He’s been in some of the most influential bands of the past three decades – The Gun Club, The Cramps, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. For the past 20 years, and 10 years in its current incarnation, Kid Congo Powers’ band the Pink Monkey Birds have been responsible for some of the most deliriously primal, resolutely indefinable, funky, just plain fun rock n’ roll going around.
Touring Australia for the second time, the band are a delicious mix of funk, garage psychedelia, go-go music, noise, beat poetry, B-Grade film soundtracks and Latino influences. Powers says the Pink Monkey Birds are as much about creating a world and an aesthetic as it is about music. But above all, he says, it’s primarily just having a lot of fun.
Kid Congo Powers was born Brian Tristan, in La Puente, Los Angeles County, California in 1959. He met Jeffrey Lee Pierce while working in a Los Angeles record store. Powers was the head of a Ramones fan club; Pierce of a Blondie fan club. Standing in a queue to see punk band Pere Ubu, they decided to form a band of their own, The Creeping Ritual, which became seminal post-punk band The Gun Club.
He soon joined the legendary psychobilly icons The Cramps, one of the great bands of the late 20th Century, before meeting Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Europe and playing with them for two albums.
He’s played with and formed many bands during his career, sought for his unique guitar style. Kid Congo Powers spoke to CALEB CLUFF from his home in New Haven, Connecticut.
Tell me a little about growing up in La Puente.
“Well of course it’s the Spanish word for ‘bridge’. I was very young (laughs). It was actually a new suburb in the early 60s when my parents moved there. Actually it was the 50s, excuse me. It was a former fig and walnut grove, which was mowed down to make more room for people to live. It was a new suburb of Los Angeles, about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
“It had a lot of other young couples with children who lived there because it was affordable. A good portion of it, about 75 per cent, was Mexican-American. But that's Los Angeles; 75 per cent Mexican-American people.
“It was cool. There were a lot of kids; I had a lot of friends. I found the troublemakers and people into music. There were loud guitars coming out of garages, and I gravitated towards that. I was a tenacious kid who wanted to hang around with older people. I just couldn't wait to be older. And now I’m old!”
You had older sisters?
“I was the youngest of three and they were into music. Since I was a child there were always records around. I used to love playing with the records, and I knew the names of the songs – well I didn't know the names of the songs, but I knew what song I wanted to hear before I could read, by the colour of the label on the record.”
Tell me about east side music and Thee Midniters.
“It's music that came out of those Mexican-American suburbs. They were very heavily R’n’B influenced. I interviewed Thee Midniters, or Jimmy Espinoza, who was one of the surviving members, and he was like, ‘Oh we were just into the Beatles, we wanted to be the Beatles!’ I guess the teenagers in the 60s wanted to be that. They had a lot of R’n’B influence, The Stones, psychedelic music. It was the 60s, you know – some psychedelia and LSD taking got in there as well. And they used local references, so it was very appealing to people.
“These bands were not at all famous. They weren't the Beatles. But they were locally known, regionally known, and they became beloved among Mexican-American teenagers because they were someone to look up to. Growing up in those suburbs, it was a strange time for second and third-generation Mexican-Americans.
“You felt the culture. You knew you had brown skin. You were different from white folks; you were different from black folks. You were different. In my family situation, my parents grew up in the Great Depression, which was a very poor time in America, especially for people of immigrant descent. We grew up told to be proud of our culture, but we didn’t learn how to speak Spanish for instance – a pretty important element of your culture. But I think there were pressures for kids to assimilate and not struggle in the way their parents had.”
What did your parents do?
“My father was a welder for stainless steel production, so he worked on airplanes, spacecraft, all different things, washing machines! (laughs). So he was very working class, a blue collar worker. My mother was a housewife and she was a painter, an artist. I was influenced by her creativity a lot, and in turn when I started to take creative avenues she was very supportive.”
You felt the culture. You knew you had brown skin. You were different from white folks; you were different from black folks. You were different.Kid Congo Powers
When did you begin to learn to play music, to play an instrument?
