Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds: “Stay in it for the long haul and stay true to the muse”

Original photo: Luz Gallardo. Handmade collage by B.

Kid Congo Powers is a creative force and true original. Kid’s played in The Cramps, The Gun Club, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Wolfmanhattan Project, as well as gifted the world a band of his own creation, Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds. Gimmie spoke to him to get an insight into their new EP Swing From The Sean DeLear, his experience of being a person of colour and openly gay in the punk scene, the upcoming biography he’s written, we also talk lucid dreaming and much more.

It’s so lovely to speak with you again. How have you been?

KID CONGO: Just at home [laughs]. Good, good. The lockdown has been good for a few things, I finished the draft of my memoir I’ve been writing for over twelve years; it afforded me the time to not have any more excuses [laughs], to jump up and go on tour and not finish it. Luckily, right before lockdown I had finished a lot of recording, a new Pink Monkey Birds record, and I did one with a group I’m part of called the Wolfmanhattan Project, with Mick Collins who was in The Dirtbombs and The Gories and Bob Bert that was in Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore. I’ve been working on other music projects with different friends, we’ve been recording at home and sending each other music and sending it back and forth between each other; a few of these are almost albums, I think. There’s been a lot of work. I keep sitting here for a year thinking I haven’t been doing anything but actually I’ve been busy the entire time.

It’s a strange thing because I moved, we’re living in Tucson, Arizona, and as soon as we were starting to know people, getting to know the town more and able to navigate it, the lockdown happened. There was no big social life, no getting to know anything else because everything is closed. Arizona had high Covid numbers so I was like, I’m not going anywhere! Just enjoying homelife, reading, playing music and writing, being a local stray cat mother; we found a little baby cat on our patio out front so we took him in and we’ve been raising a cat through the quarantine time. He’s gone from a sweet little kitten with eyes closed, he still had the umbilical cord and everything, just a day old, but now he’s six months old and a complete terror! [laughs]. We love him! That’s keeping me busy.

Your new EP Swing From The Sean DeLear is so cool, I’ve been listening to it over and over since it came out. Each track is different, there’s only four songs – one a 14-minute-long song ‘He Walked In’ – and it seems to me to tap into all of the things you’re about as a music maker and all the different things you like shines through in these songs.

KC: Yeah. It’s become the unconscious goal. It’s a really nice compliment because the goal is to use everything that you have learned and to try and make something else out of it. I feel like that is why sticking things out in the long term is really good. I was always in bands for two or three years and that was it or I’d start a project and end it but with The Pink Monkey Birds, it’s been over ten years with the same band. Everyone is very in tune and knows what we’re capable of and everyone contributes, it becomes its own beast with its own life. We never discuss when things are going to happen, a lot of music just comes out of “here’s some chords” and I’ll start playing or someone will start playing. It’s like automatic writing. Different people steer the ship at different times. That’s what happened on this EP, different people came up with different things. Mark [Cisneros] showed up to the session with a flute, I didn’t know he played the flute! He’s like, “We’re recording in the desert so I thought you might like some desert sounds.” I replied, “Great! Fantastic! Bring it on!” It really made that 14-minute-long song. Larry Hardy from In The Red Records said, “We’ll put out a 12-inch EP but one song has to be long, like 6-7 minutes.” We said we can do that. We recorded the song and I was like that should be 6 or 7 minutes and asked how long it was and he said “Fourteen minutes!” [laughs]. We weren’t conscious of time; we were just feeling it out. The only thing we worked out was the tempo change. There was no editing, it’s all live.

I thought, is anyone going to even like this? It’s a slow 14-minute song! We’re a crazy rock n roll, garage rock band. But it’s the music we want to make and that came out of us at this moment. Luckily, and like anything that has that positive energy behind it, it was very well received. I like that our audience seems willing and happy for us to change things up, they want you to expanded; like I do when I’m a fan, I always have been. I followed Patti Smith’s work since I was 15-16-years-old to now and I’m always happy whatever it is she does, it’s always big to me, it’s just loving her as an artist. I’m like that with a lot of people that stay in it for the long haul and stay true to the muse. All the people I have been involved with, I still feel its amazing work that’s coming out of them, it’s because they stick to their original idea but then are not afraid to experiment and go outside the formula, there’s no pandering going on, that is exciting to me!

Yeah. I’m the same as you. I love seeing artists go against expectation. If they’re doing it with honesty and stay true to their spirit, no matter what they do, I’m in.

