Interview with Kid Congo Powers (of The Cramps, The Gun Club, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and The Pink Monkey Birds)

Kid Congo Powers of The Cramps, The Gun Club, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and The Pink Monkey Birds is on tour in support of the re-release of his album Dracula Boots. We met up with him at his show in LA to discuss the tour, his history in punk, and what’s on the horizon for Kid.

Punx: How’d the first day of tour go?

Kid: The first day? It was great. We flew in, we had no rehearsals (laughs). We had played a month before and tried to play songs we haven’t played in 10 years, and it was a great success, which is very indicative of this line up of the group, because that’s how we started. 
I had a prior version of the Pink Monkey Birds, kind of a New York version when we started, and the band kind of fell apart right before tour, like- days before tour.
People were disappearing and finding out they couldn’t get time off from their jobs and blah blah blah. So I was left with this dilemma of all these dates and no band. A friend of mine, Jonathan Toubin, who is a soul music DJ and entrepreneur, he said to me, “Kid, you know what? You need a Texas rhythm section!” (as he’s from Texas) and I said “well thats great, but I’m sitting here in New York City, that’s not going to do me any good.” He said “I know this guy who just moved to New York, this bass player who’s really great and stylish,” and, “I know this guy from Kansas, he’ll fly out, and he’ll be able to learn everything because he’s from Texas,” and I said “well I don’t have any better ideas right now,” so he flew out and we played together, within 5 minutes I was like, “this is amazing.” We just made up a song, a version of whatever songs we had, we had two days to make it all happen, and we’ve been together ever since, which is 11 or 12 years.

Punx: This tour’s promoting the re-release of the Dracula Boots album. What are your thoughts on the resurgence of vinyl?

Kid: When did it go away? (laughs)

Punx: I mean, in our scene it never did. 

Kid: It’s good in the main stream, it’s just clogged up all the pressing plants. It can only be good, besides my own personal gripes of having to wait longer to have a record released. That’s one of the reasons I loved being on In The Red Records because they never stopped with vinyl. They started, and it went out of fashion, and they kept pressing and were mainly vinyl. That was their main thing and that’s what attracted me, other than Larry Hardy’s very good taste in music, and his support of what I was doing. I don’t think my records are heading to Urban Outfitters (laughs) 

Punx: Do you prefer listening to records?

Kid: I do. I mean I listen to my phone out of convenience, but at home I have a record player and lots of records. I actually DJ out, I’m a 45’s DJ.

Punx: That’s a lot of flipping with 45’s

Kid: Yeah, you don’t have any time for thinking. It’s good, it makes the time go by fast, and keeps it exciting. They just sound better to me, 45’s are very warm and loud. 

Kid live @ The Echo in Los Angeles

Punx: When you write, what comes first, the words or the music?

Kid: Mostly music actually. What I do is I’m a very stream of consciousness writer. I do a lot of cut ups. Say for instance with Dracula Boots. I’m just finishing a book right now I began writing before Dracula Boots, over ten years, just a bit at a time. Because every time I get uncomfortable, I have to make a record and go on tour for a year, but now I have an editor and In The Red Records is putting it out. This will be their first publishing effort. I like doing things with Larry Hardy, first time things are always exciting, and he’s a very exciting person to work with, as he’s always up for making great things and diving into the unknown. With him nothing’s impossible. Well, one thing, we put out this box set of CD’s a while ago called 5 Greasy Pieces that was supposed to be like a chicken restaurant theme. We wanted to have it in a chicken bucket, but in the end we couldn’t find a bucket that would work, so we put it out in a box. 

Punx: Do you know when the autobiography is coming out?

Kid: When we finish it. That’s the beauty part of the first time, there’s no timeline. The editing is pretty much done, one quick run through more, and then just making the book. It’s going to have lots of photos of my whole history. It goes from childhood from the mid-nineties is the timeline. 

Punx:  Will there be an audio book version?

Kid: Of course! It’s funny because that guy Jonathan (Toubin) was a record label at the time he found the (Texas version of the) band. He put out my album Philosophy In Underwear. We did an audio history, because all these people don’t know the things I’ve done. People know me as the guy from the Cramps, or Gun Club, or Nick Cave, but they didn’t know I did all of those things. He did a podcast that was hugely successful, so I said definitely for the book, I can talk, and talk, and talk…

Punx: I noticed your Kid Speaks podcast

Kid: That was my Halloween spoken word gothic piece. I did some Zacherly, Poe, TS Elliot, and Alice Cooper. Great Poets. 

