kid congo & the pink monkey birds

Music Is The Common Language

There is always a way to communicate & put forth music that is going to say something in different ways.

You have had a long and varied career starting with your first (and highly influential) band The Gun Club…. Your open E tuning guitar style of playing was a genre defining sound but you were largely self-taught and not constrained by the orthodox manner of learning guitar. Were you aware at the time that your sound was revolutionary?

No (laughs) it was the easiest way to go. The easiest, fastest and I was very much attracted to the fact that it was unconventional and that was the reason I kept on with it to. I realised how to use it to play properly but also I was very influenced by sound and more expressionistic guitar things I was looking at and the way I learned was more like having it like a horn or something so I didn’t feel like it was so much revolutionary but just easy and I took to it, it just seemed the normal way and I didn’t know any other way. I don’t know if it was revolutionary but I learned to love it and I still play in open tuning, especially in E and I do like it. I like it, there is a lot of finesse a lot of the times and I really enjoy that and it becomes part of the challenge to make it something to finesse it and that it has its own sound, a lot of droning strings and overtones that don’t happen with the standard conventional tuning.

It must be very rewarding and humbling to know that you have contributed to some extremely influential and highly acclaimed albums (The Cramps-Psychedelic Jungle, The Gun Club-The Las Vegas Story, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds-Tender Prey) over the past 30 years?

It’s very rewarding to be recognised for it but I’m always onto the next thing really. What good does it do except make you feel good (laughs). It raises the bar for what I have to come up with. Also I don’t let something like that become a negative thing like getting bogged down or be egotistical. I can certainly appreciate it in my later years the accomplishment of it and I am very proud of it. I feel very fortunate that I have worked with such incredible people and I feel fortunate that they picked me to work with them…anywhere from The Gun Club to The Cramps. The Cramps picked me up when I was playing guitar for one year, maybe less even, they just came and saw The Gun Club and oh there is my new guitar player. That was completely raw and they helped shape me in a big way and that was the same for the Bad Seeds. I think Nick (Cave) and Mick (Harvey) always picked people that had their own cosmos going on and that was what was attractive to them, the unconventional element of it. A lot of it has to do with personality, we all got along and had like-mindedness about music and we could tell that through the music each other made that that was the common language and I was a big fan of them all, obviously The Cramps I was a teenage fan of theirs and also The Birthday Party, I was a great admirer of them. Especially, I felt a very big kinship with Roland Howard’s guitar playing, I felt like we were coming from a similar antique guitar playing and love of rock and roll and sources of material. It was lucky I was travelling around a lot and they were travelling around a lot and we bumped into each other. It is a very very very very big source of pride for me and I am always happy to say it and it surprises even me sometimes when I really think about it.

Having played with rock and roll royalty including The Cramps, Nick Cave and Barry Adamson…is there something you took away from playing with these artists that finds its way into the music of Kid Congo?

Most definitely, it’s an aesthetic of being very true to your vision. All of those bands, The Gun Club, Cramps, Nick Cave, we all had very strong visions about what it could be, what it was and what they wanted to do and what I learned from them was never to bend for that, it has always been on their terms musically and allI the bands I love are the same way. So that’s it, to hang on the vision, don’t listen to what other people are saying and don’t let people mess with what you are doing and basically just be yourself. That seems like a simple thing to say but it’s a very important thing know and I think it took me a long time and after I left The Cramps and Bad Seeds, I spent a while trying to do things that were definitely not like that and trying to run the other direction, trying to forge my own identities. There was a lot of experimenting and going down some paths that were maybe not right for me, or maybe they were, it’s all just learning. Even the Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds first album I think is very different from the last three but it was all a little bit going away from what had gone before. I remember in 2006 going to see The Cramps which happened to be their last tour and I hadn’t seen them for many, many years, we hadn’t spoken but that was because we weren’t in town at the same time but I went to see them and I was completely flabbergasted and blown away because they are incredible, but I was like wow, its three chords their playing and it really sounds like outer space heaven and a crazy roller coaster ride at the same time and I was like why is it, why is it like this and it’s because they were just being themselves and they are just putting out there who they are and what they are, there is no pretence, there is all the theatrics but that’s just really an extension of who they are and what they are trying to say and do so it was a real moment, an epiphany, I am a part of this and it just made me say all I have to do is be myself and be fearless about it and not apologise to anyone or try to be anything except yourself and the Pink Monkey Birds records since then have been a great success and it just freed me up to take lessons I’ve learned from other bands and make them into my own voice.

Working within a band such as The Cramps and Nick Cave as a contributor is one thing and involves a certain level of input and creatively as an individual but being the captain of the ship as you are with Kid Congo must take on a different role and responsibility?

