Music by VICE

How Alison Mosshart's Onstage Prowl Changed Music

Eleven years after the release of The Kills' 'Midnight Boom,' Mosshart's ferocious fearlessness is something that indie rock still desperately needs.

by Sarah MacDonald
Mar 6 2019, 5:24pm

Photo by David Wolff-Patrick/Redferns

Sometimes you need to say “fuck.” Which is precisely why few songs are as cathartic to me as The Kills’ “Fuck The People”—especially when I’m feeling furious. “Fuck the people,” I hiss. The song, from the British-American rock band’s 2003 debut LP, Keep On Your Mean Side, is confrontational. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince, both vocalists and guitarists in the band, sing in unison: “You want a warning / You got a warning / Bet you something I can get your mouth shut.” It is terrifying. Or, if you’re on the side of the brewing storm, exhilarating.

Listening to a women—any woman, really—tell someone to fuck off is deeply satisfying. But when Mosshart does it on “Fuck the People,” she sounds both unbothered and intimidating. I imagine her gingerly tending to a whiskey and cigarette, as though none of this really irks her at all. But this has always been the essence of The Kills and what they do well: cool, prickly indie rock, with a side of menace.

The Kills were one of a number of bands that rose to prominence in the U.S. and U.K. during the indie rock explosion of the early 2000s, earning praise for their aggressive-sounding indie rock on the 2002 EP, Black Rooster, and their 2003 debut. “[There’s] a dark, mesmerizing power to the simplicity of songs with self-explanatory titles like "Fried My Little Brains," "Cat Claw," and "Kissy Kissy," The A.V. Club wrote of Keep On Your Mean Side. “By the album's second half, The Kills has even begun to discover a kind of delicacy that bodes well for its future.” In 2008, they enjoyed a bump in popularity and visibility, thanks to the inclusion of “Sour Cherry” on an episode of Gossip Girl, a cut from their third album, Midnight Boom, which turns 11 this month. Their relationship to the press and to success hasn’t always been straightforward. “There’s been an on-and-off relationship with the music press that loves us and then hates us then loves us again,” Mosshart told Marc Spitz for Vanity Fair in 2011. Between Kills records from 2009 to 2015, Mosshart would go on to make three albums with The Dead Weather (a project she is still part of), a collaboration with Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs), Jack Lawrence (City and Colour, The Raconteurs), and Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age), further evolving as a dynamic vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter.

In the early 00s, music journalists fawned over male musicians like Julian Casablancas and Jack White while giving considerably less airtime to the contributions of female musicians like the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O, Metric’s Emily Haines, Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, and White’s own bandmate Meg White. But it seemed like nothing cut through Mosshart’s leather jacket armor; her ferocious fearlessness was urgently needed then and now. Still, for all of the bellicose exorcisms in her lyrics and music, there is a vulnerability and tenderness etched into each verse and chord. It’s a contrast that is uniquely Mosshart’s, one that sets her apart from any other musician of the period, and even today.

Alison Mosshart grew up in Vero Beach, Florida, hanging around skaters, reading zines, listening to Fugazi, and singing in a punk band called Discount. The Kills’ origin story has been repeated ad nauseam, but the gist of the tale is this: On tour in England with her band in the 90s, while Mosshart was still a teenager, she heard Hince playing guitar in the room above hers in the building where they were both staying and felt an immediate connection. “Without seeing him or knowing him, I just knew he was the right person,” Mosshart said in a 2017 interview. It was spooky and creepy… and maybe stalkerish but I was fucking convinced.” After they had properly met, and when she was back stateside, they sent tapes back and forth to each other. They gave each other nicknames: “VV” for Mosshart, “Hotel” for Hince, as the press has routinely referenced over the years. At 20, Mosshart told in Huck Magazine, she decided to move to London to work with Hince.

But that’s just how The Kills got its start—not Mosshart’s career in music. By the time she moved to the U.K., she had already been a professional musician for at least six years. Formed when Mosshart was only 13 years old, Discount was reportedly central to the Floridian punk scene in the early and mid-90s. By the time she was 14, the band was touring the world. “We toured everywhere, which is incredible for a punk band of our size because this was at a time where there was no Internet, and the music scene was very much word-of-mouth and fan zines; you booked tours by sending letters,” Mosshart said in a 2016 Lenny Letter interview.

Few traces of Discount exist online, though you can listen to their three full-length records and some of their singles on Spotify. A few videos of live Discount shows offer glimpses of a short-haired Mosshart, jostling and jumping around in small, sweaty spaces. (In retelling her early musical years, writers called her “chubby-faced” and “chubby-cheeked,” not seeming to remember that she was quite literally a child.) Absent is her signature prowl and focus onstage, which she’d perfect early on with The Kills. But what is present is the fire that would come to define her persona in future projects.

Reporters and fans often describe women in music asbadass,” which has always felt, at least to me, like a reductive way of capturing the awesome power of women who make music. Judging by how frequently it is used, it would seem that simply endeavoring to be in music makes someone a badass. But Alison Mosshart is, and it deeply pains me to use this word, a badass. She once matter-of-factly said in an interview she isn’t afraid, which is likely a much better way of framing her and her work. An example of her daring: When Mosshart first moved to the U.K., she endured a lot, but still managed to take it in stride. She once described this period in her life in an interview: “Lots of shitty things happened—I got chased, someone tried to drag me in their car. I got mugged numerous times. But that kind of shit just brushes off you and then you’re out walking on your own in the dark all by yourself again like none of it fucking happened. That’s what being twenty is, I suppose, it’s kinda feeling like you’re immortal. It was all just completely emotion-fueled and beautiful and wild.”

