When the four Kongos brothers became KONGOS in capital letters, it was with the hope that their uniquely crafted South African township-tinged alternative pop would take them to all far-flung corners of the world and earn them a decent living that would sustain the making of future music.
Then, a funny thing happened. Three years after the band’s initial indie release in 2011, their track ”Come With Me Now” got the attention of a few radio program directors, labels came a-courtin’, and the song and the self-financed album Lunatic was re-released by Epic Records. “Come With Me Now” was subsequently certified RIAA double-platinum for sales in excess of 2 million, becoming one of the most aggressively licensed songs since Yello first bellowed “Oh Yeah.” It became the theme of theme parks, TV networks, movie trailers, cop shows, sporting events, and video games. With so many syncs attributed to the hit, it’s hard to know what slice of pop culture first springs to mind when Johnny Kongos’ familiar accordion trills kick in. Though the song filtered into millions of homes, it didn’t exactly make KONGOS a household name.
Which is the reason KONGOS wanted to give people the band’s compelling backstory via a documentary series.
The first-ever screening of Bus Call was at the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival. It documents the highlights and lowlights of the band’s 2016 headlining tour for the album Egomaniac, as well as the camaraderie between the band and their unsinkable road crew. Before it occurred to anyone they were binge-watching in a movie theater, four episodes came and went, and the band succeeded in putting faces on the KONGOS brand.
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“That’s the biggest goal of ours with this show: to show the history that went into what most people see as this spearhead of one little song that changes everybody’s lives,” singer and bassist Dylan Kongos says. “It’s not just the 14 or 15 years we’ve been a band … But it’s also our parents, who put the effort and supported us all the years before to see where this could go. That story’s never been told before, in our minds, very well. ‘Come With Me Now’ was so big; everyone focused on the single, the syncs, the placements. But they never focused on the story of the band.”
Or maybe the band devised a travelogue series simply to put an end to the question they are most tired of answering: “What is it like playing in a band with your brothers?”
Brothers fight, and while Johnny, Jesse, Danny, and Dylan occasionally disagree on camera, you shouldn’t expect the level of bitchiness that made Oasis a band of brothers no more. Even the sight of Danny yelling “You’re the one making it personal!” is tempered by the fact that we know the band is still together and no one is getting voted off the island.
Viewers have grown suspicious of reality shows that create a false narrative to draw in viewers. That weighs on the collective minds of KONGOS, who supplied hundreds of hours of road footage for the series story arc.
Danny insists the series is in no way fabricated. “At one point, Johnny tells Jeff the cameraman to turn the camera off. Jeff leaves the camera on, and it looks entirely scripted,” he says. “It’s a very bizarre scene where we have something very real but trying to make it look like it is not manipulated.”
In these distrustful days, even reality ain’t what it used to be.
The band’s backstory comes tighter through flashback segments like home movies of the brothers’ rockstar dad, John Kongos, training young Johnny on piano memory exercises, and the introduction of the crew members like show manager Michael “Mic” Quinn, whose Glasgow brogue earns him subtitles, and stage manager/goodwill ambassador Mo Gordon, whom the band have voted most likely to get a spinoff series.
While telling that story, they are inadvertently telling another about how difficult life on the road could be. Catching sleep when one can. Adjusting to a new city every day. And dealing with your record label kicking you to the proverbial curb. Bus Call indeed.
That’s what happened midway through the group’s 2016 tour. Epic withdrew support and abandoned plans for a second single from Egomaniac, in a “dark night of the soul” beat that screenwriters generally reserve for the end of Act Two.
“In isolation, it’s not the biggest deal to kill a radio song, but it’s the cumulative effect. We’re a radio band,” Danny explains. “A lot of the planning is to tour and then have corresponding events or promotional tools with those radio stations to sell tickets, so they just kinda pulled that rug out. So a lot of the acoustic performances at radio stations and doing meet-and-greets for the radio station leading up to that were all for nothing.”
Says Dylan, “After that point, we were off the radar, the album was essentially dead, except for our hardcore fans who hadn’t bought the album yet, no one new was discovering it.”
It was the label’s radio promoters who made the pre-emptive call not to release the second single. “Radio promoters are like baseball statisticians,” Danny says. “They want their record to look good. So if they don’t think the record is going to chart very high, that’s their motivating force.”
In Bus Call, you’ll see the band gobsmacked after Epic sends thousand of copies of the clean version of Egomaniac to all the places where the explicit version should have gone. The band laughs about it now, but that could just be gallows humor. Like titling their next album 1929, the year the stock market crashed and people took to ledges like lemmings.
What’s stopped the band from pity-partying like it’s 1929 was the reception KONGOS got from European audiences.
“Although we were really tired and worn out, we had our spirits raised by the crowds because we had maybe one or two dud shows,” Dylan says. “And they weren’t really dud shows; we had a lot of hardcore fans coming out, but when we went to Poland, Russia, U.K., Manchester, and Glasgow, we had these fucking great club shows and it showed us we had a real base there and I think it’s going to pay off.
Danny explains, “We have a different standard about a dud show. If we come back to a city and it doesn’t feel like you’re building or even sustaining, it’s not that show itself that’s a dud. Because you are playing to people who like you, but in the back of your mind is the trajectory — can we keep fucking doing this?”
The Bus Call cliffhanger isn’t whether they keep fucking doing this, but whether they’ll leave the label that mishandled the band’s last tour and album. Compounding this, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, the CEO who signed KONGOS to Epic, made an abrupt exodus from Sony Music Entertainment last May following allegations of sexual harassment.
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The spoiler police are shouting us down, but it’s true that KONGOS still owe Epic two more albums and are expected to deliver 1929 for a fall release. Now, Bus Call is being shopped to various streaming outlets while making the rounds to more film festivals. Depending on when the series is picked up will determine where or how the 20 songs written exclusively for the series will see release.
“Each episode will feature a new song. We’re gonna focus our energy on that, and we will do a few cheap music videos,” Dylan laughs. “That’s on our whiteboard. Cheap music videos.”
And no one knows cheap music videos better than KONGOS. Back when the world hadn’t yet heard “Come With Me Now” a million times, they concocted a cheap music video for that very song which started the ball rolling.
Cost? “Sixty bucks,” Danny smiles. “And it’s gotten 100 million views.”