Kid Congo Powers Interview: From Gun Play To Monkey Business

Kid Congo Powers is a talkative man. Almost every song that he plays tonight at the rammed 100 Club with his new band, The Pink Monkey Birds, is greeted with either an anecdote or dedication. He is by turns engaging, funny and erudite and it’s difficult not to warm to him.

Yet how it could be any different? Kid Congo Powers possesses one of the most enviable CVs in rock & roll. With most musicians struggling to make it in at least one half-decent band, Powers has lent his unique and idiosyncratic guitar style – a collision of feedback, riffs and bizarre sound effects – to the pioneering blues-punk of The Gun Club, the sleazy psychedelic ramalama of The Cramps and the car-crash hybrid of blues, gospel and sonic experimentalism that beats at the heart of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

Introducing ‘I’m Cramped’, Powers is moved to pay tribute to Lux Interior. "I wanna thank Lux Interior for this,” he says to massed cheers. “I wanna thank him for the music and the photography and everything. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. Actually, none of us would be here tonight!"

There are nods to The Gun Club too as The Pink Monkey Birds tear through ‘Sex Beat’, ‘For The Love Of Ivy’ and ‘Mother Of Earth’ but it’s Powers’ latest material that is the most compelling. His new album, Dracula Boots, is a return to the trash-inflected roots that made his name and tracks like ‘Rare As The Yeti’ and ‘LSDC’ sit comfortably and unselfconsciously with his career highlights and are welcomed by the crowd (that includes long-term disciples Bobby Gillespie and Jason Pierce) like long-lost friends.

Off stage, Powers proves to be an immensely likeable individual. With a smile so wide you could drive a Cadillac through it without touching the sides, his frequent laughter is infectious and self-deprecating with a modesty that belies his history. He’s in remarkably good shape with only a few flecks of grey hair revealing his half-century yet his mild limp reveals the nothing more serious than having dropped an AC30 amp on his foot the night before. Sitting down to talk with The Quietus, Powers is generous with his time as delves into his history, reveals how The Cramps helped him get his mojo back in the 21st century, his influence on a whole generation of new bands and how he’s come full circle with The Pink Monkey Birds.

You’ve gone back to the sound that you’re known for but there seems to be an added element of Southern Soul there…

Kid Congo Powers: Yeah, yeah. The album I did with The Pink Monkey Birds before, Philosophy and Underwear, well, I’d been living in New York for 10 years and since a teenager I’d always been enamoured with New York music. Y’know, The Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol… New York Dolls I saw as a tiny wee teenager so I’d always had this fascination with the city and I’d read any magazine that had anything to do with New York and of course I ended up living there. And I’d always wanted to make a very New York influenced record and that was that album.

After I did that I thought, well, that’s a whole lifetime put into one record [laughs] so I moved outta New York and I’m living in Washington DC now and I had some more time to think and I wanted to think about what makes things work.

And I saw a few things like that. I saw The Cramps on their last tour and I hadn’t been in touch with them for many years and we met up and we had a great time and when I saw them I was just like, ‘Wow!’ It was completely amazing to me ‘cos I hadn’t seen them for 12 years or something and I thought; this is what I should be doing now. It was like seeing the Holy Grail: that’s what this is about, you know?

Why move to Washington?

KCP: The main thing was that my partner got a job and he works at the Smithsonian Modern Art Museum but I was ready to leave New York after 12 years, I think. It wasn’t giving me back what I once got from it and I’d made my New York statement. So I’ve also been writing a memoir and it became that increasingly my band wasn’t in New York so it didn’t matter whether I was there or not. And the move to DC gave me time to think about things.

Was your finding a Southern rhythm section a happy coincidence or completely deliberate?

KCP: Oh, it was completely deliberate! The guy who put out my last record moved Kiki Solis (bassist) to New York and said, ‘This is the person you need to meet’ and I heard him play once and I thought, ‘Oh my God, he has that Motown feel’ and Ron Miller (drums) – quite by accident – was also recommended by the same person and he said: ‘You have to have a Texas rhythm section!’ and I thought, ‘Well, OK, I’ll try it’ and he was right!

Kiki and Ron have brought so much to the music because they’re product of their upbringing and Ron especially, he loves The Meters and all kinds of rock & roll and he’s steering the ship a lot of the time, you know? [Laughs]

I’ve always liked mixing styles and I remember being very calculating about it and part of my talent is finding the right people to make things happen; that’s a talent within itself and also finding people who can interpret what I mean.