Yes, that’s what I mean, it’s always been someone else’s vision. The Gun Club, that was because I started doing it with Jeffrey (Lee Pierce), it was my vision but he took it over when I left and went on becoming much more his vision. The Cramps and Nick Cave was me contributing to someone else’s music and world. So becoming my own world I had to figure out what that was, the transgression I had to go through and when I found out I could be myself and what the good things about me are, it’s fun playing, its humour, its sexiness, danger and a good time. I’m that guy and not anything else. It’s a very different thing to be the head of a group. I’ve had the same group since 2006 now. I have been playing for quite a while with the drummer Ron Miller and bassist Kiki Solis. Finding people who share my vision as well and they help shape things a lot.

You have had many triumphs and tragedies in your life, how have these shaped your music?

Well I think everything informs your music. Think there is an element of tribute, like to Jeffrey Lee Pierce and personal people, I think everything informs your music and I have always thought that you are putting yourself out there in song. It’s your personal life and you are affecting things in many different ways, in political ways and in other ways.

I like literature and I like things to mean something, they can be very esoteric but lyrically I write very epigraphically and a lot more to do with imagery and that I think makes what’s happening more potent, there is a truth in there whether its humorous, rock and roll, bombastic or whatever you have to have truth in there and some weight and also I think that history of things like learning about older music. That’s the other thing about being in all the bands I have been in, we bonded on our love of older music. We shared our love of soulful music and rock and roll like Little Richard and Elvis Presley and everyone else beyond, backwards and forwards so we were all interested in finding some sort of true voice and what is the root of the true voice and so it’s a constant archaeological dig and how to use that so its current and modern. To create a language today that people can understand and a language that people will want to learn….and that is what is going on with what I have learnt (laughs).

As an artist constantly evolving emotionally and musically, how has your work with Pink Monkeys Birds changed over the years?

It’s hard to know because I am not monitoring it (laughs) but I think I know more about process and the subtleties involved and the willingness to explore more as an artist. I have band members that are much younger like Kiki (Solis) who was born in 1979 and I am like well I was already a junkie in 1979 (laughs). There is a generational thing but they are old souls and they bring a more modern view point to me and that makes me look at things in that way and they don’t let me go, not that I would, in a direction of nostalgia. It’s mainly the sexiness and excitement of it that we are trying to hang on to and we able to explore different musical ideas. We work in a very lo-fi sort of way so it’s very basic but exciting to make it different every time. The difference to the listener is subtle to but for us it’s evolving and changing more into what is us and we are able to use our different viewpoints and the different things that feed us as music fans to put into the music. I think Monkey Birds has created its own beast so now when we play music it sounds like us and people recognise it as us and it’s the same for me with other bands, I am always excited when they try something different, even if it’s not working sometimes but the good ones often make it work. Also I am at an age and a place where I don’t have to be afraid to change it, the risk is not much, and I feel like there isn’t a risk. There isn’t a risk but I feel that if I don’t take a risk I will be in trouble, I have to step out and take a bit of a risk, you have to be brave enough to forge forward.

On a personal level I am always fascinated with what music does for people and in your case what does (playing, creating and listening) to music give you that nothing else does?

Rock and roll gives me hope. It gives me hope all the time, that’s the thing it does give me. It means everything to me. I have been writing a memoire about growing up and it has always meant everything to me and I have learnt everything through songs and music. Mostly it gives me hope and I am looking to hear something sad in a different way that I haven’t heard it before and it does happen and that’s the exciting thing for me, I am always looking for excitement.

Growing up you had a deep fondness and fascination with for New York and lived in Berlin as well as London for many years, how does a city and its culture drive your music and do you feel that the music you have created was heavily influenced by the time you spent in these cities or would these albums have taken the same form irrespective of where you were living at the time?

I think fascination with a city definitely influences what’s going on and especially moving to Berlin, things very much changed. I was fascinated with New York and I ended up in the Cramps and I think at the time we started The Gun Club we (Jeffrey Lee Pierce) had already travelled extensively and spent time in New York and I had been in one band in Paris before and just travelling as a teenager seeking out music and that’s what me and Jeffrey bonded on first was that we were fans of music but we found out we had both been travelling for it and that made us think we could do something…that and the fact that if we had a band we would get free drinks (laughs) we weren’t always so philosophical about it all.

Obviously when I lived in Berlin I hooked up with the Bad Seeds and I learnt much more about experimental music and It was a very different experimental scene to be in than it was in the experimental scene in London or Los Angeles and I can’t even tell you what it is, it’s just sort of an essence, a feeling that is going on in a city and Berlin at the time was West Berlin and before the wall had come down and a very specialised city, very isolated. It was the first place I found where all the arts meet up, people in visual arts or in bands or in jazz, rock music, were all together. People were all working on each other’s projects, the arts weren’t segregated. For me coming from a very punk, rock and roll place it was incredibly eye opening and incredibly encouraging so that influenced me a lot and opened a lot of avenues in my brain.

