Meet: Music is the vice – we chat to the legendary Kid Congo Powers about danger and excitement and being an alien.

Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds are in the middle of a tour of Australia and I caught up with the irrepressible Kid Congo Powers on the the day before he ventured to the deep south to play in Hobart.

Born Brian Tristan, Kid likes to be called Kid – even my sister calls me Kid. I asked him about how much of Brian Tristan is in Kid Congo – is this a persona or the real thing? Powers laughs:

A lot! Very much so. That was kind of the key to performing that I learned, since I’ve been in the Pink Monkey Birds. I was always the guitar player before – I was on the side, I didn’t really speak – no-one knew if I could speak or not (laughs). I learned in public how to navigate that. In the beginning I was something different – I don’t know what influences I was trying to draw from or what template I was trying to portray, and then I saw The Cramps play one of their last gigs and the Pink Monkey Birds had just started and we were on our way to recording our first record with ‘In The Red’ label. I went and saw them, and I hadn’t seen them in fifteen years or even spoken to them but they invited me to the show and I saw them perform and my jaw just dropped.

What hit Powers was the sight of the band just being themselves and giving themselves to the audience completely – a crazy magic – and somehow transporting themselves in performance:

This was just from outer space – this is not from earth at all – but – wait a minute – it’s just the same three chords they’ve always been playing…but its just them…because they are playing, the guitar sound is coming from the fingers of them, from Ivy and the voice of Lux and what was jaw dropping was that they were just being themselves and being very free with what they are giving to to the audience, whatever crazy magic they are. I thought ‘wait a minute!’ I could really tap into this – just be yourself and let it fly.

The Cramps opened Power’s eyes – a self realisation that he could just be himself on stage – wild and freaky, being accepting and expressing his own identity. And if you have ever seen Kid Congo Powers live, you will know what happens – he is a consummate and expressive performer:

…as long as you are yourself, you are doing good, and you’re giving back and you’re flying into outer space (laughs)

We discussed how Powers got into the industry – a chicano gay boy who picked up the guitar – and he talked about the influence glam rock played – David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as the bi-sexual alien from outer space. It’s a strangely common theme (Blixa Bargeld spoke in terms of being an alien too in my recent interview with him):

I keep going back to the alien don’t I? (laughs) I live in the desert now, seeing UFOs – there’s something about me and space. It’s an otherness that intrigues me. I feel as a queer kid the alien was a great analogy for an adolescent at the time – a queer adolescent – this feeling weird, your body s growing in weird ways, your hormones are raging and you’re experimenting with alcohol and drugs and sex and different things. You’re discovering all that and it’s very strange.

Of course Power’s alien feelings were magnified by his heritage – not knowing where he fitted between Mexican culture and Anglo culture. Music was the perfect respite. Powers never got guitar lessons – he says he was simply a massive music fan who never thought he could be in a band until punk rock came along. Then, Jeffrey Lee Pierce persuaded him to form The Gun Club with him because he had the looks:

He said ‘hey you, you look like you should be in a band and you should be in a band with me and I’ll teach you what to do’.

I had never thought of crossing the line between being a fan and a musician, and I thought well this guy thinks I can do it I should just try it. It was appealing to me. Once I started, I was banging around making a terrible noise until it made a bit of sense. Although I’m still making a terrible noise (laughs) but much more controlled…

It was a revelation for Powers that he could express himself through this medium of guitar and he talks of how much Pierce taught him – using an open E, using a slide and introducing him to veteran Blues players as a rudimentary start – I knew who John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters before – but Pierce taught him about other players. At the same time Powers was listening to the no wave scene in New York – James Chance and the Contortions and Lydia Lunch – who utilised slide guitars as pure expression.

To me, playing guitar was just a tool of communication to express yourself (and most guitar players will tell you that), so I just took a self-taught route rather than being classically trained.

I noted that throughout his career he was always played in bands with very forceful personalities – The Gun Club, The Camps, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, bands that seemed filled with danger and excitement. I wondered what it was that attracted him to these sort of bands.

Danger and excitement! (laughs) They were the two things. They were people who took risks and not only was it musical risks but it was physical risks! (laughs). You know – you would run for your lives when you went to one of their shows. But also they were people who were in a way creating a new language in music. They were mixing styles in a way that was not normally mixed. The Cramps mixing psychedelic music with rockabilly which is dime a dozen now but at the time was completely revolutionary…I remember when I first saw them I thought ‘this concert going to end in a riot or an orgy? One thing or another – and this was before they even had a single out (laughs)

Powers references what was happening in Australia with The Birthday Party in this world of excess and how The Gun Club were the children of The Cramps and took up the template, mixing country and blues. He acknowledges they were all very strong personalities with strong unwavering visions – pandering was unheard of – to a record label or even to the audience – or even themselves, really. This is the very definition of alternative music, Power says. He agrees with my suggestion that that he sees himself carrying on with the baton in the Pink Monkey Birds.

When the Pink Monkey Birds first started I was very much wanting to not being what my past was – I was very much trying to forge my own identity in a strong way and that was a big step backwards and not really the right formula. As I mentioned before, after seeing The Cramps I thought no way – I have to take everything I know and everything I’ve learned and put it into this music and I need to carry on the tradition, I don’t need to forge a new tradition – I have a pedigree and background and an education – a doctorate (laughs) – I’ve done my thesis and I can go on and create my own thing!

We discuss the current tour and the very nice bonus of having Mick Harvey (ex The Birthday Party and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) join on bass. Powers recounts that having lost their previous bass player, the band recorded their latest album as a three piece with guitarist Mark Cisneros playing the bass and other parts (he’s the Mick Harvey of our band). Harvey actually offered to join their Australian tour on bass if they wanted.

