When The Kills started it was just two people, a blank slate, and a Fender Twin amp. Gleefully seizing a truckload of rock ‘n’ roll mythology, they sliced up vintage blues riffs with garage punk rama-lama, achieving something truly righteous in the process. Since then, the duo – Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart – have broadened their ambitions and deepened their sound, moving between country and soul, visceral, whiskey-strewn rock music and whispered incantations. New album ‘God Games’ – their first in seven years – pushes ever outward, their most eclectic and yet also direct listen since their hallowed debut. A record that took them from LA to London, from heaven to hell, it became something of a full circle moment for a band forged in the fires of creativity.
Seated on a Shoreditch rooftop – shades kept firmly on after a red-eye flight over the Atlantic – The Kills are bursting to converse, desperate to re-connect. It’s been too long, as they readily admit – a certain novel coronavirus blasting their initial plans to smithereens.
Sipping on a mimosa, Jamie Hince grins: “We started off saying we wouldn’t talk about the p-word… but you can’t avoid it, can you? It’s had such an impact. Even now – to press vinyl, you have to book six, seven months in advance. We’re still feeling the impact.”
Coming off a frenetic three year tour in 2019, the pair wanted to immediately return to the studio and re-engage with what moves them. Booking time in halcyon LA space Sunset Sounds, the ideas were dismissed one by one. In the end, only a solitary song from those sessions made the final cut. Are they harsh editors, Clash wonders?
“I am,” Jamie says, before laughing: “Sometimes I think that’s my only skill!”
“I can keep songs in my head, or in my environment, forever,” he continues. “You have to force yourself to make them happen. And I think that’s what the Sunset Sound session was – it was to get someone to make them real.”
Nodding between puffs on a cigarette, his band mate picks up on this. “It’s a record of two halves,” says Alison. “We recorded some things before the pandemic. But during that time, Jamie learned piano, and we started to approach it in a different way.”
Like many musicians, the pandemic was traumatic, but it also became an area of opportunity. “Suddenly, things started to change,” she reflects. “It became an open road. I panicked about the time factor, but we found some solace in the fact that it happened to everybody.”
Alison adds: “We just somehow felt like it was starting a band again. When you’re creating something, and there’s no milestone or deadline in front of you.”
Swapping voice notes and home recorded demos, The Kills kept the creativity flowing, at least after a fashion. Alison was initially in Nashville, and once the pandemic began to ease she embarked on huge cross-country drives to Los Angeles. “It was like the whole of America was a ghost town. There was no one on the highways except the trucks delivering the shit people were ordering. Just me, trucks, and empty hotels. Trying to find food was like being a hunter gatherer. I just thought: as eerie and as freaky as this is, I’ll never encounter anything like this again.”
There’s an aura of the post-apocalyptic on ‘God Games’. The scorched effects, the riveting, sorceress vocals, and the colossal, widescreen arrangements. Alison agrees, explaining: “I think that I think it’s impossible not to reflect what you’re experiencing. I think it all goes in and then it comes out the other side in some way. Being perceptive and interested in what’s happening around you is pretty important.”
The title came from Jamie, and it’s a curious admission. In his day-to-day life he isn’t religious, rejecting strictures and embracing an anything-goes freedom. In his art, however, there is a place for God – whether that’s the hell-and-brimstone of Robert Johnson, or the leering temptations of Iggy Pop. “I’m Godless, God doesn’t exist to me,” he says. “But in my creative life, I manufacture him. Then later on, I began applying wisdom in hindsight… the title is actually a reference to video games, but I love the idea that we create this metaverse – in a game – and then you create a form of God and it has some form of life. When I’m creating, I create my own universe, and then I create a form of God to help me deal with it all.”
He adds: “So much of rock ‘n’ roll came from the blues. And so much of the blues is intertwined with gospel. It’s inseparable.”
