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Last Saturday, inside the hip new art space/whiskey bar/meat carvery on 14th Street NW, at the weekend’s chicest gallery installation/dance party/DIY show, after the sets by the mountain-folk/post-punk duo and the power-pop/art-punk quartet, the coolest guy in the room is hanging back, selecting records and keeping things simple.
Kid Congo Powers is wearing a suave, blue striped suit and tortoise-shell glasses. A monocle on a chain hangs from his neck. His moustache dwells somewhere between John Waters and Errol Flynn. Kid drops the needle, fading into another selection of teenage skronk. We’re all on the same train! We’re all in the same game!
“What is that?” someone steps over to ask. Kid leans over, pursing his lips the same way he sometimes does when introducing a song with one of his bands, enunciating the title like he’s announcing the entrance of a game-show host: “IT’S LAME!”
He points to the record sleeve: Figures of Light, “It’s Lame,” 1972.
Along with fellow DJ Ian Svenonius, Kid will keep the party going all night at Logan Circle’s Black Whiskey—sometimes so hard that the creaky, vibrating floors will cause the turntable to skip. He’ll spin an early surf tune by Lou Reed (“Your Love,” 1962), some spooky rockabilly by Round Robin (“I’m the Wolfman,” 1965)—basically, lots of obscure garage-rock songs that are primal, immediate, and twisted, nuggets of cool from a neighboring universe’s sock hop.
You could describe the music Kid makes as the leader of Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds in similar terms. The band released its fourth album, Haunted Head, this week on In the Red Records and will tour the U.S. later this year. Brewing together garage rock, horror punk, surf, broken blues, and sounds more exotic still, the record contains plenty of the smart and kooky charisma that over the last few years has made Kid Congo Powers one of D.C.’s best kept secrets.
In a town full of well-pedigreed punk rockers, Kid Congo, who is 54, also has one of its longest résumés: Beginning in the late 1970s, he played guitar in The Gun Club, The Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, stints that took him from Los Angeles to London to Berlin and back, through drug addictions (long beaten) and international tours and a star-crossed list of collaborators, and which gave way to a truly eccentric second act of new bands and other projects including Congo Norvell, Knoxville Girls, Kid and Kahn, and others. A veteran of the 1980s’ most sex-crazed punk bands, Kid has found an unusual but comfortable niche in D.C.’s crevices between punk rock and high art, garage and gallery, as well as personal and creative balance in a town where he never expected to settle down.
In other words, all the stuff of a great punk-rock memoir. Kid’s working on one of those, too.
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As with their last two records, 2009’s Dracula Boots and 2011’s Gorilla Rose, Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds made Haunted Head at the Harveyville Project, an artists’ retreat run by Monkey Birds drummer Ron Miller in a former high school in Kansas, where they wrote and recorded in the building’s band room and gym. For the album, mostly taped live to Tascam eight-track, the group wanted to concoct a “swampy” sound.
“Everyone comes with ideas of what it could mean, and it could turn out swampy or not,” Kid says. “It’s about creating an atmosphere and a mood that people can get into.” Nick Cave and the Gun Club recorded in a similar way, he says. “‘Oh, let’s play jazz this time. We don’t play jazz. We can’t play jazz. But let’s think in this kind of mindset.’”
If Kid’s otherworldly lyrics—sometimes eerie, sometimes campy, always recited in a louche, talky drawl—are harder to pin down, he has a method there, too. “I was thinking of the hypnagogic state,” he says. “It’s the state between sleeping and awake. And that’s actually where I get a lot of good ideas. It’s like when you’re zoned out or when you’re hungover or something, and you’re not quite aware what’s happening but things are very real. That’s one of the atmospheres we work under.”
Haunted Head isn’t totally mired in the astral swamp. While Kid was plumbing his own subconsciousness, he was also listening to his past, particularly the fuzz-caked sound of The Cramps’ Psychedelic Jungle. “I think I took a lot of notes from that,” he says. “It’s the most different record of The Cramps.” With Dracula Boots, too, written around when Kid began his memoir, he filtered and transfigured stories of his youth into song lyrics.
