The artist known as Kid Congo Powers – Brian Tristan to his mum – is, I’m inclined to think, the best kept secret in rock ‘n’ roll. For thirty-three years he has played fierce, funny rock ‘n’ roll. But a lack of mainstream recognition appears not to bother the Washington DC based musician.
“I’m right where I need to be,” says Powers. “I’m artistically satisfied with the way the music is happening.”
The thing is, many readers may unknowingly have Kid Congo in their album collections: long before before he stepped out solo Powers played guitar in several seminal bands. He started out with The Gun Club, the great Los Angeles band who pioneered a punk-blues template that has often been imitated, never bettered. Poached by The Cramps, he added his distinctive fuzz tone to Psychedelic Jungle and Smell Of Female, amongst the finest music hose purveyors of mutant rockabilly ever made. Nick Cave then brought Kid to Berlin and made him a Bad Seed for his Tender Prey and The Good Son albums, Cave’s most intense and focused work. Since then Powers has lead The Pink Monkey Birds, making music as engaging and entertaining as that recorded with his more famous alumni.
“My thing is rock’n’roll with an open mind that takes its roots seriously but is looking into the future. Music for otherworldly people. And music for people who enjoy otherworldly sounds!”
Powers has accurately defined the Kid Congo sound, a swampy throb that is lowbrow and sophisticated, sexy and arch. After spending much of the late-1990s and early noughties laying low – “I had sobriety issues that needed to be dealt with and took time away from making music fulltime. I managed a vintage clothes emporium” he says to explain his missing decade – he made a low-key return with 2005’s Solo Cholo album. Here he filtered his Mexican American roots through an alternative rock mesh. But it was his 2009 album Dracula Boots, an inventive and entertaining slice of garage rock, which announced a triumphant return. His latest album, Haunted Head, is also great fun with Powers creating what could be the soundtrack to an unmade John Waters film, so effectively does he mix old sci-fi sound effects, lurid voodoo chants, spacey guitar distortion and go-go dance rhythms. Like Waters, Powers is a gay aesthete whose droll wit and love of American popular culture comes imbued with a brilliantly eccentric streak.
“I still like doing experimental things,” says Powers. “It keeps things fresh. I’m a big proponent of mixing styles to create a new language. Visual art is so inspirational to music. I often get asked to collaborate with artists in other mediums and I always enjoy it.”
As a guitarist whose influence can be heard in all manner of young garage bands I wondered what Powers made of contemporary rock music.
“Indie rock is pretty dull. Most of those young Brooklyn bands are just so earnest and unimaginative. But there are good bands out there. I’m older but still privy to what young people are doing and I think there’s still a nice underground scene happening. I think that primal energy still seeps down and infects certain bands.”
Having made his mark as a youth who deconstructed blues and rockabilly Powers is now, at 54, something of a veteran rocker.
“I come from the Link Wray tradition of guitar playing – nice and raw. One thing that I’m very proud of is that I don’t betray the aesthetic but I don’t want to be a purist, a grouch rock snob. I’m open minded to its on-going mutation and that keeps it alive – I find a strict revivalist music very dull. I can go and listen to the originals. I don’t want to put it in a coffin.”
Powers mentions “my husband” and it turns out that the recent legalisation of gay marriage in several US states enabled Powers and his partner to get married in June.
“We’ve been together for eight years and then we got married and now I have health insurance!” He laughs with glee. “We got married for love but a month later we found out that I was entitled as his partner to be covered for health insurance. So this is cool.”
Kid hits the UK once or twice a year with his great band The Pink Monkey Birds and, damn, they are just about the greatest garage rock'n'roll band going right now. Very tight and dynamic and Kid is so much fun. And they play several Gun Club classics and a couple of Cramps classics. So I'm in heaven!
I'm a huge fan of The Gun Club's Fire Of Love album - my favourite rock debut album ever ever ever! - so bugged Kid with questions about his late "brother" Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Answers below for all you Gun Club fans. And a Lux Interior question too. Oh, Kid is in contact with Ivy and says he has invited her to join him on stage but, right now, she's still mourning and not interested in making music. I hope she comes back and it would be great to see her sharing the stage with Kid!
GC: How did you get the name Kid Congo Powers?
KCP: When I was asked to join the Cramps I needed a Cramps name. My original suggestion was Brian Gris Gris but they didn’t like it. Too reminiscent of their last guitarist! (laughs) We made lists. Lux had a santaria candle and it was a Congo candle and the instructions said that when you light this candle you will unleash congo powers. Well, there was the name. I added Kid as I always liked Kid Thomas as a musician and thought it had the sound of a boxer or something.
