From The Gun Club, to The Cramps, to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Kid Congo has been on the inside of some of the coolest bands on the earth. Nowadays, leading Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds, he seems focused on producing music which condenses all of the things you’ve liked best about the rest of his career all in one place; atmospheric and pointed nightmare garage tunes that evoke equal parts spaghetti western soundtracks, Hazel Adkins-ish rockabilly jams, and mid-sixties horror films. Sound too good to be true? Thankfully, it’s not.
Ever touring and recording, the latest band’s single, the deliciously spooky “Conjure Man” has just been released on In The Red records, which will soon lead to full length “Haunted Head” this spring. Showcasing at SxSW on March 16 at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, the group should be a force to be reckoned with live, something they’ll be proving again as they embark on a European tour jaunt this spring.
Rocker: I feel like you’ve been in every important band in the world.
Kid: To some people!
I was 20, 21 when I was in the Cramps, I was 19 when I was in the Gun Club,.. I think of that now and think, “Wow, to think a 21-year-old is making records and going on tour…” – and they do, of course – but to me, I just think, “Wow, I was really young and I really didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.” I was just like, “I’m here,” and they were like, “OK, come with me.” It was great, and that’s the great thing, it was a time when those bands were just pure expression, an urgent expression, a new expression, the whole coming out of punk. You were able to just freak out. Like when people say, “Is that punk rock or not?” I don’t even like saying the word ‘punk rock’ about things, I’m like, “Is it freaking out or not? Is it weird? Is it making me think something different, or making me look at something differently?” That’s why I say with my current band “We like to take old music and make people take a different look at it.”
Rocker: How did your current Pink Monkey Birds lineup come together?
Kid: We all fell together. Right now I live in Washington D.C., the bass player, Kiki, lives in Austin, Texas, Ron Miller lives in Kansas, and Jesse lives in Seattle, so we couldn’t be more spread out amongst the United States, we have people one on each coast, the Midwest, the Southwest, we’re covered. But we all found each other through Jonathan Toubin of New York Night Train. Kiki had moved to New York and I was needing to put a band together, and he suggested him, so I thought, “This guy is perfect, he’s amazing,” and so we’ve stuck together ever since. Then Ron was another friend of his, within two minutes of hearing him and Kiki playing together, I was like, “Yes!” It’s a weird situation where we had another guitar player, but he’d quit, and we were really in a bind, because I was like, “I can’t play all these guitar parts.” We were doing a two-guitar thing, but we were going on tour, and it was like, “We can’t go on tour with him, it’s impossible.” So Ron came in the middle of all this. He came thinking he was going to play in a four-piece, and he arrives in to New York, and it’s just the two of us saying, “We don’t know what we’re going to do,” and so we just made up stuff and did this tour, and it was amazing. So we’ve all been together ever since, and then we added Jesse, because our album, Dracula Boots, that we did with the three of us, it’s very spacious, and I did a lot of two guitar parts on the recording, so we needed him for playing live, and he added an element that made things almost symphonic for us, going from this very bare bones thing to a fuller type of sound, and we dig it.
Rocker: Since you’re living all over the country, what is the creative process?
Kid: Dada. We just let it happen. It is kind of like that. What happens is that Ron Miller, our drummer, him and his girlfriend live in a high school, they bought a high school in rural Kansas, because they wanted an alternative space to live in, they were sick of Austin and Seattle, and so it was like, “You’ve bought a mansion, you have a two-story brick deco building with 40 rooms in it or 30 rooms in it…” Maybe not that many, maybe 20, but they have a gymnasium, a kitchen the size of a cafeteria, acres of land. So [for our Gorilla Rose album we did] all our recording there. It’s the perfect place for me to record. I love the myth of high school, and I love the myth of juvenile delinquency.
Rocker: Why are they myths?
Kid: I guess this is still today, but I’m thinking of the 50s and 60s juvenile delinquency. I’m more talking about movies than probably any reality.
I always remember when my sisters were teenagers and I was eight or something, they were really excited about going to these dances where The Midnighters – the 60s Chicano rock band – were going to play, in a high school gym. I remember them and my cousins being really excited, and I remember thinking, “I don’t know what the Midnighters is, but I know that’s where the excitement is!” Ever since I was that age, I said, “I want to be a teenager so I can have this excitement.”
Kid on his musical origins and family
Rocker: Do you think you’re still as excited about bands as you were when you were a kid?
Kid: Yeah, I’m eternally a fan, I’ve never stopped that, I started out just a record nerd and a fan, and everyone I’ve ever played with is the same. When you make records, you can become jaded about it, and if you get involved in the music industry, you get really jaded about it. Luckily, I’m someone who has managed to stay out of the mainstream things, that I’ve had my own dealings with record labels and bad business horrors, but I’m actually very glad to say that at the age of 52 that I have just made any kind of music I wanted to make, and I’ve made records that people buy, and I go on tour and it’s great, people are still really happy about records I made 30 years ago, and so that is a winning formula. I can’t get too jaded, the music industry hasn’t really crushed me that much. It did in the Eighties, because we really gave it a go with the Gun Club, trying to do something, and everyone was like, “You could be the next R.E.M.,” but we were, quite frankly, uninterested in that. You want the best for what you can do, but the business is for the birds, and I think now that I’m older, I’m so happy to say that – the music business is for the birds. That’s why I really love being on the label I’m on, In the Red, with Larry Hardy, he just loves music, too, he’s as big of a record and horror nerd as anyone, but he has super eccentric tastes, and I love that, and he loves the music and he loves doing it, and luckily he’s been very successful and the label can still flourish and go, and it’s a nice stable, and there’s so many young bands on that label, and I like it because I listen to them and I’m like, “OK, there’s some freaks out there still.” It’s good,
Rocker: Is there sort of a vision for the Pink Monkey Birds, or is that too esoteric of a question?