Then I moved to New York and I got to make my New York album I always wanted to make. I think the first Pink Monkey Birds album was strictly influenced by New York and it had New York players on it. And then going to the mid-west to record with The Pink Monkey Birds, we went to a campus because Ron Miller has a studio which is actually a high school, this huge school with gymnasium, cafeteria and 15 school rooms. That fuelled a few fantasies of 1950’s, mid-west, school, juvenile delinquents…what went on here, it kind of unnerved me a little bit. I always liked bands that came from the mid-west Ohio like Pere Ubu or Devo because it breeds another nest as it’s a very boring, going nowhere, working class and your imagination if you have a bit of devil inside you, your imagination can go very free and wide.

We have just made our fourth album there which is coming out soon but I think the isolation of somewhere like Kansas makes your head spin like it’s in a different orbit compared to somewhere like DC or LA.

You are coming to Australia with the Pink Monkey Birds which is on the other side of the planet, what can Sydneysiders expect to hear at your show, will you be taking selected tracks from your back catalogue or focusing on new material?

I think we are going to do back catalogue, we will play some of the new stuff. We do play Gun Club and Cramps, I always want to be doing that, I think for one reason is that no one else who played on those records is playing live right now so I feel a bit of a duty to do that, also it makes me very happy and makes the audience happy so we do play Cramps and Gun Club in our set and now we have 4+ albums of material so we are going to give it our best. I guarantee it will be fun.

Fellow Sydney Festival artist Tex Perkins is on the bill who you have played with in the past, can we expect a little guest appearance from Tex during your show?

I’ve got to write to him, I would love that to happen. Is he playing with The Ape?

No he is playing with a different ensemble, Far From Folsa

We played with him (The Ape) in Spain earlier this year. I met Tex when he was a teenager right before they started to record the first Beasts of Bourbon album so we go back. He is always a delight.

With a career spanning three decades, you must have had some memorable encounters and bizarre stories. Can you share some of them with us?

I meet David Lynch once, that was pretty incredible and mind bending. I played for a while with Julie Cruise who did the Twin Peaks theme, she was performing with some other musicians and she was playing at the launch of the opening of a David Lynch art exhibit and they were having musical guests all week and Julie was there and she was like oh come, David’s not in town or anything and it was an outdoor festival and then it started raining so they had to move indoors to the gallery and they had the set from Eraserhead and it was the theatre set where the radiator lady was singing in heaven everything is fine (by the Pixies) so they all got to play on that stage and then suddenly David Lynch just walked in and it was like the room just turned sideways and everyone freaked out. He was great and so direct, when he looks at you and shakes your hand you feel like he has gone right inside of you, it’s crazy and I don’t know how much of that is just my projection but that was a great encounter.

Other great things, well my favourite story is one time when I was playing with The Cramps in LA at the Roxy Theatre, we used to have candles on our amplifiers burning throughout the show and we would do this song Sunglasses After Dark and make a really big round of feedback and we would reach over to our amplifier and put on dark glasses and so I was doing this and I was leaning over and I had really big hair at the time and I would use about an entire can of hairspray a night to keep it up as big as possible and so I leaned over the candle and Nick Knox saw the flame of the candle leap on top of my head and a whole other bit of my hair went whooosh in a giant flame and I didn’t even know it was happening and suddenly everyone screamed and Nick jumped from behind the drums and started hitting me on the head and I was like what did I do wrong, I must have been playing really terrible and then it became apparent my whole hair had been on fire and it just stunk up the whole room and everyone was screaming like crazy like The Beatles had just walked in and everyone was going wild at this great piece of theatrics and without missing one beat Lux Interior says ‘ the days of miracles have not past, we give to you Kid Congo the burning bush’ so there’s a moment and talk about thinking on your feet.

It has to be said that to get a start in the music business and sustain a long and creative career, one must be headstrong and extremely determined. What were your key motivators and what continues to drive you today?

It’s very indescribable what the drive is but aside from not knowing what else I would do, I still feel like I have something to say even though I don’t know what it is or what I am going to say and I think there is always a way to communicate and put music forth that is going to say something in different ways that hasn’t been said before. For me I do it in a rock and roll way but I want to make rock and roll that is behind just rock and roll. I want it to be its own language and I want it to be heard by many people and even if it’s just preaching to the converted, that’s fine to but I think there are always people who are ready to learn a new language and that’s what I am striving for, is to keep speaking in this different language.