Kid Congo Powers: The Rock n’ Roll Beat

Posted February 3, 2014 in
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Kid Congo Powers. Photo: Aaron Brookner

Catching Kid Congo Powers—former member of The Gun Club, The Cramps, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—just before kicking off the US/West Coast Tour, he granted SLUG a look into the life and happenings of a lifelong rock n’ roller. Power’s long music career kicked off when punk rock came along. Already a record collector and, in his words, a “music fanatic,” he met Jeffery Lee Pierce (The Gun Club) at record swap meets. After his involvement in The Gun Club, he joined The Cramps, where he got his name. Powers says, “Lux was looking at a candle he had and it was a candle that said, ‘When you light this candle, Congo powers will be revealed to you.’ And so he was like, ‘There’s your name: Congo Powers. So that was it. Then I threw the Kid on because I liked it. It was a bit like Kid Thomas, who had this big jelly roll hairdo. But also I thought it sounded like a boxer or a pirate.”

After working with The Cramps, Powers played with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. During this time Powers lived in Berlin and London (where he shared a space with Cave in Clapham Common). When asked if he and Cave had any future plans to collaborate, he says, “No, we never talked about it or thought about it really. We already collaborated.” Though, he pointed out, “If we were to do something, I mean, it worked well before. It’s nice to be with likeminded people.”

Later, after living in New York City for 12 years, Powers was ready to leave. His (now) husband was offered a job at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. Powers says, “When he got offered a job here, he was like, ‘I don’t know if I should take this job or not.’ But I had the suitcase open, throwing clothes in it saying, ‘Just take it, let’s go.’” Living in D.C. has given Powers space and time for reflection, during which he has started writing his memoirs about his childhood and making records—more than he did during his time in New York.

In D.C., Powers has also picked up DJing as a hobby. He has a dance party called “Smashing Time” with Ian Svenenious (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up , Chain and The Gang ) and Baby Alcatraz, held once a month. There, they play ‘50s and ‘60s rock n’ roll, soul, R&B and garage punk on 45rpm records. Still an avid collector, Powers cites record collecting as essential to forming a band. He says, “I think you need some weight behind what you are doing—in a rock n’ roll band, that is.” He points out that by knowing the lineage, one can see where other groups get their inspiration and how their language is created, like how The Stooges’ “Shake Appeal” is inspired by Little Richard.

This attitude toward making music is evident in Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds’ newest album, Haunted Head. Thinking a lot about The Cramps’ Psychedelic Jungle, Powers said, “Let’s make a swampy record.” Like their previous albums, they recorded at drummer Ron Miller and his girlfriend Niki Lohr’s artist retreat and school called the Harveyville Project in Harveyville, Kansas. They used the school’s music room, with everyone bringing in their own interpretation of “swampy” to the table, a practice that Powers is intimately familiar with from his work with The Gun Club and Cave.

Powers is particularly proud of this album due to recording it autonomously—guitar player Jesse Roberts engineered it and Miller mixed it. This was the first time they had not used outside help to produce and mix a record. Powers describes the album as a “dirty, fuzzy rock—simple rock with beatnik poetry.” Perhaps for readers this is best experienced through the Allen Ginsberg–sounding vocals in “Lurch.” Further remarking on this, Powers says, “I am much influenced [by and] I very much love Ginsberg. I love the beats.” Other songs such as “I Don’t Like” and “Let’s Go!” have a very punk feel while utilizing the Brian Gysin theory lyrically. Then there is “Su Su,” a tribute to the late Susan Tyrell (Cry Baby, Fats City). Very taken with her work and “otherness,” Powers says, “I think she would have liked to have been a big Hollywood star, but she was too untamed for that system and so I just identified with her … I identified with her as a force of nature.”

Regarding the upcoming gig on February 4 at Bar Deluxe, Powers says, “We’re going to play a lot of stuff off the new album, Haunted Head. We’re going to play some Cramps, a little Gun Club, too … and we’re going to have a good time.” Inquiring on some hints for the future, I’m told he and King Khan have been talking. Now that is a collaboration that would be interesting to hear. In conclusion, when asked what rock n’ roll means to him, Powers says, “It means something that’s funny, dangerous, sexy and humorous all at the same time.” That sounds like the upcoming gig, where I’ll be scoring a couple records for my own collection.

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