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Kid Congo Powers is becoming a little sentimental lately. Even though he spent time playing with seminal punk groups the Gun Club, the Cramps, the Fall, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, he can't get over how cool it is when people come up to him after one of his live sets to tell him how important his music has been to them. Younger generations of listeners still have an appreciation for early punk, a fact that warms his heart.
For as much as Powers' legend has been cemented in punk's history books, he's not out to promote a nostalgia trip; instead, he's interested in sharing new music. His current group, the Pink Monkey Birds, is still somewhat informed by the spirit of the early punk scene in which Powers came of age. As a front man, Powers channels similar musical elements as some of his earlier rock incarnations, such as blues, surf, punk, even some fuzz guitar for a spooky, garage sound illuminated by his haunting vocals. Beyond that, there's a deep connection with the listener that Powers strives for in his music. "I like taking old music and mixing it up to create a new language," he says. "But I want people to enjoy themselves. In the end, we're a rock & roll band, and we have fun."
Growing up in La Puente as Brian Tristan, son of Mexican working-class parents, he was surrounded by music. He can recall the beatnik neighbor who introduced him to obscure standards from the '20s, the high-school garage band in his neighborhood that played mostly covers, and the '60s Chicano group Thee Midniters, whom his sisters enjoyed. As a teen, he would sneak out to catch late-night shows in Hollywood, where he connected with other youths equally avid about the emerging underground punk scene. "There was a whole group of kids who were sick of the outrageousness of rock stardom," Powers says. "After a while, it had just gotten pompous, unrealistic and unable to relate to."
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It was during these midnight forays that Powers became acquainted with the artists of the first wave of New York punk. "Patti Smith, Blondie and the Ramones came around," he recalls. "They just played their show and would walk right in the audience and start asking people where the record stores were, or be like, 'Hey could you take us out to eat somewhere?' That was a complete revelation, that's how people learned in LA to make their own scene inclusive."
Before forming his first band, Powers circulated his own Ramones fanzine and served as the president of an unofficial Ramones fan club. A chance meeting with Jeffrey Lee Pierce at a Pere Ubu show would change his life forever. "I knew from an early age I wanted to be around music, but I was kind of shocked at the thought of becoming a musician," Powers says. "Jeffrey said, 'We should start a band,' and I said, 'Well, I don't play anything,' and he just said, 'We'll get a guitar, and I'll show you how to play.' That was it; it was that easy." After starting the Gun Club with Pierce, Powers' life became a series of encounters with other musicians; he was christened Kid Congo Powers when he became the guitar player for the Cramps, and he fulfilled his wanderlust by traveling and—as he puts it—going wherever the music was.
These days, he's based in Washington, D.C., where he stays connected with fans on social media and, of course, by touring. His band's West Coast tour to promote their newest album, Haunted Head, recently began. Communicating to people through music and creating a communal experience, he says, is an important aspect of punk ethics. "Audiences vary as far as physicality, but we're a dance band, a fun band, and we like to include the audience in that experience and not just be some three-dimensional thing to look at."