Kid Congo looks back and moves ahead
About as far back as he can remember, Kid Congo Powers knew he was destined for rock ’n’ roll radicalness. And let’s be honest—his résumé is as enviable as that of any musician of his generation. Although Powers is modest about having his greasy little mitts all over seminal albums he recorded with The Gun Club, The Cramps, and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, he fully embraces the way those bands shaped him.
“You can’t compromise on your vision at all,” he explained in a recent phone interview. “It’s worth every bit of fighting: the press, labels—even yourself, for that matter.”
Powers has put that philosophy to work in his own band, the fantastically named Pink Monkey Birds, whose latest record, Haunted Head, is brimming with the same zazz and sleaze that seeped from the pores of his former bands. Songs like “The Rad Lord’s Return” and the Phyllis Diller homage “Killer Diller” are sock-hop rave-ups that exist somewhere between south of the border and deep space.
But Powers says the transition into running his own show took a little time, explaining that he initially challenged himself to distance his solo material from his previous work. It was the insistence by New York DJ Jonathan Toubin that he get a “Texas rhythm section,” along with seeing The Cramps in 2006 on their final tour, that made Powers finally give in to what comes naturally.
“I know it’s three chords, it’s rock ’n’ roll, but why does it sound like it’s coming from heaven and outer space?” he said of seeing his former band perform. “I had an epiphany to go back to what I know. I thought, ‘I need to tap into this art of being free.’”
The 54-year-old Powers’ recollections of his early days with The Gun Club and The Cramps are surprisingly vivid for a guy who’s lived a little. Of course, it might have something to do with the fact that Powers has been working on a memoir detailing his career as one of punk rock’s great and versatile guitarists. An untrained musician, known for his unorthodox, open-tuned style, Powers says being part of the rock ’n’ roll subculture of the late ’70s was what led him to music.
“I fell into them all the same way: I met them and we got along,” Powers said of his string of bandmates, although he joked that in one instance his fashion sense may have also come into play, most notably a gold, silk blazer from Lansky Brothers (the famous Memphis clothier known for attracting the likes of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison). He adds with a laugh: “The Cramps were really thrilled I had that coat from Lansky’s.”
These days, Powers has settled down in Washington, D.C., with his husband, after spending the better part of 12 years in New York. It may sound a little less rock ’n’ roll, but Powers insists that the slower pace has been great for his productivity. With a new record in the can and a memoir on the horizon, you can’t argue.
And settling down hardly means slowing down. The Pink Monkey Birds are in full-on tour mode. They’ll finish up here in the States, and then make their way over to Europe for more shows. And in talking to the sassy and sweet Powers you get the sense he really loves what he does. Reflecting on what got him to this point, Powers is nothing but respectful and gracious.
“I’ve done pretty much as I pleased, so that’s pretty good,” he said. “What I’ve learned from the memoir? I’m a party crasher, and I’ve learned from the best.”