by Tim “Napalm” Stegall
June 07, 2013
Brian Tristan of La Puente, CA, entered punk rock history as the hand-picked first president of The Ramones' Fan Club in 1976. He'd become better known as Kid Congo Powers as Poison Ivy's Rorschach's fuzz guitar foil in The Cramps, CA. Psychedelic Jungle. But not before Jeffrey Lee Pierce, rock critic for Slash and fellow fan club president (Blondie), formed The Gun Club with him, as The Creeping Ritual, in 1979. He would return to The Gun Club in 1984, whilst enjoying simultaneous long-standing membership in Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds for many years. Kid Congo has since been a Congo Norvell, a Knoxville Girl, and a member of many another outfit on the more experimental edges of the garage punk firmament. Currently, he has led Kid Congo And The Pink Monkey Birds since 2008. They just released the single, “Conjure Man,” with 3rd LP Haunted Head due May 7th via In The Red Records.
Hey Kid. So, I know you played Alejandro Escovedo's SXSW party last year. Are you playing it again this year?
I played his party last year. I'm playing his brother Mario's party this year. There's so many of these Escovedos bopping around in music! I played a couple of Al's shows last year. One was at the Austin Music Awards, where when I was walking offstage, Bruce Springsteen was walking on! That caught me off-guard! Wow! (laughs) Then I played the last day of SxSW, or maybe it was the day after? That was with Garland Jeffreys, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Jon Langford and Rosie Flores. It was great! It was a lot of fun. He's so great at getting people together. Did you hear that version of “Sex Beat” that he did? It was great. That's what I played with him. It was even better live!
Totally fitting, too. Weren't you one of the song's co-authors?
No, but I played it from the beginning. It was the first song I learned to play on the guitar! The first original song I learned to play on the guitar.
Really? And I heard this story that Jeffrey Lee Pierce taught you to play by tuning your guitar to open chord, and that's how you learned?
E, open E. And I still play in open E! (laughs) I tuned it today!
Wow! So you took the Keith Richards approach this whole time!
Exactly! I learned a few other tunings along the way, from different people and different experiments. But I stick with E, mostly. I find most of what I need there. But I've totally learned to play in that over the years, so it's not at all odd. And I've learned a few minor chords and to play slide and a few things. When you play regular chords (in that tuning), it's kind of uncomfortable and bulky, a weird kinda sound. It doesn't sound like it does in standard tuning. So although it's clumsy and bulky, I actually like it! (laughs) It keeps the rhythm right! You get this clumsy rhythm magic that happens in that tuning.
The first album the Pink Monkey Birds 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, and it didn't work sometimes. But after that, I ended up with a band that was spread out all over the place. And Larry Hardy (In The Red Records honcho) wanted to put out a record by us.
Yeah, and Howie's show I had been listening to forever! So it was Howie's show, and I went to see The Cramps play one of their last shows. I hadn't seen The Cramps in a long time, for many, many years. I was never in town when they played. So I got to see them at their last New York show, and I was just like, “Wow! This is so absolutely incredible!” And I couldn't figure out why! It was still three chords (laughs), guitar/bass/drums and a singer. And I was like, “Why is this so absolutely out of this world? (It's) like nothing else!” Then I realized, “Oh! These are people just being themselves! It's who's playing it that's making the music interesting, making it do interesting things!” I was just like, “Oh! It's just magic! That's why it's incredible!” I thought the same thing about seeing ESG. I saw a later incarnation of ESG in the Bronx, and it's like, “Wow, they're just playing two notes in every song, and it sounds like you're in heaven!” It's just who's playing it, how they're playing it, and why they're playing it.
So, that was really inspirational to me. And then I thought, “Wow! I've been a part of this, and made music like this!” Then I thought, “Oh, I just have to be myself and not be afraid to be myself! And it will come!” (laughs) The realness will come from that.
That was really inspirational. And listening to the stuff that Howie was playing on his show: It's just people wigging out, all this music he plays! I've been playing music a long time, doing lots of different things, as you've mentioned earlier. And you can lost in there. You can say, “Oh, I need to strive for this, I need to do this or that,” but sometimes you just need to go back to basics. What's the most basic thing? Being yourself is the most basic thing. Letting your freak flag fly is the most basic thing you can do. That was the formula I happened upon at that time, inspired by those things. I'm still doing it.
Absolutely. And it sounds like you've hit upon a fallacy that has dogged the music we make or write about for a long time. I think people get lost in the idea of “originality” and trying to be “original.” Well, it might be best to take the Billy Childish idea, where you don't give a fuck about repeating earlier forms! The originality comes from what you bring to it, and giving it a fresh approach.
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, which is incredible. (Which one, Kid? He's written several, by now -TIM) It's really good that he formed that movement, Stuckism, their art/anti-art thing. But it's a cool philosophy, and it rings true. And that's the thing: You just do what you're going to do. And 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. And for better or for worse: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't work. Most of time, it works. And people enjoy it.
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 'n' roll. They were doing this stuff that was almost like what we call “exotica” now. It was very weird, but very primitive at the same time. And it had this odd sort of sophistication to it.
Exactly. It's quite a combination that's difficult to arrive at: 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 - cool-sounding and appealing. And you can feel these conflicts that come together that make something present and whole, and cool - cool-sounding and appealing.
I always liked the mixing of styles. When The Gun Club started, the mixing of fast punk with blues hadn't really been done. Maybe a few things here and there, but it was really, “Oh, let's mix these together!” (laughs) It was really inspired by what James Chance And The Contortions were doing: “Oh, he's mixing James Brown and disco with Albert Ayler! Completely insane – with punk! Wow.” And The Cramps: Psychedelic and rockabilly. Nowadays, it's a pretty common thing. But then? It was, “Why on Earth would you mix psychedelic music with rockabilly?!” It's that kinda thing that I really enjoy about music: The alchemy in finding the common thread in what is supposedly opposing, but is very compatible.
So what happened is Kid Congo Powers evolved from the teenage president of The Ramones Fan Club and budding punk rock guitar hero in The Gun Club to this Latino Dada hipster! (strong laughs)
I like that a lot!
That's what I was thinking! I couldn't figure out what exactly you were going on about in these songs. But it sounded like you were reflecting your Latino heritage, but through this avant garde mind set!
Yeah, 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! (laughs) After all this years...