By Tom Reardon, June 2019 Issue.
When your first band is the legendary Gun Club from Los Angeles, then you get handpicked by (the late) Lux Interior and Poison Ivy to join The Cramps, and wind up playing with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, you’ve had a pretty damn good rock and roll career.
Of course, we are talking about Kid Congo Powers and that was just between the years 1979 and 1996.
Often imitated, Powers’ guitar style is unforgettable. The man loves to play fuzzy, open-chorded, psychedelic, punk, post-punk, and garage rock and there is literally no one better at it on the planet than him. His work with the aforementioned bands, as well as a few projects to be discussed in the following paragraphs, is not only highly recommended for any fan of good, gritty, yet beautiful rock and roll music, but essential. A musical “lifer,” Powers is also no slouch behind the microphone, as well, which makes him a double threat when it comes to stealing the hearts of music fans.
Born Brian Tristan in La Puente, California, Powers turned 60 on March 27 and has been playing guitar since 1979. It was then that his friend, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, decided Powers would be the guitar player for the band they were starting, and that band turned out to be Gun Club. Up until this point in his life, Powers had never played guitar, but obviously something clicked.
Now, 40 years later, Powers is living in Tucson with his husband, Ryan Hill, and seems to be incredibly happy. His current band, Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds, is heading out on tour starting June 4and will be playing three shows in Arizona, hitting Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff as they share the stage with Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. An avowed “road dog,” Powers has discovered some new ways more recently to maintain his health while touring, including sleeping as often as possible.
“Sleep, (Powers chuckles here, and he has a great chuckle) if I can get it. I do transcendental meditation, too. Since I moved to Arizona, I’m hiking a lot and I do go to a gym. I try to be a healthy, conscious eater. I quit smoking. I don’t smoke or drink or take drugs. I did enough of that to last 20 people’s lifetimes,” says Powers, who still travels by van when touring in the United States with The Pink Monkey Birds.
One of the most charming things about Powers, who is of slight build, wears distinct glasses, and has an awesome Vincent Price-style mustache, is that he is a true music fan. When he talks about his own music or bands he loves, he truly lights up and becomes almost animated.
“I stay engaged. Music is still the most important thing to me. Music still brings me hope — it still feeds me and keeps me engaged and keeps me balanced. It’s important for mind and body,” adds Powers.
While he has always been open about his sexuality, being part of the early punk scene was liberating for Powers. In Los Angeles in the 1970s, as well as here in Phoenix, the brand-new punk scene was often intertwined with gay culture and members of each community often found kindred spirits in one another prior to the introduction of “hardcore” and the more regimental sides of punk rock that focused more on exclusion than inclusion.
“I didn’t fit into any kind of a gay culture at that time in the early ‘70s. The alternative culture was very small, so when punk rock came a lot of young gay kids, gay rock and roll kids, found a home because there was no bias. As long as you were bucking the system in some way, you were in, you know, (laughs), and it was a place for you. It was an island of misfits and that’s what punk rock was. We could count ourselves and find a place to be loud, and have fun, of course,” remembers Powers.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s everything changed. Powers was actively involved with ACT UP and Queer Nation after moving back to Los Angeles, after living in Europe for a while. He and friend Sally Norvell created Congo Norvell in 1990 after meeting through a mutual friend who was in hospice with AIDS. The lush sound of Congo Norvell is truly something to behold and the duo was part of multiple efforts to raise both funds for awareness of HIV/AIDS.
“I was pretty apolitical up until the AIDS crisis as far as my gay identity. After that, it was impossible to ignore. It was affecting my music and art community and it was impossible to be apolitical. I was, before that, I was very anti-labels, especially in the very earliest days as labels were completely taboo,” says Powers.
Now, though, Powers is keen to point out that there are “ribbons that people wear” and “big foundations” combating HIV/AIDS, but he sees where awareness of the problem as a whole is no longer at the forefront of public health perception. As a member of the gay community, Powers himself is aware that HIV/AIDS is still an issue, but feels the mainstream political world is not “inclusive” at this time. Powers continues to “fight the good fight” and points out that other artists still are, as well.
“The days of ACT UP … it was so angry. There was incredible anger in the arts, and in punk rock, because it was complete injustice. I think people now are like, ‘Well, there’s help for people if they want,” points out Powers, before concluding, “I’m glad that there’s some awareness, but there is not enough.”
On a more positive note, Powers is excited about his new home in Tucson and his upcoming tour which also celebrates the 10-year anniversary of Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds album, Dracula Boots. The second LP by the band, Dracula Boots, is absolutely sublime and the band will be playing it in its entirety during the month of June while on the west coast. According to Powers, the band has not toured the southwest for their most recent record, La Araña es La Vida, so this will be the first opportunity for fans to hear some of those songs live, as well.
For the past ten years, Powers has been working on a book about his life, which will be the first book published by In The Red Records, which has put out almost all of the Pink Monkey Birds releases. He can see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point, and has been working with an editor on the final draft. With any luck, the book will be out before the end of 2019 (if not, early 2020) with a possible book tour to follow.
“I’m sure I will do that. It will give me an excuse to do something else I don’t normally do,” concludes the seemingly fearless Powers with his signature chuckle.