By Jacob Sprecher
Kid Congo Powers is of legendary status. He played guitar in The Cramps on Psychedelic Jungle and Smells Like Female; he played guitar in Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds on Tender Prey and The Good Son; he co-founded The Gun Club; he was creator and president of The Ramones fan club in 1976; he’s toured a blue streak the world over, and has more stories than God. And he’s a really, really nice guy with the gumption to laugh at himself. In light of his latest release with The Pink Monkey Birds, Gorilla Rose, whose namesake is homage to an obscure artist that influenced L.A.’s equally obscure formative punk group The Screamers, Synthesis caught up with Kid for a word or two.
So who exactly was Gorilla Rose?
The Screamers descended upon the Los Angeles punk rock explosion of ’76, ’77. I think they had come from Seattle, and there they had made a band out of a theatrical performance group called Ze Whiz Kids, and that turned into a band called The Tupperwares which turned into a band called The Screamers…this group of Whiz Kids were a bunch of underground actors from New York, San Francisco; some of The Coquettes, the really crazy, acid-dropping drag theatrical troupe [laughs]. So they came to L.A. in the punk era and made a big influence on the scene.
People [often] just think of The Germs…but The Screamers didn’t really make records; there’s legend of them but there’s not much evidence. They were super unique: a hard punk band with no guitars, just keyboards; a synthesizer and a distorted Fender Rhodes and a drummer and a crazy singer… And with them came theater people, photographers, fashion people, makeup artists; everyone who creates such scenes; and Gorilla Rose was one of these people.
I was a teenager at the time, and when I first moved out of my parents’ house I was looking for somewhere to crash and stay, and The Screamers invited me to come stay a while at their house, and I wound up just moving in. And around their house, which was their creative area, [were] all these people…and they were listening to lots of Nico and Neu, who in 1977 I had never heard before; the German versions of Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk; the soundtrack to Susperia by Goblin…you know, it wasn’t your standard, “Oh we’re just listening to the Sex Pistols and The Ramones,” which of course we were listening to, but there were just other elements at play in that first explosion of punk. And Gorilla Rose did artwork, and he was a performer himself, but he was always somewhat of an advisor to the [Screamers’] singer Tomata du Plenty… I was just a kid and just around, but the way I observed it was that he was really instrumental and had a sharp wit and a big influence on Tomata and the lyrics of The Screamers.
Was he a little bit older?
Well they were all a little bit older than me [laughs]. I was the young, easily influenced kid. But they were older, probably 25 or something…so old. But I saw them as something to look up to, so that experience has always just stayed with me, and set me on my way; a slightly more askew, more arty viewpoint of things; to be open-minded to more things than just punk rock.
For Gorilla Rose you hooked up again with producer Jason Ward, whom you’d worked with on Dracula Boots. What was it that brought you back?
Well, that whole chemistry of everyone together. I’ve had [this band] for several years now, and the chemistry is just so incredible; they’re spread all over but it’s worth it to me. We all get together in Kansas, right in the middle; people coming in from Seattle, Austin, Chicago and D.C. Our drummer lives in [Harveyville,] Kansas, and him and his girlfriend own a high school there that they’ve converted into their house and an artist retreat called The Harveyville Project. It’s a town of 250 people total. There’s no distraction, there’s a lot of room, he has a gymnasium where we record—it’s incredible and beautiful. No clocks going. You’re free to get lost in your imagination.
I actually met Jason through our drummer and bass player, Kiki and Ron, and he was really game, and it just worked so well on Dracula Boots. If you’ve got a good recipe you shouldn’t mess with it.
So your drummer bought an old defunct high school, basically?
It actually hadn’t been empty for too long, so it was in really perfect shape. You know, a 1940s two-story high school. I was like, “You’ve bought a mansion that just doesn’t look like a mansion. You have 20 rooms, your kitchen is the size of a cafeteria, you have a basketball court, a giant stage with lighting and bleachers, an old clock in a cage and a scoreboard.” So we’re recording in that and it’s such a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy to me. And then, of course, no extra reverb needed [laughs]… The room, the gymnasium, is really the star of the record. You can hear everything. You can even hear the squeak of the kick pedal.
Let’s talk some of Gorilla Rose‘s lyricism. “Catsuit Fruit”?
Those are some heavy lyrics [laughs]. Some heavy poetry. Actually that was just creating a mood. Kiki and Ron came up with the bass and drums, and I was like, “Oh, I just see someone skulking around in a cat suit.” But we didn’t have an idea for lyrics and I just started mentioning fruit, and it kinda became its own thing. It became meaningful.
“Our Other World”… Did you used to work at a record store down in L.A.? Were some of those stories from personal experience?
I’ve taken a lot of those lyrics from my memoirs, actually… The part about Rick James coming in the record store is completely a real story.
Can you dish a little more of that one?
One day, it was like 1977, ’78, George Clinton had a record out, or Funkadelic; one of those George Clinton groups [Parliament], and it was called Pin the Tail on the Funky but it had a donkey, like a jackass, on the cover. It was supposed to be like Super Freak, or I guess they were trying to say it was like Superman, but you could tell it was supposed to be Rick James in a Super Freak suit. And so Rick James, I guess, didn’t take too kindly to this. [So he] came into the record store—I was working on Hollywood Blvd—with some big giant bodyguard guys, and grabbed the whole stack of records and made a scene breaking them all. And then he of course had to pay for them because we could have arrested him. He was just making the show and I thought, “In the end, George Clinton is still getting the money from you.”