KC: Exactly. We have plenty of rock songs on the record too.

The song ‘He Walked In’ was inspired by a dream you had about Jeffrey Lee Pierce?

KC: Yes. I had this dream that shook me when I woke up. I knew it hadn’t really happened but the things in the dream, I could smell him, I could feel him; I could feel him in my presence. I was very much like, wow! That really happened, that dream was a visitation. I have no doubts. I have lots of dreams and they’re just dreams, but once in a while you get these ones that are so sensory, you can feel it and when you wake up you can still feel it, and you know what that feeling is. I jotted down this dream when I woke up, it was very clear in my mind, the song is a version of it. It was important to me. When we started making the music for it, I had an idea that I’d use the text for this and it was perfect for it. It was all very serendipitous all fitting together.

In the song lyrics you mention the kitchen and a telephone on the wall; is that the kitchen where you live now?

KC: No, it’s actually my childhood house where I lived with my parents, that’s where the dream took place. It was even stranger and had very personal images. Jeffery had come to that house.

I really love the film clip for the song. I enjoyed how the first part of the clip is shot in one continuous long shot. I noticed too that when you were walking and you get to the part where you start the dialogue and you’re talking about Jeffery coming to visit that in the shot there’s a little golden orb of light.

KC: Yeah [laughs]. There’s no CGI going on. It’s the sun deciding to come at the moment, we did that take several times because we had to nail it. It was the hottest part of the summer; the Arizona summer is very hot and we’d had all these wildfires in California and the smoke was making its way all the way to Arizona.

I wanted to work with the film maker David Fenster, he’s magical too. He deals in a lot of art films. The films he makes deal with a lot of spirits, a lot of ancient spirits usually, either living in nature or inhabiting different inanimate objects, it’s beautiful. He’s a beautiful cinematographer. He had moved to here shortly after we moved here. I knew I wanted him to do a video. We’re in quarantine but we have some wide-open spaces, so he rented a really nice camera. He said, “I think you need to be here. Wear a white suit walking through the desert and we’ll figure the rest out. You’ll be able to feel what’s happening.” I had actually just done an online workshop with this intuitive teacher named Asher Hartman from Los Angeles; it was a workshop on finding spirit guides. I did that not too long before we did the clip. David had done some film work with Asher, that’s how I found out about Asher. That came into play in the film. It’s pretty much improvised, we just had to nail the text [laughs]. We had to do it a few times, walking for 9-minutes in the heat without stopping or having a car come by with someone honking or whatever. So, it worked out in a magical kind of way. It’s hard to go wrong in that magical scenery, you’re on Native land [of the Tohono O’odham, Sobaipuri, Pascua Yaqui, and Hohokam people] and that is magical, when you get out into the desert and you realise it really does bring a lot of magic to be engaged the whole time.

Speaking of magical things, your outfit in that clip is really magical!

KC: [Laughs] I wore that suit when my husband Ryan and I got married.

Awwwwww.

KC: That’s my marriage outfit! It’s a good suit and I was shocked, really shocked I could still fit into it! That’s several years old.

It is so beautiful, especially with the turquoise Bolo necktie.

KC: Yeah, awww. That’s the thing, every piece has to have meaning. Film is two dimensional and that kind of stuff helps make it visceral and more three dimensional, because all of that stuff is happening and, in the background, and in the weight of what’s going on in the moment. Full disclosure, I have studied acting as well, for four or five years I went to an acting teacher, a private group acting with Cathy Haase. She was a great, great teacher. She was from the Actors Studio and as a teacher at the School Of Visual Arts. I never thought I was going to be an actor but I thought, I’d rather do this than therapy [laughs]. It was a lot of Actors Studio kind of sense memory stuff and using your past to evoke emotions and actions. I think I’m very equipped for that, I don’t always know how to use it but for that I did. I don’t think I looked uncomfortable or anything.

It looked very natural. Another song on the new EP is ‘Sean DeLear’ that’s about a non-binary African-American punker and culture fanatic, and Glue front-person, Sean D; what’s one of your favourite Sean stories or memories?

