Days of Why and How: An Unedited Interview with The Kills

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When the Kills were first introduced to the world in 2002, they quickly seduced the rock n roll realm with their sexy swagger and an intimate onstage chemistry. What began as a transatlantic, tape-trade collaboration between newfound friends has since grown into world-renowned force to be reckoned with. The thundering pulse of programmed drum machines and an avant approach to electric guitars elevates the sound of a boot-stomping blues and stripped-down garage rock taking it to new creative heights. With five solid records,  (the fifth, “Ashes and Ice” released this past June), Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince continue to evolve, and while their core dynamic remains in tact, some things have changed.

While Mosshart spent her downtime returning to the studio and stage as the lead singer of Dead Weather, Jamie Hince spent his time soul-and-sound-searching on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and on the island of Jamaica while trying to mend the tendons in his hand. When these two separate paths led back into the studio, the duo brought very different batches of songs to the table. I caught up with Jamie Hince the week before the released of the latest record. The following is the unedited interview with exclusive live photos taken at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. Enjoy.

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Hello is this Nolan. Where are you?

Im in Boston and we are finally haven’t a nice week of weather. Last week seemed a bit wintery.

Really? Oh god, I wish I had this interview the other day before I felt London, because I was trying to work out what to pack. It’s so odd when you’re going away for a month and going all over the place. Do I need a warm jacket? Do I need raincoat? I got this straw colored raincoat and now I wish I had packed it because it rains in Boston.

Where are you right now?

I’m in Atlanta. I woke up really early and went wandering around and I thought, “oh gosh, I really love Atlanta.” It’s great. I really like the vibe and right near my hotel there are three places that I’m really excited about going for food at already.

With the new record, did you come into the studio with songs individually or did you write the songs in the studio?

Yeah, we came together with songs. That’s always, at least since “Midnight Boom” and “Blood Pressures,” it was the same thing where we’ve come together with songs we’ve written separately and we’d get together when we thought there were nearly enough songs for a new record. Normally the way I work is I will come up with a load of things and just discard lots of them and concentrate on the ones I think really work and slowly develop them. When we got together I had about 8, 9, 10 songs and Alison probably had 38 songs. She writes in this beautiful explosion where she just puts herself in front of a mic and writes whatever comes out. Sometimes she goes through a stage where she’ll have 5 Neil Young ballads and then there will be 3 Krautrock songs. So it’s really good to sift through things like that. We sort of met up in LA for the first time and played each other what we had. We never really had a break from each other, but LA was the place where we sort of auditioned our songs in front of our engineer. Alison said “Oh we have lots of songs, let’s go,” and I sort of depressed everybody by saying “I don’t think we’ve got a record yet. I think we need to keep on writing.” So that’s what we did. We kept on working on about 8 of the songs that were going somewhere and then kept on writing.

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Did you find that when you came together you were bringing similar stuff, or was it so different that you had to hone it in?

It was really different. It was to the point that I was frustrated to be honest. I’m always going in search of something and trying to find the things that’s like “oh my god, this is it.” I always think I’m going to be super excited about trying to find a sound, find a blend… finding a secret almost. I’d literally, physically gone in search of it and that’s what going on the Trans-Siberian Railroad was all about, or going to Jamaica. It’s always about physically going in search of it. Also, when I’m physically in the studio, I’m desperately hunting for the things that going to be the theme for me. Much of my rhythms were inspired by dancehall and digital dancehall, dub and R&B sometimes. I wanted to make a record that was really forward thinking and not just a retro bizarre record– and then I met up with Alison and her songs were very traditional—bluesy, Neil Young ballad kind of things and it was frustrating to me because, “You’re not doing what I want.” And then it kind of dawns on me that because it’s my job to make these things work and make both of our things to sit right in one place– it kind of dawns on me that that’s what the Kills really was– my lunacy about trying to reinvent the wheel and trying to take guitar music somewhere else, and it’s Alison’s absolute confidence and how sure she is about whatever snapshot is in her life at the moment. Not having crazy changing influences in the moment like I have, but having influences rooted in the Velvet Underground, Charlie Patton, Captain Beefheart– the things she’s constantly inspired by. And that’s the blend, her consistent inspirations and my ever changing, crazy, whirlwind ones.

