As a kid growing up in London, Jesse Kongos knew that his South African-bred father John Kongos was well respected in the music industry. In the '60s, he had fronted bands like Floribunda Rose and Johnny & the G-Men before landing early-'70s solo chart hits like "Tokoloshe Man" and "He's Gonna Step On You Again."
Soon, Jesse began recognizing some of the stellar artists hanging out at the family's basement studio: Elton John's backing band, Cat Stevens' group, and even Def Leppard, who tracked portions of their Pyromania classic there. When Jesse showed the slightest interest in percussion, his dad was positively ecstatic.
"I really wanted to play drums — I just had a natural affinity for them," reflects the 30-year-old musician, who went on to form a family ensemble with his brothers Johnny (accordion, keyboards, vocals), Dylan (bass, vocals) and Danny (guitar, vocals). "We all learned piano as kids, and I was always attracted to rhythmic piano, like boogie-woogie and blues. Then when I was a teenager, we had an old incomplete drum set lying around from my dad's studio — it was missing a hi-hat and stuff. But when my dad saw that I was playing around on it, he bought me a brand-new drum set."
Today, Jesse provides the pile-driving beats behind Kongos' new sophomore disc Lunatic and tracks like "Come With Me Now" and "I'm Only Joking," while Johnny's squeezebox contributions suggest salty sea chanteys amped up on Heisenberg meth.
Jesse's idiosyncratic style is rooted in the ethnic music he and his brothers studied at the Greek Saheti School they attended when the family moved back to South Africa. "But to be honest, it's a bit of everything," he says. "Jazz drums, tribal drumming, Middle Eastern and West African rhythms. So I've basically delved into all of those rhythms, but not mastered any of them, so they all kind of bleed together a little bit."
When they first started playing gigs, Danny was only 13, and was still preoccupied with high school. "But then we started to get to an age where we had to think about our future," Jesse says. "Did we want to go to college? Get a job? But we all pretty much agreed simultaneously that this could be more fun, so in 2007 we put out our first album, and it just felt like a natural decision. And once everyone got a taste of playing out and getting the recognition? It was a no-brainer."
After Kongos' self-titled debut album turned out to be a commercial disappointment, the group opted to gradually build its following by only tracking singles, which they offered as free downloads in exchange for fans' email addresses. Lunatic, issued last year here in the States, earned the band Top 10 status in its native South Africa, even though the Kongos had relocated to their mother's hometown of Phoenix.
While their dad continued to offer career advice through the years, one pearl of wisdom still stands out in Jesse's mind: "It was something that was said to him, when he was blowing up as a teen star in South Africa. The boss of his label said, 'Johnny, you must never believe your own publicity.' And he always taught that to us. It doesn't matter what people are saying about you — you have to hold yourself to your own high standards.")