KC: [Laughs]. I would just be constantly amazed at where they would pop up! Anywhere I went, at any event, it was like; how is Sean DeLear backstage at Siouxsie and the Banshees concert? They were very much a character and reminds me a lot of myself, that Sean just put themselves there. They were going to be in the middle of it and that’s just it! People start to treat you like, “Oh, Sean DeLear! They must be someone, so let them in.” The last time I saw Sean, they showed up at my show in London. I really liked Sean; I always call them demi-drag because they were not always a woman but not always drag, non-binary, whatever Sean felt like on the day. They were part Diana Ross, part Johnny Rotten; a real Zelig. He was a very engaged, lovely person and fully original. Just to be an African-American punker but to me, a gay, out, Black man was always incredible to me and always inspirational. I was always amazed where they showed up at, all around the world—New York, L.A., London, Vienna. An ambiguous character that was well-known and famous for being around. That’s a real, real talent! And, very beloved by the underground rock n roll community and the underground in general, the gay underground, LGBTQ+ underground. A bright spot. Very, very kooky and original person.

When they passed away it was like, how can it be that Sean Delear is no longer on the earth?! Someone that is so alive and bright. I was very inspired to write something about the essence of Sean DeLear. It’s like, where is Sean DeLear now? I thought if there is a heaven… I looked in the sky and I thought, oh, they’re probably just swinging from some chandelier, that’s probably what heaven is [laughs]. I say in the song: how many people can you fit up there? He passed away in 2018 and I had so many friends that passed away that year; I thought maybe they’re all up there on the chandelier swinging around together. I don’t know if I believe in that, I’d like to believe in an afterlife of some sort but I don’t know what it is but maybe that’s it, a party on a chandelier rocketing through outer space [laughs].

As a gay Latinx, person of colour, in the punk and rock n roll scenes; did you ever experience racism or homophobia? Or in your experience has it been an accepting place?

KC: Things came and went; prejudices and fears I would have about being out. Luckily, the earliest punk rock of Los Angeles definitely had a lot of gay people at the forefront, it was made up of art students, gay people, film people, all kinds of people made up scene—it was more misfit than misanthropic in the beginning. It was a gathering of likeminded outcasts who were sick of the status quo, the music and the whole scenario. That was always very open but it was also a time where people weren’t talking about… in the punk rock scene in Los Angeles at that time, any labels were absolutely off the books and totally taboo, you don’t want to be anything, except for a punk rocker, you’re outside of everything, you’re the blank generation! What ever you can call it, you’re not that. If you’re bucking against the system, that was good enough, that was the only requirement. Being gay was definitely bucking against the system. That’s how openminded and accepted things were in the beginning. I guess later it got more co-opted to become homophobic, more when hardcore music came in.

Totally!

KC: That kind of dispersed the original scene. People turned twenty-one and twenty-two and were old and out of it already by them—cos they were washed up old hags! [laughs]. People moved on to something else. In The Gun Club, we played with androgyny; Jeffery with his Marilyn Monroe from Hell moniker. We were totally unafraid to play with stereotypes and gender then. We were just freaks. Then in The Cramps, how much freer could you be to be a sexual deviant! [laughs]. It was encouraged in the highest! That too, with The Cramps there was no limit to gender roles. You just looked sharp and whatever it was, that’s the way you were going to look and be. It was such a pro-sexuality-of-all-kinds-scene, it wasn’t homophobic. The Bad Seeds, open-minded people, although very macho sort of; that was the first time I was in a band with all men [laughs]. There was always a woman in the band, with The Cramps and The Gun Club. I didn’t have any trepidation about being myself and sexuality and putting it out there. I think I adapted to every band. I just thought I’ll be me; I don’t need to be Ronnie Spector in this band [laughs]. If there was any trepidation of about what people thought of me, that’s on me really. I was never treated different for being gay and that’s because I’ve always stood my ground and been who I am. People can accept it or not accept it.

I think homophobia came from outside the rock n roll world, if it was in the rock n roll world, I’d just tell them to fuck off! I’ve experienced tons of homophobia. I also felt really ostracized by the mainstream gay scene, more when I was younger, the pre-punk time because I didn’t look like them and I was not going to be accepted by them. I decided that I’d just become a monster [laughs], that was a better route to take. If you see a monster, I’ll be a monster!

I saw much more sexism towards woman, directed at the women I was in groups with. I saw sound people in clubs be condescending to [Poison] Ivy or Romi [Mori] or Patricia Morrison. We would call them out of course, but it existed. For me, I didn’t feel it as much as what I saw happen with women, which upset me. They were all strong, cool, women that weren’t going to let it go! [laughs].

Did you experience any racism?

