Interview: Kid Congo Powers on Recording in a Kansas Gym and How Jeffrey Lee Pierce Taught Him Guitar

Feb 11, 2011 at 11:00 am

You've heard of garage rock. But Kid Congo Powers - co-founder of the Gun Club, guitarist for the Cramps and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and prolific, eccentric, solo rock & roll maestro -- doesn't play garage rock. He plays gymnasium rock. His forthcoming album, Gorilla Rose and his 2009 album Dracula Boots, were both cut in an old high school gym in the middle of nowhere Kansas. The space - big, dusty, noisy and haunted with teenage history - is just like his musical vision.

A to Z caught up with Kid as he was packing to fly out to Kansas for practice. His current tour with the Pink Monkey Birds (named after a line in the David Bowie song "Moonage Daydream") brings the band to St. Louis for a show at Off Broadway on Sunday, February 13.

Roy Kasten: Where are you calling from? Kid Congo: Washington D.C., Dupont Circle. It's kind of the central, groovy area.

How long have you lived there? Four years now. I'd been in New York for twelve years, and parts unknown prior to that. New York wasn't giving me what it was before. I grew up enamored with New York. I was a 14-year-old who said, "I'm moving to New York!" I was that type. I was infatuated with everything from the New York Dolls to punk rock to CBGB. I finally made the big move and spent 12 years there.

Are you saying that Dupont Circle is now ground zero for cutting edge rock & roll? It's an incubator and waiting room and launching pad. Actually, ground zero for Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds is a town called Harveyville, Kansas. For the past couple of years we've been recording there, including Dracula Boots and Gorilla Rose and our box set. Our drummer, Ron Miller and his girlfriend live there and own a high school, an old 1940s, brick high school. They've turned it into an artist retreat. He's a tattoo artist and musician and his girlfriend does yarn work and is something of a guru-ess of that. Everyone from writers and choreographers and musicians come and stay there. It's a small town of 250 people. There are no distractions, no noise, just a lot of space. It's a perfect work space.

So you literally record in a gymnasium? Yes. Scorecard, basketball hoops, clock in a cage.

That opens up all kinds of percussion possibilities. No extra reverb needed. We can gauge the reverb by how we close the curtains on the stage in the gymnasium. I really love live recording. If you can record live and make it sound amazing, it conjures up this weird magic, to be able to record like that, so freely. In the middle of nowhere you have no sense of time. You can imagine all the things that happened in high school, all the crazy proms and the kind of trouble that came up in there.

That would be completely different than a basement studio. The room actually creates space in your music and in your head. It's a great place to let your imagination run wild. With a physically confined space, I suppose if you're a master meditator you can transcend that. This space gave me more scope and room for imagination.

I like the way your vocals and the percussion sit on the last album. That's all done live? It's entirely live. It's just the sound of a huge, wooden room. Play vintage equipment in a vintage room and you get an amazing vintage sound.