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Photo by Luz Gallardo
Innovative guitarist Kid Congo Powers has arguably led one of the most colorful careers in rock. Since starting coming to prominence in the late 1970s as a leader within the Los Angeles punk scene, he went on to become a member of The Cramps, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and The Gun Club, as well as leading his own groups, including The Pink Monkey Birds and the Wolfmanhattan Project. With that last band, he’s just released a new album, Summer Forever and Ever, and he’s simultaneously put out another record, Kid Congo Power and the Near Death Experience Live in St. Kilda, with a one-off band he assembled in Australia. (The In the Red label released both of those albums.) To top off this burst of productivity, Powers has also published Some New Kind of Kick: A Memoir (via Hachette Books), which has earned excellent reviews since its October release. Calling from his home in Tucson, Arizona, Powers reflects on his remarkable career, past and present – and lets it be known that he has no plans to stop creating anytime soon.
How did you come to record the show in Australia that you’re releasing as a live album now?
KID CONGO POWERS: Like everything else in my life, it just happened. I’m not big on calculation! Never have been. Kim Salmon from The Scientists had an authorized biography out [in 2019] called Nine Parts Water, One Part Sand. He and the writer of the biography asked if I would come out and play, as he was having a big concert for his book launch. When we got there, someone said, “We can record this [show] on 24 tracks.” I’m glad. It was a special occasion, a one-off, and it was great.
How did you know you should also put out the Wolfmanhattan Project album now, too?
KID CONGO POWERS: I’m just a busy person! And why not have a Kid Congo onslaught in October? In 2019, we worked on that album, which is me and Mick Collins from The Gories and The Dirtbombs, and Bob Bert from Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth and a million others – right now he’s on tour with Jon Spencer. So yeah, so we had our supergroup. The Wolfmanhattan Project is a very collaborative thing. Actually, Pink Monkey Birds are exactly the same: we just leave it to whatever happens.
Then there’s your new memoir. With the drug addiction and other difficulties you’ve overcome, your really make it clear that you are a survivor.
KID CONGO POWERS: Yeah, as I wrote it, I thought the same thing – it’s miraculous that I lived through that. Any one of these instances could have gone a very different kind of way. So there’s a lot of luck on my side, and a very ingrained survival instinct. Also, in the book, I really wanted to make sure people knew who [The Gun Club frontman] Jeffrey Lee Pierce was to me. There’s some people who have written things [about him]: “Drug addict, own worst enemy, difficult.” But I knew a person who was lovely and a dreamer and generous and a visionary. Anyone who loves his music knows that. Also, we had a very special relationship. We both grew up with only sisters and so we had a brother sort of relationship that from the time we met to his last day. We went through all kinds of ups and downs, but always remained friends and in touch. When he died, we were planning something else [musically]. So this was my constant source of creative brotherhood with someone, and I just wanted to really make that point in the book. Yes, he was difficult, but no more difficult than anyone else I write about in the book. It was the same amount of difficult. So don’t give them a pass and not him!
Losing him, and a lot of other things you describe in the book, show that you’ve really needed to have a lot of resilience. Where do you think that came from?
KID CONGO POWERS: My parents, of course. I had very traumatic things happen, like when my cousin was murdered. And that really changed everything. I was fifteen years old. That’s an age when you’re making some big decisions and changes, and that was when part of me went like, “I want to experience everything because life is not worth much and there’s no one really trying to explain to me what this is about, and there’s no way for me to know except to experience everything.” It unleashed a sort of wanderlust and hedonism. Luckily, I put my wanderlust and adventurism into wanting to get lost in rock and roll. I was pretty single-minded about music, that I was somehow going to be involved. Maybe I would be a journalist; maybe I would be an A&R person – it was going to be something. And then it just took Jeffrey Lee Pierce saying, “I think you are a great person for the band.” That changed everything. I was reluctant, at first, because I didn’t believe it was possible, even though I was young and seeing all this proof that people who couldn’t play were picking up instruments and playing. I was like, “I’m the fan, I’m not the musician.” To me, there was a really clear demarcation. And it was great because punk just took away that line altogether. But it took a while to wrap my head around it and say, “Okay, I’m going to do it.” And that was it. [Then] when I joined The Cramps I’d been playing guitar for one year. So I was filled with trepidation because they, to me, were huge, huge rock stars. I loved them so much. And it just seemed like, “Wow, this is an impossible request I am getting, but I have to say yes.”
Not everyone could rise to the occasion like you did.
KID CONGO POWERS: Yeah. I was just ready at the time, I guess. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. You know, these were very fortunate opportunities, and I just said yes. The Bad Seeds asked me to fill in for a tour, so I didn’t really expect any more. I didn’t expect to record [with them] or end up moving to Berlin for three years and playing with them.
You’ve always been so prolific. Where do you continue to get inspiration?
KID CONGO POWERS: That’s my life’s work. It’s what I do. It is what keeps me sane. It’s my main source of sustenance, really. I still love making music, and I still feel like I have things to say. I suppose I could dry up, but it hasn’t happened thus far! It was my parents’ very good work ethic they instilled in me. Stuff can be easy, but you still work at it. It brings me joy and hope each time I make something. I don’t pander to what anyone else wants and what might be popular. I work in a way that it has to mean something to me. Every single little thing. Even if it’s frivolous or I use humor and silliness, it all has to mean something. Music is giving me life, and I want to create something that gives me the same rush as when I first heard Jimi Hendrix or The Ramones.
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