Kid Congo Powers is the embodiment of the ideals and aesthetics brought about by late-1970s punk culture. For more than three decades he's held the highest of standards in his music, and while he's far from pompous, with an often self-deprecating sense of humor, he takes rock 'n' roll seriously.
Formerly the brilliant guitarist for the Gun Club, the Cramps and Nick Cave's Bad Seeds during their most fertile periods, Powers has been leading his current band, the Pink Monkey Birds, over the course of three albums in almost a decade. Their latest record, Haunted Head (In the Red), is everything and more you'd expect from this legend; but in his words, it took a long time to get there.
Powers' most important contribution to the musical vocabulary of early punk rock was his ability to integrate the original essence of blues and rockabilly back into simple rock 'n' roll while disregarding the excessive, bloated self-parody that mainstream rock had degenerated into by the mid-'70s. After punk fractured this dark age, Powers' intense reclamation of traditional rock sources proved to be enormously influential. Once he achieved this, however, he says, "I spent a lot of time in the past trying to do something that was not like I had done already. I was running away from what I thought people expected of me. I now invite my past into the music and I'm proud of my past. I've begun to realize that all these things were experiences, like going to university or something. I started quite young. I just picked up a guitar and suddenly I was making records and going on tour with very intense, wild bands. It was all very fast. Breaking from the past was also part of getting older and coming into my own thing. It's kind of like wanting to break away from your parents.
"I went and saw the Cramps' last tour. I hadn't seen Lux (Interior) and (Poison) Ivy for many years. ... My jaw just dropped and it felt like the first time I saw them when I was a teenager at CBGB's. ... It's these same chords and rock 'n' roll music but really it's the people and their intention. It's the people playing these three chords and making it sound like it's from outer space and heaven at the same time. (I decided my) music from now on is just going to be completely free, completely myself, with no fear at being too stupid or pretentious."
Powers and his bandmates in the Pink Monkey Birds recorded Haunted Head with this mindset. Shortly after forming in New York City in the mid-2000s, each member departed the city, with Powers settling in Washington D.C. "The drummer, Ron Miller, and his wife moved to Kansas and bought an old high school for cheap," Powers explains. "They run artists' retreats there for different things—mostly arts workshops. He said, 'Why don't we go make a record in the gym (of the high school)?' and I just thought that sounded like the most incredible idea, recording in a high school gym in the Midwest. I thought the mojo would be great there, and it was. It turned out to be a great place in a town of 250 people. Noise isn't a problem and there was no restriction of time. It's not a traditional studio. It's very free to move around the building. You don't need a bunch of reverb units because the gymnasium had so much natural reverb in it. You adjust the reverb by adjusting the big, thick velvet curtains on the stage. It was the middle of summer and it was so bleeding hot. It was incredible. We couldn't turn on the air conditioner because it made noise. We did the whole recording in two different sessions over a few weeks. It's pretty live. We let all the good, happy accidents happen. Half the time the band is prepared, half the time we don't know what's happening at all."
Despite the recording's easygoing process, the band remained consistently focused on making a great rock 'n' roll album, with guitarist Jesse Roberts engineering the sessions and Miller mixing most of the tracks. Powers adds that "we've always worked very intensively in spurts and that seems to work very well for us. I think the fact that we're not in each other's day-to-day lives like a lot of bands ... (Because) we get together only for a few months a year to record and to tour, we're actually very happy to see each other and play music together."
Having made his name as sideman to two of rock's most volatile performers—Jeffery Lee Pierce of the Gun Club, and Nick Cave—Powers relishes the opportunity to concentrate solely on the music.
The songwriting process of the Pink Monkey Birds is to have no process. The quartet fleshes out one another's rough ideas, with Powers handling the majority of the lyrics. They build upon open-ended concepts and welcome ambiguity. "I realized that all my good ideas come in the state between being awake and asleep, where your subconscious comes into play. ... For this record, the only idea we really had going into it was that it was going to be a 'swamp' record. Everybody had different ideas of what that was, so that's always a good thing. We were thinking a lot about Dr. John with the 'swamp' thing—not so much that we were gonna make a record like that, but the general mood. We're a couple of different generations (in age difference) in the band, so everyone's references are all different. Those were our two Haunted Head touchstones."
Powers explains that the group's live show involves finding a certain frame of limits in which the Pink Monkey Birds improvise. As for the repertoire for the current tour, he says, "We play a lot of stuff from the new album. We play some Gun Club and some Cramps—the golden oldies. I like to play tribute to that because there's no one left who has any stake in it playing in bands now.
"We're very much into being a live rock band. I'm always thinking of, for me as a teenager, when I saw the New York Dolls in the early '70s. They were great, they were dressed up, the music was raw and wild, and (singer) David Johansen was just really funny. The biggest thing was that it really seemed that you were invited to a party and the audience was completely included. We invite everyone to our party. We're rooted in fun but that doesn't mean we're not a well-thought-out piece of art either.
"Rock 'n' roll is sexy and dangerous and fun and impolite."