Running Conversations: Jesse KONGOS

Jesse and Dylan Kongos on a run in Hamburg, Germany, with stage manager and rapper Mo Gordon
Jesse and Dylan Kongos on a run in Hamburg, Germany, with stage manager and rapper Mo Gordon

I was in Baltimore watching an Orioles game the first time I heard the KONGOS' massive single "Come with Me Now."

It was the summer of 2014 and I had been carving out time to discover music that would work for me during my runs. I was a new runner and filling my phone with music was becoming an obsession. My playlists included Zion I's “Coastin'" and Rizzle Kick's "Down with the Trumpets," Yelle's "Comme Un Enfant" and Amadou & Mariam's "Sabali," Kesha's "Crazy Kids" and 2NE1's "I Am the Best."

So I had some good stuff in there.

But whoa. What was that?

I grabbed my phone and shazaamed it. I bought the song and downloaded the entire Lunatic album right there in the stadium.

Fast forward to last month.

From house left to house right the KONGOS brothers stretched across the elegant Fillmore stage outside Washington, D.C., in an artful and dramatic straight line: Johnny Kongos (accordion, keyboards, vocals), Dylan Kongos (bass guitar, lap slide guitar, vocals), Jesse Kongos (drums, percussion, vocals), and Daniel Kongos (guitar, vocals).

The brothers were raised in London and Johannesburg but eventually attended high school in Phoenix, Arizona, where they compose and record their own music and lyrics. They're typically described as alternative rock. I place them in the genre of contemporary genius. Clean Bandit's in there, too.

By now I've got KONGOS music all over my playlists. A few, especially "Take Me Back," "I'm Only Joking," "It's a Good Life," and "Come with Me Now" from Lunatic and “Take It from Me” from Egomaniac, released in June 2016, appear strategically at critical points on my runs. "Traveling On," from Lunatic, is on my Relax mix but it also turns up amid Keith Jarrett's 1975 Köln Concert on my Gorgeous playlist.

I caught up with Jesse, who runs four or five days a week, in the Fillmore's Green Room before the show on October 14, 2016. Here's an excerpt of our conversation.

Carolee Belkin Walker: It's a pleasure to meet you, Jesse, I'm a huge fan.

Jesse Kongos: Thank you - nice to meet you.

CBW: I am so impressed with your sound and lyrics. You've allowed me to fill my playlists with some interesting and important music.

JK: Thank you. That's so nice to hear.

CBW: Tell me about you as a runner.

JK: Well I'm a casual runner. Dylan's the main runner. He's done a few marathons, and at times I've trained with him or ridden a bike beside him as he trained. But I just run for health and fitness. Especially on the road, it's a pretty tedious schedule you know. You're sleeping on a bus every night so being able to do something physical sets your day up and makes you feel better.

I also use music for running. I understand how the emotion of the music or the tempo of the music can definitely affect your mood and affect your physicality. So I think music is influential in that way and in other more subtle ways as well.

Most music enters your brain and tickles some associations you have with other times in your life. But I also feel that music has the potential in some cases to speak directly to your physicality, your inner workings, through vibrations rather than just through the mind, and like, "oh, yeah, this song reminds me of college."

CBW: When I'm on a long run, I'm often thinking through my day but sometimes I'm able to get creative about some of the issues I'm dealing with at work or in my writing. So I'm wondering, when you're running, are you composing?

JK: I have written songs on runs before. I just think the increased circulation that running causes and oxygen flow are probably useful for thinking and creativity. There are a few songs that start to mull around in my head. Maybe a phrase or maybe a melody. And then the momentum of running maybe takes up some of the mental processes that otherwise might be coming to the forefront of your mind. It just puts those to the side so certain parts of your brain can take the forefront. That could be an explanation. I haven't actually thought about it too much but I've definitely written songs and lyrics while I'm running.

CBW: Do you run on your own or with Dylan?

