Kid Congo Powers was a Cramp and a Bad Seed (and a founding member of the Gun Club) before striking off on his own with a flock of Pink Monkey Birds. His newest album is out now on In The Red and he speaks now just minutes after finishing recording a new album in a high school gymnasium in Kansas. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
So your drummer is now the proud owner of an abandoned Kansas high school?
Kid Congo Powers (guitar/vocals): Yes—my drummer Ron Miller and his girlfriend-slash-partner Nicole—who does a blog called Disgruntled Housewife—moved into a rural Kansas town with a population of 250 called Harveyville, and they were looking for an alternative space to live. And they came upon this 1940s high school that was not in use. And now they’ve got a lot of desks and furniture and projectors and record players and chalkboards. It’s an artists’ retreat. Different people come here—dancers, choreographers, writers, painters—every kind! It’s a cool thing. It was a dream of mine to record in a high school gymnasium. My whole rock ‘n’ roll fantasy—actually, as a pre-teen, I was seeing my teenage older sisters going out to dances in high school. They and their cousins would be so excited—they used to go see thee Midniters! To me that was always so exciting. They’d play great great records—weirdo obscure records at high school gymnasiums. And so when Ron suggested we come up here, it was like, ‘Duh!’ This is it! This is a fantasy realized!
How often do you get the opportunity to realize your fantasies?
Kid Congo Powers: It’s one more in long list! This was a particularly long-suffering one. Other ones came well before.
What’s the next one on the list?
Kid Congo Powers: Wow! Jeez—Lord Lord almighty! A good night’s rest—that’s a fantasy! My next fantasy is to do another record. I always think this is the last time anyone’s gonna let me make a record. I think, ‘Now I’ve REALLY done it!’
You finished the last one like ninety minutes ago and you’re already thinking about the next?
Kid Congo Powers: Yeah—time for the next one! You just can’t stop.
You’ve lived so many places and been in so many bands—is this a function of musical wanderlust?
Kid Congo Powers: It’s completely wanderlust. Funny you should say that. I was just talking to someone because I’ve been writing a memoir. I was writing about meeting Jeffrey Lee Pierce and that was what we originally bonded on. He’d been traveling a lot already. This was like 1979 and he’d been in Europe and Jamaica and New York. That’s a real thing. And musically it definitely makes sense. Music to me is places and history and learning history, and you have to go to certain places to see the history for it to happen. That’s why I came out to the Midwest. I wanted to make a record that sounds like it was from a Midwestern high school!
Is this more a blessing or a curse?
Kid Congo Powers: I think it’s both! I have cursed it but I’m more blessed by it, I think. It keeps things all new for me. I think that might be more important, though it’s been bad for any careerist sort of thing. If I had any illusions to ‘making it big’ at any point, I think I lost them. And I became really happy to be part of my tribe of people. And I was happy to do what I originally set out to do—explore new things and make music that is different than other kinds off music, and say things in a different way. So in that way, I feel a grand success. And actually—right now I’m enjoying quite some popularity!
What do you think of this new generation? The children of Congo?
Kid Congo Powers: It’s great! When I was a young kid, I was very into ‘60s and ‘50s music and finding out about that. I met Jeffrey and we were already collecting blues records and rockabilly records. I’d idolize Iggy Pop or the Stooges or the Sonics or the Velvet Underground or whatever it was—the 13th Floor Elevators! And for the kids now, maybe I’m the age the the 13th Floor Elevators when I was collecting music when I was 20. And it’s a fascination with an attitude toward music. When we were young, I was really obsessed with James Dean or Andy Warhol’s Factory or whatever. Whatever was really rebellious—it was really attractive and romantic to me. And it was the same for me with music.
You’ve said before that sex is part of rebellion—how?
Kid Congo Powers: I think being sexual is very rebellious! Being sexual can really be looked down upon by puritanical people. Rock ‘n’ roll is abandon of any kind! Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll! It goes back to Billy Lee Riley and Jerry Lee Lewis—people have orgasms right in front of your ears! It speaks to your primal self. It’s getting to the meat of the matter. And rock ‘n’ roll is meant for dancing, and dancing is definitely a mating ritual.
What’s the next best mating ritual to dancing?
Kid Congo Powers: Fucking?
What if you’re on a transatlantic flight?
Kid Congo Powers: The next best thing to dancing to connect sexually would be screaming. Singing. Anything musical!
What’s your favorite thing about your primal self?
Kid Congo Powers: A desire to keep doing what I’m doing. A desire to keep excavating what is going on with me and what I know—I guess that’s called ‘transgressions’—so I guess being transgressive. And that I still like sex!
What’s the nightlife like in Harveyville?
Kid Congo Powers: Dark? A lot of stars. Not on the street but in the sky. There’s a big giant sky here. It’s unbelievable.
What was your most chillingly accurate experience with a fortune teller?
Kid Congo Powers: Besides shaking up the magic 8 ball? The scariest thing that happens with fortune telling is actually writing songs. Because they come from your subconscious and they actually come true. I made a record where I thought I was being romantic about a relationship, and it ends up I had a three-year-long break-up! Which was great fodder for songs but terrible, and everything I’d written about came true.
When does that become scary?
Kid Congo Powers: When I couldn’t get out of my situation. So I write about things now that are more absurd.
If the instrumental ‘Buck Angel’ had a chorus, what would it be?
Kid Congo Powers: ‘Buck Angel, will you be miiiine?’ Something like ‘Earth Angel’! I’m from L.A.—I grew up with the oldies!