GC: El Monte is a very Hispanic suburb of LA – what was it like growing up there?
KCP: I’m actually from La Puente which is next door to El Monte. Jeffrey Lee Pierce was from El Monte. It’s a coincidence that we are from the same area of the Valley. We didn’t know one another when growing up but, sure, it’s the Hispanic Valley. Not the Valley Girl vanilla Valley.
GC: Growing up Chicano and being into all kinds of crazy rock’n’roll – did this make you a bit of a freak amongst your contemporaries?
KCP: Actually, lots of Chicanos are rock 'n' roll people. It’s a mistake to think that Mexicans only listen to Mexican music. The low-riders loved “oldies but goodies” and a lot of that is 50s rock and r&b. Other acts that were big with Chicanos when I was growing up were Hendrix, Black Sabbath – I think Chicanos have all this doomed Catholic imagery and so Sabbath went down well with them. LA Catholicism is all about blood and tears. (laughs) It’s the same today – lots of Mexican Goths and Morrissey is very popular.
GC: I heard Morrissey asked about his Hispanic following on Desert Island Discs today and he said they related to his passion.
KCP: That’s it! (laughs) We dig the passion. Yeah!
GC: You cover a tune by East LA’s finest Thee Midniters on Dracula Boots. Were you enthusiastic about Chicano rock’n’roll acts when you were growing up?
KCP: I have two older sisters and when they and my female cousins were getting ready to go out to concerts, well, I was a preteen so I couldn’t go with them but I recall when Thee Midniters were playing they’d be so excited. And I wanted to be part of that excitement. And I never lost my desire to be part of that excitement. Thee Midniters were a huge deal with Mexicans in LA but it wasn’t until later when I started to make records that I checked out their records and I can’t imagine anything more rock’n’roll than Thee Midniters. They were a great band! I find myself inspired by them today.
GC: Jeffrey Lee Pierce had a Mexican mother, right? Did you two bond over your shared Mexican roots?
KCP: Yeah, we always bonded on the Mexican thing but it was always a point of humour for us. We were enough Mexican to feel outsiders but there were lots of Mexicans involved in the LA punk scene so there was never any racial antagonism and we never waved the Mexican flag and made a big deal about it.
GC: When did you decide that you wanted to be a rock’n’roll musician?
KCP: I don’t think there was ever any question. From a young, young age I was excited about why my sisters were excited about. When I did start listening to music I looked for that kind of excitement. I had a lot of mentors as I found my way into underground culture. Music. Comics. Record collecting. Old movies. I didn’t have to look far to seek it out.
GC: And it was through those enthusiasms that you met Jeffrey Lee?
KCP: Yeah, we shared mutual enthusiasms. I’d been to London in – when was it? 1977 or 78? It was on a school trip and as soon as we got here I ran away and went off to these punk clubs and it was just great. On the way back we stopped off in New York and I took off to find CBGBs. Back then it was very easy to meet people, very tribe like. The movement had not been co-opted. It was very much a pre-internet phenomenon. An explosion of excitement. I started going out to clubs in the early 70s. I used to go to Rodney Bingheimers English Disco – now I wonder how they bothered to let us underage kids into this club? I guess it’s cos the club was about 15 year old girls so you would put your arm around a 15 year old girl and get in. He’d play Bowie, T Rex, Mott. I saw Steve Harley, Alex Harvey – I was a real Anglophile. Then I saw the Dolls and they opened all the channels. I met Jeffrey first at record collector meets and then began to bump into him at Ramones and Patti Smith gigs.
GC: So you two formed Creeping Ritual which evolved into The Gun Club?
KCP: Yeah, we were huge Cramps fans and Jeffrey had the idea that we could do something similar. Jeffrey was a music nerd and I was a music nerd. We liked getting really drunk. And both of us were very interested and curious about all kinds of things. He had little or no social skills. So a lot of things were on his terms. He said ‘we should form a band and you be singer’ and I went ‘no way’ so he said ‘we should form a band and you play guitar’ and I said ‘I can’t play guitar’ and he replied ‘if you get one I’ll teach you how to play guitar like an old bluesman in E. I was lent a guitar by a friend and then Jeffrey Lee taught he how to play in E and gave me a Bo Diddley album and said ‘strum like he does’. Creeping Ritual were awful. I mean, we had fun but we were pretentious. We tried to do Dylan’s Tombstone Blues and War’s Slipping Into Darkness – try and play that with a drummer who can’t drum! Some bad reggae. I recently found some tapes of Creeping Ritual and when I mentioned this all the hardcore fans start drooling so I went and listened to the tapes and they were awful. No one is every going to allow them to come out! Then Rob and Terry joined up on bass and drums. They had been in the LA punk band The Bags and this changed everything. Having a real rhythm section just pushed us forward and we made fast work of a few more things. Our idea was to mix as many different styles together as possible. It was at the time of the whole No Wave thing of mixing styles in order to create a new language that spoke as music. The Cramps had achieved this and we were aware that it wasn’t just county mixed with punk that would work. You had to put other elements in to make it work.
