Jamie Hince’s white bean caper toast arrives on a small ceramic plate with flecks of cilantro scattered on top. He and his bandmate Alison Mosshart are sitting under the ivy canopy of New York’s Bowery Hotel atrium—Hince, with a vintage scarf loosely looped around his neck, casually leans on the couch’s wicker arm rest; Mosshart, in red flannel, is perched cross-legged, pack of cigarettes by her side. “Want some?” he asks raising the plate in her direction, with sibling-like affection. She grabs a slice, enthusiastically sinks her teeth in, and nods in approval. Hince orders a black coffee and while he waits takes a swig of Mosshart’s turmeric-carrot juice. She smiles as he carefully inspects the label.
It’s been like this since the pair met some 16 years ago, when Mosshart and Hince gave each other now-discarded pseudonyms over drinks—Alison was VV; Jamie was Hotel—and christened their band The Kills. Famously they fell into each other’s orbit when Mosshart heard Hince playing guitar through the ceiling of her London apartment and their connection was instant. They composed lo-fi, grungy blues joints that made the most of Mosshart’s prowling, post-coital purr, and Hince was her perfect foil. Early live shows were the stuff of legend—tense, frenetic, electric with an energy crackling between them as they snarled songs like “Fuck the People” and the still flawless “Cat Claw,” with its propulsive back and forth and descending guitar slink. Released in 2003, Keep On Your Mean Side was one of the finest records of that year, holding its own alongside The White Stripes’ Elephant, Room on Fire by The Strokes, Kings of Leon’s debut, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Fever to Tell. Talk about a banner year for indie rock. Sonics aside, it didn’t hurt that The Kills looked cool as fuck. They were instantly fawned over by the fashion set (designer Hedi Slimane’s a long time supporter; they recently released a capsule collection with Equipment, and during his marriage and subsequent split with Kate Moss, Hince became an easy tabloid target).
Although the band haven’t radically altered the musical blueprint they inked so long ago, they have polished their sound a smidge without losing the blurry-eyed 4 AM grit (2008’s “Last Day of Magic” being a prime example of The Kills’ scuzzy-pop-cool sweet spot). But it really has been a minute—or five years—since they released anything as The Kills. Not that they’ve been idle, Mosshart in particular has been very busy indeed, putting out three records, plus tours, as The Dead Weather (with Jack White et al), debuting her work as an artist last year with her exhibition Fire Power (read our interview with her about her paintings here). Shows this spring road-testing new material from their freshly released fifth record Ash & Ice (out now on Domino) reassured audiences that their chemistry remains and that their new songs are primed to battle with their back catalogue. The title—Ash & Ice—tells all. It smolders, but from a cold distance. Mosshart’s smoky howls twinned with their signature guitar growls. All the extra stuff, the keyboard loops, the drum machine, the added reverb on songs like “Days of Why and How,” gives it a chill. They toe the line between passion and recklessness so perfectly. In truth the gap between releases, once the touring with everyone from The Black Keys to Arctic Monkeys ceased, was more circumstantial than scheduled. Hince says he doesn’t want to wait five years to put another project out.
“The pressure from the record label is zero—they’d allow us to take two decades to make the record, but the financial pressure is punishing, it’s scary,” he pauses. “Get this: we don’t have any working wage; we don’t have any health care; we don’t have any pension. That’s it. And it makes you panic sometimes.”
“We have to work all the time,” Mosshart adds. But it wasn’t just side projects and live commitments that stalled The Kills new record: Hince had severely injured his hand while touring, crushing it in a car door. He thought nothing of it until it turned yellow to purple to black. The gradual decline made it impossible to play guitar and demanded five surgeries to repair it. He flexes his fingers and shows off his new tendon, which doctors took from his arm and stitched into his hand. He tugs at it.
“It got me down for a week,” Hince says. “I remember a point where I nearly cried. It had just been so long since we’d done anything. Alison, at that point, started doing stuff in Dead Weather again, and it started to feel like, ‘Fuck, it’s just done. Who gives a fuck? I can’t play guitar anymore.’ It only took a week of misery until I started getting a studio together, like ‘I’m gonna show those fuckers. I’ll make the best music ever.’”
Given the intimacy of their partnership it’s surprising then that the pair decided to start the creative process for Ash & Ice in solitude. Mosshart accepted an invitation to Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat for women in Seattle, spending weeks by herself painting and writing songs, meanwhile Hince booked himself a two-week trip on the Trans-Siberian Express.
