Cong Josie Rides Tall in the Saddle on the Throbbing 'Cong!'
Cong Josie, the nightclub alter-ego of Nic Oogjes, closed the curtain on 2021 with the release of his triumphant and delightfully charming debut album Cong! — the first body of work under his new alias.
You may recognize Nic Oogjes from his role as the founder and frontman of Melbourne's beloved dance-punk and "heat beat" eight-piece collective NO ZU. Known for their knack of spellbinding group vocals, deep groove basslines, housey synths, wild horns and Latin percussion, NO ZU have been kicking it for over ten years and have certainly left their own vibrant mark on the Melbourne music scene. Emerging from the sometimes 15-person collective comes Cong Josie, Oogjes' flashy alter-ego and new solo venture that digs deeper within himself. As Cong Josie, an anagram of Nic Oogjes, Oogjes manages to gloriously channel elements of woozy industrial EBM (Electronic Body Music), eccentric rockabilly, warped lounge, and outsider post-punk all at once.
Released through It Records, Cong! is an intense pulsing record, dripping with a sleazy confidence and contorted machismo that transports listeners onto the dancefloor of a smoke-filled, sweaty EBM club and takes them on a hyperreal, late-night journey. Oogjes' crooning balladry and floor-shattering rhythms carry one song (or revelry) into the next, while untamable horns and synth leads paint Cong!'s vivid vision from the swaggering blasts of jazz and no wave on the opener "Flamin' Heart" all the way to hypnotic closer "Lorelie."
Through email, we caught up with the synth-punk cowboy about the solo journey, influence of historically significant artists such as Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, as well as the impact of cinema — all of which bleeds into the visual aesthetic and romantic mood of Cong!. The album is elevated even higher by Oogjes commitment to building the project's visual aesthetic and surreal world, where he embodies a "neon-cowboy-con-man," determined to communicate the inner-workings of his own psyche.
Paperface Zine: Congratulations on Cong!, it's so fantastic and was one of our favorite releases of 2021! What were the highlights of creating your debut LP?
Cong Josie: Thank you so much. I think each little revelation, or new door that opened up with a small idea were the most thrilling things. I mean, say, creating the first song recorded, "I Want A Man," very quickly was a rush and it just poured out so naturally. This was a huge life moment for me looking back. Hopefully I'm not being too hyperbolic. Each sonic decision and each lyric were so free and assured and when I listened back I knew I had a whole new world on my hands that had just been waiting to reveal itself. It's something that will likely energize me and take me places for years to come. I never saw it coming! The magic key to this really was working with Cayn Borthwick who translated many of my ideas musically. Our history of working together for a lot of years, our personality types and, of course, Cayn's incredible musical feel and ability made it all a dream.
I've read that you're pretty into film and soundtracks! If you had to pick a film that is the closest physical manifestation of this album, what film would it be?
I could and probably should try to not mention a David Lynch film here as his work is so ubiquitous among artists influences, but I strongly feel Blue Velvet or Wild At Heart are obvious. If only these films had been set in Australian suburbia somehow... nevertheless the darkest of dark depths and sleaze rubbing up awkwardly with innocence, love and romance are traits of Cong!. Also, the romanticism of '50s and '60s heartthrob singers and songs in a contemporary context (like the metal band in Wild At Heart playing "Love Me" by Elvis) is evident. Looks like I'm jumping the gun on that question…
You can hear that Cong! has been influenced by music from decades past. Which artists and musical eras do you draw the most inspiration from?
I feel like the sound of Cong! is all of the most influential music and culturally "cool" archetypes from when I was a child seen through the afterglow of all the sleazy, very "adult" electronic and post-punk music that had a profound impact on me in early adulthood (until today). So that's '50s and pre-Beatles '60s music that was in the mainstream culture in the '90s including Roy Orbison, Elvis, Motown, Girl Groups etc. Depictions of it's coolness was everywhere in Happy Days reruns after school, the quiffs and the Peach Pit of Beverly Hills, 90210, the Grease megamix take-over and Roy's big comeback of course.. We even performed Bandstand at my primary school. All '50s and '60s. I was jealous that my friend got to be Elvis and do "All Shook Up," but I also got to be a lead "singer" (mimer) doing Lloyd Price's "Personality" handing out flowers while performing to grade 3's in the front row while wearing my mum's blazer, sleeves rolled up and a makeshift tie. So yeah long response, but I've always kept that with me and when I hear "You Got It" on the radio, it still makes the hairs on the back of neck stand up.
It's hard to avoid the topic of the pandemic so we have to ask — how did you keep your creativity alive during Melbourne's multiple lockdowns?
We got the title of the longest lockdown city in the world! What an honor... I love playing live so much and it has been really terrible how treacherous playing live still is. Our last show, though it was in Sydney, saw three out of four of us in the band get Covid. This is the way of the world right now. In terms of keeping creative, I'm lucky because the project is all headed by me and I have been able to continue recording, doing livestreams solo, or just having fun building the world more aesthetically. A lot of people aren't really into that whole world-building kind of stuff, but I love the visual elements, doing interviews like this and all the rest of it so I have remained energized throughout. With the record coming out recently there has been so much of that to do, new people to meet and to interact with through that and opportunities coming up that I'm grateful for. I guess it has all existed in my head for so long, it's such a trip to see people's reactions and for the project to be public now.
Many people may know you from your "heat beat" group NO ZU, but it must be such a different experience working solo. Did you discover anything about yourself or unlock any new creative processes through the creation of Cong Josie?
