Powers of the Outsiders

An early LA Punk cult hero, Kid Congo Powers continues his legacy with the Pink Monkey Birds

click to enlarge Kid Congo Powers (second from left) has released four albums with the Pink Monkey Birds.
Kid Congo Powers (second from left) has released four albums with the Pink Monkey Birds.

W

hen the history of Cincinnati’s MidPoint Music Festival is written, there should be a chapter about the incendiary performance given by Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds to close out the 2014 event.

Brian Baker was there to witness the powerful show for CityBeat, writing, “MOTR’s dance floor was a boiling mass of rhythmically moving bodies, propelled by the Kid’s blazing guitar runs and the Pink Monkey Birds’ perpetual motion soundtrack. … I fully expected lightning to shoot out of the Kid’s fingers and eyes as he overloaded every internal and external circuit in the joint. … I had to believe that this might have been one of the most spectacular last nights of my personal MidPoint attendance history.”

Powers is coming back to Cincinnati (and MOTR) this Monday, on the occasion of the Pink Monkey Birds’ new album, La Araña Es La Vida. This is the fourth album he has made with this trio — which features bassist Kiki Solis, drummer Ron Miller and guitarist Mark Cisneros — since 2009’s Dracula Boots.

Powers remembers the 2014 MPMF show well.

“I think we closed out the whole shebang and it was pretty much fun,” he says. “We’ll have a whole new show for you this time.”

The kind of response Powers and his band got in Cincinnati (and are getting elsewhere) in 2014 is especially rewarding because he isn’t exactly a new name or face in the Rock & Roll world.  Yet he’s still a relatively unfamiliar one.

A 2014 Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds session for radio station KEXP:

At age 57, he’s been around. Born Brian Tristan, he was the co-founder (with the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce) of one of LA’s greatest Punk/Post Punk bands, The Gun Club, in the late ’70s. Powers was also a guitarist with Psychobilly ravers The Cramps (whose guitarist Poison Ivy and singer Lux Interior rechristened him “Kid Congo Powers”), then a guitarist in the late ’80s/early ’90s with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, playing on masterful albums like Tender Prey and The Good Son.

With that kind of experience, it’s no wonder Powers is a hot, accomplished and memorable guitarist in any number of styles — from twangy Rockabilly and murky Blues to furious Punk, sustained primal Drone and beyond.

But it has taken him decades to get comfortable as a bandleader and work out a sound independent of his past.

“I do now have a foot in the door to starting something of my own,” Powers says. “But I had to learn what to do. I was trying to figure out how my music could have its own voice and be influenced by all the things I’ve already done, but not to be a rehash or be nostalgic.”

Another big challenge for Powers was finding a suitable vocal approach. With Pink Monkey Birds, he talks as much as he sings, peppering songs with droll asides, phrases and short bits of narration that collectively contribute to the music’s upbeat, party-stomping drive. It works well with the material he writes, and on the songs contributed by other band members. He sees his vocal approach as being in the tradition of Beat-era poets.

“I’m well aware my voice was the thing I had to overcome as a singer,” he says. “I don’t have a singer’s voice, but that doesn’t mean I can’t vocalize. It took me a long time to find what was comfortable for me and how I could communicate with people. You just put your heart into it.”

Powers was a key member of Los Angeles’ early Punk scene, which consisted of some of the outsiders from mainstream culture shown in Penelope Spheeris’ classic 1981 documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization Part 1. Like all early Punk, the LA scene had plenty of white males. Yet Powers is Chicano — his grandparents came from Mexico and he was raised to be proud of his Latino culture. (Gun Club’s Pierce was also Latino; his mother was Chicano.) Additionally, Powers is gay.

But Powers chose to neither hide nor stress those facts, at least initially. Being Punk was itself a form of identity politics and a political/cultural statement.

“When you’re gathering misfits as your new tribe, you accept all,” Powers explains. “In the very beginning, during the first wave of Punk Rock in Los Angeles, labels were absolutely taboo — outside of being a punk rocker. We already felt like outsiders anyway. Culture and homosexuality were not in themselves politicized issues.”

But at the same time, the early Punk scene was influenced by gay culture in LA.

“Artists and art directors and some musicians were gay and everybody knew (it),” he says. “It just was never talked about. We could be who we were, but didn’t want to discuss it or categorize it.”

Powers has been reflecting on this lately as he works on his autobiography. In 2014, he wrote an essay for The Huffington Post about coming out in the early ’80s, as the AIDS crisis took the lives of friends. Powers found support within the Punk community.

“It was at this time, a new generation of punks erupted with the Queercore scene,” he wrote. “Punk left behind the ‘labels are taboo’ credo in favor of … loud support for the GLBT community, and empowering us from the pain and ignorance toward AIDS.”

At a recent Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans — a festival devoted to “unsung heroes” of Rock & Roll — Powers was invited to interview a member of Thee Midniters, a mid-’60s Chicano Garage Rock band he loved as a kid in LA. The group had regional hits like “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “Whittier Blvd,” and belatedly has won recognition from new generations for helping to make Rock & Roll more inclusive.

Powers also got to sing with a current version of Thee Midniters at the festival, and it moved him to see the enthusiastic crowd response.

“There are bands that are cult-famous and loved, but never completely mainstream,” Powers says. “So it’s always nice to be acknowledged by younger generations who say, ‘That was really important to me.’

“I definitely feel a parallel with the Pink Monkey Birds. Anyone who feels like they were really an outsider and then gets any recognition at all should feel good about that.”


KID CONGO POWERS AND THE PINK MONKEY BIRDS play a free show Monday at MOTR Pub. More info: motrpub.com.


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