The Collapse Board Interview: Kid Congo Powers

The Collapse Board Interview: Kid Congo Powers
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Photo by Luz Gallardo

Kid Congo Powers rose to prominence in the punk and alternative music scenes of the early 1980s, and is renowned for his collaborations with influential bands like The Gun Club, The Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He has also played in Congo Norvell, and with Divine Horsemen, the Angels of Light, Die Haut, and Knoxville Girls. His distinctive guitar playing blends punk, blues, and rockabilly influences, and has made a lasting contribution to the unique sound of each band he’s been a part of.

Since the mid-2000s he has fronted Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds and blended elements of garage rock, punk, blues, southern soul, 60s Chicano rock, and psychedelic imagery to create a raw and energetic sound that is distinctly their own. He also plays in Wolfmanhattan Project with Mick Collins (The Dirtbombs, The Gories) and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore). In 2022, he released his memoir, Some New Kind of Kick, which details his experiences as a young, queer Mexican-American in 1970s Los Angeles through his rise in the glam rock and punk rock scenes.

Ahead of his upcoming 2024 Australian tour we caught up with Kid Congo Powers at his home in Tucson to talk about his experiences of joining established bands, becoming a frontman, and why ‘primeval rock and roll’ continues to endure.


Happy birthday for last week.  Did you do anything to celebrate?

Oh, thank you. I played a show. I’m doing this other project with my friend Alice Bagg, who sings on the new album, and we have a kind of pop thing we’re doing.  We call it a lounge act, but I think it’s more music, more keyboard oriented, and it’s pretty funny and great. So we made our debut show that day so it was fun. We did a secret show because we were debuting it actually in LA the following weekend.

65 is a milestone birthday. How are you feeling?

I’m tired [laughs]. No, I’m good because actually now I have what they call Medicare here. I have national health, so I’m happy about that. After 65 years, I finally can afford to go to the doctor, because it’s criminal.

I was speaking to your old housemate Lydia Lunch a few weeks ago and she was telling me she moved based on the cost of living. I think you were in Washington before and you moved to Tucson a few years ago. Is Tucson an inspiring place to live as a creative person?

Yeah, it is actually, because there’s a lot more space here. It’s actually quite a magical place. I mean, true transparency, me and my partner moved here because my in-laws live here, and we have been coming here every year since 2005, since we’ve been together. We’ve come every Christmas time and I really love the city. It’s a city, but a small city. It’s surrounded by mountains and hills and it’s incredible. The nature is incredible and that’s just beautiful and magical, really, a lot of expanse, a lot of open space, but still there’s a great creative community in the arts, all the arts, really, and it’s a much more doable than being in New York or DC or anywhere. And also the cost of living is much better [laughs]. I’ve been living on the East Coast, me and Ryan, for many, many years, 20 years or longer, so it was a move to come West. I said, “I want to see the big sky again,” I haven’t seen it, I’ve been surrounded by buildings for so long. I find it a very magical place. We’re very close to the border of Mexico, an hour away, and there’s several native tribes that live in the area. It just has a lot of great energy.

Going back to the start of your career, Jeffrey Lee Pierce invited you to form a band, and you didn’t know how to play but punk was happening, you were a Ramones fan. Do you believe that anyone can do it?

I do, actually. I mean, anyone with the right influence. I think that was the good thing about the punk explosion, that music proficiency wasn’t really the main ingredient, but idea was king. If you had a good idea about what to do, and if you had some kind of need to express something in some kind of way that was more abstract than pop music structure, or boogie, or whatever was going on at the time, it was great. You said you spoke to Lydia Lunch, I saw Lydia Lunch in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and I was like, “Okay, there’s some kind of crazy language that I seem to understand and I think I can learn.” It spoke to me, you know. It was pure expression of playing, it was not noodling around or anything to do with musical proficiency. It was more expressive.