You’ve worked with a lot of incredible artists. How do you feel about that?

KCP: I feel incredibly lucky. The Cramps I was incredibly calculated about because the band came to me after I put a voodoo on them! [Laughs]. They didn’t choose Jeffrey Lee [Pierce] because at that point I was the lone guitar in The Gun Club and they didn’t need a singer. And I appreciated that Jeffrey had taught me how to play guitar in open E tuning because that’s what the old blues players use and The Cramps appreciated that I played in this non-taught, unconventional way. I was playing completely by feel and sound rather than any kind of musical philosophy. It was much more rock & roll to them. Plus, I also has nice gold jacket which I’d got from Lansky Brothers which is where Elvis used to get his clothes and Lux and Ivy were really impressed with that and that really clinched the deal.

What qualities and lessons have you learned from your musical partners over the years and how does that impact on your music now?

KCP: I think the biggest lesson that has been and will be is that they all had a really strong vision of what they wanted with music and they were not willing to compromise in any kind of way or to pander in any kind of way. And they’re all kind of loner bands who don’t really associate themselves with other bands but they had a really strong vision and a really strong faith in what they were doing and that’s at the root of everything that I’m doing. But that’s why it takes a few years sometimes between records.

Did the enforced recording lay-off between The Cramps’ Psychedelic Jungle and Smell Of Female bother you?

KCP: Not really because we played live a lot. Subsequently we were heavily bootlegged and we played lots of cover versions. But it was frustrating and there was way too much time on my hands so I was getting into a lot of other modalities of rock & roll like sex and drugs and that wasn’t a good time. And besides, I was the hired guitar player and the headache was on Lux and Ivy because they had to be “on” on a business level. And being the leaders of the band they had to bear the brunt of their creativity being crushed underfoot.

Was your leaving The Cramps a mutual decision?

KCP: It was the only decision! [Laughs] There was not much going on and I was on heroin – which wasn’t such a big deal because when you join a band it happens all the time – but also there wasn’t much going on and we weren’t trying to make anything happen either. So Jeffrey asked me to do something again and I was getting antsy to do something so I think they let me quit rather than kicking me out.

By the time I joined Nick Cave’s band I’d quit drugs. I think that I’m so productive that I just let the heroin go.

How did you come to join The Bad Seeds?

KCP: Well, The Gun Club had broken up once again like we always did once in a while and after The Las Vegas Story we did an incredible amount of touring – like, about 6 months – and we were just out of our minds and then the drummer quit and we had to get a pick up drummer and we just knew that we weren’t as good as we could be. So we thought that the reasonable thing to do would be to quit while you’re ahead.

So we had landed in London and broke up. I knew Nick [Cave] and Mick [Harvey] from The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds and we were friends and Barry Adamson had left the band and Mick was going on bass so they asked me to fill in for one tour. Three years and a couple of albums later I’m still there! [Laughs]

What did you bring to the Bad Seeds?

KCP: I think I made them more rock & roll in their attitude, maybe. Also, I think that Nick and Mick like to pick people that are already established with a signature sound; people who are living in their own cosmos. That was the Berlin years and the band was highly experimental and they were open to new ideas. Plus, I think they liked the fact that I was such a drifter. I think it’s also a matter of personality.

I was there [recording at Hansa Stusios] when the Berlin Wall came down but I missed a lot of that because I was on the toilet with really bad stomach flu! [Laughs] We’d just come back from Brazil! But I remember leaving the recording studio the first day of the Wall opening at 6 in the morning and the light was just starting to come up and there were like all these zombies walking around but it was all these people saying, “Do you know what’s going on?” or “Can we stay with you?” because they were all from East Berlin and didn’t know whether they’d be taken back or not. It was like, “Great! The Wall’s down!” and then it was, “Uh-oh! Is this forever?” and in that respect it was a little scary. We realised what had happened but it occurred to us that maybe [it wouldn’t last]. Maybe it was temporary or maybe it was a big mistake.

You’ve gone from band to band, city to city and continent to continent. You’ve got really itchy feet, haven’t you?

KCP: Yeah, I have a two or three year limit with each band! I think it’s because my playing is so specialised that it goes to certain places and if it’s not going to the place where the band is going then it’s not going to work. And besides, all the bands apart from The Gun Club were always someone else’s vision. Y’know, I was lucky enough to be included in the vision but ultimately the vision was down to other people: Lux and Ivy from The Cramps and Nick and Mick from The Bad Seeds.