Punx: You might be one of the only people that was in LA, New York, and London in 1977. What was the difference in scenes like?

Kid: Very different, and not different at all, is the actual answer. I was around for glam rock in LA. There was this weird before punk “punk”. There was this period of cool bands, but they weren’t really punk bands. The Imperial Dogs, The Motels, outsider music. There was a whole scene around, to me it was one continuous thing. Glam, and Rodney’s, and then this weird Detroit rock Iggy and the Stooges, New York Dolls, and that kind of thing, to us, was punk. Very D.I.Y. and raw and looking for a real feeling. You’ll see Pleasant Gehman and Alice Bag, we came from that glam rock lineage. Punk was a natural thing for us. In LA it was more of a “Hollywood” kind of scene. It was very based on both equally New York and London influences, but had its own home thing, coming out of that raw rock n roll Stooges meeting 60s pop. It was a really strange mixture. Patti Smith and The Ramones had a huge influence on all the first punks. We were all there at those concerts and hugely inspired by that much free thinking. The Ramones were a comic book come to life, and an amazing energy no one had felt before. It was incredible how condensed of a thing they were, and the world they created. And then Patti Smith was a different thing. Very poetic and spacey and psychedelic and literate. The very androgynous look. Singing as a man, singing as different personas. Things had gotten too pompous and horrible in music in the 70s.
We came out of David Bowie, T-Rex, Roxy Music, that was my world. We eschewed things like Yes, but we were kids too. We were just wild, feral children making it up. It was like an explosion in LA. There was no cell phone, no internet. We just found each other, you found people at concerts, you found people at record stores, writing to magazines. There were fanzines like Backdoor Man fanzine, and they were like a juvenile delinquent, hard edge fanzine and they introduced Patti Smith to me, and the Ramones, MC5, all of that, and I wouldn’t have known about them if it wasn’t for that fanzine. They were based out of Palos Verdes, they were record collecting juvenile delinquents who loved that rebellious spirit. Essays about James Dean and Rebel Without A Cause – anything that was rebellious was wonderful. 

Kid live @ The Echo in Los Angeles

Punx: LA history is finally coming out. When I was growing up everyone talked about the punk history of New York and London , but I feel Los Angeles in 77-79 is just as important. 

Kid: Oh yeah, the bands were just as original with The Screamers, and The Dils. Chip (Kinman, of the Dils) is amazing, those songs are amazing. I was a huge fan of theirs. The Bags were a force. You see Alice Bag now at 60 and she is still a force, imagine her at 19 years old! She was intense.
X was super dark when they started, talking about the dark side of LA with Charles Bukowski and weird sex fetish. 
The people then were literate. That’s the thing, we traded books all the time. We had a great time seeing arthouse movies, they were a big part of the scene. It wasn’t just music, you had to know the right books, the right movies, and everyone was on point with each other. Everyone went and saw Apocalypse Now, Alien, and John Waters movies. Suspiria by Dario Argento was a huge influence on the scene. Things like that said a lot. 
New York, I was in New York-
Some friends and I decided we couldn’t be left out of the New York scene, so we hopped on a greyhound bus and experienced that. That was a whole other world actually. I saw the Heartbreakers at the Village Gate. I saw The Dead Boys. I saw The Cramps of course. And then a lot of the No Wave. Lydia Lunch, Teenage Jesus, James Chance and Contortions, Pere Ubu, Suicide, all of that was mind blowing. It was very strange and unique to New York music, very reflective of the hard concrete jungle of New York. Very urban, very desperate. It was a dangerous place on the Lower East Side. CBGB’s- if the Hell’s Angels were there, you were taking your life in your hands if they decided to bust the place up. When I went I was not yet a musician at 19-20 years old. I didn’t meet the stars, I met other kids my age and we were on a tear: breaking in back doors of clubs, climbing through garbage to bust through the back door of CBGBs. It was a very eye opening scene, very different and influential on me. It made me have a wider scope of what was going on.
I also had been in London around the same time. I forced my parents to send me on this school trip that was going to Europe. It was Paris, Rome, and London. I told them, “I’m going to quit school, I’m bored.” I was a smart kid, and I was going to take a GED test. They said if you graduate with your class we’ll send you on this trip as a graduation present. So I, of course, broke off from the school and went to punk clubs and record stores in London. I saw The Slits, and this band called the Prefects, and that was something else all together. I still had a bowl hair cut like The Ramones and was probably wearing baggy jeans. This was super sleek, almost scary for me. It was fascinating, but that whole leather look and everyone was so punk, so London punk. Super stylish. But very united, and very strong. The impression was everyone was in on something, some kind of revolution. It was a world they created. I was so influenced by everything. I immediately went to my hotel room in London and chopped all my hair off. I learned by kind of copying everything, and would throw myself into something.
“We don’t know what’s happening, but we’re going to throw ourselves into it.”
The music and energy of the whole thing spoke to you. It was important and revolutionary. It was a rejection of anything normal. That was a good thing, because we just felt like we were a bunch of misfits that didn’t belong anywhere. 
“Where do I belong?”
Before all that came along, we were trying this, trying that. For me, I’m gay, and coming to terms with that, how do I negotiate that in public, or in private even?
 Glam Rock gave a freedom to be flamboyant, but it was really a bunch of straight men trying to get young girls. So they were dressing up in feminine clothes. While a bunch of the younger kids in that scene were actually a lot of gay kids. It was like we have a playground here, we have a venue and an outlet. Punk was very much the same. It had its macho kind of side, but in the beginning, anything bucking the system was going to work, and any misfit was accepted. And that was very wonderful for an 18 year old kid. 

