Kid Congo's career is one for the (music) history books
Now leading the Pink Monkey Birds, Kid Congo Powers has played with some incredible bands.
I remember it was always such a cool, hip place," recalls Kid Congo Powers of Denver and his trips to the city. "I remember playing there with the Bad Seeds in this beautiful old theater, a small, ornate place. It was a small theater, and I just remember it struck me, 'Wow, what an amazing venue.'"
Powers and his latest band, the Pink Monkey Birds, are playing the first date of their new tour in the Mile High City. "We tried to book just a West Coast tour, but our base of operations is actually in Kansas," he notes. "Our drummer lives in a small town of 250, Harveyville. It's about an hour out of Lawrence. He and his wife bought a couple of abandoned or recently defunct high schools. They're living in one of them and have an artists' retreat there called the Harveyville Project. We go there and record, and there are no distractions. It's good, because Kansas is the direct center of the country."
Powers (aka Brian Tristan) is perhaps best known for his stints with the Cramps in the early '80s, with the Gun Club on and off from its inception, and with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds during a few of that band's Berlin years. His finely textured and expressive guitar playing, at once powerful and subtle, brought a soulful liveliness to every one of those projects.
Having grown up in the greater Los Angeles area, Powers was introduced to rock and roll through older sisters and cousins, who were excited by the music and liked to go out dancing. Like many kids in L.A., he grew up listening to legendary radio DJ Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ and became familiar with the radio jock's nightclub, Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco.
"As a kid, I would sneak out of my house or pretend I was staying over at a friend's or something and jump on a bus into Hollywood and go out," Powers remembers. "The funny thing was that there were tons of other kids my age — high-school kids — there, and it was a real scene. A really funny rock-and-roll scene. I think about it now, and it's shocking that someone let these children into a bar! I met a lot of people who I ended up seeing at the first punk shows in Los Angeles. They were the ultimate music fans, really, these kids — the fearless."
Out of that scene, Powers learned about New York punk rock. "When Patti Smith and the Ramones first came, it wasn't really punk rock; it was just dirty rock," Powers recalls. "The whole thing with Rodney is...I never met anyone, because it was about groupies and stars and things. The thing about when the Ramones or Blondie first came, or Patti Smith — the show would end, and they would just walk into the audience and start talking to people, asking, 'Hey, where are the good record stores around here?' or something. It was completely unheard of for bands to have that kind of attitude."
In that punk milieu, Powers met Jeffrey Lee Pierce at a Pere Ubu show, when that act was touring in support of its debut album, The Modern Dance. "He definitely had a vision about what he wanted to do," observes Powers about his friend. "I was happy that I was able to share that with him. He had an incredible imagination and very good taste in music. He taught me how to play guitar. The Gun Club had a reverence for traditional blues or country music, but we also had an idea to destroy it and make something new out of it, to make a new language out of it. We saw people like the Cramps doing that — mixing psychedelic music with rockabilly. Now you hear that all the time, but at that point, it was just like, 'What on earth is this that's happening?"
"Or seeing people in the New York no wave — like James Chance and the Contortions mixing punk with James Brown and Albert Ayler," he continues. "Super-aggressive and nihilistic attitudes on stage and in songs. Punk rock, to us, wasn't just 'I hate the government and our parents' or whatever. I think the things we liked about the Cramps, the Contortions and X from L.A. was that dealing with personal politics and dealing with sexual politics was far more interesting to us. That was the great thing about the Stooges. When Iggy is singing, he's so threatening, and the threat is, really, 'I'm going to come over, and I'm going to fuck you.' And that's the threat! It's actually something completely threatening and scary and dangerous, too."
Powers clearly took those primary inspirations and infused them into his own musical output. Starting with the early days in the Gun Club (and on that band's later records), and continuing on with the Cramps in the early '80s and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the late '80s and early '90s, Powers didn't so much leave his stamp as become part of the essential sound of those bands at a key time in their development. He also guested on a number of other projects: He appeared in a music video for the Fall, amusing Mark E. Smith as a non-bandmember playing pieces of wood in the group's video for "Hit the North." And he played slide guitar on an early version of Diamanda Galas's version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" before it hit the cutting-room floor — but there were no hard feelings on Powers's behalf, as he was a fan of the a cappella version of the song.
"I had no idea what to expect," recalls Powers about seeing Galas for the first time, during her tour for Wild Woman With Steak Knives. "But obviously, I was blown away and frightened to death, which is always good. If you're frightened of it, then you know it's really good."
Despite his considerable achievements as an artist, Kid Congo Powers never fully appreciated his unique contribution to the world of music until recently, he says: "In Gun Club, I will take some credit for some of the vision — but the Cramps and Nick Cave was someone else's very strong vision altogether. It's more that what I learned from these people is what goes into the Pink Monkey Birds. And more that I was able to see what I contributed, because a lot of the time I didn't know if I contributed anything. It took getting a little older and a bit of hindsight and a bit of time for reflection to realize, 'Wow, I really did contribute to this, and I was really part of these bands, and a very strong part of it.'
"It really took seeing the Cramps on their last tour, which was, I think, 2006," Powers goes on. "The Pink Monkey Birds had just started. I was actually at a little crossroads, with the band that I had at the time falling apart. I was moving out of New York, and the Cramps came the day before I left New York. I saw them after not having seen them in, like, ten years, and thought, 'This is incredible!' I know it's three chords, I know it's twelve-bar blues, but it's insane, and it sounds like it's from outer space and heaven at the same time. It's crazy.
"But I realized it's just them being them, and that's what's making it amazing," he concludes. "I thought, 'Well, I'm a part of this. I can tap into this mindset and this way of being myself.' It was like them telling me, 'Be yourself,' which is what I took it as. Right after that we made the Dracula Boots album."
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