You’ve talked about yourself being reserved, and that you weren’t comfortable with being a front man at first. Is it just a case of having to keep doing it until it becomes comfortable or do you still find it a difficult thing to do?

I don’t find it difficult anymore. I think I was willing to go the long term and to learn in public about how to do it. I was very aware that when I first started, I was grasping at whatever. I didn’t know what exactly to do. I had been doing writing and stuff as far as back as when I was in the Bad Seeds, doing projects with like Die Haut and a band in London for a while, the Fur Bible, with Patricia Morrison from the Gun Club, so there was like this and that.

But when I started the Pink Monkey Birds, I wasn’t 100% sure. “Should I be the singer? Should I be the guitar player? Should I do this? What do I do?” I don’t really have a voice, a singing voice. So what do I do with this voice? It took a lot of trial and error to find what it was. I was spending so much time trying to say like, “I don’t want this to be like the Gun Club,” “I don’t want this to be like the Cramps,” “I don’t want this to be like Nick Cave.” I was a lot of, “I don’t want it to be this,” wanting to forge my own identity so strongly that I couldn’t find anything and that I had to come to a realization, and actually it was after I saw the Cramps play right when the Pink Monkey Birds were starting. I hadn’t seen them for 10, 15 years and a long time, or even spoken to them, and it was very friendly, and I got to see them, and my jaw fell to the floor, the same way as the first time I saw them.

The first time I saw them I was like, “This is incredible but what is it? It’s like this is something from heaven and outer space at the same time, and maybe they’re the same things.” But I was like, “Oh, it’s them, this is the same three chords they’ve always played, nothing else is happening, and I thought, “Well, it’s them. It’s them and they’re giving themselves so freely and they’re so unburdened by anything. It’s purely them and that’s what the magic is; music coming out of their fingers and voices, and that’s what it is. So it was a very humbling epiphany in my 40s to realize that, “Oh, I can be myself,” and that I can use everything that I’ve learned and that actually all of that is a part of me, and that if I wanted to unleash that magic that I see them having, I need to acknowledge all of that. It was it was it was an important lesson. So thank you Cramps, my own personal, my own personal self-realization centre!

That’s really interesting, because I had a question about when you were talking about the Bad Seeds and talked about their love of primeval rock and roll and I was going to ask you, why does this music endure? Why is there something still so exciting about music that pulls you in every time you listen to it. I think how you just talked about seeing the Cramps probably answered that.

Yeah, you’ve answered your own question! I see rock and roll, or any music that moves me, as inexplicable. I couldn’t explain it to you, I’ve tried, believe me, I’ve tried to find out what it is, but I can’t tell you what it is, except that it’s the people are able to communicate with other people and communicate with instruments that express themselves and convey what they want to convey to people and in song. It’s very much like poetry. Poetry, you know, used to be sung, and it’s kind of the same thing. And also, rhythm. The Pink Monkey Birds are a lot about rhythm and I learned that very much from the Cramps, that rhythm is that hypnotic tonic, and it creates the magic and everything spins off from there. It’s the alchemy and also mixing of styles.

I think all of the bands I’ve been in have been very successful at mixing styles that aren’t usually that soft with the abrasive. The Cramps mixing psychedelic music but rockabilly, that’s a dime a dozen now but at the time it was revolutionary and unheard of. The same with the Gun Club, you’re using blues, or James Chance and the Contortions using James Brown and Albert Ayler and free jazz, with punk attitude. It was all very, very amazing alchemy.

You’ve mentioned a few of the bands you’ve worked with over the years, do you know when it’s time to move on?

Yeah, so I don’t die [Laughs]. No, that was then. But the time to move on? Yeah. I think the natural way is usually that my time ended. My style is, not so much anymore, but it was very particular, and I think these people picked me to be in their bands because of my particular kind of style and playing, very unconventional, open tuning, a lot of slide, everything like that. It was an original stamp that they wanted. I think that sometimes limits the time that when music is meant to change, very much so with the Bad Seeds, the music very much changed around the time I was in the band. The same with the Cramps, they were going through troubles, and I was troubled, but also they wanted to change as well, because after me, they started having bass in there, before it was the two guitar line-up. I don’t really believe that a band has to stay together for a million years, but if it does, it’s cool. The Rolling Stones, they’re great, I love them.