Punx: How did you become president of The Ramones fan club?

Kid: I appointed myself (laughs). Again, it was just that whole thing, like creating a fanzine. I said “There’s no Ramones fan club, and there should be a Ramones fan club.” I realized when the Ramones first started coming to LA they would play every suburb, every small club, anywhere. Orange county, all through LA, the valley, they just played everywhere. It was the same group of people at every show. It was kids, it was school teachers, it was just weird, like a crowd scene from Mad Magazine (laughs). There was someone with frizzy hair, and someone hammering nails into their tongues, just this crazy mix of weird people. We were all exchanging addresses and phone numbers and saying “See you at the next show!”
Very Grateful Dead, we just followed them everywhere, San Diego, San Francisco, wherever. 
So I started doing that fanzine and I called it “The Ramones Fan Club” and the record company, and the Ramones caught wind of it and they knew a good thing when they saw it. It was this grass roots thing and the record company publicity gave me all these materials, and let us go to their office and make photo copies for everyone and help me mail stuff. It went slightly legit, like off the record legit. But still was just stapled together, xeroxed. Then I got recognized by the band for it, and that was really exciting. A lot of those people I met then are still my friends. It was the start of an enduring community.

Punx: Did that turn into Lobotomy? Or is Lobotomy something different?

Kid: Lobotomy was something Pleasant (Gehman) started, that I kind of fell into. There were a lot of fanzines, but they were kind of the funny fanzine. They were super humorous, like a Mad Magazine. Really fun and really great, they interviewed great people. Just a group of kids hanging out, making it happen, that was our internet.

Punx: Did you interview bands as well?

Kid: I think I must have, probably Lydia Lunch, because I knew her. But, mostly I was a record and live reviewer. Pleasant did most of the interviews. I had another very short lived fanzine called “Contempo Trans” with my friend Brad Dunning who became the drummer in the first version of the Gun Club. It was more of an arty take on things, but it was fun. 

Kid live @ The Echo in Los Angeles

Punx:  Do you have a favorite Gun Club story?

Kid: That’s always a weird question for me, because there’s always a million, and I can’t think of one when asked (laughs). But first thing I think of, I was thinking about, was playing in Buffalo, and all of our stuff got stolen. This is kind of a pathetic story but it’s the first one that came to mind. We were playing in Buffalo, we were about to go to Europe. First time with this line up, and Jeffrey wanted to buy some drugs, as we did in those days. He said (to the drug dealers) “Oh, I have my wallet, it’s in our van,” and so he went to get his wallet from the van, and brought the drug dealers with him. He did the transaction and that was fine, and then we loaded out and hung out for a while. Then our van got broken into and everything got stolen. We had nothing to go to Europe with. A passport got stolen, it was really stupid. Let it be known; what a fool-
taking drug dealers to your van, not very street smart.

Punx: Do you have a favorite Cramps story?

