Post-Punk Rave-Up Wild Man Cong Josie: “I have always had the belief that anyone is an artist”

Original photo by Nadeemy Betros. Handmade mixed media art by B.

At Gimmie HQ we’ve been bumping the new Cong Josie album Cong! hard since it arrived in our inbox. We loved it so much that we ordered the hot pink limited edition vinyl version. The album is officially out Oct 22 on It Records (home of our favs – New War and Atom). It’s a fabulous high energy clash of minimal synth, EBM (Electronic Body Music), rockabilly-ish vocals, punk attitude with a whole lotta throb and thrust, along with some heart tugging surprises.

Today we’re debuting the electrifying song ‘Cong The Singer’ along with its video, a guerrilla D.I.Y. ode to the Naarm/Melbourne suburbs that spawned Cong! We chatted with the man, the myth, the legend himself, Cong Josie alter-ego of musician Nic Oogjes.

In your heat beat ensemble NO ZU you play instruments; now as Cong Josie you’re just singing?

CONG JOSIE: Yeah. It was a really deliberate choice, a really arrogant choice [laughs], that’s kind of what the song ‘Cong The Singer’ is about. Arrogant in that I’ve never been a singer. I love singing; I love singing in the shower. I’ve always loved singing along to Roy Orbison, trying to sing ‘Crying’. Very ambitious targets! All of the “Bobby Movement” like Bobby Darrin; there was a lot of guys called Bobby in the 50’s that did rock n roll ballads. Elvis. All that kind of stuff. It was a deliberate decision not to carry around instruments anymore.

I keep going through these things with each new project. After my first when-I-was-becoming-an-adult-and-start-taking-things-seriously band, I was like, ‘I don’t ever want to have to carry around a drumkit anymore!’ I would be up front playing some rototoms so that I could stand up, and that led into NO ZU. I was only going to carry standup percussion, but then it expanded. It grew to a point where I didn’t want to carry all this stuff around; trumpets, all sorts of stuff. There was lots of clothes for each band member too, I’d carry around to each gig. Our baggage loads on planes were crazy!

I was like, ‘I just want to be a singer!’ Even though I can’t sing. That’s really arrogant, but I have always had the belief that anyone is an artist and anyone can make something interesting if you have the drive and ideas. In fact, most of my favourite singers, that I just mentioned… even Roy Orbison, sings off key, which makes his voice really interesting and intriguing, where he often has to bend into a note. There are a lot of notes that aren’t quite right.

I love singers that are non-singers, I find their voices really interesting. There’s this Greek singer Márkos Vamvakáris, who was one of the biggest rebetiko stars; they call it the Greek Blues, it’s a lot about hash dens and sordid activities. It was real people’s music, real working-class music. His voice is like a chainsaw! It’s not good, but I love it, it has the most edge to it. Obviously, that throughout punk and post-punk as well, it’s like that. It’s from that background that I thought I could at least make something interesting. I can sing these two notes, kind of, if I’m in this register [laughs].

[Laughter]. What else is the song about?

CJ: It’s about playing with that idea of a singer. It’s a fantasy tale about being a hero of the suburbs. I’ve never really understood why everything has to be so city-centred, and why everything has to play into these references of what’s cool and what’s happening now. In my fantasy dreamworld, there would be pockets all throughout the urban sprawl of Melbourne and beyond, where amazing music is happening. And, there’s this one singer that plays around the Eastern suburbs, around the R.S.L. and chicken-parmigiana-pubs, that are actually really creative and great but for whatever reason in our culture (in the 80’s bands would go out and play those places), it’s just not a thing now. It’s about that, because it’s just an impossibility.

The other layer is that actual baring of childhood and real-life things. As I was saying before, it’s amazing to hear yourself in music. I haven’t heard other people mention the Eastern Freeway in a song before! It’s a pretty good road [laughs]. It also expresses that driving was a form of freedom when I was younger. Going to the city, to places for “culture” and discovering different kinds of music was really important to me. So, that road means a lot.

Even my suburb. I’ve actually moved back to my teenage house, that’s where I am now. I bought it off my mum, which was very strange. I remember living here when I was younger, I remember this Australian rapper called Bias B, he talked about the trainline here. Aussie hip-hop around 2000 was the first time I ever heard specific areas mentioned. He talked about the Burra to Eltham train! Growing up here in a leafy suburb having nothing to say, but it’s not true, hearing things like that, I loved it, and that’s probably how it fed into my work.

The video clip we’re premiering for ‘Cong The Singer’ is really fun! What do you remember about filming?

CS: We only shot it two weeks ago, so I remember all of it [laughs]. And if anyone wants to know, we did do it Covid safe, I’m even wearing a mask in one part. I was actually saying this to Nick [Mahady] who filmed it with me…

He did your ‘Leather Whip’ clip too!