That whole place was just a crazy scene. It was the corner of Hollywood Blvd and Las Palmas Avenue, which was at the time a big place of male hustlers and prostitutes; there was a coffee shop there called the Gold Cup that was all homeless runaways, and so there was always something going on in that [record] store. At the same time as the Rick James thing was going on a drag queen saw there was some distraction and was trying to steal records under her t-shirt and run out the door with them [laughs]. My book is going to be just stories like that.
If you grew up in L.A., how did it come to be that you were president of the Ramones fan club when they were NYC-based?
Right as soon as their first record came out, The Ramones came to L.A. and played a lot. They played everywhere, every little club. And there was this group of people, kind of a weird group of weird disparate freaks; punk rock kids like us, old hippies, photographers, schoolteachers; there was no real defining punk thing then. The whole British invasion hadn’t happened yet, so there was just this kind of MAD Magazine crowd scene.
We followed them to every show…caravan down to San Diego and up to San Francisco… [And] it was the first time it was really easy to know bands. You could walk up to the bands, or they just walk out into the audience. It wasn’t like anything. Before that it was definitely rock stars separate from audience. The line was erased. You know, they wanted to go out thrift shopping, and record shopping, and who’s going to take them? Fans.
So I started thinking “I’ll get everyone’s address and then I can make a newsletter of what the Ramones are gonna be doing when they come to L.A. or wherever they’re going,” so I started this mail-order fanzine. They’re management and they’re record company, Sire, they saw a good thing; they could see something happening. They were very helpful, so I started getting all this free swag, and it was really cool.
So you kind of stepped into the role. It didn’t exist prior.
No, no it didn’t exist. It was the start of the whole DIY thing.
I imagine you made quite a few connections through the role.
Yeah, the connections were with people, and it really created an enduring community. I would say there’s a large handful of those people that are still my friends today. The whole idea of doing that was to, you know—we didn’t know any other people like us, who liked music like that. To me The Ramones were like The Beatles; The Ramones and Patti Smith were just everything. I found out the release date of their record and I waited in the morning for the store to open thinking “I don’t want it to be sold out!” And of course I was the only person waiting.
I from a very, very young age, was really obsessed with New York. I was that 14-year-old kid telling my parents and anyone that would listen “I’m moving to New York one day!” I don’t know why. Everything I read and movies I saw, I was like “This is the place for me.” I met a bunch of other kids like that, and the whole [NYC] music scene had been going on and we just couldn’t bare the thought of being left out. So we got a $69 one-way ticket to New York on Greyhound, and five of us got a bunch of supplies, which was mostly pills and cookies, and made our way. Some of that group ended up staying there for life and some came back; one of the girls had a mission to marry Richard Hell.
But at that time we met lots of people. You just met everyone. Bands were not separate. And we met a lot of newer bands, people like Lydia Lunch, The Contortions, The Dead Boys…and it was then I saw The Cramps. That just blew my mind completely. Mixing psychedelic music with rockabilly, which right now is not such a stretch, but at the time was completely unheard of. You had never heard of anyone even think about that, and look like that and act like that. It was another big discovery for me.
I went back to L.A. and then they moved to L.A. after Brian Gregory had left the band. Some New York friends, Christian Hoffman and Bradley Fields from Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, I think suggested to [The Cramps], “You remember that kid—he has a band now.” That was when I was in the Gun Club, it was like 1980 or something, so they came and saw us and I guess they thought I would be the person to be in their band, at the urging of Christian and Bradley. I had been playing guitar for one year when they asked me. I really couldn’t play very well, but style goes a long way sometimes.
Also, I’ve never got them to say it, but I really think the thing was that when I met them in New York, I was wearing this gold blazer from the early ‘60s that came from this Memphis place called Lansky Brothers, which is where Elvis used to shop a lot. And they were really like, “Ahhhh, that’s incredible.” And I think some years later when they came to L.A. that they were saying “That’s the guy with the gold blazer from Lansky Brothers!” So I really think that cinched the deal.
And how did it come to be that you later got to know Nick Cave?
Well, we knew Nick through the drug circles—no—through The Birthday Party, and we [the Gun Club] dug what they were doing. So we met them when they came to America and L.A. The Gun Club ended up moving to London after a while because we were more popular in Europe and were feeling at the time very shunned by our own country and more understood in Europe. So we moved to our land of rock opportunity and started seeing more of Nick. And then the Gun Club took one of our many breakups for a while, and The Bad Seeds were going on tour; Barry Adamson was leading the band and Mick [Harvey] was going to move over to bass and they needed a second guitarist.
And at that time I wasn’t really jiving with London so much; and really I [began] playing mostly with the Bad Seeds and they were based in Berlin, so I ended up moving over there, pre-Wall coming down. It was a very special, very great artistic scene. Because London was such a pop scene, so concerned with whatever the newest thing was, what’s in and out of fashion. So they asked me to do that, and I really loved Berlin, and I just learned a whole new set of rules for playing, or lack or rules. I’d been doing really basic, offbeat rock music, and with The Bad Seeds it was more singer-driven, more piano-driven, and it opened up a lot of ideas for me; expanded my palette.
I’m a trained player, [but] I think why The Cramps and Nick Cave were interested in what I do because what I’m doing is completely made up. I learn things along the way, but I don’t play in standard tuning, and I play by expression, really, and by feeling. So it’s kind of embarrassing a lot of the time when I’m starting a new project, because sometimes I’m just like, “Well, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but it goes like this.” I’ll dance around like a chicken to try and explain what it sounds like. Luckily I have a band right now that actually knows how to transcribe that idea.