That Kid’s current endeavor has such a direct link to his past while not being beholden to it—you would never call the Pink Monkey Birds a throwback band—is part of what makes it so satisfying to him now. “Through time and years and years and years, you do things that you want to get away from,” he says. “‘I want to get away from my past. I want to do something different. I don’t want to repeat myself.’ But now I’m like, I want to use the stuff I’ve learned. I want to take what’s really great, the really great aspects of those records and put them in these new records, with these new people.”
As for the still-in-progress memoir, Kid began writing it several years ago “because I turned 50,” he says. It covers the early part of his life, from his ’60s childhood in a Mexican-immigrant suburb of East Los Angeles to his youth and young adulthood as a punk in L.A.’s early scene, when he changed his name from Brian Tristan to Kid Congo Powers, to his departure for London in 1984. (As a teen, he was a president of the Ramones fan club and made ’zines for The Screamers, an electropunk band so legendary it never made a record.) “From the time I was seven, I wanted to be a teenager,” he says.
Music was an omnipresence: Ranchero-style songs played by his uncles; neighborhood garage bands; his two older sisters’ obsessions with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Thee Midniters, an East L.A. Chicano rock band in the mid- and late-1960s, whom, decades later, the Pink Monkey Birds would cover. “The thing I remember most is that I didn’t know exactly what they sounded like, but when my sisters were teenagers they would be going out to see them play and they’d be really excited,” Kid says. “‘I don’t know what Thee Midniters is, but I know that what they are is something that makes people excited.’
“When I play music,” Kid says, “I want to be the thing that makes people excited.”
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Kid moved to D.C. in 2006 after 12 years in New York, for the same reason lots of people do: His partner got a job in the federal government.
Kid’s fiancé, Ryan Hill, works in education at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, exhibits his own art regularly in D.C., and creates the covers of the Pink Monkey Birds’ albums. They’re getting married in June at their house on Capitol Hill.
Following a career that landed him in international creative hubs at critical periods—L.A. and Berlin in the ’80s, New York in the ’90s and 2000s—the District has proved a comfortable fit for Kid Congo Powers. When he moved here, he only knew a few people, including Svenonius and Michelle Mae of The Make-Up, with which he’d toured. Now he’s a mainstay at Comet Ping Pong and Velvet Lounge. He has a side band, The Kid Congo Power Hour—featuring Brendan Canty (of Fugazi and Deathfix), Mark Cisneros (Deathfix, Medications), Tom Bunnell (Felt Letters), and Alyssa Bell, aka Baby Alcatraz, with whom he regularly DJs—that helped The Make-Up stage a secret reunion show and played covers like The One Way Streets’ “We All Love Peanut Butter” at Ian MacKaye’s 50th birthday party last year. “I’ve been more productive in D.C. than I was in New York, I’m sure of it,” Kid says. “I’ve made more records, I’m writing a memoir, I’ve actually made a relationship work. Lots of stuff.”
The Pink Monkey Birds, which in addition to Miller includes Kiki Solis and Jesse Roberts, only gets together every few months, but in between Kid has continued to undertake a diverse array of one-offs. Last year, he did a witty, vampy collaboration with the French artist Electronicat. Other recent projects include recordings with minimalist electronic composer Richard Chartier and a vocal track for the Brazilian psychedelic pop band Garotas Suecas.
That spread of interests—teenage garage anthems and songs about vampires and werewolves, Krautrock-y experiments and anything else capable of a certain shade of musical transcendence—is part of what makes Kid so inspiring, says Svenonius. “He works in all these different media, but he always maintains a certain Kid Congo flavor—he never betrays the essential aesthetic…He’s not some garage conservative. He loves garage rock because it’s the ancient language that’s pure and beautiful. But not, like, ‘Everything should be the way it was in 1963.’”
That “Kid Congo flavor” is hard to pin down. Kid plays guitar in the same bluesy, open-tuning style Jeffrey Lee Pierce taught him when they formed The Gun Club; his more playful songs have the pulpy swagger of a Jack Nitszche score; he can be winkingly garrulous and flamboyant on stage, while in person he’s laconic and polite. Svenonius describes Kid’s music and style as “like beatnik exploitation, which is pretty much the best genre of all.”
Larry Hardy, the owner of In the Red, doesn’t worry about precisely classifying Kid Congo’s voodoo. “I don’t know what makes Kid Congo Kid Congo,” says Hardy, who has released the last three Monkey Birds albums. “He always just exudes cool.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery