Kid Congo Powers on his new EP and the LGBTQIA+ roots of punk
The ex-Gun Club/Cramps/Nick Cave guitarist and current Pink Monkey Birds leader in the conclusion to our exclusive interview.August 3, 2021
Kid Congo Powers, one of avant garage punk’s secret weapons, was interviewed March 9 from his Tucson, Arizona, home that he shares with his husband. On the brink of releasing his amazing new EP with his longtime band the Pink Monkey Birds, Swing From The Sean DeLear, he explained to us in part one what he had been doing during COVID-19 lockdown, how he first played guitar jamming with no-wave hero Lydia Lunch on a KISS song and the musical lessons learned performing with greats such as the Gun Club, the Cramps and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds. We resume our conversation where we left off, as Powers explained the inspiration behind the EP’s title track, a salute to the late punk artist/scenester Sean DeLear.
Do you feel creating songs about underground figures like Sean is a way of preserving their spirits?
I like paying tribute to people who were unique, whether they were known or not known by the greater masses. It doesn’t matter. To me, they are my heroes. We have a Pink Monkey Birds record called Gorilla Rose, which was named after a person who hung around the Screamers. I thought he was integral to the Screamers, a friend of Tomata Du Plenty. I was pretty sure he was as important to him as Bob Neuwirth was to Bob Dylan—a springboard for a lot of great ideas. He probably came up with a lot of great lines that were used for lyrics and things. I like to bring these people into the rock ‘n’ roll conversation. If it’s as an underground record, that’s a cool way to do it.
Absolutely. And you are bringing up some things I did want to ask you about. Tomata and Tommy Gear were two of the only openly gay men on the early L.A. punk scene. But there were a lot of closeted people around, including Darby Crash. Did you identify as queer at that time yourself?
I think at the time, they were out only by virtue of their flamboyance and by the well-known fact that they came from the New York underground drag scene. Tomata did, definitely, and that’s where Gorilla Rose was and Fayette Hauser from the Cockettes. They came from underground drag theater. At that time, the beginning of punk, that attracted the gay punk kids to the Screamers. Those kids were coming out of glam and Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco and all that—Darby, Pat Smear, all these people. But there was a ton of gay kids running around, and they were rock ‘n’ roll gay kids.
But in early punk, people would say labels were taboo. So calling yourself anything but “punk” was just not on. We were so against labels and being a part of anything—so outsider, so misfit. We were going to react against everything. For gay kids, that meant we were also going to react against the established gay scene. The clone with the flannel shirt and the handlebar mustache certainly wasn’t interested in looking at us! You know, the guy with the pornstache listening to disco music, which I actually really liked. [Laughs.]
But punk was a reaction against all establishments, and that was an establishment. So saying you were queer was not really a politicized thing. For me, I don’t think it became politicized until the AIDS epidemic happened, when there was no longer any you could not speak up about being gay and not be outraged by the whole thing—the lack of response. For me, that’s more when I came out.
There were also a lot of other factions brewing: queercore, ACT UP NY or ACT UP LA. Those were rebellious people who were fighting for their lives. They were very anti-Reagan. Everyone rallied against him. It didn’t matter who you were in punk—you were rallying against Reagan. The Dead Kennedys would have never happened hardly.
There were a lot of gay punkers in early punk that I knew, but no one ever spoke about it. Strangely enough. It was just known, and we just went on being punk. Everyone knew who was fucking who and who was doing what.
But it wasn’t a cause celebre for early punk, except that there was a singer named Don Vinyl who was in the Offs. But before the Offs, he was in a band called Grand Mal. They were totally hardcore punk, and he was totally in-your-face gay punk. [Laughs.] He was great! He was out there shoutin’ everyone down. But it took a little while for people to come out. I’ve talked to people from England and everywhere else. I’ve talked to the whole gay punk mafia about it. Everyone said the same thing was happening. It just wasn’t time. I don’t know if we weren’t ready or the time wasn’t ready. I don’t know what it was. But it was well known to everyone who was queer and who was not. And people fraternized as such.
Well, what’s interesting is that, with the advent of hardcore, a certain homophobia set into the scene. So, it was necessary to have something like homocore come along, even though some of the leading lights of hardcore were gay themselves. Bob Mould and Grant Hart in Hüsker Dü come to mind, particularly.
Yeah, exactly. But were Hüsker Dü hardcore? I always thought of them as punk.
As they went along, they started saying, “You know, I actually like my Beatles and Hollies records. I think I’d like to put in some melody and some jangle in here.” They became this more aggressive version of the Buzzcocks as they went along.
