Dylan Kongos: South African Rhythms Meet Rock

Full of rock hits and big ballads, Egomaniac finds Dylan mixing Iscathamiya and Kwaito rhythms of South Africa into his driving bass lines on tracks like “I Don’t Mind,” “If You Could,” and “Hey You, Yeah You.”
By Jon D'Auria ,

Being born in South Africa to a father who had massive success singing multi-platinum pop hits in that region in the ‘70s had a major impact on Dylan Kongos. it was only a matter of time before he would give in to the gravitational pull of music. After taking classical piano lessons at a young age, his newly acquired sense of melody blended perfectly with his natural love for the rhythms from his homeland. When his family moved to Phoenix, Arizona in his youth, he and his three brothers Johnny (accordion, keyboards), Jesse (drums), and Daniel (guitar) decided to form a band, which left the bass slot open for Dylan to take on, despite his penchant for the guitar. Luckily, he caught on quickly and felt at home on his new instrument.

The brothers began making records under their last name and found success with their first two albums, Kongos (2007) and Lunatic (2012). After hitting the road with Kings of Leon and having their videos go viral on YouTube, the brothers picked up momentum leading into their recently released third record. Full of rock hits and big ballads, Egomaniac finds Dylan mixing Iscathamiya and Kwaito rhythms of South Africa into his driving bass lines on tracks like “I Don’t Mind,” “If You Could,” and “Hey You, Yeah You.” Compared to his playing on the band’s previous albums, Kongos’ maturity and evolution is apparent via his fingerstyle and synth bass work, and his use of the low B string on his Fenders. Which just might be why he became an egomaniac in the writing process.

What were the writing sessions like for this album?
Our writing sessions are interesting, and are what spawned the album title Egomaniac because we don’t write together. We go our separate ways and hash out a bunch of ideas on our own, write the parts and then work it all out, and put the finishing touches on it when we’re in the studio together. That’s where we really start to collaborate on sounds and the full-blown recording of the songs.

How do you write song ideas on your own?
I write a lot using midi bass to come up with synth parts. It’s kind of fun because I’ll come up with ideas I might not think of on electric bass. I wrote the bluesy track “I Don’t Mind,” using my bass, but the other songs were primarily written using keyboard bass.

How do you approach synth bass differently than electric bass?
My timing and my groove is a lot better when I’m playing electric bass because I play it live so much. Harmonically, I feel like I can come up with more interesting parts on piano because I took classical lessons at an early age. Playing bass lines on keys when I’m demoing songs allows me to come up with more melodic sounding bass lines. When I play electric bass I’m more focused on the groove over everything.

What were you going for with regard to tone on this record? And how did you achieve it?
On this album most of the bass is recorded straight through an Avalon DI. But on songs like “Autocorrect” and “Take it From Me” you’ll hear a crunchier bass tone with top end because we recorded through the DI and then re-amped it through a 1970’s Fender Champ. That creates a super punchy, gritty sound. Then we layered them together, and I was really happy with the sound we got. We actually blew that due to driving it so hard and we had to have it repaired mid-recording. It’s an amp our dad had laying around, that we discovered.

How is your playing on Egomaniac different from Lunatic?
It’s gotten a bit more intricate, which has grown difficult for me to play live because I sing lead on a lot of the songs and harmonies on others. When we go in the studio and record these parts, we’re not playing and singing at the same time, so we’re not really focused on how difficult it will be to do both of them at once. We syncopate a lot while we’re singing, so I have to drill those parts. On Lunatic, the parts were cool, but they were a little more basic. We toured a bunch with Kings of Leon, and when you listen to Jared’s [Followill] bass parts, they’re a lot busier and more melodic because he doesn’t sing. That inspired me to take the bass a little further and get a bit more melody from it.

