Kid Congo Powers is the most outside insider in all of punk rock
Kid Congo Powers has been one of punk rock’s most valuable players since 1979. That was the moment when boho poet/Slash journalist/Blondie fan club president Jeffrey Lee Pierce handed an open-tuned electric guitar to the Ramones fan club president, who’d previously been one of the suburban teenage habitues of influential local DJ Rodney Bingenheimer’s storefront glam palace, the English Disco. Showing a natural aptitude, they joined forces in Creeping Ritual, the band who became voodoo/Southern Gothic/blues-drenched art-punk desperados the Gun Club. One year later, Poison Ivy Rorschach and Lux Interior plucked him for the Cramps, renaming him Kid Congo Powers after a Santeria candle on the mantle in their house. After touring the world looking like a voodoo Pachuco Johnny Thunders, manhandling the business end of a fuzz-encrusted Explorer knockoff, and making Cramps high points Psychedelic Jungle and Smell Of Female, Powers returned to the Gun Club, wiser and wilier. He soon jumped ship again for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, learning how to be more vicious and atmospheric, somehow simultaneously. If the atmosphere is a back alley knife fight, that is.
This is merely the first 10 years of a wonderful, enchanted career that’s straddled punk, garage and the avant-garde in Divine Horsemen, Congo Norvell, the Angels Of Light, Die Haut and Knoxville Girls, besides the aforementioned holy trinity. Powers and his current band, the Pink Monkey Birds, whip up a sorcery that also encompasses glam, soul, funk and the Chicano rock ‘n’ roll bands of his barrio youth. Their new In The Red EP, Swing From The Sean DeLear, is a 12-inch pink-swirl vinyl 45 RPM celebration of L.A.’s titular, ubiquitous punk singer and party virtuoso, dead from liver cancer Sept. 5, 2017. Powers called March 9 from his Tucson home that he shares with his husband to discuss the new EP and his life in outsider culture, feeling great after receiving his first Pfizer vaccination the night before. (“No side effects!”)
So, what have you been doing during COVID-19?
I seem to have kept incredibly busy the whole time. I’ve been writing this memoir. I’ve been pecking away at it for the last 12 years, and I finally got a final draft. The solitude of not touring and not working on live music made it possible for that to happen. So, I’m excited about that. And right before COVID, I recorded two records, one of which is the new Pink Monkey Birds EP that just came out. And I have another project with Mick Collins from the Dirtbombs and the Gories and Bob Bert from Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore and a million other things. They call it the Wolfmanhattan Project. We made an album and finished mixing that at the beginning of last year. So there’s all this stuff in the can. Meanwhile, I’ve just been trading files and recording at home, very lo-fi, with lots of friends from all over. A couple of them are almost albums now. It’s a different way of working, but still working. It’s been all kinds [of] different stuff, so it’s been fun for me—a lot of improv, a lot of just weird stuff. But that’s my favorite thing to do!
Yes, you specialize in driving garage punk, the weird stuff, or a mix of the two.
Yes, usually a mix of the two. So that’s been very cool. I’ve hit a few walls in the last year where I was like, “I need to get out!” Very much, the Pink Monkey Birds—and my life—has been a road dog, really. Playing live is my favorite medium, and I miss the connection you get with people and that really visceral reaction you get from playing live. A few times, I would remember what that’s really like, and I would get really upset about it. But mostly, for the greater good, you just had to wait.
Would doing solo livestreams from your home be an option?
I don’t have such confidence! [Laughs.] As strange as that sounds for someone who wants to go on tour all the time and be in front of people. But playing solo is terrifying. I’ve done it a few times. The amount of terror I put myself through is hardly worth it.
It’s especially the case if you play acoustically. You feel naked if you’re out there doing that. You don’t have a wall of Marshalls behind you and some guy battering the drums.
Exactly. I’ve gotten so used to the machine of the Pink Monkey Birds, the force of nature that they are. To be naked like that is like, “Ewww!” And at my age, people don’t want to see me naked! [Laughs.]
There is something about playing solo electric guitar that does boost confidence. There is something valid about that.
Yes, you feel it, still. You feel the vibration of the guitar, which is to me quite a magical thing. I have actually played solo with an electric guitar, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. But I don’t feel like I have the setup to do it, also. A little bit of perfectionist here! I don’t have the technology here to make it really good. I guess I’m very image-conscious, too. Or neurotically self-conscious! [Laughs.] I don’t know if it would be good, and I very much don’t want to do something substandard. So, it’s me getting in my own way, as usual. To the contrary, most every time I do something, people like it. But there’s something about playing solo that I’d want to present in a certain way, and I just haven’t figured it out. But it’s always a thought. I’ve done it a few times since I moved to Tucson. Some of the local musicians have pulled me out and said, “Just do it!” Which is the way you do it.
Yes, “Just do it!” Wasn’t that the main lesson of punk rock?