Mosshart straddles the giving-no-fucks-but-very-much-giving -a-fuck line, creating lyrics and sounds as rough and dark as a hard night out, but with a glimmering morning sun peeking through. Complexities of emotion and story are distilled down to simple gestures—like coughing up phlegm on “Cheap and Cheerful,” or telephone static on “No Wow/Telephone Radio Germany.” The Kills make a real commotion on their records—clanging and moaning—but there are delicate moments, too. “How can I rely on my heart if I break it / With my own two hands / I heard all you said / And I love you to death,” she sings on “The Last Goodbye” off Blood Pressures, flexing an uncharacteristic softness for someone seemingly so hardened. But that’s the point: her work and persona contain multitudes.

To watch Alison Mosshart perform is to watch a jungle cat go through the motions of a hunt—skulking, focused, serious. She is often, without self-parody, wearing a well-worn, beloved leopard print shirt. “A great show is one I don’t remember at all,” she once told Nylon. “I walk off and I know I went somewhere.” Mosshart goes to great lengths to elevate her performance to theater. She borrows fashion aesthetics from the rock gods of yore: tight jeans, leather, and messy unkempt hair, alternately bleached out, bright pink, or a shiny raven color. She makes prolonged eye-contact with audience members before abruptly turning her head and thrashing, singing into the microphone. She stalks Hince as he furiously picks his guitar strings, charging toward him before slinking back. She looks possessed. “Performing is like a dream state,” Mosshart once said. “When you ride the wave, it’s the most incredible feeling as the adrenaline is addictive and you can’t recreate that feeling anywhere else. It’s a magical experience from all sides if you just let it be.”

As much as women were present in Aughts bands, their work always seemed eclipsed by the men in the scene. Julian Casablancas from The Strokes was celebrated for the “angst and confusion in his lyrics.” In a Spin cover story, Chuck Klosterman lauded Jack White’s contemporary spin on blues music as “raw and unrehearsed and imperfect,” which was why it was “so fucking good.” Mosshart had the brilliance to combine that restless angst and bluesy sound, while also assuming a more straightforward, and sort of frightening, approach. On “Murdermile,” Mosshart offers what can only be described as adversarial taunts—“Spitting shit like a tire / Got your foot down and your mind down / To its last little wire / Come on! Come on!”—as Hince offsets her ferocity, quietly singing: “It's a train wreck / You got me on the wrong track, honey.” As a duo, they complement each other, but Mosshart’s caustic delivery elevates her as a singular force.

Publications compared The Kills to their indie contemporaries early on—especially The White Stripes, who’d emerged a few years earlier. Reviews and reported stories often opened with a mention of The White Stripes, while puzzlingly going to great lengths to point out the differences between the two groups. In their review of Keep On Your Mean Side, Pitchfork wrote: “It's rough times for these bluesy guy-girl garage duos, I tell ya. I mean, sure, if you're the least bit talented you've got a massive hype machine working for you—which isn't a bad thing—but you'll never shake those comparisons to the band that built the boat you're sailing. I promise not to mention [the White Stripes], maybe as a favor to The Kills, but mostly because the two bands sound nothing alike.” Though the review is complimentary enough, it ends with the same smirking undertone, albeit one that is self-aware: “Still, it's a bitter reality: they'd never be getting this kind of attention if it weren't for the White Stri-- fuck!”

But then Mosshart went and teamed up with White. The Dead Weather released their debut, Horehound, in 2009—the result of a series of impromptu jam sessions in Nashville that turned into a full-length—and continued to release records from there, leading up to 2015 LP, Dodge and Burn, their most recent. But White took a literal backseat to Mosshart in the project, thumping on the drums behind her as she sang. And though the song writing credits suggested that songs were a group effort (for example, Mosshart wrote “So Far From Your Weapon” and “60 Feet Tall” along with Fertita, while White wrote “I Cut Like a Buffalo”), reviewers often framed the album as a White “side project”—and as a reflection of his “genius.” As Pitchfork’s review of Horehound explained, “Perhaps Jack White's continued dominance over contemporary blues-rock is in fact the product of some deal with the devil.”

The Dead Weather is actually good, for what it’s worth, combining the best elements of White’s music (erratic lyrics and clashing, dramatic sounding chords) with the turbulent guitar work of Fertita and Lawrence. But they wouldn’t be half as good without Mosshart’s wild vocals—which often seem to engage in a form of aural combat with White—and the menacing lyrics she wrote.

The most vivid Mosshart memory I have, however, is the first time I heard The Kills’ “U.R.A. Fever.” Of all her work—both in The Kills and The Dead Weather—the Midnight Boom opener left an immediate, lasting imprint on me. “We ain’t born typical,” Mosshart breathed during the chorus, unconcerned and self-effacing, but with the slightest tinge of vulnerability. To me, that lyric, 11 years on from the record’s release, still feels like the perfect summation of Mosshart’s brilliance as a performer: She wasn’t born typical. When Mosshart sings, “You only ever had her when you were a fever,” it feels like a reference to her own frenzied energy. Mosshart is too ferocious of a musician to be interchangeable with anyone else.

Sarah MacDonald is a writer in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.