How was the Siberian Express? Was it as romantic of an idea as movies suggest? Did you bring anything back from it?

It’s like a working train really. It’s not like the Orient Express. It’s like a pedestrian train and there’s a lot of military on there returning from Moscow to their various Siberian villages. Gentry people going to camps and villages along the way. I would say a tiny percentage of the train were taken up by people like me who were doing this TransSiberian journey. I think there’s another version of it you can do on another train, but it takes about 3 or 4 weeks and you stop at places and you have a guide that takes you places and shows you what to do. That wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to ride this retreat where I didn’t feel stuck or stagnant and I was constantly moving.

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Did you get anything out of it?

Yeah, I mean I always go by that adage– I think it’s Flaubert… “You have to drink an ocean to piss a cupful.” It’s really true. I think he was talking about writing history, but it’s true with my writing. I don’t just write lyrics to a song. I always just write pages and pages and pages of stream of consciousness and that turns into prose which turns into poetry and then it goes back to stream of consciousness, and at some point I find things that I like and they jump out and I’m inspired to finish a song. And of course “Siberian Nights” was written on that train.

Did you guys do anything differently in the studio?

Our whole approach was completely different. We rented a house in LA, which was different because we used to just hide ourselves away in the middle of nowhere in Benton Park, Michigan. In LA we were excited to make a record in the chaos and noise of LA. I wanted it to be a change as life went on. I wanted to bump into people and have them come over and play… which happened, you know. We had Carla from Autolux play some drums and we had Homer who played on Amy Winehouse records. As opportunities arouse, we made the most of them.

How is your hand doing? Is it fully recovered?

No. I have about ten percent movement in my middle finger on my left hand, so I don’t use it to play guitar. It just hangs out stiff, flicking everyone off while the other three go change the dozen.

Were you or are you nervous that you’d never be able to play guitar again?

Yeah I was. One of the things that came out of it– one of the most impactful things– is I realized I’m really fucking positive. I just thought, “How am I going to make this work?” And part of that was considering I may not be a guitarist anymore. So I immediately started putting a studio together. I bought myself a 1968 Neve mixing desk, which was my dream come true. I knew I wanted to make a record using dub production, so I bought lots of gear like that: reverb units, echo. I just made myself busy by building a studio. I thought maybe I’ll just be a producer.

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So is your studio in London?

Well it’s a mobile studio. My mixing desk is a 10-channel desk that wraps up in a flat case and I have all of my compressors and stuff in another unit. Right now they’re in LA, but I always wanted it to be that if I to decide if I wanted to make a record in Jamaica, I could just fly my studio out there.

Would you say this record has taken on a more introspective feel? It seems to have a more tender feeling and the lyrics a little less wrapped in metaphor, maybe?

Yeah. It’s less cryptic. Being cryptic is easy because you can blend meaningless rock n roll clichés with code that means something and people will actually never know which is which, but they might hopefully confuse clichés for something meaningful. I’m not ripping up what we’ve done apart, I’m just obsessed with the way rock n roll music is gong and where electric guitar music is going. I’ve been obsessed with why it’s so retrospective and why it’s so referential and why its so stuck in the 90’s or the 80’s or the 70’s, but never trying to invent something new for itself like hip-hop and R&B, you know. One of those things was maybe I had too much time on my hands because I only had one hand, but I started thinking about lyrics and I wanted to write a guitar record that spoke to people in a language that I was proud of, that I understood, and that other people would understand– and not dip into the skulls and devils and that kind of shit, which has been a sort of staple industry for rock n roll music in one way or another.

