Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds
Philosophy and Underwear
(New York Night Train)
There is a weird part in the history of the Rock Alternative when everyone got hip to noise. Before it was still pretty rockist with some tweaks off the main channel, but all of a sudden, guitars started to roar and scratch and bellow and clamor. I don't; think I realized it back in the day, but there are really two men responsible for this tendency to choke the sheiks out of one's six string rather than coax them. The late great Robert Quine was one. Without the caterwauling he brought to underscore Richard Hell's teenage orgasm vocals, that album would have fallen flat. He did the same for the catchiest single of the alternative era Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend." And countless other things you didn't realize he was on, but Robert has woefully opted out of the game, and thankfully, the other in my short list has re-emerged - Kid Congo Powers.
Powers boasts one of the coolest resumes around, having been intimate to the finest moments of The Cramps, The Gun Club and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. His pterodactyl shriek was more cartoonish and there by more dangerous than Quine's, but like him, he managed to take the overbearing collapsing star of his frontman in each of those groups and polish him up to glory. Now after years of being one of those "OH, yeah, wasn't he in..." guys that record nerds like I tend to drop, he has re-emerged with some fresh trash from time's glorious dumpster with a new band of his own and a new record.
Philosophy and Underwear sounds almost like a throwback to that era, but is immediately modern and weird and slinky and beautiful. The opening track "The History of French Cuisine" poses his cocky spoken-sung lines over some delicious trash magic that would send the Make-Up back to hipster camp. My favorite track "Black Bag" comes on its heels with a garbage can lid stomp and a nagging, persistent strut melody. My daughter even loves this song, its so infectious, and then in the middle, his guitar sounds like if it being lovingly picked apart by a sociopath. Genius and alive, this stuff is. Even when it doesn't make sense, it's never tepid.
They don't make garage stompers like "Johnny" any more. His Orange amp shed rattle is embellished by odd needly electronic bleeps and whines, sounding like a shortwave radio was walking by and saw the orgy ensuing, and decided to find a free spot and join in. The nadir of this record though is the post Cramps lie of crazy pie that is "Even though your leather is clich?©..." A line he deftly follows with "I like what it has to say anayway."
Which is exactly how I feel about this record; it could easily be picked apart as being a product of its influences, but one has to stop and realize tat Kid was on the ground floor of much of those influences. However the tracks play out - the crone torch of "The Weather ,The War", the straight up electro-nonsense of "Why Hurt Flesh?", the placid junkie nod-off of "House of Cards" its all so brilliantly played. I listen to the White Stripes or Comets on Fire or even my beloved Brian Jonestown Massacre after hearing this and they all sound tame, like they are trying sound like they are sounding like something. Powers wallowed in plenty of primordial noise rock sludge and gleefully has not washed it all off over the years.
We had the privilege with a conversation with the Kid, on his music, his life, and his obsessions:
OL: You are known as the inventor of modern noise-trash guitar, having given the serrated edge to countless classic albums, but this is the only the second record under your name. How did this come about?
KID: It came about out of my own curiosity to see what would happen if I gave it a go as the band leader, or solo artist. That is what has driven me thru almost all of my musical life, to ask myself questions like "What if i did this, or mixed that with this? What if I voiced the unspoken or be the guitar player that dares to speak? What if i made raunchy rock with a Berlin electro star? What if I made a joke? or what if I said something sad? Questioning yourself is the only way to challenge yourself. It's how I view playing guitar as well.
OL: Who comprises the Pink Monkey Birds?
KID: It is an ever changing roster of great people I click with. Jack Martin is the most constant collaborator of mine. On this tour Danny Hole from The Warlocks and Nikki Sudden is playing drums and also Kiki Solis from Knife in The Water is playing bass.
OL: What was it like fleshing out something that was primarily your vision?
KID: A lifelong process! Really, it has been a slow process to find out what works. I have been around long enough to know that to achieve a band sound, you must let it take it's own course over time. I didn't record anything for ages because i wanted the band and songs to form themselves and grow into their own beast.
OL: The lyrics on this album are shocking and surprising, where does you lyrical inspiration come from?
KID: I had been mining so much older music with blues, rockabilly, country, and 60's Garage bands, the inspiration for the whole record was to harken back to my teenage years and examine what originally turned me on in music, which was early to mid Seventies records by Lou Reed, like Transformer, Sally Can't Dance, or even the New York Dolls. I was fascinated by New York bands and the stories of sleazy low and high New York life. That became an obsession which lead me to writings by Herbert Hunke and his stories of hustlers and transvestites in 1940's and 50's Times Square. Leather men at the piers at the West Side Highway. It's a feel I got to experience in the late seventies and early eighties in NYC as a young pup. This is a New York that no longer exists, or only on the most underground way.
So that is the type of lyrics and stories I am telling. And, of course, putting them in contemporary settings. The song "The Weather, The War" is actually the story of the strain on a relationship which ended on 9/11. It is a strange thing that I actually wrote it before 9/11. There was no war at the time , why did I write that? Some songs are just cynical and funny too.
OL: What do you think of the garage rock revsionists that are making the rounds these days? Where have all the great rockabilly/psychobilly artists gone? Who do you listen to on your off-time?
KID: To be honest, I am not keeping track of garage revisionists these days. The Cramps are still around and vital and that's good enough for me!
New bands I like are varied, I like the new album, Drums Not Dead by The Liars, and Illuminated By The Light by Weird War, and there's some new Amanda Lear reissue that is pretty cool.
(Alex V. Cook's book of rocknroll observations, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' is available now from the SideCartel)
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com