If cruising through Russia on a train doesn’t sound isolating, imagine recuperating from five surgeries and re-learning your craft along with it. But if Hince was overwhelmed, it was with his own thoughts. He was energized, his imagination ignited. On the practically Hitchcockian “Siberian Nights,” a frantic, yet dreamy soundscape that captures the steadiness of the ever-moving train and the frigidity of Russian winters, he depicts a vivid, sexual story about Vladimir Putin:
“He was on my mind,” explains Hince. “He was in the news a lot because it was at the height of that Pussy Riot thing. They were still in jail at that time. He was in the papers a lot, riding bare-chested on a horse or hunting a bear or wrestling a fucking shark. It’s a mixture of all these things. I like those gangsta rap records where they would big themselves up, where they’re rhyming and like, ‘I’m really good at sex’—that old school hip-hop rapping. And I wanted to do one about Putin. In the middle eight, he’s having a homoerotic cuddle with another man.”
As for Mosshart, her sabbatical on the Seattle island inspired second single “Heart of a Dog,” along with 13 other songs, 75 paintings, and several letters, using up an entire pack of paper just “typing random stuff.” She recalls: “I was just on fire. No phones, no internet, nobody. Time moved at this incredible pace where you get so much done.”
But things didn’t flow quite so easily when they arrived in LA to lay down it all down. With past records, The Kills would hole up at Key Club Studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan, but this time they finished at New York’s fabled Electric Lady. “It felt really hard,” Mosshart says. “But we left LA with a handful of rough mixes that were confusing to me, and then we got to New York and opened up all the files, and were like, ‘We have 75 percent of the record done.’ It was nuts.”
Even though Mosshart has both The Kills and The Dead Weather to write for, she says that whenever she’s writing a song on her own, The Kills is her first port of call. At this point Hince pipes up, reminding Mosshart that she took “Impossible Winner” for The Dead Weather’s 2015 album Dodge and Burn, so she explains.
“I was waiting for them to come to work one day, sitting in the studio by myself and I was playing that song to myself, and Dean [Fertita] walks in and he’s like, ‘What’s that’ and starts playing it on the piano. And then [Jack Lawrence] walks in—literally it was like a scene in a movie—like, ‘What’s that?’ starts playing, then 20 minutes later Jack [White] shows up and he’s like ‘What’s going on?’ and then recorded it.”
In this instance it seems the song made its own decision. Locale switch-ups aside, the pair challenged their fall back stance of using a drum machine by inviting Homer Steinweiss (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Amy Winehouse) to add a “human” aspect to their traditionally programmed percussion. For Hince this made for a somewhat awkward experience. “I wanted him to play so simply because I’m so used to drum machines,” Hince says. “I would ask him to play and it’d be great, and I’d say, ‘Can you just do it without the hi-hat.’ So he’d just mime. I think it’s frustrating for one of the best drummers in the world. Some things were so brutally simple, he probably walked out there going, ‘What the fuck?’ But I ran into Mark Ronson—he uses this drummer as well—and Ronson was like, ‘So Homer says your record’s amazing!’”
Elsewhere Mosshart was very eager to record “Impossible Tracks,” a song Hince tried to write from her perspective, and with brutal honesty. The lyrics run: “I was carried away / I was moving too fast on impossible tracks / I was carried away / I was easily led / because I’m easily led / My the moon, by the tide, by whatever you like.” You’d think that if you told your friend that she was easily led, it wouldn’t go well, but with a 16 years of up and downs and understanding, these word are more observational than a dig.
“I was on the mic five seconds later, like, ‘Can I sing it now?’” Mosshart recalls. As with so much of their relationship, the pair’s lyrics speak to each other without prior discussion. “There’s moments when you hear the words you’re singing in different way,” he says. “Suddenly you just relate to a line that we’ve never thought about before.”
And so, when The Kills play at Music Hall of Williamsburg later that night (an relatively small gathering organized by shoe behemoth Steve Madden) you can see the ease with which they inhabit and deliver each other’s material. While Mosshart holds eye contact with a few fans in the front row, Hince rides along on guitar farther back, playing the hits and dishing out some newies, like “Doing It to Death,” a funeral march with a catchy hook and arpeggiated blips that pan from speaker to speaker. It has the type of production that’s way more clean-cut from the fuzziness of their Keep On Your Mean Side days. They may have fattened up their live band, but Mosshart and Hince are still the can’t-look-away focal point.
Making music and the subsequent touring and promotion required to keep a band afloat is such an intense process that more often than not, band members drift away from each other like spouses stale and faded as matching armchairs. The cute quirks become irritants. Warm familiarity can morph into weary disdain. You only have to look at the artists The Kills came up with to see that time and history can drive a wedge. It’s remarkable, therefore, that given the hours logged Mosshart and Hince remain close enough that their intuitive relationship informs their work.
“We know each other very well,” she says. “We’ve been hanging out for a very long time. So in a lot of ways, it isn’t a big jump to try to imagine how one or the other is feeling.”
That being said, Ash & Ice is not so focused that it’s an exclusive exchange between the two. Sure they dissect themselves, and each other, but figuring out and communicating the human condition is at the heart of their art, and Mosshart says the secret to writing for someone else is not complex. “You think about people, you think about what they might be feeling, we all see things differently, but you can always imagine,” she says. “You can write from that place. You might not get it perfectly right, but you might.”
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