“I haven't learned yet! (laughs). Actually I didn't pick up a guitar until probably 1979, 1980. I was already probably 20 years old. It wasn’t until The Gun Club, my first band. I met Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and he just said, ‘Let's have a band’, and I said, ‘OK let's have a band’ and then we're like, ‘Oh – what do we do?’
“He said, ‘I'll be the singer, you play guitar. I know this way to play guitar, blues players play like this. Keith Richard plays like this; Duane Allman plays like this. It's an open chord and you have a slide.’ More than roots music, we were concerned with learning fast. Jeffrey was savvy enough of a music person to know about that kind of tuning.”
How did you meet Jeffrey Lee Pierce?
“I met him through the LA music scene, just being around. I used to work at this record store. There was a label called Bomp! Records which actually was a fanzine and mail order thing before Discogs and the internet and eBay. Greg Shaw was an impresario of 60s music, rare records and he had opened a record shop at the dawn of punk rock and I worked at that record shop for a while and Jeffrey lived in the neighbourhood and would come by often.
“So I would see him there and we would vaguely talk, and then we started to see each other at shows. We realised – we were super young – we were in fan clubs, we made fanzines. I did a Ramones one and he did a Blondie one. I know exactly when we met: it was at a Pere Ubu concert when they first came to LA and we were standing in line. Maybe we had snuck in some drinks while we were waiting. We started talking and we just decided we would have a band. That's the way it happened.
I always wanted to be on the inside. I still feel like I'm on the outside looking in, but I always wanted to be near music and musicians.Kid Congo Powers
“We both realised we had a lot in common; we’d both been to New York already. I’d been to London and saw bands. We were just music fans seeking music. That was our only goal in life, to be around music and see music. I had no idea that I would end up being musician. It was not on my radar. I thought I might be a journalist. I was writing for my high school paper, then I started making fanzines.
“I thought ‘journalism is a way into music, to keep me near music’ – and getting free records, going into the shows for free, but also keeping me connected closely to music. I always wanted to be on the inside. I still feel like I'm on the outside looking in, but I always wanted to be near music and musicians. I wasn’t quite the groupie but it was more... I don't know, maybe I thought I would catch some disease actually (laughs). You can say, ‘he wasn’t a groupie but he caught a disease’.”
The first album Fire of Love was very successful.
“I had left The Gun Club by then. I joined The Cramps soon after that was recorded. We were not a successful band before that. A bit of local praise, but when I was in The Gun Club, it was not so many people. Our friends came and some people dug it, people could see there was something there. Jeffrey was terribly obnoxious on stage and super arrogant. People were like ‘that guy!’ But the songs were there, the first songs like Sex Beat, For The Love Of Ivy, She's Like Heroin To Me, Goodbye Johnny.
“Those came out of a very early germ nucleus of not even knowing how to play. Jeffrey was more of a talent than someone who couldn't play. He was much more of a visionary; he had a vision of what it could be. I had a desire to paint these kind of pictures with him. We were very influenced by New York No Wave music; The Cramps, of course. We were sick of traditionalists; we loved roots music; we loved blues and rockabilly music.
You could take things that had gone before, like rockabilly music, psychedelic music, and as long as you made it into something new, as long as you mutated it, as long as you were not boring. That was the cardinal sin, that you made something that was boring or normal.Kid Congo Powers
“You know in punk it was a big ‘no-no’ to like that music - Bob Dylan, whatever. We had come out of being big record collectors already in our teenage years and we loved that music. We also saw the New York No Wave taking some of the bands – James Chance and the Contortions in particular – using James Brown, mixing it up with Albert Ayler, afro-jazz, free jazz, super theoretical free jazz with a punk attitude and dissecting it and making something new out of it.
“The Cramps were doing the same with rockabilly and psychedelic music. Now you say ‘rockabilly music, psychedelic music, whatever’ but then it was something you never heard mixed together; you couldn't imagine what that could possibly be. The Cramps did it perfectly and presented it so matter-of-factly it was a revelation.