CJ: Yeah. This is kind of like ‘Leather Whip #2’. The first song was set in Greece because we happend to be there before Covid. Nick is a really great friend and talented artist; he did the portrait artwork for my releases so far and the Cong! cover. He’s an example of someone that is so open and creative and sensitive. We have a really great relationship, since I discovered more about myself and valued that aspect in people even more.

I was saying to Nick, that this video and ‘Leather Whip’ mean so much to me and are so close to me, because we literally went out with a camera and a few sketched ideas. We saw a rabbit, so we filmed a rabbit. We saw a bin chicken… or we decided to go to the river, which felt like minus thirty degrees! It was all very spontaneous over two days. It was nerve-racking also.

The first shot we did was Footscray Amphitheatre. We got there and it was so quiet. It was a Saturday morning, beautiful weather.  A couple of people were sitting in their Northface jackets drinking coffee. There were two groups of people looking down at exactly where we were filming. There were people jogging. Being in a cowboy hat, add to this debaucherous music, which we knew was going to be loud for a moment; I had my little Bluetooth speaker to mime to. It was scary! We actually started talking to each other, “Oh maybe we can do this other shot” [laughs]. We started setting up and one of the people there made a joke to me, he said, “Are we going to get an organ performance?” Because he saw my pants underneath my long jacket I was wearing and that broke the ice. I was like, ‘Ok, this is alright’ [breaths a sigh of relief], and then I started performing. I was like, ‘This is the best grassroots campaign ever, I just made three fans!’ It was me and Nick, and Johnny Cayn (Cayn Borthwick) was there.

The clip is very direct and real. It’s very D.I.Y. This is going to sound really bad, but I can’t stop watching it. My band The Crimes that are in it, can’t stop watching it either. There’s so many funny bits. They’re like, “Why are you presenting the Westgate Bridge?” [laughs]. I’m like, ‘I don’t know?!’

Do you have a favourite moment from the video?

CJ: In one of the first musical breakdowns, I’m on the Coburg Lake stage and there’s people having picnics, bemused by what we were doing – I’m either clicking my fingers or combing my hair – and there’s a rollerskater behind me twirling. That was a guy we met while we were packing up. Initially there were two boxers on stage. They said they were happy to be in the video and they had the music cranked, they were big beefy guys; then they told us they didn’t want to be in it. As we were packing up one of the boxers were like, “Hey, get Tony! Tony is amazing. Get him in it.” We introduced ourselves and asked if he wanted to be in it. He said, “Ok.” Then he started doing spins and we pretended music was going on. It’s one of the most beautiful shots, because he’s really great. It’s a great juxtaposition.

That’s one of my favourite shots too! His leg movements are perfect, such finesse. It works so beautifully.

CJ: There’s another one second shot of us with a beautiful white dog.

That’s my other favourite shot!

CJ: There was a mum and daughter walking their dog. I was doing the shot where I comb my hair near the car, obviously people were looking at us a bit strange. I said ‘hi’ as they walked past and thought maybe I should ask them if we can get a shot with that big gorgeous dog. They were really happy to, and they gave me treats to keep the dog in the vicinity. You don’t get shots like that otherwise. I wanna keep doing it. Maybe it’s a great way to build my fan base [laughs], very slow and labour intensive.

[Laughter]. We’re so happy to be premiering the song and video, it’s right up our alley. We really love your whole album Cong! It fuses so many things we love together – it has a kind of rockabilly vocal and then it’s got an EBM feel and a punk spirit.

CJ: Yeah, cool! It has all of those things. I really dug into a world of the Norton Records label, they do some really great outsider rockabilly like Hasil Adkins. Those wild rockabilly/rock’n’roll/country fellas: Jack Starr, Stud Cole, Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Terry Allen are some of the sleezy cats that have been an influence. Also, a lot of the artists that The Cramps were inspired by, they called them wild men, and apparently some of them really were—that’s a big influence on who Cong is. Cong is the wild rockabilly artist but in a suburban Australian setting, so he’s also gonna be a bit different.

In terms of the electronics, I was never able to focus on the throb, as I call it, the throbbing rhythm. In NO ZU everything was still mechanical and awkward funk, a bit more danceable in a different way. It’s a big clash of those things.

I love Johnny Cayn’s guitar on the track. It’s probably the most slide-y, rockabilly thing on the record. It’s just wild and out of control.

Yes! It’s very cool.

CJ: I really love Simone aka Mona Reeves’ voice with the “Saturday night” part on there too, which is inspired by the Elton John ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ track. Just that idea of being really excited by a Saturday or Friday night is a musical trope that was really fun to explore!

Ed’s note: We spoke with Cong Josie for over a hour, this is a small extract from a more in-depth chat exploring the entire album, growing up in Melbourne, toxic masculinity, Nicolaas Oogjes musical evolution, creativity, getting through life’s challenges, and creating your own world to heal and grow. Read it in our next print issue (#5) we’re currently working on.

Pre-order Cong! HERE. Follow @congjoise

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