I concur. I agree with that. Hardcore, I checked out of the scene when it came along, and I was already making music by then. I was off on my own trip, and I was probably really old, probably 22 or something. [Laughs.] I was an old, washed-up hag! “Oh, those silly kids!” That’s what I thought of hardcore. “Silly children! Let them beat each other, sure!” I have that edge of age. I always wanted to be older than I was. I always thought beyond my age. When I was a preteen, I wanted to be a teen. When I was a teen, I wanted to be an adult. But I was probably already in the Cramps when hardcore started to happen. I was just off in another world altogether, so I actually didn’t pay it much mind.
Well, back to Swing From The Sean DeLear. What was the song “(Are You) Ready, Freddy?” about?
It’s about a lot of noise! [Laughs.] It’s just an instrumental. It’s something we’ve been playing live for sometime. It was a jam between broken strings and introductions or amps blowing up. That became this song. It’s just a lot of screaming and howling. What could be better?
What about “(I Can’t Afford) Your Shitty Dreamhouse,” which has to be the greatest song title I have heard in years?
Yeah, you can probably guess what that’s about. In a rare political time, it’s about administrations. It’s about conservatism, greedy capitalism, all these things. I was just thinking that the conservative politics of the last administration and their ilk? I dunno, it seems like a funny way to go about it. But it seemed like they were trying to go back to a time when America was great. They were trying to recreate something. But is that your dreamhouse? Is this what you’re dreaming of? Kids locked up at the border, separated from their parents? QAnon? This is your dreamhouse? I can’t afford your shitty dreamhouse.
I was thinking about ACT UP, and I say in the song, “That was a terrible one, but we’ve been through terrible political regimes before.” Reagan, for one. Bush, horrible! I say, “Everyone I know, you have fought all along/You can try to enforce all of this/But people can resist/I can fight like I did all along/Years before you were in my song.” It’s just a rant of sorts, a funky rant.
Well, we’ve gotten up to “He Walked In,” and I’ve gotta ask: How much of a fan are you of “East/West” by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band?
Well, actually I do know “East/West” by Paul Butterfield, and that probably does not come into any play in this. But I see the analogy there. This also was a song that came out of our live improvisations. When we were making this record, we said we were making an EP. Larry [Hardy, In The Red Records chief] said, “Well, forget about your 12-inch EP. Have a song that’s at least six or seven minutes long.” “OK, we can do that.” Then we recorded the song, and it was 14 minutes long! [Laughs.] It’s the entire second side.
It’s a gorgeous piece that came about organically with the band. We’ve been jamming on that for a while, and Mark [Cisneros] came up with the little intro part. That had to do with everyone in the band, and Mark especially. He showed up to the sessions in Tucson with a flute, and he’s a jazz guy. I knew he was a jazz sax player. I knew he was a drummer that could play jazz drums. But he showed up with a flute, and I was like, “What? The flute?! Cool! Bust it out!” And he was just incredible. He had a whole idea and a whole vibe going: “Oh, if we’re recording in the desert, we should have some desert vibe!” And I said, “Well, I have these lyrics.”
I had this dream about Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who if people don’t know, has been dead since the early ‘90s. I had this dream right before they came that was so realistic. I woke up, and I could not believe how real it was. I could feel him. I could hear him, everything. It was so visceral. It spooked me when I woke up. So of course, I wrote it down immediately, my impressions of that I just turned that into prose, and it really fit with the music: “Oh, this will be perfect!”
It was a mystical experience making it. It was like a dream. Everyone was so on board. I count myself so lucky to have such an incredible band. We’ve been together a long time. 2009 was our first record. And we’ve been playing since before that. Mark is newer, but it’s probably been six or seven years with Mark. So basically the whole time. It’s a band that’s so clued-in to each other. It’s all of our vibe. It’s not just a Kid Congo vibe. It’s Kid Congo And The Pink Monkey Birds. It’s very much a group effort. And a song like that could only come out of a group effort.
We’ve also been listening to a lot of Eric Burdon And War. Those songs are so great. The long version of “Spill The Wine” is just incredible. Stuff like that’s coming into our minds. And we all came from a Chicano upbringing, strangely. It just happened that way; “Oh! Our band is all Chicanos!” [Laughs.] Except for Ron, and he’s an honorary Chicano, having grown up in New Mexico. So the music of our Chicano upbringing has always come into play, but it’s coming up more and more. We’re mining that and using those influences to evolve. We’re still rockin’, but our rock is from people like Thee Midniters, the garage groups of East L.A. in the ‘60s and other places. Texas had all that great Tex Mex garage rock.
And you recorded this pre-COVID?
Yeah, late February of last year. We did our last show around that session. We just did our show here in Tucson, and that was it—last show of the year, Feb. 27. We haven’t played since, haven’t seen them since.
So you’re about due, once everybody gets their shots, huh?
Yeah, once everybody has time for audiences. We could at least get together when the concerts aren’t happening. But I feel very hopeful, just getting this first shot. For the first time in a year, I’m thinking, “Oh, we might play again! We might really go to Australia again! We might really play in Texas again!”