Somewhere in the southern Arizona desert, among the guardian sagebrush and saguaro cacti, Kid Congo Powers walks with spirit.
Decked out in a fabulous pale pink suit, Panama-like hat and a turquoise-silver bolo tie swinging with his every step, a dapper Kid Congo moves down a winding gray asphalt road past pandemic-empty campsites and one lone camper, bewildered at the sight of this desert spectacle.
A few minutes into this desert daydream, Kid Congo intones: “Although you’ve been dead for quite some years/it’s lovely to see my friend, it’s lovely to feel my friend.”
Powers’ friend is Jeffrey Lee Pierce, his late former Gun Club bandmate who passed away twenty-five years ago. Powers regards Pierce as his “main man,” without whom Powers would not be where he is now. “Nothing could come without him.”
Following the “visceral” dream he had about Pierce, Powers summoned his Pink Monkey Birds bandmates for a socially-distant jam session. The result was “He Walked In” and the accompanying 14-minute video directed by cinematographer and video artist David Fenster. Recorded in the Saguaro National Park just outside of Powers’ home in Tucson, Arizona, the video for “He Walks In” ushers in the release of his latest project, “Sean De Lear,” the fifth studio album and first EP for Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds out February 19 from the Los Angeles-based label, In the Red Records.
“Sean De Lear” captures all that is quintessentially Kid Congo Powers: a Brown, queer, underground punk glam rock guitar legend who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in the greater East L.A. suburb of La Puente, California. Along with a new album and video, Powers is wrapping up his memoir and just debuted a fresh line of rockin’ shades from Shady Spex.
His work over decades with worldwide bands like The Gun Club, The Cramps, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and now his own Pink Monkey Birds places Kid Congo Powers firmly in the L.A. and international punk music scene. These latest works remind music fans of Powers’ enduring importance to the subterranean cultures of Southern California and beyond.
A Kid from La Puente
Kid Congo Powers has been called many things throughout his illustrious decades-long career.
“Garage guitar god.” “Punk legend.” “Made mostly of magic.” “Latinx groover.” Even Vogue magazine calls him a “punk icon” with a “singular fashion sense.”
The kid from La Puente who wanted to be a music journalist ended up becoming one of punk music’s most influential guitarists since joining Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club in the late 1970s. He would tour for decades with The Gun Club and other internationally regarded post-punk bands like The Cramps and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds before forming his own gritty and groovy Chicano rock band, The Pink Monkey Birds in the late 2000s.
But before his rise as a sought-after garage-blues-punk guitarist, Kid Congo Powers was Brian Tristan, a gay kid and self-described “flamboyant young fellow” growing up with sisters and parents who loved and listened to all kinds of music in their La Puente family home.
“Music was a matter-of-fact part of life growing up,” Powers told KCET. “I heard a lot of different things growing up with older sisters. There was always lots of music at our house and at my grandmother’s house in the Aliso Village area, where we’d spend weekends. Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, big band, Mexican music. There’d be relatives singing, dancing, playing the guitar.”
Powers credits an older queer family member who introduced him to Frank Zappa and other formative musical acts. He made friends with a garage band on his street who shared his tastes for David Bowie, Roxy Music and glam rock. But nothing seemed to dazzle young Powers more than watching his older sisters get dressed up for a night on the town.
“I have memories of cousins and sisters dressing up and going out to see bands like Thee Midniters. As a young boy, that was exciting. Nothing seemed cooler, and I wanted to be a part of that,” said Powers.
Powers thought journalism would be his entre into the music world. He spent his days as a student at La Puente’s Bassett High School writing music reviews for the school newspaper, The Olympian. “I was trying to get the kids into Patti Smith, The Ramones, Roxy Music,” said Powers. After high school, he took journalism classes at the community college and, as president of the Southern California fan club for The Ramones, produced a fanzine about the famed punk band from New York City.
“I knew I wanted to be in music,” said Powers, “and I figured that writing about it would be the way in.”
But fate in the form of Jeffrey Lee Pierce had other plans for the fledgling music journalist.
Have guitar, will travel: The Gun Club, The Cramps and The Pink Monkey Birds
Pierce changed Powers’ life when they met in the late 1970s during the punk rock explosion in Los Angeles and told him, simply, that he should be in a band. The singer and songwriter, born in Montebello and raised by a Mexican mother in El Monte, would turn out to be a lifelong “musical soulmate” of Powers until his untimely death in 1996.
