Kid Congo Powers' legacy in the grungy underground of American music is plain: He has played guitar with some of the most scorching punk acts of the past 30 years.
When he was still known as Brian Tristan, Powers founded the pioneering punk-blues band the Gun Club in 1980 with Jeffrey Lee Pierce. But he was roped into the Cramps' lineup shortly before the Gun Club recorded its first album. (That's Powers you hear ripping out the powerful solo on "Caveman," from the Cramps' 1981 album, Psychedelic Jungle.) He rejoined the Gun Club in 1983, alternating between that band and weirdo rock-lifers Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from 1985 to 1988.
In recent years, though, Powers' focus has been on Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds. As local listeners know, the group is a dependable source of grooving, psychedelic garage rock. Powers and the Birds have made several stops in the past year at Lawrence's Jackpot Music Hall. The band's third full-length, Gorilla Rose, comes out in March on In the Red Records. First, it will be released as Five Greasy Pieces, a limited series of 7-inch records. (The singles, which are limited to 250 mail-order copies of each track, all come with B-sides, Powers says, that are "never to be repeated.") The Pitch caught up with the underground guitar legend and asked about his new album and the contagious spirit of punk rock.
The Pitch: Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds have a local connection, right?
Kid Congo Powers: We're practically a Kansas band. [Laughs.] We've been recording in Kansas because our drummer, Ron Miller, lives in a school called the Harveyville Project (he and his girlfriend, Nicole), so they have a lot of room, and we've been recording in the gymnasium. The last couple of years, we've been a lot in Kansas. It's been our central hub for all things Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds these days.
You span punk rock's history. How has that influenced your music?
Everything I do is based on something rooted in a fanaticism I have for music. My sisters and my cousins — I'm the youngest in my family — they used to go see Thee Midnighters, and I'd always remembered how excited they were to go see this band. I knew who the Beatles were, but I didn't know who Thee Midnighters were because I was probably about 10 years old. But I knew that they were really excited. It wasn't until many years later that I heard Midnighters' records and learned what the excitement was about.
Again, that's calling on something from my past and something that I think I want. I'm interested in creating something that can create that sort of excitement. That's always been my kind of holy-grail thing. It should elicit some emotional response out of you. As a little kid, I was already drawn to teenagers and excitement, like some sort of shiny ball.
That's the kind of thing that I still do. It lasted me through my teenage years, through whatever. Punk rock — when it happened, I couldn't not go to London. I had to go. I had to be there. So, in 1977, I made my way to London. Then it was like, I have to see CBGB, and me and a bunch of friends in L.A. took a bus to New York, because we couldn't possibly think of missing it.
Where does the title of your new album, Gorilla Rose, come from?
Gorilla Rose is actually the name of a person I knew in the early punk days of 1977. He was a person on the scene: an artist and a performer. He actually performed in this group from Seattle that moved to L.A. called Ze Whiz Kidz that were kind of drag performers, not unlike the Cockettes. He was an artist and he hung around this band in L.A. called the Screamers.
When I first moved out of my parents' house, the first place I moved was the Screamers' house, and I would do their fan-club newsletter. I was part of a little family of the Screamers, and part of that family was this character, Gorilla Rose. I have always, to this day, thought that was the most incredible nom de plume, or punk-rock name, anyone ever had. Gorilla Rose. It's so great.
I've been thinking of him a lot. So I named the record Gorilla Rose and thought it would give me a chance to bring his name into the rock-and-roll conversation, and also tie it to a certain period of time.
When you and the Pink Monkey Birds play, people dance at your shows. Would you call yourself a dance band?
We are definitely a dance band. Not in the modern dance-music kind of way, but sort of a rock-and-roll dance-music sort of way. It's something to do with the feeling — and our intention, which is to create an exciting time and fun time. So, yeah, we're a party band. Intellectual party band: an intellectual, really dumb party band.