“The first time you heard it you were like, ‘What is that and I love it and I want this forever!’”
As much as the Cramps were primal energy, they were also a marvellous creation of showmanship and circus sideshow.
“It was a whole world, you know? Lux and Ivy had a whole world. I don't know if it was mapped out or not, but it really became a world. Obviously anyone who knows The Cramps knows this.
“It was all a creation and that's the greatest thing I learned from them. But a lot of people from that era, that first wave of punk or whatever you want to call it – the first wave of punk we'll call it for lack of a better word – it was super creative and it was a super rejection of things that had gone before, but you could take things that had gone before, like rockabilly music, psychedelic music, and as long as you made it into something new, as long as you mutated it, as long as you were not boring – and that was the cardinal sin, that you made something that was boring or normal.
“If you felt ostracised, like a misfit, which I would imagine a lot of the bands and certainly myself and Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Cramps and anyone else at the time felt, you know, it was a real commitment to create that other world for yourself and reject the normal world, reject the boring, bland world, create excitement.
The Cramps were doing the same with rockabilly and psychedelic music. Now you say ‘rockabilly music, psychedelic music, whatever’ but then it was something you never heard mixed together; you couldn't imagine what that could possibly be.Kid Congo Powers
“I went to see the New York band Bush Tetras; you’ve probably heard (their single) Too Many Creeps. They were from the New York early scene, came out of the No Wave. And they're still playing. I went to see them recently here in New Haven, Connecticut, just last week and I was like, ‘Why does this sound so amazing? It’s just a rock band. But it's so original sounding!’
“For one, they've cultivated and learned to be good at what they do, but I thought – because I’m always thinking of these things, I'm always trying to figure it all out, but there's no way to figure it all out – it's because their commitment is still there, the commitment to reject everything and and create something.
“It's the same with The Cramps. Last I saw them it was the same. I was like, ‘OK same three chords; why is this so f**king amazing?’ It's because of the commitment to that idea. And it's completely natural and ingrained and it always was. There was never a question about it. It’s the same with Swans. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, the same.”
That relentless pursuit of doing what they want to do, rather than pleasing people?
“Yeah. Pandering doesn't come into the equation at all. Never, never, never. You just build your world and the lucky ones are successful with it, and other people are... the Bush Tetras are playing to 100 people at a small club. It doesn't make any difference; the commitment is the same as Nick Cave's and the Bad Seeds’ commitment.”
Like The Mekons who were there at the start in England, but who just evolve, who are never not interesting.
“That’s the art.”
You have travelled a lot. You spend a lot of time in Europe, Germany and so you end up playing with Die Haut, with the Bad Seeds. That's for most people, I guess for most Australian people trying to understanding anything about you is, ‘Oh he played with the Bad Seeds and Nick Cave’. I don't want to go down that path too much…
“It is a fact.” (laughs)
I had to learn in public; sometimes successfully, sometimes very unsuccessfully. But also the only way to go about it. You can do it insularly and wait til it's perfect, but that's not the way we do things. And I was quite willing to take the chancesKid Congo Powers
You spend time playing with that amazing number of musicians that have come from so many different bands, floating through the Bad Seeds, this changing, ever-shifting creative monster.
“Yeah, it's a beautiful thing. well-chosen people. It's quite a mystery to me, how it all works. I was asked to fill in for a tour because they needed a guitar player. Barry Adamson was leaving the band and I had to go on tour for Your Funeral, My Trial. I just went in thinking 'OK, I'm going to learn these parts and that'll be it’. But I ended up there for two albums and three years.
“And it was really invaluable time for me, learning. I was super afraid, because I've been playing 12-bar blues in The Gun Club and The Cramps Club and this was something else. I didn't know any of them, I was in Germany, everything was crazy and askew. But I think that Mick Harvey at the time and Nick Cave and the band, they do try to choose wisely who they get in the band. At that time it was me, Blixa (Bargeld), Roland Wolf, Thomas Wydler. Who all had their own cosmos going on already, had already made a world.