JK: Usually by myself. Occasionally we'll go on a group run but generally by myself.

CBW: Then if you run on your own do you ever have any problems remembering...?

JK: You mean what I thought of?

CBW: Yeah.

JK: I've gotten in the habit that if something strikes me as a good idea or a good phrase or lyric I make a point of stopping and putting it in my phone right away. And I usually run with my phone anyway just because I get lost, you know, in a new city every day.

But there are times, especially in a dream, where I've thought, "Oh I've just written the best song ever," but then I can't remember it.

CBW: So when you're in a different city, do you download a recommended route or contact any running groups to know where to run?

JK: My approach to running is casual. I try to run outside rather than on a treadmill, which I'll do if we're parked at a venue that's not in a great running area. But sometimes we'll be along a nice river or a park. We did a show in Alaska a few months ago, and I went for a run there. It was just the most epic scenery ever. The air feels so clean there.

CBW: Do you run in the morning?

JK: When I'm at home I put it off until the end of the day. On tour I try to run first thing because by the time 2 or 3 pm rolls around there's sound checks and other things we've got to do. And it helps to start your day that way.

CBW: Have you always been a runner?

JK: I started running in my teenage years. I was a chubby 13-year-old, and it was right around the time when I started socializing and looking at the opposite sex. So that was probably my initial inspiration to exercise.

But now I just like to stay in shape. Even if it's not necessarily burning calories, it's the psychology of doing exercise. It makes you feel better about yourself if nothing else. Our bodies were built to be active.

CBW: Do you ever listen to your own music when you run?

JK: Not for pleasure, only for work purposes. If I'm mixing a song or if it's in demo stage or we're recording it and I do a mix I listen to it on different headphones for reference. Going on a run allows me to get a different perspective on a song than just in the studio where you're in there every day, same speakers, same environment.

CBW: What do you listen to?

JK: A lot of African music. I find that music from Mali, which is some of our favorite music to begin with, is quite hypnotic. Both Tinariwen and Amadou & Mariam are energetic and their music lets me get into a zone. Sometimes I'll listen to Beats 1 radio just to see what's happening in the pop world or even more mellow music or classical music, but then it's a different kind of running experience.

CBW: Do you do any kind of cross training or yoga?

JK: Yeah. My wife is a yoga instructor so she's taught me enough yoga where I can do a practice on my own. Yoga's one of the hardest things I've ever done because it's harder to do it unconsciously. You have to really choose to do it otherwise you're just going to give up and be lazy. Whereas I feel like with running you can make the decision to go for a run and then 20 minutes later you're like, oh, I'm done. But yoga is a discipline and, yeah, it definitely helps you keep in shape, keep healthy on tour.

CBW: Do you do any kind of exercise before you go on stage?

JK: Not really. At that point I'm pretty warmed up. Just basic stretching. We'll do vocal warm ups. Drums are pretty physical instruments.

CBW: Have you ever had any running-related injuries?

JK: Nothing serious. If I don't replace my shoes often I've had a heel problem or a knee problem. I've never run competitively, it's just more of a lifestyle thing so just minor injuries. Dylan's taught me to run more on the balls of my feet and that's made a big difference in my running. For the first few days your shins really hurt or your calf muscles really hurt but then from that point on running becomes more balanced.

CBW: Is there anything you want to add? Anything I should have asked you?

JK: That's probably the most talking about running I've ever done.

CBW: I've never met a runner who didn't like to talk about running.

JK: Hahahaha, yeah.

CBW: Thank you, it was a pleasure speaking with you. I'm excited for the show.

JK: You're welcome - and thank you.

Check out the KONGOS 2016 tour here.

Walker's playlists are full of KONGOS music and available on Spotify.

Carolee Belkin Walker with Jesse Kongos, Fillmore Silver Spring, October 2016
Carolee Belkin Walker with Jesse Kongos, Fillmore Silver Spring, October 2016
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