It sure was. I just did an interview with someone else, and I told them that my earliest memory of ever picking up a guitar was when I was in New York, and Lydia Lunch had a rehearsal studio. I was staying at her house, and she wanted to play drums. She told me, “Why don’t you pick up that guitar and play ‘Rock ANd Roll All Nite’ by KISS?” [Laughs.] I told her I didn’t play guitar, and she yelled at me in that Lydia voice, “Just make it up!” I just said, “OK.” And that was my intro to playing guitar.
Lydia Lunch, playing a KISS song! [Laughs.]
She says she does not remember this. [Laughs.] Well, she just wanted to play the drums, so she gets a little pass on that.
I’ve always been fascinated with the story of how you learned to play guitar, which would have been the next time you picked the guitar up.
Yeah, that would have been many years later. Jeffrey Lee Pierce did the same thing. He told me, “You should be in a band! And you should be in a band with me!” And I told him, “Well, I don’t know what to do.” He said, “Oh, I’ll just tell you what to do!” He said, “Blues players play in open E. You can just play [chords] by laying one finger [on the fretboard]. You can also use a slide.” I was like, “OK. Whatever. Yes.” But I quickly found out I had aptitude for it. I think it’s the whole thing of people believing in you that makes it possible, if you don’t have your own self-belief. Jeffrey Lee Pierce was someone who believed I could do it and said, “Of course, you can do it!” He just thrust a guitar in my hands, and a slide and a tuning, and said, “OK, listen to this Bo Diddley record. Learn Bo Diddley’s ‘Gunslinger’—it’s one chord. Just keep strumming until you can strum like that!” And that’s how I learned to play guitar. It was a really amazing episode.
And it is still the way you play today, correct?
Exactly! I decided not to learn anymore! [Laughs.]
And somehow, you have managed to create this incredibly articulate guitar style just from that.
Yeah. That’s what I said—“Just make it up!” It’s also a bit about being a record nerd and a music historian/archivist/record collector, listening to different music and seeing what other people do in finding sounds and feelings. This is how you make it up. Most musicians we know that are worth their salt, probably, are big record collectors and nerds. They love music and do the research. They keep digging and listen to the Stooges’ “Raw Power” and say, “Oh, this is like Little Richard!” You find all that stuff out, and to be young and just discovering it is revelatory. It still can be. Then you learn and think you know it all. Then you think, “I’m crap!” Then you think, “They’re paying me crap!” Then you think, “I’m giving up.” Then you think, “Oh, no. But people like it.” It goes on and on and on. But you tell yourself you can’t have that much self-doubt because there’s all this evidence to the contrary.
For me, I learned from the best. I was luckily picked by great people to learn. I learned on the fly. When I played with the Cramps, I had been playing guitar for one year. I still didn’t know what I was doing. I was thinking, “How am I gonna learn all these three-chord songs?” I was terrified! And then I learned so much from that and went back to the Gun Club. We had both learned a lot. We had learned how to make records. It was great. Then I played with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in the ‘80s, and that was a completely different learning experience. I went from 12-bar blues-style songs to piano- or voice-led songs with really strange timings. All were amazing lessons. It’s cumulative how I learned. All those bands were offbeat. They all had askew points of view, and they all didn’t want to be like everything else. They wanted to be something else completely on their own. What better learning could you have had?
I learned to stick to your vision and don’t pander. None of these people would ever dare pander. They actually defended themselves physically sometimes, just to make their music. People appreciate that and feel that and respond to that. That’s a pretty standard cause and effect: If you’re doing things fully and your intention is there, people will respond to it. I think people respond to music when they feel something behind it, and it’s not empty, and there’s a weight behind it.
Yes. People respond to the real thing.
Yeah. And a bit of magic. [Laughs.]
This is true, as well. You have a record to promote right now. Sean DeLear—what an incredible engaging character that guy was!
He sure was! Sean DeLear was quite a Zelig and a ubiquitous personality on the L.A. scene. But I will also say on the national and international scene. You’d be watching Mudhoney and then in the wings? There’s Sean DeLear! Then you go to some crazy, exclusive party for an Asia Argento movie, and there’s Sean DeLear! Then you’re playing in London, and who should walk in the backstage door but Sean DeLear. [Laughs.] Sean was a singer in that band Glue. I always say he was part Diana Ross, part Captain Sensible, part Rodney Bingenheimer. Everyone I talk to says, “Sean DeLear was so brave. I love Sean DeLear.” He was a true rock ‘n’ roll fan, a culture vulture, and would travel for it. Androgyny is a big thing in rock ‘n’ roll, but being nonbinary was a bold move.
He stuck out, and when he passed away, I thought, “How could someone so alive be not there anymore? I have to capture his essence.” I do this a lot—I capture their essence before it goes away or dissipates. I jot down some impressions. If Sean DeLear is gone and there is a heaven of sorts, or another plane, I’m sure of what he’s doing—at a party, swinging from a chandelier! [Laughs.] It’s the only place I can think he’s gone. And if I have to look up, that is what I am going to see.