Would you say the general dynamic of the Kills has changed?

Not really. I mean we’ve never really had a mission. I remember saying that in 2002 when we were doing interviews that I don’t think its really smart to make a mission statement or have a plan because when we started a band it was at the beginning of the cyber revolution which changed the fucking world. And it changed it so much that it was apparent even then that to have manifesto you were going to have a cult that was like the dinosaur. You know? It changed so much, capitalism was going to implode on itself back then and a new thing was going to work out. I think we’ve always just changed with what’s going on. People have always told us that we’ve done our own thing. Well, it doesn’t feel like that. It really doesn’t. It’s always when you look back and say, “Fuck, I always think we’re hindering ourselves by doing this and not doing that,” but I guess we’re proud of what we’ve done.

The single is a song called, “Doing it to Death.” You obviously don’t think you’re beating a dead horse when it comes to the band?

No, I don’t think that. It’s not a song about the band; it’s about constant pleasure-seeking. It’s about partying and addiction and having so much fun that it’s boring. You get so high that you’re low. That sort of shit. That’s “doing it to death.”

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The Kills live vs Recording? What do you have the most fun doing?

It’s funny because we always used to say, “We like them both.” One was a good anecdote to the other. These days the studio is my domain and it’s what I’m most excited about and the band’s moving forward in terms of writing new things. That’s what I’m most inspired by—that’s where my heart is… making new things. Also I’m the King in the studio. I’m the king of the Kills. I’m the boss and I like it. When we play live I’m completely usurped and Alison is the King or Queen or boss. That’s her domain. It works really nicely like that I think. I get more out of the studio, and for Alison, her place is the stage.

Do you guys still tour with the drummers in the background?

We have a different setup now. We have one drummer and we have Scott who is playing bass, keyboards, sub-bass and reverbs.

Would you say it’s a more live band set up?

Yeah, I guess. But we’ve always got heavy drum machine and sequencers. I never want it to be live where there’s no sequenced drum track. That’s what I love about it– it doesn’t speed up or slow down.

You guys seem to have an affinity for Boston. Last go around it was one of your only US dates, and this time you’re doing two shows in one week.

We always say that. The last time around we got really superstitious about Boston because the last couple of times it’s been the show that has completely woken us up and turned it up a gear. I don’t know what it is. I have no idea, but this time around, because we sold the first show out, we wanted to do a second night. There were bands playing the next night, but we were so superstitious and concerning that we decided to come back a few days later.

The Kills, Black Bananas and Viva Viva: City Carnage Live at the Chelsea Pier NYC

August 18, 2012

While I take no credit, I would just like to begin by saying I had thought up this lineup in my mind about 5 years now. Though nothing and no one outside of my sonic daydreams would have ever imagined it taking place, on this day, Viva Viva, Boston’s greatest and grittiest rock band, shared a bill with the two greatest femme fatales of the past two decades. Jennifer Herrema (of the Royal Trux, RTX and currently Black Bananas), and Alison Mosshart (of the Kills), each representing rock n roll to the fullest, sexiest and most dangerous extent, joined Viva Viva, as Black Bananas and the Kills shared a billing on the Chelsea Pier– outdoors and on the Hudson River– nothing could be better.

The Royal Trux were, and still are, my idea of rock music in its most volatile form. And that could very well be why they broke up so long ago. The Kills followed closely in their footsteps once the Royal Trux had retired, and satiated the void in many ways. An art-rock two-piece, the two had a chemistry and mystique that couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the previously mentioned. If I listened to three bands five years ago, it was these three. And while they played a mixtape playlist in my foggy mind, no one could have ever imagined that a show featuring all three of these acts could or would possibly ever happen.

But thanks to a shoe company and an image founded by Chuck Taylor (whoever that is), a bunch of in-house promoters with good and edgy taste found a way. The concert of my daydreams was about to take place. Known as City Carnage, Converse came through with the perfect billing.

