The genial former member of the Gun Club, the Cramps, Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds and a collaborator with just about anyone else cool, Kid Congo Powers has not slowed down since his move to Arizona. His current projects include recordings with Wolfmanhattan Project and Pink Monkey Birds, who’ve just released Swing from the Sean Delear, inspired by a dream about Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Eric Davidson talked with Kid Congo Powers from his Tucson home, about old times and new activities.
If live music stages are currently gathering dust, Kid Congo Powers isn’t. A veteran of the trash rock trail going back to his first band, the Gun Club, Powers ended 2019 with the excellent Wolfmanhattan Project debut album (a trio including Mick Collins and Bob Bert), some follow-up gigs before the whole virus mess, and now he’s back with his ongoing Pink Monkey Birds concern, dishing up a growly and gratifying four-song cycle, Swing from the Sean Delear (In the Red). It’s entire second side is a 14-minute long beat-jazzy meander (“He Walked In”) that was inspired by a dream Powers had where he saw his old Gun Club cohort, Jeffrey Lee Pierce. About halfway through, it snaps into a heftier groove that might get you dancing despite the smoky, spooky mood. Implorations to shake it, and doing so in a suave manner, are two of the tricks Powers has long brought to a garage scene often lacking in both traits.
Powers has refined his roustabouting as a member of some of the most idiosyncratic and important r’n’r bands of the turn of the century. He’s spent time in and out of the Cramps, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, the Divine Horsemen, and more. His own co-creations over the last 25 years — Congo Norvell, Knoxville Girls, Wolfmanhattan Project, and the Pink Monkey Birds – have continued to be a template refresher for young swamp-garage acts looking to gain access to the glamorously greasy backroom of the garage rock party.
Though he and his husband moved out to Tuscon, AZ, a couple years ago, Swing from the Sean Delear doesn’t exactly sound like Kid Congo Powers is retiring. The rest of the record – two tunes of the Monkey Birds’ patented shifty beats, loose riffs, and Powers’ snarly talk-sing, and a frizzy, Stooge-ly instrumental – all make for a fine return after a five-year wait.
PKM: It’s cool that the release of Swing from the Sean Delear kind of coincides with what should be a national holiday – Poison Ivy’s birthday. Can you tell me in general how you first met up with the Cramps, and who bugged who to join the band?
Kid Congo Powers: I met the Cramps when I saw them in 1978 at CBGB. I was visiting from L.A., and immediately in love. Then when they came to play in L.A. I never missed a show and became friendly. When they moved to L.A. I was already in the Gun Club, and at the urging of Bradly Field and Kristian Hoffman of the Mumps, they checked me out and, apparently, they liked my style. They were good at freak spotting.
I met the Cramps when I saw them in 1978 at CBGB. I was visiting from L.A., and immediately in love
PKM: So yeah, you grew up in California. Did you ever notice anything particularly “Midwest-y” about Lux and Ivy?
Kid Congo Powers: You mean like the Ghoulardi style sense of humor? “Stay Sick, Turn Blue!” I don’t believe anyone in California would talk like that!
The “best” of Ghoulardi:
PKM: Ha! You have also worked with Mark Eitzel, who’s originally from Columbus, Ohio. Would you say you learned anything from hanging out with Ohioans you couldn’t from all those Cali punks?
Kid Congo Powers: I learned a lot about gallows humor from them both! A passionate bunch with a good critical mouth. Lux was like a magician often. I remember one time a new wave girl in a cheerleader skirt jumped onstage to dance with Lux, and I swear I looked just for a second at the neck of my guitar to make sure I was hitting the chord, and when I looked up the girl was still dancing the same, but just in her leotard and Lux had her cheerleader skirt on and was imitating her shimmy. How that happened so fast I will never know!
PKM: Did you ever meet any of Lux’s family?
Kid Congo Powers: I did meet Lux’s parents and brother, who was a musician. They were nice folks, like any suburban folks. They didn’t run around shirtless and screaming, at least when I met them.