The Gun Club (1979-1996) was best known for mixing blues and punk to create a signature “spooky,” “swampy” psychobilly sound as in “Ghost on the Highway,” a track from their debut album, “Fire of Love” (1980). Such a sound was unique at the time and highly influential. The likes of Manchester guitar god Johnny Marr cites Powers and the “swampy guitar” sounds of The Gun Club as a major source of inspiration for his 1984 global mega-hit with The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now?”
With Pierce and other friends from the scene, Powers made music his life. “We were music fanatics, record collectors,” Powers recalled. “We sought out music and dedicated our lives to traveling and playing music, doing the ‘punk rock thing.’ The time was right. We had no wish to be commercial, no wish to make it out of the garage, much less onto the international world stage. The field was wide-open.”
The Gun Club briefly shared a label, Fatima Records, with fellow East L.A. punk bands The Brat and The Plugz, founded by Plugz vocalist and guitarist Tito Larriva. Although Powers’ initial time with The Gun Club was short-lived, he would return to perform and record with them throughout his career until Pierce’s death.
Before long, Powers — still using his birth name — was recruited to play for New York’s The Cramps, led by Lux Interior and Poison Ivy. The punk band moved to L.A. in the 1980s and were looking for a guitarist. Enter Brian Tristan from the Gun Club. “But Poison Ivy said I had to have a punk name!” Powers said. He will tell the story of how she christened him with this stage name in his forthcoming memoir but suffice it to say that it involves Poison Ivy, a candle allegedly from the Congo and some conjuring of mysterious powers that day.
Kid Congo would record some albums and tour with The Cramps before joining Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in the mid-1980s. In a 2014 interview on The Pharmacy radio program, Powers names the 1988 song “Deanna" one of his proudest guitar moments in the Bad Seeds. The song hearkens back to the ‘60s-era garage rock era, complete with organs, driving bass and jangly guitar.
Powers’ creative contributions to his artform are wide-ranging and traverse time, space and style. Although Powers’ signature style was honed and developed over time with these different groups, his sound — whether created as a Gun Clubber, a Cramp, or a Bad Seed — remains undeniably influenced by his Chicano upbringing east of East L.A.
It’s that “Chicano sound,” that unmistakable amalgam of rock, blues, soul, salsa and a bit of jazz that emanated from garages, radios and dance halls in and around Los Angeles in the 1960s and even to this day. It’s the “oldies but goodies,” the kind of music associated with Art Laboe and the El Monte Legion Stadium days. It’s the happy ruckus of Thee Midniters on “Whittier Boulevard” and “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. It’s the haunted organs of Eric Burdon and the Animals on “House of the Rising Sun” and the slow, sweet “Brown-Eyed Soul” of bands like Tierra and El Chicano.
It’s that sound, led by Powers and his guitar, that would live on in his post-Bad Seeds project, a band called The Pink Monkey Birds.
"We are a Chicano band"
Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds debuted in 2009 with their first album, “Dracula Boots.” Since then, the Pink Monkey Birds have released three full-length albums — “Gorilla Rose” (2011), “Haunted Head” (2013), and “La Araña Es La Vida” (2016). Their first EP is the forthcoming “Sean De Lear” (2021). After some personnel changes, the band’s current lineup features Powers on lead guitar and vocals, Kiki Solis on bass, Mark Cisneros on guitar and Ron Miller on drums.
The press release for “Sean De Lear” describes this latest Pink Monkey Birds project as a “tribute to the late, magical, non-binary, African American singer Sean De Lear, a ubiquitous Los Angeles underground institution.” Like “Gorilla Rose,” “Sean De Lear," and so many other tracks, Pink Monkey Birds songs index the best of the Brown, underground, “queerdo” scenes in L.A., the West Coast and beyond. Gorilla Rose, for example, was a colorful figure associated with the L.A. techno-punk band, The Screamers. The band plays songs about Buck Angel, a trans* adult film actor; a Mexican spider goddess of Teotihuacan; and “mondos, cholos, weirdos, and creeps” everywhere.