Kid: It’s pretty esoteric. The vision is basically to do something good. I think that’s the vision. I like using old music, I’ve learned to do things from many different people, but also I want it to not be revivalist. I want it to be a new language, but I want it to be a language that everyone can understand. So the vision is to be entertaining and instead of being dark, to be bright. Even though you can’t get rid of the darkness…the darkness is dark humor.
Rocker: I think I see what you mean. Like (single from Gorilla Rose) Catsuit Fruit seems completely light and dark at the same time.
Kid: Exactly, and I love that, I love putting it together. Again, I’m into putting different opposites together, seeing how you can make them into a nice ball.
Rocker: One thing I love about your recordings is you seem adept at really creating an atmospheric quality with the music. A lot of people have trouble transferring that artistic vision through the production process.
Kid: That’s why recording in the school was good, because it’s this big ball of sound. With Dracula Boots, I said to the guys, “The room is almost the star of the album,” because it just sounds so great. you record very simply from microphones onto tape, and so it’s low-fi, but it sounds great, kind of eternal and classic.
Rocker: I like the idea of you guys perhaps playing on the stage in the cafeteria of a school.
Kid: We have done that, it’s on video on YouTube, you can see, we played at the school. They annually have a prom for adults, and all their friends fly in from all over, some local freaks come over too, and so we actually played at the prom, and recorded a live album there.
Rocker: So you actually had a moment when you were the prom band?
Kid: Yes! And all kinds of debauched things happened with the students, they all went crazy and got drunk and fell on the floor and danced and stuff. It was really fun! I saw a girl in a prom dress ride off with a guy on a motorcycle!
Rocker: It sounds so John Waters.
Kid: I almost met him! I’d love to meet him. I’m always scared to meet people, but I think he would be someone who wouldn’t be disappointing to meet. I don’t want to blow my image of him, but I think he could probably be friendly, and we live close enough, he lives part time in Baltimore, We actually live really close…
Rocker: Was there ever an idea that you’d do anything except be a musician?
Kid: I never thought I’d be a musician! I thought I’d be just a writer or something. I have Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club to blame for that, for forcing a guitar upon me.
Rocker: I understand you wanted to become a music journalist when you were younger.
Kid: Yeah, I was taking journalism in community college when I got swept up in the Cramps. I just wanted to be near music. The whole idea of journalism was that I could be involved with music. I knew from the time I was a child that I wanted to be involved in music, I just wasn’t sure how it would end up.
Rocker: Did you ever end up doing much journalism?
Kid: Fanzine stuff, and my high school newspaper, of which I still have the clippings. I have done it here and there when people ask me to do guest things, but I’ve not pursued journalism, because now that I’m a musician, I don’t like critics anymore. That turned me off to being a critic.
I’ve been writing a memoir, which is mostly about my childhood and my Los Angeles life. I’m not a disciplined writer, so it’s been on and off and on and off, “I can’t do this anymore, this is shit,” or Sometimes I’m writing and I’m like, “I don’t know, is this going to be interesting to anyone?” but then I’m getting encouragement, I now have an editor, and so I’m actually more focused right now to nip it in the bud, hopefully.
I love writing, love the process, but I hate typing. Now I’m finishing the book in longhand, and someone else is going to type it. I’m not a good typist. I’m a chicken-stratch picker typist, so it always gets frustrating. But it’s been good, I’ve been having to go through a lot of things, been interviewing other people, so I’ve been doing a bit of journalism. So that’s good, and digging back, having to do a lot of fact-checking and stuff.
Rocker: Of your own memory?
Kid Congo Powers: Definitely of my own memory, but that’s the good part about writing your own stories, the way you lived it, the way you remember it. It’s good. Mostly, it’s very funny, the book, it’s pretty hilarious, I’ve had a pretty hilarious life and point of view.
Rocker: Is it more challenging to be the head guy in the band?
Kid: It’s horrifying. I immediately wanted to write to Nick and Lux and Ivy, “All is forgiven for any time I criticized your leadership. I feel really bad if I was ever a brat to you, or ungrateful.” After learning music the way I did, I didn’t think I would last very long, with my limited skills, I didn’t think I’d keep growing, and I certainly didn’t think that after leaving bigger bands that I’d have my own band and be comfortable with that.
Rocker: Would you go back to being somebody’s…
Kid: Somebody’s ashtray? No, but it depends, if it was fun and good…sure. Maybe I’ve crossed the line. We’ll think about that for a while.