“It was kind of scary and weird,” he says. “I loved music so much I wanted to be a part of it. I guess to be a part of it, you just put yourself there.”
And he did. By the mid-’70s, Powers found himself in small clubs listening to early punk bands like the Ramones and Patti Smith Group and chatting with the musicians at their shows. They had a different attitude from the archetypal bloated-ego 1970s rock star, and he admired their rare humility.
“It was completely unheard of for bands to have that kind of attitude,” Powers says. “Or just feel like, 'We're just part of the same thing. We don't want to leave this big, pompous wall between us and the audience. How are we going to have any fun if we do that? How are we going to find what we're interested in unless we ask people?'”
In 1979, Powers met Jeffrey Lee Pierce at a Pere Ubu show. The two struck up a quick friendship, and Pierce taught Powers how to play guitar. Not long after, the two started Creeping Ritual, which eventually became the Gun Club. Synthesizing Chicano rock with blues and psychedelia, the Gun Club, along with bands like the Flesheaters, also from Los Angeles, articulated a kind of dark Americana few musicians of the day tapped into. That is, except for the Cramps, the psychedelic punk band that Powers joined in 1982.
Playing with two of the hippest bands of the day, Powers built up his underground cachet as a gifted collaborator. Soon he was performing with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, contributing creatively to the albums Tender Prey and The Good Son.
Powers considered himself a sideman in those bands and didn't become the creative lead until later in life.
“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,” says Powers.
"A lot of the time I didn't know if I contributed anything,” he says. Later in life, from a distance, he began to see his creative signature on those projects.
In 1990, Powers formed Congo Norvell with Sally Norvell. He left a deeper creative mark on that project. But it wasn't until the Pink Monkey Birds jelled in 2009 that he became a bona fide songwriter sculpting his own musical vision, from raw experience cultivated through his storied career as a sideman.
With the Pink Monkey Birds, Powers has control. He writes the melodies. He drafts the lyrics. He even designs the band's look, which he considers to be an integral part of the music.
“I like looking good,” says Powers. “And I think the whole aesthetic of a band is important for it to work, really. I'm into creating your own world and your own language, and to have a band have a look or a uniform is good. It tells people that you've made the effort."
Music and visual art, for Powers, are portals into "the other world." Having distinct fashion helps audiences have a transcendent experience. He likens his musical vision to the filmmaking of David Lynch.
"He doesn't explain his things ever," Powers says. "He's like, 'I just want you to go into a movie theater. I want the lights to go down. Hopefully there's some big curtains that open, and you're off.' I kind of feel the same way.”
Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds play with Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Friday and Saturday, December 30 and 31, 8 p.m. Friday and 9 p.m. Saturday, 3 Kings Tavern, 303-777-7352, $30 per night, $45 for a two-day pass.