Four Stages. Quadraphonic Sound. Eight Albums. One Band: Kong Interviewed

I’ve been going on about Amsterdam’s Kong for almost 25 years. The instrumental metal/electronic/dance-y/trance-y/industrial quartet show no sign of slowing down which, by default, means I’m not going to be able to slow down in my unwavering support for the band. And if they keep offering up killer albums like their recently released eighth album, Stern , well, that’s just more deaf ears for my fanboy-ism to fall upon. Bassist Mark Drillich and I have been in sporadic contact with one another since the early days of the band and their 1990 debut on Peaceville, Mute Poet Vocalizer. Every time the band releases a record, Drillich either cowers in fear at my requests (‘insistent regularity’ might be a good way of putting it) or welcomes the guarantee of at least one hack giving a shit. “Didn’t we do an interview via mail or fax back in the day?” he asked me a few weeks ago. Both, my friend, and on separate occasions. This year is no different, though instead of my going on about the glory of the band’s music, I’ve decided to delve more in-depth about the band’s unique four-stage/quadraphonic sound system live presentation. Check out the photo heading this piece and the video below for visual examples of the main thrust of the following interview, which was done via email. Not snail mail. Or fax.
What was the original motivation in moving away from playing on a regular stage to using the four-platform/quadraphonic sound set up?
It was a combination and a coincidence of several reasons and experiences. The first sort of gig we did was in a friend’s art gallery in which there wasn’t enough room for a stage, so we stood separated, spread through the space with the audience and art in between us. Soon afterwards, we we’re invited to play a gig at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. We were a little hesitant because we didn’t consider ourselves a ‘real band,’ having unusual music and no singer/frontman. Then, our sound engineer, whom we knew from a previous band, came up with the idea to use the set-up from the art gallery: four stages in the corners of the venue and a double P.A. system, meaning extra speakers in the back of the room. This made sense to us, we would take away the focus on the (non-existent) frontman/woman and we wouldn’t have to present ourselves as a regular rock band with the corresponding attitude and presentation. Also, it was the time of the first dance/rave parties in which often a P.A. with four stacks was used and lights and sound were used to create an overall, overwhelming atmosphere. This was the kind of thing we also wanted to achieve with our concerts. An extra motivation was a concert by Karlheinz Stockhausen which I attended around that time in which he played an electronic piece (“Kontakte”) with an octaphonic sound system – four speakers in the corners on the floor and four in the corners on the ceiling – which was an incredible experience.

Initially, what did you use for the individual stages and where did you find the sound equipment?
First, we used what was available in the venue where we played. Later, we bought three stages [which were made] of 1×2 metre platforms (the drummer plays on the normal stage) which we prepared so we could attach our own lighting system to them. The P.A. system is always supplied by the venue, a normal mixing desk with four speaker sets/P.A. stacks. Sometimes, we use a device developed by a friend which makes it possible to send each instrument to a specific speaker and let it ‘travel’ from one to the other, through the space. Unfortunately, this is too complicated to use all the time. So, we also use a double stereo system, but combined with the sound of our own amplifiers it still gives a very spatial and varied sound.

How long did it take before you had everything you needed to start playing live and had the transportation to move all this stuff around from gig to gig?
This is an always changing and developing process. Like I wrote above, the sound system is always more or less the same principle and is, fortunately, not carried around by us. We bring a lot of light equipment though; special multi-cables to connect the different stages and lights, some theatre lamps, different working lights and sometimes video projections. We sometimes attach long poles to the stages so every stage has its own light stand with different lamps attached. Apart from the equipment, it’s very important for us to have a very good (and always the same) sound and light engineer. They know the music by heart and are sort of extra band members when we play live.

