It Takes Two: The Kills are reunited. Take cover.

Clash cover stars

In a week where every person you see is either nursing a hangover or attempting to drink one away, when Clash meet The Kills during South By South West in Austin, Texas, they look decidedly darker than usual, and rather more hazy than the other revellers. “We were out last night with Queens Of The Stone Age,” Alison Mosshart whispers. “Josh [Homme] said to us, ‘You know this won’t be an early night, don’t you?’” Clearly it wasn’t. The night’s debauchery has led to a broken duo, who meet us in a quiet, air-conditioned restaurant, and attempt to eat their first bites of the day. Jamie Hince, meanwhile, staves off his headache with more red wine…

The Kills in 2011, though they’d be the last to admit it, are a different band to the one that formed a decade ago. Though they’ve retained their primal, visceral edge and DIY musical sensibilities, their initial desires to be a mysterious, underground art collective have been somewhat thwarted by circumstances which have catapulted their profiles to the top of mainstream charts, and onto the front pages of tabloid newspapers.

‘Blood Pressures’ is The Kills’ fourth album, and has been pored over by Hince, who built its foundations while Mosshart was touring with White. It’s a defiant return, and effortlessly confirms their reputation as a force to be reckoned with. The Kills don’t need anyone else in their equation; all they need is each other.

Below you can read the full transcript of our interview with The Kills. Pick up the latest issue of Clash Magazine for the feature, photo gallery and more.

Your fourth album is just about to drop. Before making it, did you have any thoughts on how you’d progress and how you’d like to evolve?  

Alison: We always just think that we want to make a really different record than the one before and all the ones we’ve done. I think that’s the only thought; we just try not to repeat ourselves. That’s always a real challenge being a two piece, you know? It’s kind of a limited music ability; you can only do what you can do, so it’s always a challenge really.

Do you physically stop what you’re doing if it feels similar to what’s come before?

Alison: Not really, it’s kind of part of the process
Jamie: It’s a natural thing. Generally it’s presumed that the development of a band is going to have this trajectory that each record’s going to sell more – it’s like a kind of career ladder: a presumption of how a band will develop. But we’ve never cared about that, we want to develop in little tangents and not necessarily be climbing this ladder. That’s just never been the purpose behind it. There is a lot of experimenting still to do for us, without caring about whether it’s going to be bigger than the last record. We just want to make different records all the time.  

Do you rely on any other people’s opinions when trying something new?

Alison: No.
Jamie: Well, Bill and Jessica at Keyclub [Studios] have become pretty good. They run the studio where we record at, and they’re really, really important and central to the recording process, and I guess we just know them so well. We know by their reaction when something’s exciting or when something’s not working, and I tend to take that on board.

The album definitely sounds meatier and fuller then ‘Midnight Boom’ – it feels less sparse. There’s clearly been a shift musically for you.

Jamie: Well, the big development in ‘Midnight Boom’ was in the rhythm section and getting this MPC drum machine and making something with that. And in fact, the truth is that I spent so much time with and got so obsessed with this MPC programming drums and what I could do with rhythm that the songs become about rhythm. And I didn’t play much guitar very much on that record, there’s not too much guitar on it – it’s kind of like sparse. Whereas on this record I wanted it to be a guitar record, we wanted it to be loud. The melodies we were coming up with required it, so I think that’s why it’s fleshed out a lot. We spent a lot of time working on it; we used seven guitar amps to try get the sound. People say it’s a lot layered, like the sound is layered, but I don’t know; it’s still pretty stripped back to me.

I don’t think it’s layered; it’s more textured.

Jamie: We were discovering tape echo machines, playing around with those. We’ve always had things quite dry on our records before.
Alison: It definitely sounds like there’s room, it’s kind of bigger sounding. There is that echo, but there was also things we were doing like putting mics in the garage, and we’d have an amp in amp room, but this door opened from the amp room to the garage so you’d get this extra little thing that’s flying around. And there was lots of little tricks like with the sound of everything, so it makes it all sound more enormous.

