Brian Tristan was a music fan and aspiring journalist attending punk gigs, running The Ramones’ fan club and writing a fanzine for The Screamers, when he met Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
His life would never be the same again. Pierce taught him to play guitar and together they formed The Gun Club. It wasn’t long before Brian was headhunted by The Cramps. Jumping at the chance to join them, he was reborn as Kid Congo Powers, playing on the Psychedelic Jungle and Smell of Female albums. Following a return to The Gun Club, he further enhanced the coolest musical resume in town with a stint as guitarist with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In recent years, he has taken the stage as vocalist and guitarist for his acclaimed psychedelic garage rock ‘n’ roll band, Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds, whose fourth album, Haunted Head is due for release at the end of the month.
Kid Congo Powers found time to speak to me whilst in London during the band’s recent European tour. Bursting with nervous energy, he was enthusiastically chatty with natural warmth and a schoolboy chuckle that shook his entire body.
So Kid, the video for the current single, ‘Conjure Man’ features a dream machine (a rotating cylinder with slits cuts in the side containing a light that is viewed with closed eyes and is said to stimulate the brain into a hypnotic state). What was the inspiration for this?
Well the inspiration came partly from the director (Aaron Brookner). I was going to do some music for a film. He was going to do a feature film which, as these things happen in independent movies, everything fell through, it didn’t happen but we’d been in touch about working together, we get on really well. He’s now working on a documentary about his uncle in New York (Howard Brookner) who made a film called Burroughs: The Movie which is now being restored and is about to make the rounds again in museums and things.
So he has all this archive footage that’s not seen in the film and a little more focused on the uncle’s relationship with this and filmmaking in general. He asked me to do some music for this project and so I said, ‘well would you want to do a video for me?’ So since he’s very hooked up with this Burroughs world and talking to them a lot, he thought, oh the dream machine would be a beautiful thing and perfect for the song.
So our connections are to do with film, William Burroughs, Beat. I’ve seen it (the dream machine) before because there was a big Brion Gysin exhibition at the New Museum in New York and they had one in there that you could go and dream with and actually my partner just said, would you like a dream machine for your birthday? I said, well maybe, yeah, we can dream away.
Some of your music has a dark, mystical quality – do you believe in black magic?
I believe in magic. I don’t know if I believe in black magic or if I want to even be involved with it at all. I know people that are and for me, I like magic and when I think of magic I’m mostly thinking about music and the magic that it creates because I think that’s definitely a force from another world coming in to be made and also I think of love as magic.
[quote]I like magic
and when I
think of magic
I’m mostly thinking
about music and
the magic that
it creates because
I think that’s
definitely a force
from another world
to be made[/quote]
I think all things I can’t explain that happen are magic. So I like magic and I like the idea of magic and I like the imagery of magic. I like everything to do with it because it is the unexplained and the subconscious and I like things that are inexplicable; that’s fascinating to me and endless.
Of course much of your music is uplifting too. You’ve had some difficult periods in your life, so how do you stay cheerful throughout everything?
(Laughs) Well for one, I like a sense of humour and I like a sense of black, dark humour as well. But also I’ve had very dark times in my life, deaths of family, so from a young age I’ve experienced a lot of heavy stuff. I was a very sensitive child and I think of that old saying, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. So I think it makes me now appreciate things that are light and I think, you know, especially in things in rock ‘n’ roll.
One thing I learned from The Cramps, it’s about celebrating life and that’s one thing I really learned from them and that life is there to be boiled and nothing should stand in the way of that. So I think it’s very positive, I think there’s beauty in the dark side, you have to know it to know the bright side and also there would be no way to compare if you didn’t have both and so I like to bring that into music to compare and contrast and mix things together.
A lot of what I like to do is to mix styles of music and different things and I like clothes that mix fabric and abrasive stuff with nice, soft stuff and really fine things with cheap things and also in music I like mixing styles that way. I like taking old music and mixing it with something you wouldn’t normally think of mixing, just like The Cramps would mix psychedelic music with rockabilly which you know, right now is not a big stretch of the imagination ‘cos they did it, but at the time when they did it, you couldn’t even believe it was happening.
That’s when I saw them, I said, I can’t believe this, this group that’s rockabilly, that’s psychedelic, that just was mind blowing to me. The Gun Club is that way for me and even Nick Cave is a lot that way, a mixing of styles that creates new language and actually a language people want to know and a language people can learn and be a part of as opposed to a new language that leaves everyone outside of it.
So that’s what I kind of do sometimes.
During your period of heroin addiction, it would have been easy for your life to spiral downwards. Why did you take the decision to give up heroin, was there a particular turning point in your life?
I just one day realised, there was actually one specific moment when a friend of my group of friends in Berlin at the time, a heroin group of friends, if you’re going to call them friends. A friend had overdosed, a young girl, and all these other people were saying, “Oh she wasn’t cut out for it and she was weak and she shouldn’t have been playing with that anyway” and I just kind of saw it in my mind. In one second I saw that and I was like, I’m not a part of this at all.
Also then I thought, wow, I’m in this great position. The Gun Club was doing really well and Nick Cave, everything is great and I couldn’t care less about music or anything to do with it and I thought, that’s not me at all, I’m someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll, who loves music, who grew up wanting nothing but to do this. So it was a kind of a realisation, not a kind of a realisation, it was a realisation, an epiphany moment and that made me stop.
I just said, ok I choose music and celebrating.
[quote]When The Cramps
asked me to be
in The Cramps,
I quit everything,
threw my shoes
in their air
and my books
out the window
I’m going with you![/quote]
Do you think that you would ever have been in a band if you’d never met Jeffrey Lee Pierce?
Jeffrey Lee Pierce came along and shoved a guitar in my hand and said, you’re cool looking, let’s be in a band, I like you. I don’t know if I would have been in a band otherwise, I have no idea, probably not. I would probably have been interviewing someone, like you are right now ‘cos I wanted to be a journalist. I was doing journalism in college and then The Gun Club started and I still was doing it then. When The Cramps asked me to be in The Cramps, I quit everything, threw my shoes in their air and my books out the window and said, I’m going with you!
So tell us your funniest Cramps memory.
One time my hair caught on fire on stage. I had a lot of hair spray and a giant bouffant of hair and we had candles on our amps. We were doing ‘Sunglasses After Dark’, where we go and put on our sunglasses and there are candles there and they’re making a feedback, and I went like this (bends forward) and the whole hair just went whoooooosh. Luckily I had a lot of lacquer on it so just the outside of it went up in flame but the audience screamed.
I never had so many girls screaming for me! It stunk up the whole of the place and made for a pretty electrifying rest of the set.
How did you find the transition from being a guitarist in your previous bands to fronting the Pink Monkey Birds?
It wasn’t comfortable at first but it’s been years now of being a front person and I like it because I’m learning all the time what it is and I’m having a real appreciation for front people and bandleaders. I always tell (Poison) Ivy and Nick (Cave) all the time, “If I ever said anything, I’m not ungrateful, I forgive you!”
So are you still in touch with Ivy and with Nick?
Yeah I speak to Ivy a few times a year and if I’m in LA I go and see her. Nick, less so, and I’m really good friends with Mick Harvey from the Bad Seeds. We keep a nice communication, I feel very close to Ivy especially and since Lux passed away, there’s a lot of good people around her and everyone feels like that. She’s great, she’s wonderful, she’s doing great, a beautiful, beautiful person.
Portrait: Carl Byron Batson
Part 2 of the interview appears next week.