By Poppy Tohill
A bona fide legend of the American rock scene, Kid Congo Powers is a man who needs little introduction to most. A co-founding member of the legendary blues-punk inferno, The Gun Club, Powers has also lent his unique and idiosyncratic guitar style to two of the best groups in rock history - The Cramps & Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.
Since leaving his touring and recording duties with the Bad Seeds, four years later than intended, Powers, now based in Connecticut, is back on the psychedelic train he knows all too well, with band, Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds. Recently releasing their fourth album, La Arana Es La Vida, we were lucky enough to catch up with the man himself, ahead of The Pink Monkey Birds very first New Zealand tour, next month.
Hailing from Mexican American origins himself, ‘La Arana’ translates to ‘spider-web,’ an image, Kid explains sparked the love song of the same name on the record, that explores the idea of a spider-woman or spider-baby and the tangle of a web. “I really got into Mexican folklore stories,” Kid confessed. “So the spider-goddess is the great goddess of Teotihuacan, which is known as the City of Pyramids in Mexico,” he continued. “She was the protector that oversaw the underworld and I was really drawn to the fact that she sprouted hallucinogenic morning glory’s from her head, because I thought that is kind of my job too. To have these vivid hallucinations and to guard the underworld of music and make sure it stays real, alive and good, according to me and the people who like it,” he concluded.
“There were two lots of periods where I tried to do something very different than before and even rejected the last thing I created, when it came to creating La Arana Es La Vida,” Kid admit. “Because of my rebellious nature I didn’t want to do anything that people were expecting, or even what I myself was expecting,” he added with a laugh.
“Just before The Pink Monkey Birds and I recorded our first album, Dracula Boots, I had just seen the last tour of The Cramps. I hadn’t seen them for years and years, so after seeing them again in New York I was completely blown away, as one would be,” he chuckled. “But in a way, that was like a revelation to myself, because I realised, it was the same people playing those same three chords, but that’s not what it was about, it’s who was playing and how they were playing that made it sound like heaven on earth and transported you to another world,” he proclaimed. “That show really made me think of all the bands which are a part of my make up and DNA and made realise that I should tap into that magic, or whatever it is, because it is truly inspiring.”
“I’ve never been there before so I’m very excited!” Kid happily chimed when asked about his upcoming New Zealand tour. “I know so many ex pat New Zealander’s that now live in Europe, London and the States and they’re all so fantastic. The Cramps were also received very well in New Zealand, so I’m very excited to go somewhere I haven’t been before, and play,” he confirmed.
“We [The Pink Monkey Birds] have had the same rhythm section for ten years now!” Kid replied, when asked about the bands’ current line up. “I had a New York version of the band which soon fell to pieces because nobody wanted to go on tour, so I was at a real loose ends until my friend introduced to [now bass player] Kiki Solis and drummer, Ron Miller.”
“This guy was from Austin and people from Texas just think everything in Texas is the best, so one day he said to me, ‘Kid, what you really need is a Texas rhythm section,” he chuckled. “That was all well and good, but I was living in New York City, so I didn’t know too many Texas rhythm sections!” he added with a laugh. “So he sent Kiki over and as he said, he sounded and looked amazing and then by chance we met Ron who lives in Kansas and after the first five minutes of playing together I thought, this is absolutely incredible, I’ve never played with people like this, ever, and we’ve been together ever since!”
“After I moved away from New York, none of us were living in the same States, which quite frankly makes it very expensive when we need to get together, but because we’re not a part of each other’s day to day lives, we’re really happy to see each other, play music and then go on our way, leaving no time for us to get sick of one another!” Kid chuckled.
Like most however, Kid started as a music fan first and foremost. “I was the president of The Ramones fan club and ran a fanzine for The Screamers when I was a teenager,” he admit, gleefully. “The Ramones were the first wave of punks and I was very dedicated to involve myself in the rock and roll scene in anyway way I could, so as the band saw this really great thing happening, their management became incredibly nice and helpful, giving me access to exclusive material for the fan club.”
“Most of these rockstars were very much on an untouchable pedestal for us teenagers,” Kid proclaimed, “But The Ramones and even Patti Smith would just walk into the audience after a show and start talking to the audience, which was such a gift for the fans and very inspiring to me as it took us one step closer to that music world we all dreamed of.”
Meeting Jeffrey Lee Pierce just three years later, Kid began learning guitar and soon formed the beloved post-punk group, The Gun Club. “It was terrifying!” he chuckled when asked about the experience of forming his first band. “Jeffrey started teaching me a few tricks on guitar and then we decided it would be fun to form a band, which at the time wasn’t really a big deal, because everyone was in a band, it was just a matter of having good taste and good ideas. I’m not afraid to say we were ambitious, because we were simply dedicated and wanted success, we wanted something to come of it and much more than we ever imagined did come of it! We practiced a lot and had some great laughs and soon started to realise that people liked it too, which just inspired us to do even more,” he honestly concluded.
Just one year following, The Cramps asked a Twenty year old Kid Congo Powers to join their iconic group. “I’ve always been one of those people who are pretty stylish,” he confidently chuckled, “and I think it was my look that kind of got me in there,” he acknowledged. “I’d been a fan of The Cramps for years and I’d worn this 50s gold blazer to one of their shows in New York, which I’d got from a place in Memphis called Lansky Brothers, where Elvis shopped at a lot. I was later told that the band loved the jacket and had been told to check out The Gun Club, so a few days later they showed up at one of our gigs and then asked me to join the band, even though I’d only been playing guitar for a year,” Kid revealed. “It was very scary because they were huge, iconic and absolutely fabulous, but I just went along with it and it was really fun. They believed in me and helped mould me, because they loved the fact that I was so un-jaded, unconventional and untouched. They could make me into anything.”
When it came to lessons learnt during his time in The Gun Club that proved useful for his time in The Cramps, Kid humorously explained that he learnt absolutely nothing that was of use. “I was just going step by step and one foot in front of the other. I’d only just learnt how to play guitar so when I joined The Cramps I still really didn’t know a lot. The one thing I guess I learnt is that you can make something out of nothing, because The Cramps were huge rockstars and when I first left The Gun Club we were playing to a house of about 20 people each night,” he laughed. “So I was always thinking about what was going to happen next.”
Good memories however came in the plenty. “Just becoming a part of The Cramps was incredible!” Kid confessed. “I mean recording Psychedelic Jungle was a pretty incredible thing to be involved in too. I’m still very proud of that record whenever I hear it, because it spans into so many different areas. The live shows were also pretty crazy!”
But of course, as all good things must come to an end, so did Kid’s time with The Cramps. “There was a period we went through a lot of legal problems with the record company and we could only play live, as the contract forced us out of the studio and forbid us to record any new content, so that certainly caused a lot of headaches,” he disclosed. “While that was going on there was a lot of down time and too many drugs, so as we tried to re-evaluate what we wanted to do with the band and how we were going to go about it, I was starting to think about other things. I started hanging out with Jeffrey again and he asked me to come back and join The Gun Club and because I wanted to keep making music, I left The Cramps and did just that,” he proclaimed.
“A few years later I moved to London once The Gun Club had split up again and was asked to be a temporary fill in guitarist on one tour with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds,” Kid stated. “That one tour then became two, then three and I ended up touring and recording with them for four years, so it just worked out really well!” he concluded.
Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds
Saturday September 3rd: The Tuning Fork, Auckland - Tickets via Ticketmaster
Sunday September 4th: Bodega, Wellington - Tickets via Under The Radar