Converse had learned about Viva Viva down in Austin and gave them the opportunity to record at the company’s Rubber Tracks studio in NYC. After documenting the experience, photos of the band’s studio time appeared in Filter Magazine, only adding to the excitement of the endeavor. Though Converse probably didn’t know it at the time, the shoe company ranks right up there with Marlboro and Jack Daniels as one of the three most important and patronized companies in the life of singer/guitarist Chris Warren. I’m pretty sure the only sneakers he’s worn in the past 20 years have been Chucks. Another special and random unacknowledged link to the personnel in this show is the fact that Dave Vicini (Viva Viva frontman) and Alison Mosshart (of the Kills) have crossed paths before when their teenage punk bands, Boxer and Discount, played shows together in the early 1990’s.

Viva Viva started off the show, and took the stage shortly after 6pm. The weather forecast had called for rain, and lots of it, but the unexpected blue skies provided a perfect backdrop for the outdoor show on the Hudson.

Focusing on some of their newer material from their upcoming EP, Dead in Your Tracks, the band also touched on key points of their previous work and made the most of their 30 minute set. Ending with “Sympathy for the Devil’s Little Helper”, Viva Viva paid a loose tribute to their heroes with allusions to the rock n roll’s past.

Next up was Black Bananas. Led by Jennifer Herrema, the infamous front woman of the now defunct Royal Trux, Herrema’s new band is very similar to her first post-Trux band, RTX, and even enlists much of the same personnel.

Today they performed as a truncated 3-piece with Herrema on vocals, a guitarist, and an effects player to make up for the absence of a drummer– and to distort just about everything to the point of mental and decibel overload.

Looking around it seemed not many recognized the rock n roll royalty on stage and the band’s bombastic futuristic stoner beach metal sound seemed to perplex and overwhelm more than it stunned and amazed.

While the recent release of the boldly and strangely titled, Rad Times Xpress IV, is a headphone and drug masterpiece, it seems like the album would be almost impossible to replicate in this park-like setting… and so was the case. Nevertheless, the set was rock n roll in every way. Jennifer has thrown her lo-fi junk punk away and replaced it with a vocoder overload, resulting in a heavy, sexy merger of drugs and technology.

Still the pinnacle of rock frontwomen, Herrema’s mixture of disenchanted cool and commanding stage presence still presents a powerful prowess that has only gotten better with time. And when it comes to style, I can only say it seems she’s still wearing the pants she wore 15 years ago, and together with a huge furry tail and scarecrow flophat, her demeanor wasn’t even close to being trumped by the seemingly unironic dollar bill print pants of the long-haired effects player.

After an extended lull, the skies grew dark as the place tripled in capacity to await the Kills—and every second that passed in anticipation was surely worth it. Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart took stage with a small army of anonymous standup drummers wearing stick-up style bandanas. Well choreographed and unexpected, they provided an added depth to the duo’s usual drum machine backing, without taking away from their amazing onstage chemistry. The live percussion army tonight marked the first time I’d seen additional members play with the Kills in the many, many times I’ve seen them.

The band began with a great and welcomed version of “No Wow” from their sophomore record and followed by working their way through several tracks on their newest record, Blood Pressures. Thankfully, no era of their catalogue was ignored. They played “URA Fever”, “Kissy Kissy”,  “Satellite”, “Tape Song”, and touched upon several other highpoints of their 4 album and EP discography.

Retaking stage for their encore, they began with “The Last Goodbye”, and though it seemed like a proper finale, the Kills continued by dedicating “Fuck the People” to the recently imprisoned Pussy Riot– and for an extra special treat the two went straight into “Monkey 23”, a true deep cut, a rarity in their live set, and perfect execution of two back-to-back tracks on their debut record.

That was that. Three bands playing together, bound beautifully by the bonds of decadence in the city where anything is possible… even the unsuspecting show of your dreams.