When you joined the Cramps and the Bad Seeds, you were the new guy going into an established band with an established band chemistry and camaraderie. Is that easy thing to do? Was it easy for you?

At first, it was easy, like going from Gun Club. The Gun Club was, like I told you, a year old, and we were making an original music, it was going very well, and really coming into fruition of some sort. The Cramps came and saw us and said, “Oh, we want that guy.” That was their vision, very much the Cramps was pretty set in stone by that point and so it was simple for me, because all Ivy had to do was teach me the songs. But I felt like I put a stamp on it and I’m really proud that. Psychedelic Jungle album is the one Cramps album that really stands out as a very different kind of album than the rest, rather than the burn them up, rockabilly, stance of a lot of them, it’s a slower, more grindy, more psychedelic record.

It was great that I didn’t know what I was doing, so I was pretty free to just use expression. Poison Ivy, she was great. She was like, “Think of the guitar like a horn, think of your parts like a horn, you squawk and punctuate and every once in a while, you let go with a wail.” Okay, well, that made sense to me, because if you had told me play D minor and C sharp and do an arpeggio, I would have no idea what she was talking about.

I think you’ve said that you’d only been playing a guitar for a year when you joined the Cramps, but what was your guitar playing like? When someone says they’ve only been playing for a year you naturally assume that it would be quite rudimentary, but maybe you were actually some sort of a musical prodigy.

Maybe, maybe it was fantastic, [laughs) I don’t know. It doesn’t sound bad when I hear recordings of it. Actually, I recently unearthed some of the earliest recordings of the Gun Club, before even playing out live, and it’s pretty out of tune and pretty bad but there’s definitely something going on, something special was going on from the start.

I always thought, I went through a lot of my early years thinking I was a terrible guitar player, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m lucky, blah, blah,” but, you know, I wasn’t.  I was picked by incredibly original-thinking, amazing artists so I was probably just hard on myself rather than what was really going on. That’s not what they saw.

You’re coming over to Australia in a couple of weeks, and your new album comes out while you’re over here. That Delicious Vice is a very loaded title, where is it coming from?

It’s actually from when I was doing a Spanish translation of my book. “Some New Kind of Kick” didn’t make any sense translated into Spanish. It’s already slang in America, American English. In Spanish it meant absolutely nothing translated literally. We were thinking of different names, and they were coming up with some names that I wasn’t really happy with, very druggy sort of references and stuff and I was like, “No, the book’s not really that.”

Then I called up Alice Bagg, because Spanish is her first language and I was like, “What do you think of this and blah, blah blah?” and she was like, “What about vice?” She’s like, “They’ll be happy, because it could be drugs, it could be alcohol, it could be sex, it could be anything,” but also she’s like, “It could be music, music could be the vice,” and that made sense to me. So that the title of the book is Ese Vicio Delicioso, which is ‘That Delicious Vice’  and we have a song on the on the on the album called “Ese Vicio Delicioso” which has lyrics taken about my musical journey.

The Pink Monkey Birds has gone from a four piece to a three piece for this new album, what sort of impact has that had on the band?

We have a lot more space. I think there’s more space in the music and also it gave us a chance for some kind of reinvention of not being the incredibly bass heavy band that we were, because it was the bassist who left the band. Mark [ Cisneros] is a multi-instrumentalist. We have played before as a three piece and we thought if we made a record as a three piece, it could be great.