Yeah, it is really different in that it is all streamlined and simple. In both projects, it has been led by me and the main ideas just pulled from my subconscious, but with Cong I wanted to go back to an idea I had when starting NO ZU (believe it or not, as a solo project). The idea came from seeing Ollie Olson in the film Dogs In Space performing at a house party with a reel-to-reel backing track and thinking "I want to be able to set up and perform anywhere anytime!" haha. Now, I'm ensuring that no matter how many people I collaborate with in my backing bands The Crimes or The Teardrops so far I will still do karaoke style solo things at times. I love the freedom of just being a singer, ditching all the percussion and band leading while performing and just... singing. Of course the catch is, I'm not a trained singer at all, so it's incredibly arrogant of me, but I do like singers who can't really sing anyway so... Oh, back to the creative process, the major thing has been doing one to three takes of anything as a song is written and recorded. Nothing on Cong! was labored over for better for worse. The fresh feeling of creating quickly has been so rewarding and my hope is that the spontaneity is captured over anything sounding underdone.
You've grown up in Naarm/Melbourne surrounded by an incredible music scene. How do you feel the rich musical history of the city has rubbed off on you?
Oh, definitely. I think there is a lot of pride in this city of it's musical history — among the arts scene anyway. The amazing thing is that it's a small place relatively and "heros" are accessible (if you're not looking too far back!) or even still interacting with younger artists, labels and so on. I was recounting my one and only conversation with Rowland S. Howard (RIP) to someone recently. I was working at a clothing store and he came in to buy a shirt. The main takeaway from it was the lack of pretension or hierarchy from Rowland even when I was quizzing him like a fanboy about The Birthday Party, influences and all sorts of embarrassing things. At least for me it was like the world stopped (I even charged him full price so as to not interrupt the conversation which I regret) and it was like two friends catching up and being nerdy about music. It blew my mind and probably taught me some kind of ego-busting lesson for the future. Anyway, I think such figures are ever present in spirit in Melbourne/Naarm.
Can you give us a bit of an insight into the writing process for this new album, lyrically and instrumentally?
Well lyrically it stemmed from engaging in therapy sessions for a few months before Cong started. I'd never faced a lot of things before and really saw myself as out on my own, without history and just needing to push on. I started being more vulnerable and considering my close relationships, my upbringing and so on and it wasn't easy. This opened up a sort of excavation process and that's exactly how the influences I have discussed here came to the forefront. There are four songs that are directly about individuals close to me, so it's pretty close to the bone. Two are even named after them ("Margarita" and "Persephone"), so that vulnerability is pretty clearly on show haha. I guess the larger context of the lyrics touch on growing up in suburbia, Australian colonialism, animal exploitation, capitalist con-artists and all of that too.
Instrumentally, I bribed and blackmailed and begged Cayn several times over months to work on some of my song ideas always in short bursts. Cayn played on all but one of the tracks, I think (my Italian friend Simone Galassi was wonderful on "Lorelei"). Saxophone, guitar, synth and probably more... oh yeah bass too. Sometimes I created ridiculous voice memos and played them to him and he would be able to translate them rapidly. We'd find a near-enough-is-good-enough synth/drum/whatever sound and then do one to three takes or so and move on. Like with NO ZU, I'd mix away after, move things around (like a catchy guitar motif) and find a moment when my (at the time 1-2 year old, Persephone) was out of the house or quiet to quickly record my vocals. She's probably in the background in the stems somewhere. I remember one night driving to the front gate of the iconic Pentridge Prison (I was living in the sacrilegious, cheap housing village on it's grounds at the time) and recording some vocals in the car because opportunities were so few and far between.
It's so exciting that live music is back in Melbourne! What was it like translating the visual side of Cong! to the stage, and what can people expect from your live shows?
We have been lucky to play a bunch of shows in recent times though things aren't looking great again as I write this. It has felt incredible to form The Crimes and perform with Mona Reves, Cassandra Capri, Milla McQueen, Johnny Cayn and Micky Dollar (stage names) and really expand Cong's world. They are all amazing singers and musicians and probably more importantly we all really love being together and sharing the experience. For me, there has been no translating of Cong Josie for the stage. When my friend Nick and I filmed the video to "Leather Whip" in Greece as kind of the first visual thing, a part of me came out on the spot: a sort of neon-cowboy-con-man from Oz, I guess. It's easy when you're just excavating yourself, your ego or Id, I suppose and then you add a couple of rhinestone suits, likeminded freaky people and a stage to the mix and it just heightens the showbiz haha.
And I don't know what people can expect... I've found I tend to roam the venue, interact with individuals in the audience, climb things and the rest of the band sound much better and look much better than me and that mix seems to balance itself. Every show has been so fun and wild. It's been a liberating thing and the whole lockdown situation has probably made us and the audience a lot more grateful for it. It's been such a weirdly energized time in that respect.
Lastly, what do you think your next steps are for Cong Josie? Do you have a vision for the Cong trajectory?
Thank you for your interest and for wading through my ramblings here. I really feel that I want to keep subverting expectations, critiquing this whole music industry and "performer" thing, being very productive and letting Cong evolve at any whim. Inspired by Greek singers (my wife's family are Greek and I fell in love with a lot of the music years ago) that appear to be accepted at any age, I had this romantic vision in my choice to just be a singer, that I'll create something that I can age into and potentially be able to explore for years to come. This of course may be a fantasy, but then again all of Cong Josie is part fantasy, part confessional exercise and perhaps all just a delusional pursuit.
Cong! is out now via It Records. Stream the new album below.