If we had to pick one emoticon to describe Kid Congo Powers’ attitude about his own three decades-long career, we’d go with the shruggy guy (i.e.¯\_(ツ)_/¯). He’s surprisingly humble and when he speaks about the past, it’s with what we imagine was the same wide-eyed amazement he had way back when The Cramps asked him to come on board. By some estimations, Kid Congo’s been a part of at least 420 bands over his three decades-long career, including legendary acts like The Cramps, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and this writer’s personal favorite, The Gun Club, of which Powers was a founding member.
He’s maintained the same trademark style throughout, but what’s truly impressive is his ability to consistently churn out a fresh take on what’s become a recognizable sound: garage rock that has kidnapped classic rock n’ roll and splattered a spooky, punk attitude all over its high drama, all while injecting a heady dose of grit into the glamorous excess. Lucky for us, his current and major project (he never seems to stop collaborating on the side), Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds, is releasing a new record later this year and headed our way this summer.
Start feeling blessed, because of only five East Coast dates, two of those shows are happening on our stomping grounds: Union Pool (Saturday, July 25) and Bowery Electric (Sunday, July 26). A few weeks is a long time to wait around for anything in this hell-hot city right now, so we reached out to Powers — who just moved to New Haven, Connecticut — for a short Q+A about the good old days and the now good days.
You’ve put out so, so many records on In the Red in the past several years– Dracula Boots, Gorilla Rose, Haunted Head, Five Greasy Pieces– do you feel like you’ve entered a sort of creative renaissance in your life?
Well, the thing is, I’ve always kept busy. I’ve kind of never stopped— sometimes you hear about stuff and sometimes you don’t hear about stuff. And I’ve done a lot of collaborations. I’m a bit of a workaholic and restless.
But as far as the In the Red records go and the Pink Monkey Birds, this is some kind of world record for having a band with the same people in it. We’ve been doing the In the Red records since 2006, 2007. And yeah, it’s a good home and they’re very supportive of what we do. We have a very like-minded aesthetic to what we like about music and the people on the label do, too.
Larry Hardy, who runs In the Red has very eccentric taste. So that’s what I appreciate mostly about it, the bands can be very different from each other. And they are all pretty wild and freaky and good quality. High quality of low quality. And also it’s the band itself. We all like to work. Is that a creative renaissance? I guess I’m more creative with what people like right now.
Well all bands are sort of their own, weird dysfunctional family. But for us, we live apart. I think this is one secret to our success. Well the first secret, which is no secret at all actually, is that the chemistry is insane.
I met the rhythm section, Ron Miller, the drummer [James Canty], and Kiki [Solis] the bass player, when I was still living in New York. I had a New York version of the Pink Monkey Birds that fell apart and my friend, who was putting out my records at the time Jonathan Toubin– he’s a DJ in New York– and he just told me, ‘Kid! You need a Texas rhythm section, that’s what’s gonna be good for you.’ He’s from Texas, so he thinks everything that comes from Texas is great.
And I was like, ‘OK well that’s a nice idea, but where am I gonna find a Texas rhythm section?’ So Kiki had just moved to New York from Austin and they sent him to me, and Ron was filling in on tour and just within five minutes of all of us playing together we were like, ‘Oh! this is incredible.’ I could tell already. It doesn’t matter what we do.
We ended up making the record and just doing it. I think the secret other than chemistry is the fact that we live so far away from each other. The drummer lives in Kansas, the bass player who was from Austin is now living in St. Louis. I live in Connecticut, and now we have a guitar player there, which was starting to be convenient, but then I moved. [Laughs]
So we’re not in each other’s day-to-day life and we’re always happy to see each other and work together and play music together and then we go our separate ways. We work in an intensive sort of environment all at once. So it’s a very different dynamic than a band where you practice two times a week in the same town and live near each other. I think that’s really helped.
And for us anyways, the records keep getting better. We’re always surprised. So if we can keep surprising ourselves then that’s a big deal, and we can take another step in that direction and the response gets better with each record, which is another reason to keep going and it’s very inspiring to keep going.