Alison, we met before when I came to Nashville to interview The Dead Weather. Did that experience teach you anything musically?

Alison: I don’t know, it’s such a different band. I think that’s the beauty of it, that it’s completely different. It’s two totally different animals. But I think one thing I learned, I was thinking about this the other day, was more how to use my voice like an instrument – not just singing lyrics and words, but maybe using it more dramatically. Because I had to keep up with all that other noise and be on top of it.
Jamie: That was a great thing.
Alison: I see myself doing it more and more, because I’m doing different things singing.
Jamie: Also, you sing a lot differently… Like, ‘Midnight Boom’ is quite a sparse, like you said; it’s mostly drums, rhythm and a vocal with the odd bit of guitar. But you sing differently when it’s bare, when there’s nothing behind you; you sing differently when you’re just singing to drums and the odd bit of punctuation to when you’re singing with a wall of amps behind you. I really noticed that then when she came back into the studio; there was a real confidence and was belting it out. I was kind of really grateful that that happened. I sort of ended up taking the best bits of that and then changing something. I still love the vulnerable part of her voice that cracks up. We spent a lot of time doing that, and just had a really good time in the studio.

When you’re on the stage with The Kills you are one half of the band, but with Dead Weather you seemed like more of a lead singer.

Alison: Yeah, I’m telling you, every single thing is different about these two bands for me – for performing, for recording; every little part of it is a completely different experience.
Jamie: I don’t think there would have been any point in doing it if it hadn’t been a completely different experience. Alison: Yeah, there’s no point in doing another two-piece band.
Jamie: It sort of dictated that that’s kind of where we would go after Dead Weather; again, there was no point of doing the same thing – there was no point in making straight-ahead rock records. We had to do something weird, focus on the idiosyncrasies of The Kills more. I’m really happy with the way it came out. Those were the reasons why we made a record like that.

I think it’s an asset as well that you didn’t follow up with something similar.

Alison: The other thing we really noticed when I came into studio, was that he was far more English then I remembered him being, and I was far more American than I have been in years. Because he had been in England all the time and I had been in America so much. We came back and I was like, ‘This is gonna be really good’. That’s really cool, because it changed it up between us. Usually we were hanging out all the time, we were listening to the same things all of the time… We weren’t coming from two different places, even slightly, so this was really cool. It was like we had more to work with.

Did you have much downtime between finishing up with The Dead Weather and starting this album?

Alison: I didn’t have any.

You must have been knackered!

Alison: I am! No, it’s all good. Sometimes it feels a little bit nuts, but for the most part it’s good. I was touring and recording back to back and flying to the studio back to work, but it’s good; it’s all stuff I love to do.

Would you be bored if you did stop?

Alison: I’ve kinda been looking forward to a holiday at some point. (Laughs)

What were you doing in the meantime, Jamie, when Alison was with The Dead Weather? Were you thinking ahead to the new album?

Jamie: Yeah. The Dead Weather unfolded quite gradually. I think it would have been a much different outcome if I had been told that there would be two Dead Weather records and it was gonna take a year and a half or whatever. But because it unfolded gradually, I started feeling like we were going into the studio, so I kept writing and it worked out good. I had a sort of bank of things.

So your ideas were always fresh, because you never quite knew when you were going to actually start working?

Jamie: Yeah. I did some little things as well.

You originally studied playwriting at university…

Jamie: That’s really what I wanted to do.

Is that where your songs come from? Are they little plays in themselves?

Jamie: No. I find the two mediums so different. Rock and roll for me is not the greatest way of expressing a wide variety of emotions. It’s a 4/4 meter, it’s pretty rigid, relies on rhyming a lot of the time…
Alison: You do do that play writer’s thing though – we were talking about this the other day. He sits in a restaurant and we could be having a conversation over our meal, and the whole time he will be listening to every single word that they’re saying over there and writing it down. He’s obsessed by dialogue.
Jamie: I love dialogue, but it doesn’t really work so much in songs.
Alison: You’ve used a bit, haven’t you? I don’t know on this record though.
Jamie: I guess.

