If you'd told the brothers Kongos two years ago that their second album would still be going strong in 2014 and, in fact, gathering strength by the day with no end in sight, they would've called you "lunatic."
But it's true. Lunatic, the Phoenix band's sophomore effort, self-released in 2012 in the United States with major label distribution in their homeland of South Africa, handily cemented Kongos as hitmakers in that part of the world. After the heady heights of doing huge festivals in Johannesburg and Cape Town, signing autographs and seeing their records charting in the upper echelons of South African radio, Johnny, Jesse, Dylan, and Danny Kongos returned to their adoptive United States which, Phoenix notwithstanding, was giving them the cold shoulder and asking them to sleep it off on the couch.
Swish-pan to January 2014, and it's a different world: Billboard reports that "Come with Me Now" is the fastest-added song on alternative radio since Lorde's "Royals." Kongos sign a Sony ATV publishing agreement and a record deal with L.A. Reid at Epic. And on January 28, when Kongos pull down their version of Lunatic from iTunes, Epic seamlessly puts up its Lunatic, virtually identical to the album Kongos remastered for America two years ago.
Fast-forward to March, after Rolling Stone predicts Kongos are about to break in America. The group makes its national television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and "Come with Me Now" is the number one record on alternative radio in the United States and in Canada. Skip to April, to announcements that Kongos will be appearing at big festivals like Sasquatch, Summerfest, Firefly, Osheaga in Montreal, and Lollapalooza. And by the time you read this, the band will have made a second TV appearance, on Seth Meyers' late-night show.
The brothers still seem stunned — yet not stunned — by it all. It's the same sort of dazed acceptance you will encounter when you are actually living your dream.
"Everything surprised us to the point now where nothing surprises us," says Johnny, including word that "Come with Me Now" is expected to go gold and that Epic will work tirelessly to see that it goes platinum. Or diamond. Rather than having incurred the dreaded sophomore jinx with album number two, Lunatic appears to be the album that refuses to go away quietly.
And yet, at the start of 2013, the buzz Kongos accrued in South Africa still hadn't translated to much electricity stateside.
"All the labels were aware of us and either passed or were in wait-and-see mode," says Jesse. "We saw how Lunatic worked in South Africa; we saw it work on radio and people coming to the shows and singing the words. But when a year passes and you still can't get anything going here, it's a worrisome thing."
In a fortuitous chain of events, the band's South African gig at the Oppikoppi Festival, going on before Seether, led to signing with Seether's European agent, who became Kongos' European agent and later introduced the group to its current management and U.S. booking agent. "The only reason he saw us was because he represented Seether, who were on after us. The stagehands started setting up for Seether, and there was a 45-minute delay," recalls Johnny. "We were pissed off because the crowd was getting antsy. He saw us on our home turf, so you couldn't have asked for a better audition."
Now with representation behind them, the decision was made last year for Kongos to take the risk and go to American radio themselves with Lunatic.
"Around September and October, Chicago started playing 'I'm Only Joking,'" says Dylan, "and this guy named Nerf in Denver was playing "Come with Me Now" and they were reacting pretty well, selling in those markets. So, we booked a tour, a three- and four-week tour in those markets where we were trying to get airplay. A few radio things started to spark and our management team and the radio people started to realize there's some traction and let it organically develop."
Nerf at Denver's KTCL and the people at Chicago's WKQX became champions of the band. When Denver picked it up, it tested through the roof. And mind you, KTCL is a Clear Channel Station. "There aren't too many Clear Channel stations where the DJ has a say in what gets played," marvels Danny. They've got a good listener base that trusts them."
Though cynics are quick to dismiss radio as just something car manufacturers put on their dashboards from force of habit, it still is the most powerful medium for breaking new music. Kongos are quick to acknowledge Phoenix's KWSS 93.9, whose support of local bands helped many bands' draws considerably and helped make Kongos a local favorite. "Before KWSS, every little pocket of fans was 30 miles away from each other," Johnny says. "Now it started to congeal a bit, and there's an actual Phoenix scene."
After noting the sales and the spins from Chicago and Denver, Kongos began getting inquiries from labels, which also were measuring the band's building momentum on the charts of song-identification phone app Shazam.
"Most labels have replaced their A&R department with the Shazam app," Dylan says, laughing. When Kongos got 4,000 Shazams in one day, labels noticed.
"It's become the most democratic testing," Johnny says. "It really predicts songs. You can't fake it. You're dealing with individual devices in all different locations. It's really cool because it has invigorated sales of singles. It's basically just kids saying, 'What is this? I like it,' and they can click to iTunes and buy it."
The Kongos, modest to a man, are quick to point out that this didn't quite lead to a fierce bidding war. "Compared to the other labels that showed interest, Epic were so far ahead they pushed everyone else out," Jesse says. "It was L.A. Reid. Someone in our management company played him the video of 'Come with Me Now,' and the way we heard it is, he flipped out and said, 'I want this band.'"
Contrast that to another major label (with only three of them left, there isn't much guesswork) that made a verbal offer because it was watching the sales every week. "Then Thanksgiving week comes, when radio does special holiday programming [and] sales dip a little bit. With one week of seeing sales dipping, they cooled off," Jesse says, grinning. "More than cooled off, they just said, 'We're out.' They hadn't listened to the song — let alone the album — and they're making an offer purely based on sales and spins. With Epic, their interest started and only increased."
With Reid totally in the tank for what Kongos was doing musically as well as visually, the band was able to sign from a position of strength. The brothers finally met Reid after they'd signed, and he came to a show where they opened for Imagine Dragons. After that, they had the added treat of watching Reid listen to their album and watch their videos, an experience that was both exciting and nerve-racking.
"I found myself wanting to leave the room," says a laughing Danny, who was reassured to see that Reid's office had a nice pair of studio monitors on which to listen to music. At the offices of other labels they'd met with, there wasn't a sound system in sight — it was all talk of branding and acquisitions.
"If you're in a meeting with a band and don't even pretend to be a music company, and every word out of your mouth is branding and synergy, you've not done your homework on the band you're trying to sign," Jesse says.
And while in L.A. being courted by publishers, there were parties. "The Sony party was awesome," Danny says. "Smokey Robinson walked right by me. We met the bass player and drummer of Earth Wind and Fire. Stevie Nicks was there. Pharrell was sitting at a table — yes, he was wearing that hat. So if we do get a hit record, we know where all the money's going: parties."
With a full schedule clear into next year, Kongos won't be here in the Valley all that much in the upcoming months. No, the brothers will be promoting Lunatic yet again, with better live production values, while the new songs they've been writing and demoing for a Lunatic follow-up the past two years will have to settle for being road-tested before they can be recorded and released.
In the world of good problems, it doesn't get any gooder than that.