We just thought that was the best idea. It was a chance to play with Mick again – I loved doing it in the eighties and I love doing it now. But Mick and I have stayed very close friends since that time and never lost touch – I’ve always been part of the Bad Seeds family tree – I always see them play, we are like family and friends and colleagues. So the idea was great and the reality of it even greater. He’s an amazing player and he knows our music and having friends along makes it a great time and I think you can feel that on stage.

We talked about also having Kim Salmon along as a support and Powers recalls know the Scientists for years – meeting him in Australia back in 1983 with The Gun Club tour. Powers recalls how he rejoined the band on the eve of the tour after the rest of the band quit at the airport and Pierce begged him help out with the tour. Later, Salmon and Powers hung out in London in the eighties, poor and miserable with the rest of the musician population. When The Gun Club toured Europe they played with The Scientists a lot after Salmon wrote Powers a letter (because of course there was no email!) telling him:

‘The Scientists are living in London and we’re going to play with you on your tour and save the booze for us’, and I said well anyone who can write a letter like that is coming with us! They were absolutely incredible and remain so.

We briefly discussed the well documented travails Powers had with drugs as recounted in his recent biography and his domestic bliss with husband Ryan, and our mutual love of cats. I then asked him how he felt when the recent TV series Wednesday used the song ‘Goo Goo Muck’ in an iconic dance scene and Powers eyes shone. Was there an increase in interest in the music?

Absolutely – in that song definitely and I had so many people I know my age and a little bit younger calling me saying ‘Oh My God I’m finally cool with my kids when I say that’s my friend playing guitar on that song’ -there’s been so much interest from kids – the tik tok generation – who picked up on it and they are all doing that dance. I mean, it’s a teen anthem written in the 50s and you know it’s a cover version done by The Cramps and became a teen anthem then, and now a massive amount of people have heard it, so I am very pleased. It deserves to be resurrected – the song still lives on and we play it in our set.

I realised that it was the first song I ever recorded – the first time I was ever in a recording studio – so it is quite emotional for me that a song I recorded for the first time became a viral sensation and that Tim Burton listened to it. But I’m really happy that it was written by a Mexican American chicano, the actress in the series is a chicano and I play guitar on the recording.

We turned to the new album ‘That Delicious Vice’ and I asked how it was developed. Powers jokes that it was created through magic – there was no particular process. It was recorded in his hometown of Tucson Arizona during a heatwave – it was hot beyond all human endurance – you would walk outside hoping you don’t get incinerated. He describes its genesis as being very intensive – the trio coming together with ideas then creating magic in the studio – some rehearsal then we just let it fly. It was a new process given they were working for the first time as a three piece. He used his autobiography as a basis for the lyrics, paying tribute to friends and family who had passed in the process.

As we get on, people leave this earth so I had a lot of material – I like paying tribute to people through my songs and it’s one way I can keep them alive in my heart…so there’s a song ‘The Boy Had It All’ I wrote for Howie Pyro (founding member of The Blessed, Freaks, D Generation, and PCP Highway and bass player in Danzig from 2000–2003). I deal mostly in imagery rather than narrative and it’s way for me to process grief but also to make it celebratory that always the goal – not to be morose but trying to actually capture the essence of these people and how they were special in the world – or in my world at least. There is a lot of stuff in the canon to use.

Powers goes on to talk about the collaboration with chicano Alice Bag, punk singer with The Bags in the seventies and feminist writer – part of a thriving musical tribe he has always worked with over the decades. We discussed the song ‘Ese Vicio Delicioso’ which is clearly autobiographical and Powers noted it was the Spanish translation of his autobiography’s title ‘Some New Kind of Kick’ – asking what is the vice – sex, drugs or rock’n’roll? The answer, according to Powers, is simple:

Music is the vice – it’s the one thing I can’t live without, it’s the one thing that intoxicates me, it’s the one thing that gets me into trouble. I still think I’m going to get arrested for it one day (laughs). I always thing every time I finish a record that this is the last time someone is going to give me money to do this. Maybe it’s my way of saying this is really good…maybe it’s my way of saying I’ve made something not boring (laughs).

I asked Powers what his favourite songs to play live is and he grumbles light heartedly that it’s like Sophie’s Choice to make that decision, although he does enjoying playing the new stuff. He admits ‘Sex Beat’ is one song he never gets sick of playing although laughing that it’s probably compulsory for him to play it but also a joy. He says that there is no-one of any authority playing The Gun Club songs and as someone who played them and even wrote some of them, there is almost a duty to keep them alive and it makes the audience happy – we’re in this together. He says he’s not going to say (mimics a voice) ‘I’m not going to play that because I didn’t write it’. It brings him joy and joy to the audience. I mentioned how good it was he and the band regularly make it to Hobart to play and he said it was a great town and great people and how he loves MONA and would love to play Dark Mofo in the future.

 ‘That Delicious Vice’ is out now via In the Red Records. Recorded in the scorching summer of 2023 in Tucson Arizona at Jim Water’s Waterworks studio, the band collaborate with LA Chicana punk icon, singer of The Bags and author, Alice Bag on songs ‘Wicked World’ and ‘A Beast, a Priest’.

Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds play at the Republic in Hobart tomorrow (24 April 2024) – watch out for a review and gallery – and end their tour with gigs in Sydney and Brisbane – details below.

Wednesday 24 April            Republic Bar                              Hobart          TAS
Tix on sale from Republic Bar

Thursday 25 April               Oxford Art Factory                    Sydney          NSW
Tix on sale from Oxford Arts Factory

Saturday 27 April                The Zoo                                      Brisbane        QLD
Tix on sale from The Zoo

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