Is playwriting something you’d like to take further, or have you already?

Jamie: I would love to, yeah. Nah, I’ve really put it on hold, but I’d definitely really like to do that. I used to love all that physical theatre – Steven Berkoff and Howard Barker and stuff like that; stuff like poetic theatre, I suppose.

It’s obvious there are some darker themes on this album than previous. Alison is quoted in its press releasing saying you were “more obsessive about what we hate”. Do you think it’s easier to write through anger?

Alison: I think music is one of those releases in life, where people listen to music to deal with things. Music’s always a story of our lives and our history and the way we feel about things, and it is usually sad and dark. Really happy songs don’t move people like really sad songs do, or songs that have incredible amounts of emotion in them. Things that inspire me to write a song usually are dark things – they’re things I’m trying to figure out.

You have a very vicious sound and quite a brutal stage presence. Is that a character that you let out on stage? Because you’re not like that in real life.

Alison: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a character, I just really think it’s another side. It feels just as necessary as everything else to me. It feels just as real and just as important and just as honest.
Jamie: The thing is, you have to do a lot in everyday life – you have to suppress quite a lot – to get through the day: socialise with people, bite your lip over things, and have some sort of etiquette just to conduct normal life. You don’t need to suppress those thing on stage – in fact, it’s better if you just let all that stuff out. If you’ve got the ability to turn that into a creative performance then you’re onto a winner.

How did the cohesion of the album’s dark themes come together? Had you been writing similar songs individually, or were they written when you were reunited?

Jamie: I probably took over more on the music this time, just because I could. She’s disappear on tour and I’d just… [mimes working frantically]. It was like, ‘You know that song? Well, the chorus is totally different now, and I’m playing it on a Mellotron. It’s not an acoustic number anymore. Sorry, love!’

You’ve always claimed to be a band that thrives on spontaneity. Is that easy to uphold while you’re in a busy touring schedule when you’ve things to do? Can music still be spontaneous when you’re so busy?

Alison: It’s harder, you know, when you play every single night. It’s important to have nights when you don’t play, and I think there’s a forced spontaneity as well, because you’re in a different place every single day, so different things are happening every single day whether you like it or not. That’s really helpful. It’s inspiring. You don’t have to turn the TV on; it’s happening to you all the time. I always say we are the best band that we can be six months into touring a record, and at that point we start to become a worse band, and by the end of the year we shouldn’t be touring anymore; we should writing, and that’s probably when we become the best writers. But really, what seems to happen is that you tour for another six months after that and you really tour yourself into the ground to the point where you forget how to write a record and you feel like you don’t know how. You need a break really badly. The next thing you know it’s been three years. That seems to be what happens.
Jamie: Everyone says, ‘Well, in the Seventies The Rolling Stones used to make two albums a year’. Yeah, but a world tour back then was like four months! Now it’s like a year and a half – and then some!
Alison: And you’re expected to go to the same place four times. And you have to too, because that’s the only way for us to make a living. You have to show up!

If you’re spontaneous by nature but spend so long putting tracks together, how do you manage to stay passionate and patient about them over that time?

Jamie: It’s amazing that you asked that, because that’s my struggle really. That’s why for the first couple of records I just used to press play on a pre-programmed drum machine, because anything complicated or complex that took time, by the time I’d actually got round to finishing, I’d have an idea, then I’d programme something, and by the time I finished it it’s like four hours later. I just couldn’t fucking be bothered. I really struggle with it. Those are the times that I wish that we were able to jam around with a drummer.

Bob Dylan defends his playing unfamiliar melodies to his classic songs live by saying the recorded versions we know were just songs caught at that particular moment in time, and that they are constantly evolving. Do you think your songs change and progress over time?