PKM: It’s tempting to ask why you originally left the Cramps, but the Cramps tended to rotate some players over the years, and you did kind of go back and forth with them. Is it more that you get a little antsy with projects?
Kid Congo Powers: Who knew why Lux and Ivy made their decisions. They had their vision and were going to stick with it. Anything or anyone getting in the way, including liking music they didn’t like, had to go. I had a devotion, or tolerance, that kept me in the band longer than most. Perhaps I’m a masochist? Ha.
I won’t pretend to know what young people underground are up to now. We are not seeing them because they are underground, hopefully having fun with their tribes. That’s the point, not for public consumption. Me and my friends are still kooks. That’s what matters.
PKM: You moved to Arizona about two years ago, right? What precipitated the move, and how do you like it?
Kid Congo Powers: I have been coming to Tucson for years with my husband Ryan, who’s family live here. Ryan’s work, family, and my desire for a big sky helped make the desire to make the move. It’s a city, but a smaller one, so still pleasurable without big city hubbub. Beautiful nature and hikes, which I like. Brutal summer, but the rest of the year is brute-free.
PKM: Have you already felt an influence from the move in your music/art?
Kid Congo Powers: Never conscious influences, but I have learned I make different music in all the different places I’ve lived. We did make a 14-minute song on our new EP, so perhaps I am feeling space, and perhaps spaceships.
PKM: Dreams seem to be an influence throughout this new EP – of the bullshit capitalist kind, or those of the sleeping state. Been dreaming more lately?
Kid Congo Powers: Ha, I have been dreaming of a world without the last U.S. administration for sure. But I have always been interested and been mining the hypnogogic state of mind for song lyrics. I’m fascinated with what’s between those planes. That state right when you wake up or right before going to sleep where you are a bit of both things. I think having a really bad hangover you slip into this state as well. Free thinking with no rules.
“He Walked In” – Pink Monkey Birds:
PKM: Your video for that long song, “He Walked In,” can you tell me about making it?
Kid Congo Powers: Well, we live inside this beautiful nature and the magic of the Native people’s land. It’s breathtaking if you make the right turn. And it is a pandemic, so it had to be baked minimally. I wanted to work with David Fenster, the director. Saw some of his films when he was a resident artist at MOCA Tucson, where Ryan was working at the time. The films I saw were beautifully shot, and a mystical theme seemed to be present in all of them. We shot the video in the brutal summer heat. We needed to ace a nine-minute one shot of me walking on a winding road and get the sync right. Between takes we retreated to our vehicles to blast air conditioners to not pass out.
PKM: That video seems a statement of how, even out of the clubs and living among the cactuses – and perhaps also the fact we can’t go inside anywhere these days – you keep going and going.
Kid Congo Powers: That is a good analogy. I didn’t think of it until after I saw the video. However, I am a person that writes and makes sense of it after. A bit Dada, I suppose. I run a lot on instinct and am lucky to find others who think the same way. Like a dream!
PKM: Tell me more about the EP’s titular subject, Sean DeLear, and how Sean inspired you.
Kid Congo Powers: Sean was a great character, and a diehard culture fanatic. A rock ‘n’ roller through and through, he was the singer in a band called Glue. Lived in L.A. Always on the scene, always backstage, or I would spot him in the wings at a concert from the audience. A real Zelig. He would pop up at our shows in L.A., NYC, and last time I saw him, he showed up backstage at a Pink Monkey Birds show in London. A non-binary African American punker – part Diana Ross, part Captain Sensible, part Rodney Bingenheimer. A bright spot in the murky underground. Hard to resist. When he passed away, I thought I must capture his essence in song somehow, because I was afraid to lose it. We must hail our fallen.
“Polara” – Glue:
PKM: Was making the new record a quick process? I assume it got done before COVID really hit?
Kid Congo Powers: We made the record after a few rehearsals and three days at Waterworks Recordings in Tucson. This is always the way we work, as we live in different states from each other. It must be intensive sessions. It was late February, 2020, so a month before lockdown.
PKM: How’s the situation where you live, as far as going to bars/restaurants? Or are you kind of remote anyway, making your own fun at home?