Usually we fly to Kansas, because the drummer Ron Miller and his wife have bought a high school that’s in rural Kansas, in this small town, population of 250. There was a high school there, perfectly intact, in great shape. It’s a two story, brick high school with a gymnasium, a stage, and a kitchen that’s the size of a cafeteria. There’s a yard the size of a baseball field and a football field.
It’s like, well you’ve bought a mansion that doesn’t look like a mansion. So we go there to record and work. And since it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s so freeing and so unlimited in terms of time, because there’s nobody around to complain about noise. And it’s such a big, vast place that it’s kind of timeless and weird and a great place to work.
And because it’s in the center of the country and we’re all coming from different places, it’s kind of a good location to fly to, actually. It’s cheap to go to the center. It’s a bit of a hassle, but I think all of the elements with the band makes it completely worth it. And it’s unconventional, but it’s working somehow.
The recording process is always a surprise too, because we usually show up with very little. So they might be sketchy ideas that we’ll just throw at each other, which works in that kind of band dynamic. And it’s very exciting to see what happens. I’ll have a song and I’ll have an idea about it, which can be changed by someone else’s idea. That’s the point, you take chances and decide to do something different or try things in a different way, or free yourself and experiment more. Sometimes you have time to experiment.
I love that process, but we’re very much a live band. We all love playing live. As long as the magic happens, it’s good and it’s immediately rewarding to play with people and make that communication obvious. It’s hard to choose which medium is better. Making a record is more like making a movie, but live is more like a stage play or theater, and you only have this one chance to do it and that’s it. There’s just not a lot of smoke in mirrors when you play live, you just put it out there.
[Laughs] That was when I was in the Cramps — a very, very early show when I was very young. I hadn’t even been playing with them for that long. It was during the first tour for Psychedelic Jungle and we had candles on our amplifiers, for stage setting and atmosphere and good luck. I had a lot of hairspray in my big hair , a big Ronnie Spector hairdo. And I was doing feedback for “Sunglasses After Dark.”
At one point during the song, we’d turn around and have sunglasses on. But I’d start out the song with a big feedback solo. So that’s what I was doing, my big feedback solo, and getting my glasses on and I was leaning over the amplifier with the candles and suddenly the flames just leaped out onto my hair and just went wooooosh! Luckily my hair was in such a huge bouffant and it just took off the outside of it. But it looked really crazy and it smelled horrible.
So the audience screamed, and the drummer Nick Knox jumped from over his drums and poured a beer on my head. I didn’t know what had happened. I hadn’t even seen it so I had no idea what was going on and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m playing so terribly that people are just attacking me now!’
But as it was, the hero of the night, Lux Interior he was like, ‘Ahhh! It’s a miracle! Kid Congo, the burning bush!’ He never missed a beat, an opportunity for a good segue. But it didn’t happen this time around, I actually wore a hat, just in case.
I had been coming and going between LA and New York. And in the very late ’70s, it was me and five LA punk rockers who just had to come see what was happening at Max’s and CBGB. We couldn’t possibly dream of being left out, so we all jumped on a Greyhound bus and came to New York. Then for a few years that would become pretty cyclical. I’d come back every six months and then we’d go back and save up enough money for another Greyhound ticket back.
I met The Cramps at that time, when I was just a fan. They actually moved to Los Angeles when me and Jeff Lee Pierce started The Gun Club and they heard about this band, so they came to see me and they remembered that I had a gold sharkskin blazer from this place in Memphis called Lansky Brothers that was a flashy-wear place that Elvis used to buy clothes from. At the vintage shop I’d found this jacket and I used to wear it. And they always remembered that, that guy with the Lansky Brothers jacket and the band.
