In 2012, KONGOS released Lunatic to virtually no fanfare. In 2014, a major label (Epic/Sony) re-released that same album without changing so much as a micro-tone, and it spawned a platinum hit in "Come With Me Now," heard everywhere from The Expendables 3 to the Spike TV app to every televised sporting event from WWE to Wimbledon. Heady stuff indeed.
After three years of promoting Lunatic all over the world, KONGOS is ready to push forward. So when they come back with a new album called Egomaniac and a new video ("Take it From Me") that features the four brothers with pulsating swollen heads, you could almost expect the accompanying lyric sheet to read like a collection of Kanye West tweets. Could songs about demanding moist towelettes backstage and needing a marble table for meetings be far off?
"At least Kanye is a transparent egomaniac. Everyone else is an egomaniac in hiding," says guitarist Danny Kongos. "That's part of the album's thrust. Egomania isn't strictly the domain of the Kanye Wests."
"If you give anyone a platform, their egomania shines," agrees accordionist/keyboardist Johnny Kongos. "You just need to look at Instagram. There's no reason for 99 percent of us to be egomaniacs on Instagram. But it's a platform, so you feel like everyone is listening to you."
Rest assured, after spending time at the KONGOS compound chatting with the brothers, Johnny, Jesse, Dylan, and Danny remain four well-grounded musicians, successful yet determined to work harder now that expectations of a waiting public are in the mix.
"With the last album, there was no fan base. We released Lunatic to a vacuum. With Egomaniac, we just hope our fans like it," Jesse says. "If you piss off your [fans], you're gonna get a very rough start. But they're going where we're going, which is convenient."
The fact that the fans are keeping pace with the group is in part because the lead-off song coalesces everything that spelled KONGOS in capital letters to you last time out — the stomping beat they inherited from dad John Kongos' '70s-era hits, the stadium-ready chanted choruses, a blistering slide guitar from Danny, and of course, Johnny's distinctive, otherworldly accordion. That there is less of that integral instrument on this new record shows that the band wants to expand its musical palette without sacrificing what made them so distinctive in the first place.
Somehow, with all four brothers writing independently of one another on the road, they managed to come up with a batch of songs that crystallize, as Jesse points out, "how ego and egomania manifests in everyone, from the top of the chain to the bottom of the chain … We've met some real egomaniacs, and that's probably the best way to show your own egomania."
Trying to pump KONGOS for some incriminating stories of some famous egomaniacs they've run across in the writing of this record (even using the "off the record" reporter trick) proves fruitless. KONGOS will not dish the dirt and risk alienating someone they might have to share a corridor with on the summer festival concert circuit. You'll have to get your "10 Celebrities Who Are Mean To People" clickbait elsewhere.
Yet nearly every track on Egomaniac chronicles some case of megalomania run amuck, from the guy who wants Argentina moved closer to his house on "The World Would Run Better" to the guy with a bucket list that includes influencing an age group "maybe 15 to 22" on "Where I Belong." Or the unstoppable protagonist of "Take It From Me," the single which got off to a flying start in April, lodging itself inside the Top 15 on Modern Rock Radio in its first three weeks. Fifty alternative stations soon added the song to their rotations.
"Well, our mom fucking loves it," Dylan offers in his best doofus voice.
"Both of our parents to varying degrees are very proud of us," laughs Jesse, before waxing business-like. "We knew we were going to get a good launch with radio. Because 'Come With Me Now' was so big, the doors were open."
It could've easily gone the other way. The good problem of having a record that goes to number one on the modern rock charts is that it also prevented the second U.S. single ("I'm Only Joking") from Lunatic from achieving parity because radio couldn't stop playing the earlier hit. When the band played "Take It From Me" in front of 15 people from the label, there was a palpable, collective sigh of relief that the band hadn't delivered something unrecognizable.
"Again, it's not so much [that we're] considering a fan base, but if we're trying to get somewhere with our sound, it's better to take stepping stones there rather than just jumping out there. Unless you're Bob Dylan. He's got the balls to do it and doesn't care," says Jesse Kongos, who quotes "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" in "Autocorrect,"
"It's nice that people like it, but at the same time I value the Bob Dylan attitude of 'fuck you,'" Danny Kongos says. "I think it's funny that people were angry at him for playing an electric guitar. It's pathetic."
"There's definitely a sense of ownership. People feel they have ownership in what their favorite artists are doing," says Johnny with a measure of understanding.
Would the fan base, in deference to the gorilla on Egomaniac's cover, go apeshit if Johnny stopped playing the accordion altogether and said "I just wanna play a keytar from now on"?
"If Johnny stopped playing the accordion, the rest of us would be pissed off," says Jesse. "It's a fine line [having an accordion in the band]. To some people, it looks like it's a gimmick, but we actually love the sound."
Egomaniac uses that sound more sparingly, reserving its firepower for a blazing solo as featured on "Birds Do It," which quasi-updates Cole Porter for a social media-reared generation of compliment collectors. ("I say I love you but you don't need me to.")
"None of us is above praise or criticism," says Jesse. "Someone writes something nice about us; it's quicker than your intellect. Your emotions get affected before your brain does. So you read a flattering thing, and it's too late. You're already happy, and then after you have time to process it, you wonder, 'Why should I be happy if that person thinks I'm great?'"
Not that KONGOS have had too many negative notices. At this stage of their career, press is usually more nurturing than naysaying. The backlash only comes when you reach the status where you seem unreachable.
"You play it off like the negative reviews are not affecting your ego," Dylan says, noting there's still a positive side of the occasional bitchy review.
"Sometimes, the best songs come out of hurt feelings, which is a hurt ego," Danny says, nodding.
KONGOS' hurt feelings don't seem to be affecting listenings. Most people will hear the group's stomping beat and singalong choruses, oblivious that KONGOS songs are in the main not all that chipper.
"That sees to be a common misinterpretation of our lyrics, which is great because you can't sell cars with downer songs," Johnny says.
Dylan, in his best Murray from Flight of the Conchords accent, encapsulates what a DJ in Australia gleaned was the takeaway meaning behind "Take It From Me":
"The message I got from the song is never give up on your dreams, that you should always push through, there's hope at the end of the tunnel."
KONGOS’ Egomaniac listening party is scheduled for Thursday, June 9, at The Lost Leaf.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.