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Kid Congo Powers: The Abrasive and the Beautiful

"I've always been a complete eccentric": Kid Congo Powers
ILLUSTRATION BY JIM RUGG

Before Kid Congo, there once was a kid named Brian Tristan, who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in a Mexican-American family from La Puente. “I was born in a town called ‘The Feminine Bridge,’ ” he told L.A. Record’s Chris Ziegler in 2009. “It’s grammatically wrong! It’s ‘el puente’ — it’s a masculine term. So ‘la puente’ would be ‘the feminine bridge,’ wouldn’t it? It turned me into a homosexual! Because the name was skewed, I think my whole life, I was gonna see things in a skewed way.”

Tristan was enthralled by the singles his sisters played before getting ready to go out; he developed an early fascination with local Chicano heroes Thee Midniters and the Rolling Stones.

When punk broke in 1976, Tristan would found a Ramones fan club and fell in with the Screamers, the cult L.A. punk band that never recorded an album but influenced everything from hardcore to minimal synth. At a 1979 Pere Ubu show, he met the mercurial Jeffrey Lee Pierce and together they founded the Gun Club. Before their legend could be consummated on vinyl, Tristan left the group to join the Cramps, where he was renamed Kid Congo Powers.

To say that Kid Congo has gotten around since those early L.A. punk days would be an understatement. He rejoined Pierce and the Gun Club (again and again, riding out the tempestuous waves of the frontman’s moods) repeatedly, went to Europe, thrived in Berlin in the ’80s, joined Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and always carried with him an idiosyncratic, DIY, unmistakable guitar sound.

For a few years Kid Congo has been recording (now for the remarkable L.A.-based In the Red label) and touring with the Pink Monkey Birds, a group of like-minded younger musicians. He also has been working on a memoir about his L.A. days, which has spilled over into a curiously nostalgic album, Gorilla Rose.

L.A. WEEKLY: You claim Gorilla Rose is named after a legendary L.A. punk scene person. But we asked some local punk authorities and their reaction was, “Who?”
[Laughs] He’s obscure! I’ve been writing a memoir for the last few years. The thrust of the book is gonna be the L.A. chapter of my life, and so I was thinking back to the day when I first moved out of my parents’ house and I moved into the Screamers’ house.

The Screamers had just come to L.A. from Seattle, but they came with an entire entourage of people from New York and Seattle and different places. They all converged in L.A. during the first wave of punk music.

There were drag queens, theater people, and it was just this whole family of ... freaks, artistic freaks. Gorilla Rose was one of these people, who was part of this group or scene, weird kids that came from Seattle. Gorilla was around the Screamers constantly and I think he really had a lot of influence, especially on [leader] Tomata [du Plenty] and the lyrics, which were completely hilarious. And if you were there, you knew him. He was part of the scene when it started, but he was not part of the glory, or the fame, or the legend.

Where is he now?
He passed away in the ’80s from HIV. I was thinking of him recently and realized that he had a lot to do with influencing a lot of things, a lot of these people. He was instrumental on the Screamers. You know how the legend is that Bob Dylan had Bobby Neuwirth around him all the time, sparking all kinds of ideas for him? Well, Gorilla Rose was kind of like that for the Screamers — you know, a little spark.

The other thing was that his name was the best punk name ever! Matching the abrasive with the beautiful, which is how a lot of punk stuff, when it started, was about that. That’s the Gorilla Rose story, and I thought I would bring him into the rock & roll conversation.

Where was the Screamers’ house?
“The Wilton Hilton,” it was called. They lived on Wilton between Hollywood and Franklin. The G.T.O.s, the Girls Together Outrageously, the music group of groupies that Frank Zappa put together, were the tenants before the Screamers.

Where are you living now?
In Washington, D.C. I’ve been living on the East Coast for the past 15 years. First in New York and then my partner got a job here in D.C., so we moved here.

I left L.A. in the mid-’80s, when I was in Gun Club; we went on this endless European tour that went on and on and on and then the band broke up in 1984? ’85? And we were in London and we decided to stay there — it was me, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and (bassist) Patricia Morrison, and we were going to stay, and once we decided to stay, we decided to break up the band! [Laughs] For one of the hundred-millionth times!

[Laughs] I went on to join Nick Cave’s band, and that brought me to Berlin, which I love and has somehow become a second home to me.
I came back to L.A. in the early ’90s for a little bit. Had a band called Congo Norvell with the singer Sally Norvell. It was a cool band. We recorded a great album and [the label] wouldn’t release it and they wouldn’t let us buy it back from them, which was completely disillusioning and depressing. And we said, “We’ll just move to New York!”

What’s your relationship to L.A. right now? You’re writing your memoir, rescuing obscure figures from L.A.’s punk past like Gorilla Rose, but you’ve also been sort of in exile for many decades.
I’ve always had a foot in L.A. because my family lives there — well, less now because my mom passed away last year. But my sister lives there and I have family and, of course, a fair amount of friends. So I’ve always had a strong connection to L.A. and ... Mexican food [laughs].