KC: I don’t think so, no. That was the glorious thing about coming up in punk rock, it was open to everyone. Being in Los Angeles, which has a huge Hispanic population, a huge Latino population, Chicano population, there was never a way of avoiding it. Jeffrey Lee Pierce was Chicano, his mother was Mexican-American. I think people were more outraged by my hair than the colour of my skin [laughs]. You come equipped when you are a person of colour. I was equipped with an immediate idea that I was a second-class citizen, that there was a prejudice and always a potential for danger and there was always a way to carry yourself to protect yourself. My parents very much grew up in the depression era… they had a very hard time, I think that’s why they brought me and my sisters up speaking English as a first language, not very much Spanish was taught to us. They wanted us to assimilate. They wanted it to be easier for us because they and their parents had a much harder time assimilating. Their parents’ generation were actually immigrants and they saw how hard it was. There’s a lot of people that didn’t grow up learning Spanish and it contributed to a feeling of otherness. You know you are Mexican and you’ve been raised to be proud of your heritage and you’re exposed to your heritage and customs, family and things, but you also don’t speak the language and that makes you feel ostracized from people.

How did your song ‘(I Can’t Afford) Your Shitty Dreamhouse’ come to you?

KC: I wrote that before the George Floyd death, Brianna Taylor shooting and the Black Lives Matter uprising and protests; I could see something coming, just look at our Administration at the time. It’s a protest song. The shitty dreamhouse is all of the conversative right-wing let’s-make-America-great-again-dream they had, which is to return to a time when people of colour had no civil rights. That’s basically what they were saying. I’ve always been fucking fighting against this, it’s particularly terrible at this time. Blatant fascism. People were empowered to be racist. I was like, they have some shitty dream house they want to build! I can’t afford to buy into this or think that it’s going to be a part of my life. People are out there protesting saying you’re fucked and this is fucked and you’re not helping, you need to listen to us. There’s a line in the song that says: I can fight like we did all along, years before you were in my song. It’s a fuck you, you’re not going to get us. It’s protest music that you can dance to. It has a deeper meaning.

I love the art work for your new EP too; your husband Ryan does it?

KC: He’s done all of the records, he’s the ideas man! I really like the idea of having one artist, it really makes an identity and theme. I like to have a theme going with music or whatever philosophies there are with the culture we’re creating. He’s a visual artist and he said it was good to have on-going identity, that people come with you. I’m happy with whatever he comes up with, it’s always great. He does the lettering by hand. He’s an incredible draftsperson. And, he’s fun! He’s just the right kind of crazy, too [laughs].

That’s something that I’ve always loved about all off the bands you’ve been a part of, you’ve created your own world.

KC: That is intentional. I didn’t know any other way to do it.  That’s how I learnt from all the bands I’ve been in; you create your own world. Jeffrey was the focus of The Gun Club, Lux and Ivy were the focus of The Cramps, they came up with bullet proof concepts, ideas and worlds—they bring people together and people into a community and our world! It’s more multi-dimensional than just listening to music, it’s visual and conceptual and also loose enough to change and ever-morphing, it becomes its own beast. It relies on a fair amount of consistency, that was always my shortfall [laughs]. I’ve done a lot of different things but only for a little while. With The Pink Monkey Birds I wanted to start something like that. I’m in it for the long haul, as a result we have created our own world and we’re lucky people want to come along, jump on our planet!

A band like, Sparks, who I’ve liked since I was a teenager, still going and I’m still in their world and I never want to leave. It’s consistently amazing. You’re like, oh my god, they’re getting better! The Ramones, you knew exactly what their world was about when you first saw their show, at least I did. I couldn’t tell you what it was about but I could tell you that it was something that I understood. I do hope that it’s something that happens with us.

I spoke with Martin Rev from Suicide the other day and he was telling me that he wakes up and pretty much every day makes music. I asked him what he was working on and he told me that he wasn’t working on anything in particular that he was just making music. That’s his life.

KC: Yeah, that’s it. That is just it. There is no big plan, maybe some people have a big plan, but for us old timers and people in it for the long haul, you just make the stuff. That’s what Patti Smith told me an artist was: make the stuff, keep your name clean, don’t do stuff you don’t want to do and it should all work out somehow. You might not be famous but you’ll have this amazing work and people will respond to it, it might be ten people or it might be ten million, it doesn’t matter really. It’s our chosen path in life. That’s what we do, we make stuff.

Please check out: Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds on bandcamp; Get Swing From The Sean Delear out on In The Red Records. Kid on Instagram: @kidcongopowers

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