GC: Fire Of Love is one of the great rock debut albums and, for my money, the best rock album of the 80s. You helped shape those songs then left to join The Cramps before the album was recorded. How did that job offer come about?
KCP: It was like a dream come true. I joined and literally was thrown in at the deep end of the pool. Was I going to sink or to swim? I’d only been playing guitar a year or a year and a half tops. I had a great respect for them and they were very good teachers. It was a crazy, crazy, crazy time. The Cramps were uncalculated then. Lux was magical. He’d be doing stuff I can’t imagine how he got away with. He’d leap into the audience and come out wearing some girl’s skirt. I’d never tried to copy Bryan Gregory’s guitar style. Instead, my idea was to make it heavier and solo. I wasn’t a well versed guitar player and Ivy had to translate things into open E tuning. I was in effect the band’s bass player. I’d create fuzz throb for Ivy to solo over. It was a great way to learn. Unconventional. A good experimental time. I learnt to play in a very different style from what I had been doing in The Gun Club.
GC: You were in The Cramps from 1981-83 and then you returned to The Gun Club. What was that about and how did it go teaming up again with Jeffrey Lee who now also had an international following?
KCP: With The Cramps there were long periods of dead time due to legal battles with IRS. We couldn’t record and we weren’t touring often. The end was coming. And when we weren’t making music I became more interested in drugs than music so I needed to make music. Very kindly Lux and Ivy allowed me to leave rather than firing me and we’ve always remained on really good terms. I think only I and Nick Knox have left The Cramps and remained on good terms with them! With Jeffrey, well, we were on the same plain so that was good. Both on the same professional level. No growing pains. Our attitude was “let’s make some music”. He moved in with me for a while – it was book reading, movie watching, banter. We influenced one another artistically. The bad influence was we both encouraged one another’s drug and alcohol intake.
GC: It strikes me that right from the start Jeffrey Lee was a very gifted songwriter and something of a musical visionary. He also was very self-destructive. What’s your take on how he could be so talented yet so messed up?
KCP: Jeffrey was very advanced. He had strong interests in theatre and literature. And if you love music enough you know what you want. He was also a big dreamer. A big enough dreamer to actually make some of his dreams work. We had a relationship like brothers. I now realise we both grew up only with sisters so we bonded like brothers and related to one another as brothers. He was not an easy person – very self centred – but he was an amazing songwriter and I knew when we worked together that it went well.
GC: Your friendship endured to the end even thought you quit the Gun Club a couple of times. Did you ever try and help him deal with his addictions?
KCP: The thing is, I was disintegrating at that time myself. He had a denial mechanism whenever his behaviour was brought up. I didn’t get that part of him. I tried to help him, tried to get him into hospital but he didn’t want help. The last time I saw him I didn’t recognise him. He was very bloated. Not good. I’m not going to compare him to Michael Jackson but I’ve just seen that Jackson film and I could see the similarities in the way that both were in control on stage and helpless off it. You end up asking – which one is he? The animated one on stage? Or this mess? This shell of a person? I had a phone conversation with him a week before he passed always and he was reading me passages from his autobiography and some of it didn’t really make sense, was kind of scrambled, but we laughed so much. After he died I went through a lot of stuff and I got worse with my own problems. I didn’t want to admit how much his death was affecting me.
GC: Dracula Boots is a great album. It sounds like you’re acting your age, having a good time, enjoying yourself hugely.
KCP: I wanted to make a fun record. I was really spurred on by seeing The Cramps in 2006. What turned out to be their last tour. I hadn’t seen them in concert for many years and they were astonishing. I realised ‘this is something I’m a part of’ and I wanted to tap into it. So my philosophy was ‘keep it simple. Don’t be afraid to be stupid, to have fun. Don’t be artsy.’
GC: Have you always made a living from playing music? There was a long period when I didn’t hear anything about you?http://alligatorjustice.blogspot.com/2013/12/kid-congo-powers.html
KCP: I worked for a bunch of years in New York selling vintage clothes. Store manager. A very cool shop. I was making music the whole time but I wasn’t trying to make a living out of it. I want to make music all the time now but I don’t want to redo what I’ve done before – what good would that be?