Kid: The first time we played in LA my hair caught on fire. We were playing at the Roxy and we had candles on our amplifiers. We did that song “Sunglasses After Dark”, and I’d put my sunglasses on the amplifier, and turn around to make a lot of feedback. I had really big hair with LOTS of Aquanet super hold, and I leaned, and I didn’t see it, but the flame rose up and went whoosh! Luckily I had so much hairspray on, so just the outside flashed and I didn’t burn my head. Suddenly the road manager was throwing beer on my head. Nick Knox jumped from his drums and started beating me on the head with his sticks. It was my first time playing in LA and I was wondering “Was I really playing that awful that everyone’s beating me up now?” Then I noticed the whole room stunk like burned hair. 

Punx: Do you have a favorite Bad Seeds story?

Kid:  I think just making that movie “Wings Of Desire” the Wim Wenders film, being a part of that was really exciting. Actually, no, what was even better, was the party. After the film came out it won these awards, like the German version of the academy awards. We played at this awards party for “Wings Of Desire” and they had this margarita fountain. Everyone got so drunk, like incredibly drunk. And Berlin at the time, there was always this group of like 50 people that went to every single thing, they were like the entourage. I used to call them The Berlin 500, they were just everywhere, stuffed into every little dressing room. They got drunk, and we got really drunk. They started acting belligerent and it was all tuxedos and gowns. We were supposed to play whatever songs we played in the movie and we just decided to play this really filthy song called Scum. Wim thought it was really wonderful, but the people just threw us off stage (laughs).

Punx: Anyone with a margarita fountain is just asking for it.

Kid: Exactly. They were asking for trouble!

Punx: Do you have a favorite memory from Rodney’s Disco?

Kid: If I was a kid in punk rock, imagine what a kid I was at Rodney’s! I was like 14-15. I don’t even know how we got in there. That’s what always shocked me, how did all these kids get into a bar? (laughs) but it was filled with these teenage kids. We couldn’t afford to drink, so there’d always be a bunch of kids, and there was an alley in the back. We would congregate there and drink Rainier Ale and go and storm the door and go in and dance in front of the mirrors. The thing is the music was great there, he played mostly British music, and that’s when I realized B sides of singles were different non-album tracks. He was great, he really made a place for a bunch of weirdos, and for him to see famous people. For him to hob knob with famous people, you have a VIP booth and a bar, you’re in. We were the decorations. 

Punx: Do you have a favorite place to play?

Kid: It’s all good, not one place is better than the other. Right now though, Australia is really good for us. I didn’t go there for twenty years, I thought “no one knows who we are, no one would want to put us up.”
Then my friend Harry Howard (Roland S Howard from The Birthday Party’s brother) who has a great band called “Harry Howard and the NDE” said “I bet my booking agent would be interested.” I said “put us in touch”, and the agent said “I’ll look around”. The next day I got a call and he said “This festival will pay you twenty grand,” and I said, “we’re going to Australia!” (laughs) I don’t think I’ve made that much in  a year here. It was good, I think it’s good to not go for twenty years. That was my own self esteem, but I guess you become kind of legendary when you don’t go for so long. I kind of forgot I was part of the Australian underground rock scene. With The Bad Seeds, and also the Gun Club had gone there in 1983 and created quite a stir. That was my first time going. Now we proved to be quite popular on our own being The Pink Monkey Birds. They have a really great structure for radio there, lots of radio interviews, and an audience that’s really excited to see music and to rock n roll. I’ve always loved Australian bands, The Scientists, they’re one of my very favorites, the Saints, and the Birthday Party of course. It’s a great place and it’s lovely there. 

Punx: Do you have a favorite band to share the stage with?

Kid: Slim Cessna’s Auto Club! It’s always amazing what they do. Every time I think I understand it, I find something new to see in them or get a new view point of what they’re up to. I think they keep changing too. They are a very big example, and this is something I like of bands that go the long term, a really great cultivation of what they are and the world they’ve created. They’ve made it so real, it turned into a beast of it’s own. In a strange way they’re incredibly modern, you don’t notice it because the banjos and what they wear. But its so modern and sophisticated. Seeing them so many times- there’s a story going on, and they’re wonderful people. 
I think they’re someone who’s continued on and have not betrayed their muse. They’ve never tried to be anything but themselves. They have offshoot bands and that’s where they try other things, but Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is a thing unto itself. That makes it enjoyable, plus they’re incredibly enjoyable people to be with. Probably the best people. 