Paying such tribute to marginalized, criminalized, counter-culture figures reflects Powers’ and his Pink Monkey Birds bandmates’ cultural politics and aesthetic sensibilities. The song choices also speak to the intractable Chicano-ness of the band.
“I would say we are a Chicano band,” Powers told KCET. “One, because it’s true!” There is Powers himself along with the El Paso-born Solis on bass, the jazz musician Cisneros on guitar from Whittier and the “honorary Chicano” Miller on drums, who grew up in parts of Texas and New Mexico.
Powers did not originally “set out” to assemble a Chicano band with the Pink Monkey Birds. “It just happened that way,” he said. But the band’s Chicano identity goes beyond heritage and surnames. “We all feel a sort of outsiderness,” explained Powers. “We still grew up with [this sense] that we’re Brown people, we’re not in the mainstream, we’re not accepted in the mainstream, and feeling like we’re second-class citizens.”
More significantly, their music speaks and sounds ‘Chicano.’
“The pure joy of the music and how we play it also makes us a Chicano band,” said Powers. “They [bandmates] love music in the same way I do, grew up listening to what I heard, and also had a clan-like family love of music.”
Powers acknowledges a deeper feeling they also share. “We’re adults now, and maybe we no longer feel like second-class citizens all the time, but the Chicano-ness does influence us. It's reflected in our love of R&B music and the blues. We all grew up with 'oldies,' music from the neighborhood and local radio. We can laugh about it now, and we can love it, too."
The Art of the Band
In a 2016 interview for Vogue, Powers spoke to the artistic power of playing in a band with a purpose. “For me, the whole art of being a band — and I do think it’s an art — is to create a whole world, a whole language, that is every aspect,” he said.
Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds create a world with their music that can look as nostalgic and old school as a high school dance in the San Gabriel Valley or sound as campy and psychedelic as a soundtrack to a B-movie horror film projected on the walls at an underground dance hall like Montebello’s Club Scum.
A Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds show guarantees dancing and bopping along to these swampy, psychedelic, blues-based punky rockabilly jams that sound so familiar to anyone who grew up listening to music in the San Gabriel Valley. You can’t help but move, dance and cheer them on because they’re playing songs about La Llorona and house parties with their gente in La Puente. And they look fabulous doing it — Kid Congo often dons a custom suit decorated with stripes or glitter, while his bandmates wear matching “Pink Monkey Birds” jackets like the T-Birds in “Grease.”
My parents can attest to the familiar sound of Kid Congo’s guitar-driven music.
I wanted to know what they — bona fide Mexican Americans from El Paso (dad) and East L.A. (mom) who graduated from high schools in the Montebello-Commerce area in the late 1960s — thought about Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds. I played one song from each album, including some from the new EP, without telling them whose songs they were. I simply asked my parents what they heard or what memories these songs sparked.
My mom heard shrieks and gritos like in Thee Midniters’ “Whittier Boulevard” in Kid Congo’s “Bo Bo Boogaloo,” the opening track of 2011’s “Gorilla Rose.” She moved her head to the beat and then changed her mind: “no, it sounds like that song ‘Farmer John,’” and she asked my dad if he remembered. “Yeah, The Premieres,” he said, naming another ‘60s-era Latino band from L.A. who once played on “American Bandstand.”
I played a few more Pink Monkey Birds songs, and my parents threw out a few more memories. Cannibal and the Headhunters, “Land of a 1,000 Dances.” Question Mark & the Mysterians, “96 Tears.” Then, “The garage stuff from the ‘60s, like El Monte Legion Hall,” said my dad. “That’s what it sounds like.”
Then I played the new video featuring a cool Kid Congo in a pink suit, sauntering through the saguaros in a deserted Arizona campground to an instrumental soundtrack of groovy Chicano soul-jazz with a touch of cumbia.
“It’s that East L.A. sound we heard growing up,” said my mom. “Brown soul.”
It’s not every day that I find a contemporary band that appeals to me and my parents. It’s not every day that we come across a musician whose sound transcends time and bridges borders, let alone a guitarist whose playing can evoke a sonic space capacious enough for generational expressions of joy and the creation of memories.
And then I told them. “This is Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds. That song’s coming out on the new album. He’s from La Puente.”
“Oh yeah,” my mom said. “That makes sense.”