You play multiple instruments in the band, how does that enhance your bass playing?
I think the instrument that enhances my playing the most is the piano. Having that perspective and learning basic theory, harmony, and chord structure goes a long way when applied to your bass playing. If you learn multiple instruments it will give you a broader perspective and body of knowledge than someone who plays only one instrument. And that applies to songwriting, as well.

Describe your playing technique.
I learned to play on a 6-string bass because my dad didn’t want anyone touching his ’59 Precision; so picked up this Yamaha, John Patitucci beast of a bass. It impacted my playing right away. First of all, the neck was so wide that my hands had to extend fully. Now I play a 5-string Fender Precision, and I use a lot of palm muting, which comes from the South African music I listen to. I dig the punchy sound I get when palm muting and plucking with my thumb and index finger. It’s almost like a very fast release compression on the bass. I love deadening the strings, unless I’m taking a solo. I rarely use a pick, although I used one a couple of times on this record. I also like fingerpicking, as you would on a guitar.


When did you first start playing bass?

At 16 or 17. We started our family band, with me and my brother Danny on guitar, and a bass player who was a friend of ours. He moved away in 2004 and we decided to program the bass tracks because I wasn’t good at playing bass. But that limited us live because we couldn’t extend sections and improvise. We decided one of us needed to play bass, so I was chosen because I had bigger hands. At first I didn’t like it, but now I really enjoy it a lot. We played some jazz for events early on, and that’s when I really started enjoying the bass and its role.


Describe the role of bass in Kongos.

It’s pretty darn important for us, and because I’m an egomaniac, I’ll say that it’s the most important element in Kongos [laughs]. Live, it shakes you and rattles your body, and that’s what people are drawn to, consciously or subconsciously. The bass frequencies get people dancing and jumping around, so it’s really important for us to maintain that aspect in the shows. I’m a huge fan of bassists like Richard Bona and Bakithi Kumalo. Bakithi intertwines South African rhythms into the music, and Richard is one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever seen.

How did growing up in South Africa impact you as a musician?
South African music has had a huge impact on us and we still listen to it constantly. There are a few main styles, including the traditional Iscathamiya music best known here as the Graceland style. Western musicians infuse modern melodies into it and it blends well. Then there’s Kwaito music, which is house music with Zulu rap over it, played in the dance clubs down there. The diversity there is amazing. There are eleven official languages in South Africa, and so many cultures and tribes, and they’re all making music. Whether you’re checking out live music or listening to the radio, you can hear something new every day.

Gear
Bass
Fender Precision 5-string, Fender Elite Series 5-string Jazz, Fender Dimension 5-string
Rig Fender Super Bassman 300, Fender Bassman 610 Neo Cabinet, Reddi All-Tube Bass DI
Strings Ernie Ball Slinky Mediums

Fall Tour Dates:
9/23-25 Las Vegas, NV Life Is Beautiful Festival
9/25 Santa Cruz, CA The Catalyst
9/27 Spokane, WA Knitting Factory Concert House
9/29 Edmonton, Alberta Union Hall
9/30 Calgary, Alberta MacEwan Ballroom
10/1 Saskatoon, Saskatechewan Loui’s
10/2 Winnipeg, Manitoba Garrick Centre
10/4 Minneapolis, MN Varsity Theater
10/6 Detroit, MI St. Andrews Hall
10/8 Montreal, Quebec Metropolis
10/9 Toronto, Ontario Danforth Music Hall
10/11 Rochester, NY Main Street Armory – Downstairs
10/12 Boston, MA The Royale
10/14 Silver Spring, MD The Fillmore
10/15 New York, NY PlayStation Theater **
10/20 New Orleans, LA House of Blues
10/21 Houston, TX Warehouse Live
10/23 Dallas, TX Gas Monkey Live!
10/27 San Francisco, CA Regency Ballroom
10/28 Los Angeles, CA The Wiltern
10/29 Phoenix, AZ Dia De Los KONGOS at Crescent Ballroom Outdoors 

For more information visit: Kongos