Punx: What’s the best part of being in a band?

kid: Performing live. Everyone’s like “how much longer are you going to do this? You’re 60 years old” and I’m like “I don’t know what else to do,” I don’t know anything that gives me what performing gives me. As long as its giving me life, as the drag queens say. 

Punx: It’s like a fountain of youth.

Kid: Yeah, and I don’t even care about youth, but I care about feeling useful and being able to express myself. I’m pretty quiet usually, I live in Tucson, AZ now. Don’t know a lot of people, I’m usually pretty reserved. I had to become the singer and the front person, which was a whole multi-year process. There was a point where I thought I wasn’t good, and no one wants the guitar player to sing. But, I’m an Aries and I’m going to ram through everything, whether you like it or not. That’s how I learned, if you want to go back to punk, that’s very much the way it was. No one was going to tell me you can’t play guitar. No one was going to tell anyone, tell Alice Bag or Chip Kinman they couldn’t make the music they wanted to play. I use those as examples because they’re both making current things. People reference our old stuff and we’re proud of it, but we’re current artists making new music and it’s not betraying the vision or aesthetic. It’s actually quite a lonely place sometimes. I could be famous if I probably had tried  to suck up to someone, or play some music I didn’t necessarily want to do, but I never wanted to do that. There will be people tonight, I go around the world, I make records, I’m writing a book.

Punx: It sounds like you’re famous in many respects

Kid: I’m famous/not famous. Cult fame. 

Punx: What’s the worst part of being in a band?

Kid: Interviews (laughs) Just kidding, that’s actually not the worst at all. Sitting in a van, being tired, being stuck with each other in enclosed spaces. We somehow weather it, and it all disappears when we get on stage. In reality we all do love each other, but I think just being exhausted is the worst part. You just have to be smart about that, and know when to leave. I love performing, so the trade off of a little sleep deprivation is worth it. I like playing for people, I like meeting people. I feel like it’s a connection and an ongoing conversation with people to play live and that’s important to me. I really like that Nick Cave is doing those talks. At first I was like “Nick is trying to do something easy,” then I realized after hearing about it and reading his stuff, it’s really hard what he’s doing. He’s actually doing the hardest thing you could do, which is just stand there and talk to people. We have a lot of smoke and mirrors and fronting and stuff. He’s doing something really incredible, and it’s such a service to people. I’m really astonished, amazed, and proud of him becoming this weird, self realized pop star. He’s arena rock now (laughs), it’s so weird. He’s who he said he was in the first place. The music’s changed, but it’s still interesting. It’s polished, and there’s nothing wrong with polished. 

Punx: What’s next for Kid Congo?

Kid: The book. The book is the next thing really. I think that, for me, that is a very big thing. Like I said, I’ve been writing it for over 10 years, a bit at a time, and have given up many times. Like who wants to read this crap? I can’t write… I had to stop reading everyone else’s autobiographies. If they’re saying this, then I need to talk about that. It’s been good, it’s been a real learning experience. I took a lot of writing workshops, I took the stories to people who would have no idea who I was. I did workshops in DC, and New Haven, CT where people would have no idea who I was, what LA rock is, what anything is, and said “is this a story?” and they’re like “YES! This is an incredible story, it tells the story of a persons youth and adventure” which was good to learn. Because I was just like a hundred people who like In The Red Records are going to buy it and that’s going to be it, but it’s a bigger story, I learned. When I started it, I said “I don’t know what this book’s going to be about, but it’s going to tell me at the end what it’s about.” And, it actually has told me what it is. Some of the great stuff, I thought was not so great (laughs), and some of the stuff I didn’t even realize was really great, and really fucked up (more laughs) but that’s actually the good part for me, and that’s what made the music what it is. I did learn that I did whatever the fuck I please my whole life.
 That was a like “oh really?” because a lot of times I don’t feel like that’s really happening because you know you have to pay taxes, or have a job, or whatever-
 but really, it’s been on my terms, and I got to say what I wanted. I got to do whatever I do, and make whatever I wanted to make, and I’m still doing it, at 60 years old! It’s like that skit on SNL with that old Rockette and she’s this brash awful person and is like “I’m 50 and I can do whatever” and I feel like that, “I’m 60 and I’m going to do this!” For someone who thought they’d be dead at thirty, who projected that, and it’s quite a romantic notion, I’m glad I ditched that romance.

Kid performs the Gun Club’s “Sex Beat” with The Pink Monkey Birds

Interview by Alex Napiwocki and Natalie Klibanow

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