Have you ever seen thee Midniters at the Santa Fe Springs swap meet?
Kid Congo Powers: I never have! I know there’s a version of them playing around. I do wanna look ‘em up. We did ‘I Found A Peanut.’ They were a giant source of inspiraton lately. For the last few records, they were very very inspirational in terms of sound, attitude and how to do things. They mixed up such things at R&B and soul and doo-wop and then psychedelic music and harder rock and they’d use horns—it’s such an amazing reflection of cult L.A. culture and Latino culture in America.
Have you seen that documentary on Chicano rock ‘n’ roll in L.A.?
Kid Congo Powers: I haven’t had a chance—I’ve been on the east coast. I’m interested in that. It’s very beautiful, very emotional. My grandparents came to L.A. from Mexico and it was really a dream for them. And my parents grew up in the depression.
What’s changed the most about L.A. for you?
Kid Congo Powers: The way it looks! L.A. has been very very terrible about knocking down buildings and things. I remember a nicer older L.A.! What’s there that would make me wanna stay? How nice the weather is and the architecture that is beautiful is really beautiful. And of course my family and I have the whole first half of my lifetime of friends still there. They’re very much a part of my family. Thanks to Facebook!
What American criminal would have been a great American musician?
Kid Congo Powers: What’s his name? Carl Panzram. He was a complete misanthrope and he traveled around the world and I think he was one of the all-time most deadly serial killers. He lived his whole life in prison and really had no remorse. He was very happy with the way he was!
So it’s self-confidence?
Kid Congo Powers: He was truly something! But he had a poetic streak to him. And some strange strange philosophy. I guess most killers do something to justify themselves, but he was kind of Manson-esque—kind of giving back what he got from society and the whole system. And I think Charles Starkweather would be a pretty dreamy Ricky Nelson type! Maybe that’s more realistic.
What’s the overlap between crime and creativity?
Kid Congo Powers: Stealing! Thievery is the thing.
You asked Dave Lombardo from Slayer if he’d eat human flesh, given the opportunity. Would you eat human flesh?
Kid Congo Powers: In an upside-down fruitcake, maybe.
What if it was someone you knew?
Kid Congo Powers: I don’t want no sloppy seconds!
What’s the first line of the first chapter of your memoir?
Kid Congo Powers: ‘I was born in a town called “The Feminine Bridge.””
Kid Congo Powers: It’s grammatically wrong! It’s ‘el puente’—‘el puente’ is the bridge. It’s a masculine term. So ‘la puente’ would be ‘the feminine bridge,’ wouldn’t it?
How did growing up in La Puente most shape your future life?
Kid Congo Powers: It turned me into a homosexual!
Have you told the city council?
Kid Congo Powers: Yes, exactly—‘You’ll pay for this!’ I’m owed some money! Because the name was skewed, I think my whole life I was gonna see things in a skewed way.
You’ve said your last record is smart and dumb and modern and primitive all at the same time—why?
Kid Congo Powers: I don’t know! Because I was born in the feminine bridge! It’s fittingly between two genders. There’s no one way of looking at things, I think.
What was your last crucial instinctual directive?
Kid Congo Powers: My last alarm? Don’t vote for Sarah Palin! The last big alarm was, ‘Don’t stop what you’re doing!’ I often think, ‘Oh, I’m too old to rock! What am I gonna do when I’m old? I don’t have any pensions!’
How will you get your guitar-shaped pool?
Kid Congo Powers: How AM I gonna get my guitar-shaped pool? But the alarm said just keep moving on. Always travel! I’ve lived everywhere and I learned the world is a big place. You can be anything everywhere, and moving gives you a fresh start. I move a lot. I’m in D.C. now and that has afforded me the time to actually write the book.
I read once that one of the values of a big city is that it’s so forgiving—you can fail and move a neighborhood over and start again with no one knowing who you were.
Kid Congo Powers: Reinvention is a great thing! And failure doesn’t have to remain failure. You don’t have to move to get over failure. I guess it’s wanderlust again, like at the start of our conversation. ‘Lust’ is in it—something you want, something you’re driven by. My sister just went this week to Europe to the first time in her life. I was like, ‘Wow, you’re gonna discover the world out there and you’re never gonna stop traveling!’
What is your favorite failure?
Kid Congo Powers: Something that’s now the best thing that ever happened to me? My best failure was probably leaving one of the first bands I was in. Maybe I thought getting thrown out of the Cramps was a big failure, but it was actually something that made me say, ‘OK, I have to keep moving—keep working.’ And that’s been a gift that keeps on giving. So I thank them for that! That could have been seen as a failure. Actually, to this day probably thirty years later, people are like, ‘Aren’t you sad you didn’t stay in the Cramps?’ No! I was in the Cramps when I was 20 or 21 years old and it was amazing and beautiful and wonderful and I did all this crazy stuff—why would I be sad? I learned so much!
KID CONGO POWERS WITH SECTION 25, MEDIUM MEDIUM, THE RAINCOATS, THE JAZZ BUTCHER, ABE VIGODA AND MANY MORE AT THE PART TIME PUNKS FESTIVAL ON SUN., OCT. 11, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 3 PM / $20-25 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. KID CONGO POWERS AND THE PINK MONKEY BIRDS’ DRACULA BOOTS IS OUT NOW ON IN THE RED. VISIT KID CONGO POWERS AT KIDCONGOPOWERS.BLOGSPOT.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/KIDCONGOPOWERSANDTHEPINKMONKEYBIRDS.