They came to see us and then the next thing that happened was they asked me to be in their band which was quite surprising because I’d only been playing guitar for one year at the time. I barely knew how to play, I could barely make three chords. I had just recently made friends with Poison Ivy and she said, ‘Get em young, treat em rough.’ So that was it. They got me young and treated me rough and I loved every minute of it. That was probably in 1980, 1981, I dunno. Yeah, that was my first record I ever made, the one with The Cramps. It was a great learning experience. I had a lot to live up to and a lot that was hard to top.
Luckily, a friend of mine had this guitar he wasn’t using so he just gave it to me. Jeff Lee Pierce said, ‘I can teach you how to play guitar really fast, because blues players play in this open chord,’ and, like, ‘Keith Richards plays like this.’ And I loved slide guitar. So he tuned my guitar to an open E chord and he said, ‘Just put your finger over the frets and you can make a chord.’ So that’s how I learned. And I still play in that tuning to this day.
So when I was in The Cramps, I knew something. I had some aptitude for it. Jeff Lee Pierce was a good guitar teacher and Poison Ivy just really showed me what to play and showed me a different way to play. She taught me more about bass lines and playing a fuzz pedal. I’d never touched a pedal before, so I learned about that. I was quite malleable, and I think that’s what they liked about it. They could make me what they really wanted to make me. And for me, what better teachers to start from? What were there? None. So yeah, I’m always grateful for that.
It was a frightening time. I was young, and I was just a big fan of the guitar player, Bryan Gregory, before. He was such an outrageous character and a beloved character. And I loved the way he played, he just used slabs of sound and made noise and mixed that with basic rockabilly playing.
Now you hear rockabilly and psychedelic and garage music mixed together, but at that time no one had done that, mixing genres like that. But there were a lot of bands at that time turning things on their heads like that, taking things they loved and taking them apart and mushing them together.
I think a lot about James Chance & the Contortions, taking free jazz and James Brown and putting it together with a really nihilistic attitude. It was all very arty and very inventive. People were just trying to make a new language. That’s the thing that was great about that time and about bands like The Cramps. The interest was in creating a new language, taking old things you love and having a reverence for them, but not doing them in a revivalist sort of way, but making them into something new in a language you would understand and other people would understand. Ultimately this became a great thing because it became a new language people wanted to be a part of and learn from.
That taking apart and putting back together, that’s the alchemy and that’s the magic in bands. I try to still do that in what we do today. And I see bands coming back like Swans who are just doing what they’ve always done in such an incredible way, and it has such a power and magic that was completely inexplicable and that’s only because it’s them, it’s who they are, and it’s their mission to create this. That’s something that’s always inspiring and magical to me.
Yeah it’s evolved, a cultivation. Build, build, build and it becomes its own thing. And that’s the best thing I can wish for in music and hopefully, we’re achieving it. I feel like we are because the intention is there. Not to sound like every other band, but to keep the general aesthetic in place.
I think Nick Cave talked about not betraying the muse, be true. Also another quote, Patti Smith: ‘What do I do to be as great as William Burroughs?’ or whatever. He said, ‘Just keep it clean, keep your record clean, and keep your work clean. Do the work you wanna do and don’t listen to anybody else.’
Yeah, oh, there’s tons of that. I had a group for a long time called Congo Norvell with the singer Sally Norvell. And tons of great people have come through that band, and we put out like three albums and only two got released. We made a major label record and it got shelved and canned. They sued us so we wouldn’t be able to put it out. It was crazy. But I think those songs are really great, those albums are all really great. People seem to know them, but I’d love for people to hear it. I’d love to rerelease that some time.
I’ve done so many different things, a band called Knoxville Girls with Bob Bert from Sonic Youth and he plays with Lydia Lunch Retrovirus. And just recently I finished a record with Mick Collins from the Dirt Bombs and Bob Bert and we’re called the Wolf Manhattan Project, so that hasn’t come out yet. I think people will like that, it’s a crazy, crazy record. It’s pretty psychedelic too.
And I’m excited about our new record [with the Pink Monkey Birds]. I’ve done lots of projects and I’m doing new stuff all the time. People ask me to do it and I usually say yes. I’m a musician, I play music.