Interview: Kid Congo has hope
Founding member of The Gun Club and erstwhile guitarist for The Cramps and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Kid Congo – otherwise known as Brian Tristan – brings his psychedelic rock’n’roll to Sydney Festival this January with Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds. It’ll be his first trip to Sydney with long-term cohorts The Pink Monkey Birds for a night of raw, sonic ambrosia featuring a heady mix of fuzz guitars, New Orleans drumbeats and basslines dripping with soul. Courtney Dabb caught up with Brian (pictured, above right) for an in-depth conversation:
Hi Brian! Thanks for taking the time out to speak with us at Something You Said. 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 was genre-defining, 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 and fastest. I was very much attracted to the fact that it was unconventional and that was the reason I kept on with it too. I realised how to play properly, but I was very influenced by sound and more expressionistic guitar things I was looking at. I don’t know if it was revolutionary, but I learned to love it and I still play in open tuning, especially in E. There is a lot of finesse. 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 being egotistical. I can certainly appreciate, 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. It was completely raw and they helped shape me in a big way. It 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 the music each other made was the common language. I was a big fan of them all, obviously The Cramps… I was a teenage fan of theirs, and also The Birthday Party. 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, a love of rock ‘n’ 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.
Having played with rock ‘n’ 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. What I learned from them was never to bend for that, it has always been on their terms musically and all 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. Basically just be yourself. That seems like a simple thing to say but it’s a very important thing to know. It took me a long time. 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 in 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 is very different from the last three. I remember in 2006 going to see The Cramps, which happened to be their last tour. 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. I went to see them and I was completely flabbergasted and blown away because they are incredible, but I was like ‘wow, it’s three chords they’re playing and it really sounds like outer-space heaven and a crazy roller-coaster ride at the same time.’ I was like ‘why is it like this?’ It’s because they were just being themselves and they are putting out there who they are and what they are. There is no pretence, there are 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 realise all I have to do is be myself and be fearless about it and not apologise to anyone or try to be anything except myself. The Pink Monkey Birds records since then have been a great success. 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 it became 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. When I found out I could be myself and what the good things about me are… it’s fun playing, it’s humour, it’s 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 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 with a lot more to do with imagery. That makes what’s happening more potent, there is a truth in there. Whether it’s humorous, rock ‘n’ roll, bombastic or whatever, you have to have truth in there and some weight. The other thing about being in all the bands I have been in is how we bonded on our love of older music. We shared our love of soulful music and rock ‘n’ 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. It’s a constant archaeological dig, to create a language today that people can understand and a language that people will want to learn.
As an artist constantly evolving emotionally and musically, how has your work with Pink Monkey 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, 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 viewpoint to me. 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 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, but for us it’s evolving and changing more into what is us.
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. 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. 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. In your case, what does (playing, creating and listening to) music give you that nothing else does?
Rock ‘n’ roll gives me hope. It gives me hope all the time. It means everything to me. I have been writing a memoire about growing up and it has always meant everything to me. 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 before. 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 also fascinated with New York. 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. I had been in one band in Paris before, just travelling as a teenager, seeking out music. That’s what Jeffrey and I bonded on first… 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. It was a very different experimental scene to be in than it was in the experimental scene in London or Los Angeles. 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. Berlin at the time was West Berlin – before the wall had come down – and was 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 ‘n’ roll place, it was incredibly eye-opening and 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 the 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. 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 and we will play some of the new stuff. We do play Gun Club and Cramps. I always want to be doing 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. 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 – who you have played with in the past – is on the bill. 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 met 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 a David Lynch art exhibition. 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. We would reach over to our amplifier and put on dark glasses. I had really big hair at the time. I would use about an entire can of hairspray a night to keep it up as big as possible. 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. 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?’. Then it became apparent my whole hair had been on fire and it just stunk up the whole room. Everyone was screaming like The Beatles had just walked in. 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.’ 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. I think there is always a way to communicate and put music forth that is going to say something that hasn’t been said before. I do it in a rock ‘n’roll way, but I want to go beyond just rock ‘n’ roll. I want it to be its own language and I want it to be heard by many people. Even if it’s just preaching to the converted, that’s fine, but I think there are always people who are ready to learn a new language. That’s what I am striving for… to keep speaking in this different language.
To book tickets to the Kid Congo show on 24th January and for more info, go to the Sydney Festival Website.
Interview by Courtney Dabb.