five people, we rotate jobs every night," Noxious says, "to see who drives, who loads in and out the equipment, and sets up the merch booth. The other two nights, two guys don't have to do anything."
"Loading the van was total Tetris trying to get everything to fit in," Applewhite says. "And then when you wind up with three things left over, then you've got to take everything out and do it again."
"We ran it like a business, and we were able to do it for three years without day jobs, making money from the band," Noxious says. "That was my lifelong dream. And it's hard to do."
From 1994 through 1998, Kongo Shock pretty much stood alone making Phoenician ska its business. In the band's first two years of existence, it won such Best of Phoenix as "Best Etc. Band" and "Best Reggae Band," because there wasn't even a ska category. Those were the the days before Sublime, when it wasn't de rigueur for every punk band to include at least one jumpy number per album. Ska was its own thing out there alone, and Kongo Shock was the natural choice to play with every touring ska band that came through town. The band used those connections to help set up their own tours later down the road.
Kongo Shock astutely made its own infrastructure by starting a regular Wednesday night at the now-defunct Boston's, something Noxious would do again with the Hypnotwists at the Emerald Lounge.
"We did a Wednesday night to make it a good night for touring bands. In Phoenix, you'd get all the major acts on a Thursday because they'll be in L.A. on Friday and Saturday.
"We had some good bands play with us at Boston's," Applewhite says. "No Doubt, Rumbling Fish, Citizen Fish . . . all the fish bands."
The group even played on a bill at Desert Sky Pavilion with Phish. Yes, Phish. Kongo Shock was invited to play at the concession stand before Phish went on. Heritage Hump Day: Kongo Shock, "Spy Vs. Spy"
"Someone else that wasn't involved in the Phish camp set it up. And Trey [Anastassio] shut us down because he didn't want any other bands playing with them," Noxious says with an eyeroll. "Not being a big Phish aficionado, it didn't hurt my feelings or anything."
Kongo Shock had another brush with infamy when lead singer and trumpet player Dave "Ice Cold" Neil quit the band to move back to Canada. The band decided to add two horn players and get a new dedicated lead singer. The singer it wound up taking on was the former lead singer of Grey Daze, Chester Bennington. Ever heard of him?
Noxious laughs at the idea of it. "And I was the guy who made him mad enough to quit! We had a meeting at the George and Dragon with Chester. And we wanted him to sing the songs off our record more like the singer we'd had so we could keep our same fan base. And we told him any of the new stuff, you do it like you do it because we like what you do. I handed him a few CDs of some more traditional stuff like The Skatalites and Desmond Dekker, and he just didn't care for that; he was more of reggae background. In some interview, he said something to the effect of 'after a particularly bad band meeting, I decided to go to Los Angeles.' But he didn't mention us."
It was 1998 when the band split up, coming off a tour and playing a final Cinco de Mayo at Macayo's.
Noxious later formed the Hypnotwists but later quit, owing to health issues.
"I lost the feeling in my left hand from diabetes . . . I gave up playing for 10 years. I actually didn't talk to anyone for many years, including these guys. I've still got fingers [and] I can make 'em work. People without hands or legs still do amazing stuff. Who am I to say no? This is great for me, actually."
Noxious turned to recording engineering, which he studied in the '80s, and mostly was a house husband. Applewhite went to Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, where he performs administrative work.
As for the other guys, Applewhite says, "Dave's been raising a family in Canada. Drummer Jimmy Boom lives in the Bay Area and plays with a bunch of people, including the Phenomenauts. He's been on a few world tours. Jason stopped playing music for a bit. Shad went on his own little journey and resurfaced."
In fact, Shad reunited his '80s ska band The Effects, which is also playing on the reunion show.
And, mark their words, this is a reunion that is happening because a bunch of friends wanted to get together and decided they might as well do it publicly. There's no big ska revival behind it.
"There's still a local ska scene, but it's not what it was then. We just happened to get in it at a time when it was coming up everywhere," Applewhite says.
"Ska has these waves," Noxious says. "I don't know what it's doing now. I still listen to all the bands we used to play with. I still have all my old CDs."
If anyone in the band is most anxious about the reunion show, it's Noxious, who says his performing in recent years has been restricted to "walking-down-the-street performance art. "
Says Applewhile: "I think they call that 'bus stop crazy.'"
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