For some video evidence of how this business looks and works, check it out:

When you first started showing up to shows with the separate stages/platforms, what were the reactions like from clubs, patrons and other bands?
In general, there are two types of reactions: curiosity and scepticism. Sometimes it took our manager/booker quite some time to convince a club that it really works and is worth the trouble. And many times clubs tell us that it is not possible in their venue because of the size or shape. We always tell them that it is possible in almost any place and once they’re prepared to give it a shot, it almost always proves to work out fine. Of course, after having played like this for some time, people started to hear about it and also booked us because of this set-up. And, in general, after they’ve seen and heard it they have to agree that it works and that is gives something extra that maybe wouldn’t work for all bands, but in our case certainly contributes to the ‘concert-experience’.

Back in the day, I remember reading show reviews in European magazines and once in while the writer would complain about having to wait while you guys set up. How long does/did it usually take to set up and tear down and was it ever really a problem?
I don’t think so, normally we build up and sound check long before the show. It takes us probably a bit longer than the average band but because we always have the same technicians it goes pretty smoothly, normally.

When you tour with the whole set up, did you ever encounter problems with venues not wanting to allow you to use the stage/PA set up?
Normally, venues know more or less what to expect and our technicians always get in touch with the venue long before the gig, but I remember one time where we were initially kicked out when they heard about our set-up. We arrived in London during a support tour for Fear Factory and the guy who let us in (don’t remember whether he was the technician or some kind of manager or stagehand) totally freaked out and decided to kick everybody out, including Fear Factory! After he cooled down and checked with his superiors, everybody was invited in again and we had quite a good night there.

I know that on the one US tour you did many moons ago, that you weren’t able to play using your regular set-up (I’ve seen the photos!). How awkward and uncomfortable did that make you feel?
Actually, that was just one gig in New York and it was a pretty uncomfortable experience. Apart from a few big festivals, we had never played on one stage before. At a festival, there are a lot of extras: the size of the stage, a lot of lights (or sunshine), a large audience and a special atmosphere. In this very small club, there was almost no lighting, a very small audience and nothing to compensate for the lack of the four stages. But, in the end, we only played a few songs because our power-transformers (220 to 110 volt) failed and we had to quit.

Over the years, you’ve maintain the set up. How has it changed/evolved/been refined with time? Is it something you still insist on using at all times, or is the set up only brought out on special occasions or for home town gigs?
No, in principle we always play like this. The only one-stage gigs have been at festivals where it was practically and technically impossible to play quadraphonically. The set-up hasn’t changed over the last few years. We have plenty of ideas, but at the moment there’s just no money to realize them.

So, I’m assuming this way of playing live is going to be a part of Kong’s existence until there is no more Kong?
I’m afraid so. Although it’s a big hassle and a burden sometimes, it’s still the ultimate way to play for us, even for the new band members! It’s fun to play one stage now and then, but only because it’s unusual for us. But I think the four stage/quadra set up really contributes a lot to the way people experience our music and music in general. It’s a more logical and sort of organic way of performing: you take a space, put some musicians, audio equipment, lights and audience in, stir it and have a ball. To me, it’s more fun then this usual ‘audience down on the floor/band high upon the stage’ principle. But apparently not so many people feel this way for as far as I know where still the only band that does it.

deciblog - kong stern

And last, but not least, so to speak, can you tell me a bit about the new record?
The funny thing I realized when working on this album is that we never learned how to do it [properly]. Making music and an album, I mean. So, like with all previous records there was no plan, no goal, nothing that we hoped to achieve apart from putting a dozen or so good or interesting songs together, record them properly and mix them in way that would make them ‘understandable’ or recognizable for other people. And, of course, not repeating ourselves or other musicians too much. Practically, there are differences with other albums; we worked much more separately then before, only using each other to contribute specific parts and to enrich or perfect our individual ideas. We have a great new drummer (Oscar Alblas); a very young (just a few years more than half my age!), classically-trained drummer/percussionist who, apart from Gamelan and modern classical music, plays terrific heavy metal drums and has great, refreshing input. But I can’t say if and in what way it differs from older stuff, to me it’s just a bunch of new songs. Oh yeah, it’s new that we worked with a few guest musicians who played surf guitar, Hammond organ, sabar, synthesizer and vocals!