My environment has a lot to do with music, and I like space, and here, there’s a lot of space, living in a desert city, and the outlying areas. I find that magical, and it gave us a chance to kind of spread our wings a little more because it’s easy to be stuck in what you’re doing and what works, instead of trying what maybe might not work, and what might not be expected of you. So we have some pretty, like, long soundscape-y pieces. To me, music is always visual, they are like little movies to me. We were able to expand on that and we were very excited about the three piece idea, and, yeah, it changed the music some.

The album starts with the instrumental ‘East from East’, and I think if you start your album with an instrumental, you’re setting out an intention for the album, so you hearing you talk about space and soundscapes now makes total sense.

Yeah, a song with a lot of space. And lyrically, the album’s very much a lot about the book, I think I used a lot of references to the book in the lyrics, and people, and the usual tributes to people who passed away in my life. There’s a few of those on there, but that’s a very important thing to me, because it’s friends of mine, who I’m writing about, and when they leave the earth, it just seems impossible that they’re not alive. For one, these are such alive people that I knew, but also, they were very magical people to me, who I thought had some essence that was from another world already, much less they maybe go to another world or not, but another plane. I always want to try to capture, and boil down, what was that essence, what was that? I did that with the last EP with Sean DeLear and “He Walked In”, which is a Jeffrey Lee Pierce tribute, so that that is a theme, and this one has a few of those, friends of mine who, as we march on in time, they leave the earth, you know, the people around you leave the earth.

Last year, I actually broke my leg, I broke the tibia, right up the knee, right under the knee, right with the bone that goes into your knee below, and so I was off my feet for most of 2023, I had to wait for it to heal. So it was a time that I wrote most of the lyrics and there was a lot of reflection, because I couldn’t move, but also because of I was like, “Wow, I fell off my bike and I broke my leg, this is time marching on.” It was an accident, I wasn’t going fast, it was just that I turned the wrong way, that’s what happened.

In the song ‘Silver For My Sister’, the first line is “A wish to crawl,’” even if I could crawl, that would be great, I’d be grateful for that, so there’s a lot of that, weird personal stuff. I don’t talk about lyrics a whole lot, because they are obtuse at the best of times, but there’s background to them and weight.

Your partner Ryan Hill has done the artwork for the new album, and he’s done all your recent artwork. Does it work as a collaborative process or do you just let him get on with it?

Yeah, well, because he’s my partner, I can’t tell him anything [laughs]. But, no, I’m really happy because, actually, this one is collaborative. The front graphic is actually taken from a lino cut project I did when I was like 15 in high school. It’s all lightning bolts and stars, it’s obviously a very glam Ziggy Stardust reference.  I said, “Maybe we should just use this for the album cover,” and he’s like, “No, let me draw something.” So, that’s what that is based on, my adolescence, so it looks a little adolescent, and it’s my adolescent glam rock, David Bowie fantasy. In my school work, I was going to reference that, I chose to reference that above all. At the same time, its naive and something that’s written and very long lasting. So I enjoyed that.


Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds Australian Tour Dates 2024

Thursday 18 April               Corner Hotel                              Melbourne     VIC
With special guest Kim Salmon’s Smoked Salmon
Tix on sale from Corner Hotel

Friday 19 April                   Theatre Royal                    Castlemaine   VIC
With special guests Zig Zag
Tix on sale from Theatre Royal

Saturday 20 April                Lion Arts Factory                         Adelaide        VIC
With special guests TBC
Tix on sale from Lion Arts Factory

Sunday 21 April                 Rosemount Hotel                        Perth            WA
With special guests Little Things
Tix on sale from Rosemount Hotel

Wednesday 24 April            Republic Bar                              Hobart          TAS
With special guest Kim Salmon
Tix on sale from Republic Bar

Thursday 25 April               Oxford Art Factory                       Sydney          NSW
With special guests Loose Fit
Tix on sale from Oxford Arts Factory

Saturday 27 April                The Zoo                                   Brisbane        QLD
With special guests The Stress Of Leisure & Arugula
Tix on sale from The Zoo

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