Kid Congo Powers: Yes we are at home a lot of the time. A stray cat dropped a baby on our patio, so we took him in and have been raising a crazy kitten. Things are far too open for my liking, but I’m used to taking care of myself. Plus, I was just getting to know people and places when the pandemic started, so I do not know a whole lot of people in Tucson. That said, I feel the community through the people I do know. I finished a draft of a memoir I’ve been picking at for the last 12 years, so I thank the solitude for that. I have been doing lots of home recording with friends by trading files over email. Some of these projects are almost full albums now.
PKM: That’s cool, good luck! So back to your early days, can you give me a memory from hanging at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in the early ‘70s? Any famed rocker run-ins?
When he passed away, I thought I must capture his essence in song somehow, because I was afraid to lose it. We must hail our fallen.
Kid Congo Powers: I was third-tier teenage fan hanging out at Rodney’s, not really running into the glam stars. My stars were the kids hanging out drinking in the back alley until we could get our underage asses in the door later on in the evening.
PKM: I don’t really know much about your Screamers fanzine – how long did you do that; and do you still have copies stored somewhere?
Kid Congo Powers: It was a fan club newsletter me and a few friends made. I did the text and layout. I probably did two or three issues. Short, like punk was. Things were moving fast. I will reprint them in my book.
PKM: Look forward to seeing those! What’s an early memory of being impressed with the Screamers, and just in general, your discovery of punk and weirder shit?
Kid Congo Powers: Anyone in L.A. at the time will tell you it was their look that got your attention before you heard even one note of music. And when you heard this hot barrage with no guitars it was a revelation in sound, for the young ears that only knew Kraftwerk as electronic music. Tomata Du Plenty was as charismatic as they come. I was drawn in immediately by his performance, and commitment.
PKM: In your excellent 2016 HuffPost piece, you talked about your exciting “labels are taboo” period, as you morphed from the glam to punk scene, and being proud of being a subculture, not answering to mainstream definitions, etc. I’m reminded of when John Waters sometimes “jokes” that, in ways, it was more fun when that subculture was underground; and like seeing drag queens entertaining at boozy brunches these days seems kind of safe….
Kid Congo Powers: I actually love that drag queens are mainstream. I never would have thought it even a remote possibility. But I get your point and do concur that there is not any “danger” in most of mainstream, and danger was the attraction of the gay underground when I was young. Would that queen knife me? I’m glad I experienced it! I won’t pretend to know what young people underground are up to now. We are not seeing them because they are underground, hopefully having fun with their tribes. That’s the point, not for public consumption. Me and my friends are still kooks. That’s what matters.
PKM: You lived in London and New York before you settled back into L.A. Did you play music with anyone while there?
Kid Congo Powers: The Gun Club, originally Creeping Ritual, was the first band I played in. I was only playing guitar for one year when I joined the Cramps… I never played music until Jeffrey and myself started The Gun Club. Except once in ‘77/’78, Lydia Lunch wanted to play drums in her practice space on Delancey Street, and she told me to play “Rock and Roll All Night” by Kiss on the guitar. I said I don’t know how to play guitar, and she just shouted, “Just make it up!” Best advice ever.
PKM: Yup! Would you say you ingratiated yourself into the early New York punk scene, before heading back to L.A.?
Kid Congo Powers: I met many kids, more than the bigger bands. I went out every night to Max’s and CB’s to see anyone! The people who became my friends were the Student Teachers, the Blessed, Paul Zone from the Fast, Kristian Hoffman, and Bradly Field. Not really Blondie, the Ramones, and Television. They were more idols, although I met them and they were always nice and inviting people.
PKM: Memory of your first Gun Club show?
Kid Congo Powers: I believe it was at a Chinese Restaurant in L.A. called The Hong Kong Cafe. Maybe with the Circle Jerks, whom were friends of Jeffrey’s, or maybe the Blasters? I must’ve been nervous because I don’t remember the experience. I certainly felt it was too soon to play out, I might have been playing guitar for a month. Them were the daze!