The Gun Club was different – I kept going back to Jeffrey because the chemistry really worked. It never didn’t work and we didn’t break up because of the lack of chemistry; it was more personal than anything. But, y’know, we started the band when we were very young and we were like brothers and you have to remember that we were people that didn’t have brothers. We had sisters but no brothers. We kinda acted like brothers and sometimes you fight with your brother but you always make up because you’re related by blood and we were related by some kinda musical blood. We grew up in the same area of Los Angeles and we had all these reference points.

That whole period from The Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey to The Gun Club’s Pastoral Hide & Seek was an incredibly busy period for you. How did you manage to keep your sanity?

KCP: Who said anything about sanity?! [Laughs] No, you just keep moving. But I love playing live and I love making music and that’s what you do. You look at people like James Brown, you look at George Clinton, you look at Prince and those people play brilliant shows and then afterwards they go out to nightclubs and they play there too. So, y’know, a few drugs and strong love of music keeps you going!

Do you feel blessed for that?

KCP: Of course! Yeah! And I’m still walking! [Laughs] Apart from when I drop an amp on my foot… But, y’know, I’ve met so many great people and they’ve included me in things and I’m lucky now because I have my own band and I feel lucky to find younger people that are so dialled in, y’know? And to do music in that intuitive kinda way where you can play by feel, that took a long time for me to find.

How do you view your legacy in terms of it being picked up by younger bands? You must appreciate how influential a figure you are…

KCP: Well, it’s nice but I don’t really think about it. But I see it and they come and tell me and it’s nice that’s all not all been for nothing. The Gun Club especially because that was more my kinda vision [as compared to The Cramps] in the beginning and a lot of older people come and tell me that that was an amazing time and it was a special time for my generation.

The White Stripes tend to play the whole of The Gun Club’s Fire of Love album through the PA before taking the stage.

KCP: Yeah! They are very respectful. I know Jack and Meg and they’ve always been super nice, you know, and they were really shy when they first met me. I met them when they were first starting but who knew they’d be so big? Well, I knew! I knew when I first saw them!

Have you ever discussed working together?

KCP: We’ve thought about it every once in a while and we throw the idea out there and then we throw it at each other. Maybe one day as Jack’s a busy boy! [Laughs] But I also see The Gun Club’s legacy in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Nick [Zinner] tells me how [much he’s been influenced by The Gun Club]. I actually know Nick quite well from when they were starting too. When I was in The Knoxville Girls he was actually our guitar tech on our European tour so he picked up a few things here and there! [Laughs] But he’s great!

But I feel good that people want to play unconventional songs and that people want to dig in to the past and not just our past and what The Gun Club and The Cramps did but beyond that. We were interested in the New York Dolls and they were interested in Little Richard and you keep going back and it’s good that bands like The White Stripes have done their archival history and excavation and then put their own mark on it. The Gun Club and The Cramps and The Bad Seeds are all about a different mix of styles but have all formed a new language. That’s the important bit: a lot of people can mix styles but few have formed a new language. That’s always the goal.

You mentioned earlier that you’re writing your memoirs. How far into them are you and what can we expect?

KCP: I really have to put the kibosh onto it because I’ve been writing it for three years! It’s a lot of vignettes and it’s gonna go from childhood but I haven’t decided where to end it yet because there has to be a Volume 2 at some point. It might go Berlin in the 80s and it’s a lot of anecdotal stories rather than a history or list of accomplishments which I really wasn’t interested in. It’ll be personal stories that actually reflect the time rather than just naming names.

The thing is, I don’t really know what I wanna say with the book but it’s like music: I don’t know what I wanna say but when I finish it’s gonna tell me something. But I’ve given myself a deadline of March so maybe I could have something out by the end of 2010. Maybe it’ll make a cool Christmas present! [Laughs] but I’ll have to give a proper present to my partner because I’m always writing and he tries to talk to me and I occasionally look up and grunt at him, “In a minute, in a minute!” [Laughs]

What was the last thing that you learned?

KCP: That I’ll never learn anything! No, I wrote that in an essay for a book about The Cramps and I said, “The best lesson that I learned was that I’ll never learn my lesson!” But you know what? I think it’s worth saying again!

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