You know, I love L.A., it’s just that I haven’t been able to ... live there [laughs]. I miss a lot. I miss Mexican culture. I miss Hollywood culture. There’s a certain family aspect to L.A. that I have and that’s my relationship with friends, different musicians there. And of course I grew up there and since I’ve been revisiting all of this, it tells me how much I still do have a connection, and a connection is something in your blood and in your culture and inside you.

Have you noticed a movement or local scenes that are indebted to bands like the Cramps or the Gun Club?
I’ve been hearing a lot of bands that are flipping their wigs, and this is good. [In the Red’s main man] Larry Hardy has a very good eye and ear for that. I like his roster, ’cause it went from being a grungy, dirty kind of thing to being far more eccentric. And that’s what I appreciate about the bands that he’s signing.

It’s a label that I’m very comfortable in because I’ve always been a complete eccentric, and all the bands I’ve played with are eccentric, so it seems very logical to be with In the Red right now and it feels good to be older and to be around younger people who are just as eccentric and will probably grow old to be as eccentric as me.

There’s a whole generation of people now who grew up listening to records that I made, or that my peers have made. It’s like when I was young and I was a record collector and I collected ’60s and ’50s music and I grew up hearing the Dr. Demento radio show — that was even ’40s music. For some kids nowadays, the music I made in the ’80s is like ’50s music to me. There’s that much of a generational span of time. To me it seems like a healthy, deranged influence! (laughs)

I’ve really noticed recently, the audiences in the past couple of years that I’ve been doing Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds, we’ve been drawing younger and younger people and, more specifically, a lot of younger girls love and know of Gun Club. I play some Gun Club songs on the set and when I play them, these young girls go crazy!

What do you play?
“For the Love of Ivy,” sometimes “Sex Beat.” The ladies loooove Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s songs!

My band members are much younger than me and they’re really into what’s happening and what I wanna be doing now. That makes it not a retro thing — we’re interested in making new music.

In 2006 I saw the Cramps’ last tour and it had a huge influence on my solo stuff, ’cause I had forgotten how amazing they were. I was completely blown to pieces again, as if it was the first time I’d ever seen them. You know, it’s three chords and this ’n’ that, you know —it’s just rock music. But it was ... somewhere else.

And then I thought, “Wait, I’m part of this. This is something I founded and I was connected to in a big way. This is where I need to be.” I think it was their freedom, and their ability to be themselves. This is how much freedom they gave themselves to freak out.

That was a big game-changer for me. It was freeing — don’t be afraid of anything and you can be as crazy as you want, or as silly as you want, or as serious as you want, but finally be free. Let your freak flag fly! [Laughs]

The other element that had an influence on Gorilla Rose was European bands like Goblin or Neu!
Going back to Gorilla Rose and the Screamers, when I was first hanging out with all of them at their house, that’s what they were playing. It was Neu! and kraut stuff, early Nico — they had the German version of [Kraftwerk’s] Trans Europa Express! It was incredible to me, and that was like a new introduction to a kind of music I ended up getting into.

I’ve always incorporated all these kinds of music together to make a new language. A lot of the bands I really like, they use a lot of old music. That was my favorite thing about the Cramps: They were mixing rockabilly with psychedelic music, which now everyone does, but back then it was revolutionary. The mixing of styles is a thing also with the Gun Club, mixing punk with country stuff and old blues and psychedelic music, too. But you can mix a lot of stuff and make no sense. The trick is to mix all these styles and create a new language, a language that people can understand and also that people want to learn.

And somewhere in there, there’s always Thee Midniters.
When I was a little kid, I had two older sisters and many cousins who had bands. I was around a lot of teenagers and I always remember them being really excited because they were going to a dance where Thee Midniters were playing. And they were getting ready, they were playing [the band’s L.A. hit] “Whittier Blvd.,” and they were dancing and I remember being a little kid and thinking, “I don’t know what ‘Thee Midniters’ is, but whatever it is, it seems really exciting, and I can’t wait to be a teenager.” I really didn’t know what this was, but I always remembered this — it was a snapshot in my psyche.

And much later I started listening to them again, started playing the records and realizing how amazing those records are, all garage, stompin’, R&B songs. Incredible. So I did a cover version of one of their B-sides called “I Found a Peanut” [on 2009’s Dracula Boots], which was a great stompin’ rocker.

So there’s a festival in New Orleans called the Ponderosa Stomp, which celebrates the “unsung heroes of rock & roll,” and every year they have people from the ’50s to the ’70s who are still alive who made these  incredible records. And last year they had Thee Midniters and they asked me to interview Thee Midniters’ [bassist] Jimmy Espinoza, who was one of the original members. I was really thrilled about that, and then they suggested, “Why don’t you sing ‘I Found a Peanut’ with them at the show?” And I was thinking, “This cannot be happening! This is insane.” I got onstage and I got to sing a song with Thee Midniters. To me it was this whole childhood realization.

This is probably how the Pink Monkey Birds feel about playing with you.
Yes, it’s very possible. They never would tell me, though [laughs].

Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds’ Gorilla Rose is out now on In the Red Records. They play June 24 at the Echoplex with the Middle Class and the Urinals.

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The Echoplex

1154 Glendale Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90026

213-413-8200

www.attheecho.com