Alison: I feel like they always do.
Jamie: I feel like it would be amazing if you could record a record at the end of the tour. You’d write the songs, tour them for a year, and then go into the studio. The tour would be the promotion for the record, and then you go in and record it at the end. It would make life so much easier. I seriously feel like it’s my ambition is to be spontaneous. I’m not sure how successful I am at it; I worry a lot whether I’ve got it right. But my biggest fear is to be ordinary. I’m always trying to push myself in whatever circumstance to try and make something extraordinary.

Why do your rhythm tracks take so long to come together? Is it trying a lot of different things, or just trying to get it right?

Jamie: Normally it’s just an idea that starts in your heart and you just know what you want to do, and then it’s just about the detail of getting it right. That’s the most time consuming. I always know how I want it to be. But explaining it… It’s sound, and it’s weird when you’ve got an idea about sound in your head – it’s not even hearing it, it’s just an idea of something in your head about sound, and you have to tell everyone else. It still amazes me when we write a song. When you finish a song it’s pretty amazing.

What’s the biggest distraction from music? What can stop you from writing a song and takes you away from it?

Alison: Maybe feeling like you can’t. Whatever that is, whatever those days are caused from, those days when you can’t write, you can’t get anywhere. Those days when you can’t work are just as mysterious as the days when you just can’t stop working and everything you’re doing is awesome.
Jamie: There are a lot of mundane distractions when you’re writing songs and making a record. That’s why we go to Keyclub, and that’s why we like to record at night. Because you’re not bothered by all those punctuations of the day, like, ‘Ooh, what are we going to have for lunch?’, or, ‘The postman’s come’ or whatever it is. When you record out there time disappears, it just disintegrates into nothing. You have a tiny window where you kind of pop your head out to see what time of day it is and where you’re going wrong or where you’re going right. I definitely need that place. I definitely need to be completely away from distractions.

Is that a place where you only go when you’re recording?

Jamie: I always say when we finish recording I’m going to come back for a week or two weeks with nothing to do, just to hang out, but I never get those two weeks.

You’ve always said you wanted to be a mysterious band and work undercover – at the beginning you wanted your own version of Warhol’s Factory. Is working undercover difficult to preserve when your personal and professional lives are increasingly in the public eye? Is it difficult to stay under the radar?

Jamie: Yeah, definitely. It’s always my desire, but life throws some weird things at you.
Alison: I don’t really have a desire to make music that no-one’s going to hear. I would do it anyway. I’ll always make music no matter what, but I feel really lucky that people get to hear it. The idea of the Factory changed pretty rapidly once we were actually doing something in the public. That idea of this little place to work all the time, to get a very private place… Still to this day, it is like our own little factory that no-one else gets to come in – we do our photo shoots in there, we write in there, we record in there, we make art in there; whatever’s going on. That’s what we do.
Jamie: The Factory came from the point of view of The Velvet Underground – my all-time favourite band, and always will be. I just love that no matter how influential they are, you can’t talk about Velvet Underground without talking about the art scene, without talking about the film, without talking about the politics… And interestingly, you can’t name another band in that scene. The Velvet Underground were on their own. It’s crazy to me. That’s what we wanted to be, not just a music scene.

What kind of limits did you put on yourselves? Do you have a band ethos where you would or wouldn’t do certain things?

Alison: We definitely have the spirit of doing as much ourselves as possible.
Jamie: We came from a background of Nation Of Ulysses and Fugazi and bands like that, where it was kind of cool to have a manifesto. I’m really glad that we never had one, even though that was appealing to me. Looking back, it would have been so stupid to have had a manifesto: ‘This is what we’re gonna do, and we refuse to do this…we will only do this…’

Because it could make your failings more transparent.