It’s a theme Alison Mosshart feels implicitly. “I always view live performance as a form of gospel. Everybody is together, and focussed, and happy. You’re getting high on this thing, and leaving feeling relieved – in some form – afterwards.”
Once the world had opened up, The Kills decided to look up an album friend. After initial conversation, English producer Paul Epworth came on board to oversee the record, with sessions transplanting The Kills back in North London.
“The last time we worked with him he was in the back of some shitty old transit van, rolling along to some toilet venue,” Jamie laughs. “This time round, we wanted someone who knew that time – just plugging into a broken older Fender Twin and making a horrible noise with one mic and a lighybulb. It made sense.”
“Then we had a Zoom,” he smiles, “and it couldn’t have been more ridiculous – he was in Mexico, drinking a cocktail and wearing a straw hat!”
‘God Games’ was – perhaps aptly – built in the Church, the lavish London space utilised by everyone from Depeche Mode to Arlo Park. Alison instinctively fell in love with the building: “The Church is just such an incredible studio. It just felt right. I checked it out beforehand, went to meet Paul, and I immediately wanted to make the record there.”
It has an aura, doesn’t it?
She smiles, and shrugs: “It doesn’t suck to go to work in the morning.”
That said, the studio does has its drawback. “It’s a huge building, but my vocal booth was so small… I had to crawl in there. Like, really Spiderman myself in! This tiny cubicle in this vast space.”
Overwhelmed by the space, and the plethora of studio options, Jamie opted to use downstairs, a kind of basement sub-studio with no outside light, and a cramped, intense atmosphere. “There’s something weird about knowing what time of day it is when you’re in a studio,” he shrugs. “The Church has these big windows, these old pews… I dunno, it made me anxious!”
By hook or by crook, the album slowly came into focus. “It was all about getting the best possible sound,” Alison notes. “There are vocals on this record that I recorded in my kitchen on GarageBand. They were the best takes, so that was what was used.”
For Jamie, working with Paul Epworth became a means of unpicking old beliefs – both about himself, and his own abilities. “People call it Imposter Syndrome now, but I’ve always had this thing – a lack of confidence – where I felt we weren’t… a proper band. So, part of the creative process has always been under my control. But I’ve always needed someone to come in and make it… proper. Like all the other bands!”
“It’s an instinctive anxiety,” he says. “I mean, we’ve recorded hundreds – hundreds – of songs… so of course, I can do it! It’s just that I haven’t used one to combat the other. And this time round, Paul served that purpose. Absolutely. He’s a brilliant producer, and he can take my ideas, and my crappy production, and just make it sound amazing.”
The end results are massively eclectic, the work of two passionate music fans. Chatting amiably to Clash in the shadows of the lingering summer sun, The Kills can move from riffs on southern soul to reflections on Roy Orbison’s later years – anything is up for grabs. Jamie names PJ Harvey as a real point of influence – her move from scorching ‘Rid Of Me’ honesty to ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ grandeur and beyond.
For Alison, the sheer open-ended nature of The Kills is what keeps her interested. “I think the nature of this band is that we feel like we can do any kind of music that we want. That was the deal we made, right at the start. It can be anything.”
“Having no drummer opens the road out for you. It’s not a traditional way of doing it. So we can add things we’ve never heard before… and that’s exciting.”
Back in London, the band are itching to start touring once more. It’s that sense of communion, the idea of togetherness – even if Jamie does still get the pre-show jitters. “I get really scared playing. I get super nervous before we play. But we’ve missed the travelling. Sometimes I think, God, everything I’ve ever done in my life is because of this band.”
The new album has taken The Kills back to the root of what they do, the implicit impulses that driven them. Alison Mosshart sums it all up: “I’ve learned that you can have the feeling of making a debut album again… that sense of excitement. It felt like that. The spirit of it. Maybe it’s the pandemic, or maybe it’s just being older – I felt like there were endless possibilities.”
‘God Games’ is out now.
Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Myles Hendrik