PKM: So how did the decision to join the Cramps come about; and was it a hard one for you, or were things kind of screwy with Jeffrey?
Kid Congo Powers: A no brainer! The Gun Club were not known, and, as far as we could tell, not much was going on. How wrong we were. But Jeffrey told me to jump at the chance.
PKM: I’ve always appreciated your sly humor, the way you slip some grins into the often dark hues of the bands you play with. Were there ever conflicts with that with the Bad Seeds, like Nick Cave telling you to lay off the laughs on stage.
Kid Congo Powers: Never. There was lots of humor in all the bands. The leaders of the bands were strong leaders with strong vision. But the aforementioned gallows humor existed always, maybe that was the attraction. Me and Nick laughed all the time.
PKM: How would you compare your first run with the Gun Club, and then after the reformation in the latter ‘80s?
Kid Congo Powers: The first run was adventure of the creation from the germ nucleus of ideas, sounds, and influences. By the time I rejoined, The Gun Club had become its own beast with a fully formed vision. We both had been on tours and made records and could play much better.
PKM: Any chance of the Congo Norvell stuff getting reissued? And/or the act being revived?
Kid Congo Powers: One never knows. There are things in the vaults I’ve turned up. I’m so busy with what’s going on and creating now that looking back is difficult sometimes. But I love Congo Norvell, and would love more people now to hear it. I will never tire of Sally Norvell’s gorgeous voice.
PKM: The first Pink Monkey Birds album was created in a former high school gymnasium in Kansas, right?
Kid Congo Powers: Our drummer, Ron Miller, owns a school in rural Kansas, and just after we started playing, he invited us there to record on 4-track. It was a wonderful experience and sounded crazy on tape. So we made several more records there, learning more and upgrading as we went.
PKM: I noticed a new Knoxville Girls record is out, previously unreleased stuff. What’s that all about?
Kid Congo Powers: I have no idea what’s on it! I read about it, and Jerry [Teel] is sending me one. I keep pretty busy making new stuff so I lose track of obscure tracks, etc. once things are finished. Not thinking about the past. Jerry was the leading light there and owned the tapes. He wanted a country influence to be the main focus, but things got out of hand. Hence the moniker we adopted: “Country No Wave.” Bob Bert made all the biz happen. Got us booked in a 16-track studio so we would hear the drums better for the second album. Made me happy!
once in ‘77/’78, Lydia Lunch wanted to play drums in her practice space on Delancy Street, and she told me to play “Rock and Roll All Night” by Kiss on the guitar. I said I don’t know how to play guitar, and she just shouted, “Just make it up!” Best advice ever.
PKM: And now you’re playing with Bob in Wolfmanhattan Project. Any new action in the works there?
Kid Congo Powers: There is a Wolfmanhattan Project album in the can and coming out on In The Red Records, called Summer Forever and Ever. Global warming you know!
PKM: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about recent theories of how everything might change after the virus is, hopefully, subdued; and how we may never be able to get back our beloved nightly habits of sweating and dancing it out at packed little clubs in the same way. I realize blokes like you and I might not be doing that as much anyway these days. But do you think about the kids who are coming up behind you, and where all that inspiration you and your generation of musicians drummed up will go if people can’t go get as loose and nasty anymore?
Kid Congo Powers: I don’t underestimate young people finding a way to get into good trouble. My generation had to rethink fun and inspiration after the AIDS epidemic or, for me, after getting into recovery. I feel the same as the acid-dropping teen more now, just by having to experience 24-hour stark raving mad reality. They say necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps some young kids will become The Mothers of Invention? Freak out!
MORE FROM PKM:
POISON IVY OF THE CRAMPS: UNCROWNED QUEEN OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
LUX INTERIOR: WHERE ON EARTH DID YOU COME FROM?
BOB BERT: THE VIEW FROM BEHIND THE DRUM KIT
GHOST ON THE HIGHWAY: THE GUN CLUB AND JEFFREY LEE PIERCE!
A BAD SEED: CATCHING UP WITH NICK CAVE SIDEMAN JIM SCLAVUNOS