Pandering doesn't come into the equation at all. Never, never, never. You just build your world and the lucky ones are successful with it, and other people are...Kid Congo Powers
“I think that's how they picked me. I can't say that's how they did it, but that was my observation of it. I think it was the same with The Cramps; they knew they could mould me because I had only been playing guitar for one year when I joined them. But also they saw something there. I reject learning to play standardly and I'm searching for a new way to say things and play guitar and do things.”
Let's jump to The Pink Monkey Birds. It's not a new band, you've been around for a long time.
“I think the very first record came out in like 2005, 2006. There was a New York version before the In The Red Records version, before the current version actually. It's the same band since late 2008.”
Of everything you've done, the appreciation of different musical genres and cultures seems to be greatest in this band. There’s a lifetime of influences that come through your music, but at the same time it takes a great joy in mixing them up and throwing them around, and I just wanted to ask you a bit about that.
“Yes, well I mean that was the intention. For it to be exciting and fun and occasionally jarring but mostly we were we were going to be... I had that New York version of the band that released an album Philosophy and Underwear and that was a very New York-centric kind of thing.
“I was still developing what it could possibly be, so it just took a lot of pastiche of New York skrunk and Lou Reed influence or Patti Smith influence or Richard Hell. It was very New York album. I'd been living in New York for quite a while. I was like, ‘I need to make a New York-sounding album with this band. It was the first attempt at a real solo band for me. I’d done lots of projects; I was never the singer before. So that took a lot of figuring out.”
“I had to learn in public; sometimes successfully, sometimes very unsuccessfully. But also the only way to go about it. You can do it insularly and wait til it's perfect, but that's not the way we do things. And I was quite willing to take the chances and it took a while for people. And it was also people’s perceptions, because when you're someone who’s been in a lot of bands, you have a lot of preconceived notions of what you’re supposed to be.
“They think, ‘The Cramps, The Gun Club, The Bad Seeds, which to me are three entirely different things. Believe me, I've been in all three; they're all incredibly different (laughs). But people see kind of the same thing. I don't know. It's weird.
“So at over 30 years old I had to come up with something of my own and so there was a lot of trying to distance myself from anything like that. When I got with Kiki (Solis) and Ron (Miller) I think it just became apparent I needed to actually not reject it all, but embrace it all and make something really great out of it all.
“The Cramps had a lot to do with it. I was telling you I saw The Cramps last tour and I hadn't seen them for years, because they didn’t play much and I was never around when they did, but when I saw them I was just so blown away – like I say, the same three chords, same songs, but it's doing something out of this world.
“And so I thought ‘I'm involved in this, I've had this, I should not reject this, I know how it how it works and all I have to do is get my big ass out of the way and just do it,’ and then it became really fun.
It’s increasingly important in America to be an activist. I was totally apolitical – not maybe apolitical – I was probably more interested in drinking and drugs and the guitar than I was in politics. And then as I got a bit older, especially after AIDS in the 80s, it started becoming personalKid Congo Powers
“The first times I played with Ron and Kiki… they just showed up on my doorstep. A friend of mine said, ‘Oh I know these people, they'll be great for you,’ and I was like, ‘whatever, send them over, I don't know what's going on,’ and we played, and that first rehearsal I was just like, ‘wow this is great, we don't even have songs and it’s great!’ And we've been together since, five albums later.”
Kiki is from Texas, he’s a Mexican-American. Did he help you find a re-appreciation of what you had heard as a child?
“Kiki and Ron. Ron had spent time in New Mexico and El Paso, had gone to school there. We just would talk about that, and I think it was in their sphere anyway and I think it was because I wanted to do Thee Midniters record and we started talking about that and it just clicked together.