Jamie: Yeah, partly that, and partly because we started back in 2002, and the world and the music business is such a different place. Who would have thought, when we started our little band in 2002, that the world would be directed by computers and the Internet. I don’t think it’s smart to have a manifesto. I think it’s smart to see what the fuck is going on day-to-day and respond.

DIY is still prevalent, of course. It’s apparent in the insular scene of the likes of The xx. It’s almost a reaction to how easy it is to make music now.

Jamie: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want it to ever be something like when I first moved to London when I was seventeen. Firstly, London was a very different place, but I got involved in the squat scene and the anarchist punk scene, and there was some beautiful things that came out of that. It wasn’t facing up to the harsh reality that kept you living like that or being in a band or doing what you were doing, you had to build a little fantasy around you and see the romance of it all. I love how I saw the beauty in all that. But at the same time, there were so many rules. For a movement that was supposed to be so free, there were so many rules you just felt so oppressed by it. But I’ve learned from that. I don’t want to come up things that we would never do or refuse to do this, because in the end you just imprison yourself in stupidity.

You look great in our cover shoot, from the streets of Manhattan. Some people revel in shoots, while others don’t really get the point. Do you believe in the power of image in rock and roll?

Jamie: Absolutely. That’s how I learnt about music; there were no radio stations playing music I liked. When I grew up there was no Internet; you couldn’t just listen to things on MySpace. You’d have to hitchhike into town and go to the record shop, and even then you couldn’t hear the fucking records; you had to go through ’em and look at the covers. You’d be like, ‘Wow, that looks cool!’ I’d buy records on the strength of the cover – the artwork, or the way the band looks. It was super important to me.
Alison: Also, both of us are visual artists, so we always think of things in terms of how they look. That’s how we shop. That’s how we buy guitar amplifiers and guitars. We pretty much buy them on the basis of if they look cool they’re gonna sound cool. And it usually works.
Jamie: The guitar I play, the Hofner, I’ve got about six of those now, but the first one I bought I didn’t even play it. I just walked in and saw it hanging up on the wall, went back home, got an amplifier, went back, and swapped my amplifier for that guitar and took it home and played it. It’s the greatest guitar in the world.

Is there any people whose image you really like whose music you don’t like, or vice versa?

Jamie: Interesting. I think one stains the other though; if you know the music’s bad… I think it’s interesting when you hear a band and you see them and the look doesn’t match.
Alison: I don’t know any band that looks really cool that doesn’t sound good. I can tell right away. It’s those little tiny things that’s so easy to pick up on if you’re looking. I got my eye on everyone! (Laughs)

The best bands make their image what it is. The Ramones were anti-fashion – leather jackets and jeans – but it became iconic. It’s an extension of Lou Reed wearing all black…

Jamie: And now he wears cut-off jean hot pants and he plays a headless guitar.
Alison: He’s gotten weird.
Jamie: He hasn’t got weird! He was always rebelling. Now, people don’t rebel anymore. If you rebelled, really, it would be hideous. I mean, playing a headless guitar whilst wearing jean shorts is kind of rebellios.
Alison: I think I kinda like that New York guy jean shorts thing that’s really common. That’s like a look. It’s a real serious look, and if you can do it, well, more power to you.
Jamie: You would really hope that you could be like Johnny Cash and make good records until the day you die, but it’s hard to do that in rock and roll. Rock and roll is obsessed with being up to date and being on trend. Blues never gave a fuck about that, and jazz never gave a fuck about that – what was in and what was out. Country music doesn’t give a fuck about it. Rock and roll does.
Alison: I don’t know. I always think that it’s easy to decide that from the outside, but if we were in the country music scene, maybe that shit would get weird.
Jamie: Johnny Cash was good from a teenager to death; amazing, start to finish. Howlin’ Wolf: never put a foot wrong. Miles Davis.

The full cover article featuring The Kills appears in the new issue of Clash Magazine out now.

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Words: Simon Harper
Photos: Nick Dorey
Art Direction: Michele Outland
Make-up: Mari Hattori

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