THAT CRAZY PINK MONKEY BEAT Kid Congo

The legendary Gun Club/Cramps/Bad Seeds guitarist –
oh, the stories he can tell! – finally lets his freak flag fly as a frontman.

 

BY MIKE SHANLEY

 

For most of his
musical career, Kid Congo Powers has been the guy to the left of the spotlight.
Of course, one can’t expect to get a lot of attention in bands fronted by the
likes of Jeffrey Lee Pierce (The Gun Club), Lux Interior (the Cramps) and Nick
Cave
(and the Bad Seeds). Still Powers made his presence known, both as a songwriter
and a raw-but-right guitarist. Since his work with Cave, he’s played in a few
groups, most notably Congo Norvell, with vocalist Sally Norvell. But he was
never a frontman, until necessity called for it.

 

“Everything kept
falling aside and the only thing left was for me to be the leader of a band,”
Powers laughs when thinking about more recent projects. “It kind of happened
that way without thinking about. Suddenly – oh, I’m the bandleader.”

 

The band in
question is Kid Congo Powers & the Pink Monkey Birds, who will release
their second album, Gorilla Rose (In
the Red) in May, following a series of five limited edition 7″ singles earlier
this year. Far from a reluctant frontman, Powers sounds like a charming lounge
lizard on the album, setting the atmosphere at a wild level, which continues in
live performances where he slays the audience with his witty banter when he’s
not slaying with his open-tuned guitar stylings. If he has any misgivings about
being a frontman, they aren’t visible.

 

Part of his
renewed inspiration came when he saw his old bandmates the Cramps in 2006. It
had been a dozen years since he had seen them, and the performance thrilled him
the same way they had nearly two decades prior.

 

“It’s completely
primitive but it sounds like a million bucks, and it sounds like it came from
Mars,” he says, recalling the show. “How can something this simple be so out of
this world? That whole experience, at that point when I was starting this new
lineup, was completely inspirational. I said, ‘Now I know my direction. I know
where I’m going.'”

 

The course was
charted but it would take a tour that same year for the Pink Monkey Birds to
solidify. Bassist Kiki Solis had only played with Powers briefly, and drummer
Ron Miller was enlisted on a verbal recommendation from a friend after the
original drummer couldn’t travel. A second guitarist was ousted on the eve of
the tour due to substance abuse issues. Powers says that an early date on the
tour at Pittsburgh’s
31st Street
Pub, the trio began to take shape. “Me and the bass player had played very little
together. Neither of us had played with the drummer, and we were playing in Pittsburgh
with hardly any practice, really, making it up. But it was actually great, and
we’ve stuck together ever since. It was a really great gig!”

 

Back in the Steel
City
last February, the band (now with guitarist/keyboardist Jesse Roberts) played
like a well-oiled machine. The stomper “LSDC” might not have more than one
chord to it, but just like the Cramps, Powers knows how to make it sound like a
million. Their set also includes the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy” and “Sex
Beat,” as well as the Cramps’ “I’m Cramped.”

 

But it wasn’t
psychobilly or punk blues that Powers wants to play with the Pink Monkey Birds.
“With the drummer, I thought, ‘Wow, you drum just like the guy from the
Meters.’ And the bass player – ‘Wow, you play just like a Motown bass player,'”
he says. “From that came the idea: Let’s just make some really rhythm-based
stuff.”

 

Dracula Boots, which came out
in 2009, was inspired by the Meters’ funky grooves, but Powers also brings up
some musical inspiration from his past as he discusses the album. “I was very
influenced by Chicano rock in the ’60s. Thee Midniters were a big, big
influence. My sisters used to go see them when I was a kid. It wasn’t until
years later that I listened to them and everything became very clear. They were
a wild, exciting band.

 

“So the idea of that was a big influence
on the last record. What I really love about music is something that is really
exciting. What kind of music propelled me to think it’s exciting? R&B-laced
psychedelic soul… shouting but with a Latin flavor.”     

 

While Dracula Boots contained a number of
tracks that could have been spontaneous jams, Gorilla Rose has more diversity, jumping from dance music to garage
rock to a collision of spoken word and girl group harmonies vocalized by guys.
The latter style describes the brief but dense “Our Other World,” in which he
depicts two true stories from his youth. “I’m writing a memoir about being a
teenager, and I’ve been doing cut-up theory like Brion Gysin or William
Burroughs, taking things out of my book and making them into lyrics,” he says.

 

An employee of
the Peaches record store chain as a teen, he witnessed Rick James’ reaction to
Parliament’s Gloryhallastoopid (Or Pin
the Tail on the Funky)
, which mocked James on the cover. “Rick James came
in – he probably went to every record store on Hollywood Boulevard
where he could make a public scene,” Powers says. “He had his bodyguards grab
all the record and break them all and told us to throw them in the garbage. And
they paid for them.”

 

The other part of
the song, which gives it its name, describes the turn of events after he and
some friends saw the Cramps in 1978. “We decided we were going to New York. We’re not
going to get left behind,” Powers says. “So we decided to take the Greyhound
Bus – five punk rockers from LA in all our crazy colored hair, drugged out,
freaked out glory. So we were like, ‘This is our other world. We’re in the world, but it’s not the world
that everyone else sees.'”

 

“Flypaper” is
also based on true events, without coming out and saying who “the witch
herself, clothed in a black velvet cape emblazoned with a rhinestone peacock”
is.  The story, delivered in Powers’
understated rasp, comes from the time the Gun Club recorded their third album The Las Vegas Story in the same studio
as Stevie Nicks and her entourage. “They’d come in every night, roll out of
their limousines,” he says. “They’d block all the bathrooms because they were
sitting in there doing coke all night.”

 

While the whole
recording sessions aren’t detailed in the song, Powers remembers one moment
fondly. “One evening, Jeffrey Lee Pierce was sitting in the television lounge
room. And he had seen a rat – it was probably just a mouse but he said it was a
rat – in the room. Stevie Nicks walked in and he just
started screaming, ‘There’s rats in here! I just saw one! Rats! Rats!’ And she
just freaked out and turned on her platform boot heels and rushed out of
there.”

 

When it comes to
Pierce’s self-destructive behavior, which eventually did him in at the age of
37, Powers doesn’t mince words, but he says he doesn’t feel the same bitterness
that many of Pierce’s associates displayed in Kurt Voss’ documentary Ghost on the Highway: A Portrait of Jeffrey
Lee Pierce and the Gun Club
. “It was kind of like, wow, this is a Jeffrey
bashing session,” he says of the film. “These people are still disgruntled that
Jeffrey ruined their careers and the band could have been so big. And he was so
fucked up. DUH. Who do you think you
were dealing with in the first place? I was always very aware of who I was
dealing with.”

 

Having grown up
and started the Gun Club with Pierce, Powers remembers the talent that fueled
his friend’s creativity. “He could write songs like nobody’s business. We made
a bunch of good records. The shows were not always so successful but the
records were,” he says, laughing again.

 

Three decades
later, the same sense of wild abandon still runs through Powers’ blood,
especially when he talks about playing with the Pink Monkey Birds. Looking back
on that first Pittsburgh show in particular, he says, “It was like this is
going to give me all the room to make noise or just be Kid Congo and freak out
on guitar and do spoken word poetry… In other words, don’t restrain yourself.
Let your freak flag fly and love what you’re doing, and see what happens then.
I’ve been making records with that motto ever since.” 

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