SXSW Interview: Kid Congo
The former Brian Tristan was born 53 years ago in La Puente, CA. He grew up first a teenage glam denizen of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, then the president of the Ramones Fan Club, before forming the Gun Club with Jefferey Lee Pierce in 1979. He showcases tonight at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, 12:30am.
He earned his stage name in the Cramps before moving onto Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds and a number of other acts on garage punk’s avant fringes. With two releases out under the moniker Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds, he’s happy to be back in Austin.
Austin Chronicle: You guested with Alejandro Escoverdo last year at a couple of different SXSW events, playing your old Gun Club nugget, “Sex Beat.”
Kid Congo Powers: It was the first song I learned to play on the guitar! The first original song I learned to play on the guitar.
AC: I understand Jeffrey Lee Pierce taught you to play by tuning your guitar to an open chord?
KCP: Open E. I still play in open E! I tuned it today!
AC: So you took the Keith Richards approach this whole time!
KCP: Exactly! I learned a few other tunings along the way, from different people and different experiments, but I stuck with E, mostly. I find most of what I need there. I learned to play in that, so it’s not at all odd. And I’ve learned a few minor chords, slide guitar, and a few other things. When you play regular chords in that tuning, it’s kind of uncomfortable and bulky. It doesn’t sound like it does in standard tuning. But I actually like it! It keeps the rhythm right! You get this clumsy rhythm magic that happens.
AC: You’ve done a lot of stuff on the more experimental edges of garage punk for years. Now you’ve arrived at the Pink Monkey Birds, which I understand was initially inspired by Howie Pyro’s “Intoxica” radio show.
KCP: The first album we did was Dracula Boots on In The Red. And that first incarnation of the Pink Monkey Birds was when I was still in New York, which I loved. So, it was really New York-centric, and I wanted that record to be about all the things I loved about New York music. It was very ambitious. It worked sometimes. After that, I ended up with a band that was spread out all over the place. [In The Red Records’] Larry Hardy wanted to put out a record by us.
Howie’s show I had been listening to forever! And seeing the Cramps play one of their last shows was inspirational. I hadn’t seen them for many years. I was never in town when they played. I saw their last New York show, and thought, “This is incredible!” It was still three chords; guitar, bass, drums, and a singer. I wondered, “Why is this so absolutely out of this world? Like nothing else!” Then I realized, “These are people just being themselves! It’s who’s playing it that’s making the music interesting!”
I thought the same thing about seeing a later incarnation of ESG in the Bronx: “They’re just playing two notes in every song, and it sounds like you’re in heaven!” Again, it’s who’s playing it, how they’re playing it, and why they’re playing it. I thought, “I’ve been a part of this, and made music like this! I just have to be myself and not be afraid to be myself! The realness will come from that.”
I’ve been playing music a long time, and you can get lost in there. Sometimes, you just need to go back to basics. Being yourself is the most basic thing, letting your freak flag fly. That was the formula I happened upon, inspired by those things. I’m still doing it!
AC: It sounds like you’ve hit upon a fallacy that’s dogged music for a long time: People get lost in the idea of “originality.” It might be best to take the Billy Childish idea: Don’t give a fuck about repeating earlier forms. The originality comes from what you bring to it, and giving it a fresh approach.
KCP: Exactly! I’m a huge, huge admirer of Billy Childish, and for that reason: I love his attitude and approach, and therefore his music. I love his paintings. I’ve read his book [My Fault, 1996], which is incredible. It’s really good he formed that movement, Stuckism, that art/anti-art thing. It’s a cool philosophy, and it rings true. And that’s the thing: you just do what you’re going to do.
If there’s one thing that I’m pleased with, it’s that I’ve done exactly that in music for the last 30 years, for better or for worse. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work.
AC: What’s interesting about what Howie plays on his show, and what I think you picked up on, is that there were these people on the edges of early rock & roll. They were doing this stuff that was almost like what we call “exotica” now. It was strange, but primitive, with this odd sophistication.
KCP: Exactly. It’s a combination that’s difficult to arrive at! It’s a bit idiot savant, perhaps, and yes – it’s actually sophisticated, too. And you can feel these conflicts that come together that make something present and whole, and cool.
I always liked mixing styles. When the Gun Club started, the mixing of fast punk with blues hadn’t really been done. It was really inspired by what James Chance & the Contortions were doing: “Oh, he’s mixing James Brown and disco with Albert Ayler and punk!” And the Cramps: psychedelic and rockabilly. Nowadays, it’s a pretty common thing, but then? It was, “Why on Earth?!”
AC: And now? Kid Congo Powers has evolved into this Latino Dada hipster!
KCP: I like that a lot! I’ve obviously lost my mind! Good, I’m glad you picked up on that! I just decided to be myself, and that’s what myself ended up being! After all this years....