“And like most things it wasn’t the first intention but it just ended up there. You just follow your nose. I mean we really started out like, ‘Let's be The Meters - with noise – and beatnik poetry. That was actually very true – that's what I told Larry Harvey at In The Red Records. I said, ‘I want to make a record now, it's like The Meters, like New Orleans drum beats, and beatnik poetry, and noise (laughs).’”
“And he was like, ‘OK let's go!’”
It looks like you're having the greatest time of your life.
“Yeah.. well… you should! (laughs) That's how it just came out. And I always thought if we were lying about it people would feel it. It goes back again to that whole Cramps thing. It's just the world you’ve created. And when you invite people into your world, some want to come and some want to run far away.”
You're living in New Haven, Connecticut.
“Yeah I'm about to move to Arizona. Because me and my husband can not stop moving. He's an artist. We have some family in Tucson, Arizona. I know a few music people there. And I've been on the East Coast since the early 90s, since I got back from Europe. I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be warm once in a while, to see the sun?’ I like reinvention.”
I want to finish talking with you about the idea that you bring a whole world, as you talked about all through this interview, to your work. It's not just music; it's images, it's ideas, it's fashion - but it's also activism. Is it a conscious thing or does it just flow for you, that it’s all in together?
“The integration? It’s taken some work. (laughs). I've stumbled into it all, and you take what works and discard the rest.
“It’s increasingly important in America to be an activist. I was totally apolitical – not maybe apolitical – I was probably more interested in drinking and drugs and the guitar than I was in politics. And then as I got a bit older, especially after AIDS in the 80s, it started becoming personal with a lot of friends dying and getting sick and people trying to survive.
“The injustice of the system not helping these people and really, I was watching a genocide. It felt like that. I don't think it's an extreme thing to say that's what is happening, when people are not helping dying people.
“It was a prejudice against homosexuality; that's why they weren’t taking it as an important issue. They were calling it the ‘gay plague’ or whatever, just all of this being incredibly offensive and insulting and unjust.
“And so the music became a little bit conscious of that. We had a band called Congo Norvell and we addressed this issue. It was born out of a friend’s experience. Just to speak truth.
“My songs are out there, especially the Pink Monkey Birds, the songs are as obtuse as they can be. A lot of it is just word association, but then there's always meaning in it all. I would rather address issues of injustice, and I’m in a position now, I have a couple of people listening to what I might have to say about whatever, people’s rights, women’s rights, economic injustice; the absolute horrification and hatred of Donald Trump (laughs).”
Your country is struggling with its identity at the moment.
“Oh God it’s insane. But you do what you can do. That’s when you have to take it to the streets, take it to your personal community, take it into where you can take it. We’ve survived other monsters and we will survive this one. I don't live in any kind of world that he's thinking about. But there's a lot of disenfranchised people that this is affecting. It's not directly affecting me because I know I can just tell him to f**k off, his cabinet and people, as I've always done.
“But there are a lot of disenfranchised people that can’t fight; a lot of people, especially a lot of immigrants who are being deported very unjustly and very violently. It's really sad and it's infuriating. For people who can’t fight back, you have to have some voice.
I would rather address issues of injustice, and I’m in a position now, I have a couple of people listening to what I might have to say about whatever, the people’s rights, women’s rights, economic injustice; absolute horrification and hatred of Donald TrumpKid Congo Powers
“People are sick and can't afford health care. They want to change Obamacare. The situation of health in this country is crazy. I've lived around the world. I know about national health and how it works for people and people don't have to worry; and here if you got seriously ill, your biggest worry is becoming bankrupt and having to spend all your money.
“There's just so much. We address it where we can, we do what we can, in our own, immediate world.”
Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds are touring Australia. They play the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine on May 11, and the Croxton Bandroom in Melbourne May 12. Follow the link for more information and booking.
They have released four albums since 2009: Dracula Boots, Gorilla Rose, Haunted Head, and La Araña Es La Vida.
Kid Congo Powers is working on a two-part memoir on his life in music.