The Kills Biography
Last updated: 02/19/2012 11:00:00 AM
London, Brixton Academy, 29 October 2004. Two figures, under dim lights, which obscure more than illuminate. One, his jacket zippered up to his chin, eyes glaring headlight-style at the distant balcony, slashes and twitches in time to the rhythm of his guitar riffs. The other, her raven hair matted over her face, sways and rocks and thrashes along, incanting into her microphone the sweetest seduction one moment, then untethered rage the next. For one song, she sports a large floppy-brimmed hat. Afterwards, she removes it.
This Anglo-American duo force you to engage deeply in their music. Where most contemporary groups hit you with an elaborately orchestrated reading of a song, attempting to erect their own perfect castle in sound, The Kills reduce rock & roll to its barest components. As much as what’s played, you hear what isn’t played, the space between the notes, music as a force that flows between the people creating it (and listening to it).
The girl, VV, stares out the guy, Hotel. He fires an intense volley of noize into her stomach. She spits back at him, an inch or two from his face, and collapses to the floor. He places the body of his guitar, now rampaging into feedback, on the ground between her knees, and angles the neck over her. She arches her back, hair flailing. The sound surges…
You don’t see chemistry like this on a stage every day of the week. The Kills, VV and Hotel, have a special relationship. They met five or six years ago in South London, while VV, née Alison Mosshart, was on tour in Europe with her band at the time, Discount. Hotel, then known as merely Jamie Hince, had just wound up his group Scarfo and was just knocking around a few ideas of his own, solo. Before Alison returned home to Florida, they exchanged numbers. They corresponded, sending each other letters, tapes (of music; of themselves talking) and occasionally splashing out on a pricey international call.
At the turn of the millennium, Alison moved in with Jamie in his flat in Gypsy Hill, London. They gave each other a stage name, and The Kills were born. In many ways, The Kills had been born the very day when they met. The band was an expression of everything they experienced together, a document of them. They were entirely self-sufficient. Jamie did most of the guitar, Alison did most of the singing, Jamie learnt to drum and laid down some backing beats on tape. What else did they need? Anyone else would be an intruder.
One summer, they hired a car and drove round the States, calling ahead to clubs in towns they fancied stopping in, and booked themselves to play there. They started recording officially in March 2002, with Liam Watson at Toe Rag. Four tracks, including their cover of “Dropout Boogie” by Captain Beefheart, were released by Dim Mak in the US as the “Black Rooster EP” that summer. Early in 2003, the three originals were added to eight other self-penned songs to make up their first album, Keep On Your Mean Side.
Says Jamie, “We’re still really proud of it. We’d talked for weeks and weeks about the songs we wanted to write. We wrote and recorded them 100 percent exactly like we wanted them. That album was the only thing I’d ever done in my life which turned out exactly as I’d intended it.”
Happily or not, their rough-edged, blues-rooted take on rock & roll collided with the new craze for garage aesthetics. They felt uneasy being lumped in with any revivalism/traditionalism. “When people compared us with all that, we always felt… not insulted, but we never felt like a garage band,” says Jamie. They were more into updating The Velvet Underground’s idea of a rock band encompassing all areas of Art and Life – the total experience. So, they toured with bands from beyond garage’s narrow parameters, most notably Primal Scream. They toured incessantly, in fact, for 18 months making the most of the freedom that their micro-operation afforded.
In early 2004, the hangover wore off, and they soon set themselves a target of completing their second album by the end of June. To that end, they withdrew from the distractions of London, repairing for a month to sleepy Benton Harbour, Michigan.
“It’s a total ghost town,” says Alison, “about an hour and a half from Chicago. There’s nothing there at all. These kids there have bought a huge abandoned building on Main Street, and done it out with an amazing recording studio.”
Jamie: “We took all this stuff with us – minidsics of us talking, guitar riffs, thousands of little tiny bits of paper, typewriters, paint and art books and journals from the past year. To start with, we weren’t thinking about songs, we were just talking about all the things that inspired us over the last months. We spent the first few days just looking at those, talking, getting into the right psyche with it. It was the perfect place to get away from it all. You’d walk and not see any glass for ten minutes. Everything was boarded up, like a dead world, then we’d go back into our HQ of art and music and ideas.”
Alison: “We wrote the whole record in two and a half weeks, then we took a train to Chicago, then got a plane the same day to New York. Two days later, we started recording at Sear Sound in Midtown, two weeks, day and night. It’s this brilliant, weird place run by an old couple, who started out in the ’50s making soundtracks for porn movies. We gave ourselves no time to sit back and think what we were doing.
“The day after we finished recording, we mixed it for a few days. Then we had a two-day break, then we mastered. Then we didn’t listen to it at all for two weeks, went out and became more human again, spoke to people, saw New York, and then we came home. In all we had three months away. We went from no songs to a finished record in 47 days.”
Called No Wow, it is if anything a more minimal record than their debut. “Last time,” recalls Jamie, “everyone said about the album that it was just skin and bone, that there was no fat on it. With this one, we wanted to get rid of the skin and bone and get right to the heart. Every song is just a little pumping heart.”
Early on, he’d intended to make the record radically different by writing and playing all his parts on a Moog keyboard, which didn’t get repaired in time for Benton Harbour. He did, however, buy a cheap old pre-programmable drum machine, which you can hear ticking and thumping away on the title track, “The Good Ones” and several others.
Where the ’60s pop art explosion fired them last time out, No Wow is, for its creators, a tracing of the lineage between CBGB’s and Studio 54, exploring the turbulent years in New York when punk turned into disco. Hence, the drum machine. Sound-wise, guitar reverb was kept to a minimum. Jamie: “We wanted everything right there in the speakers, dry and bare.” A lot of time was spent experimenting with guitar sounds and tunings. The axe weirdness of “Sweet Cloud” comes not from a common-or-garden FX pedal, but a Capo clip, with cigarettes wedged under the strings to tune them down.
Lyrical inspiration came from all over the place. “The Good Ones” is an adapted diary entry. One song is about a day they spent on HMS Intrepid. Others were put together almost like collages of words that they’d cut out from magazines and letters – part of the whole Benton Harbour blitz. “Back Of The Shell” was inspired by a visit to Myers Supermarket out there.
Jamie: “It’s like the midwest Wall-mart, really trashy. We went there on a break from the studio to buy food and wine. Nothing happens there at the weekend, so Myers is the only place the young people can go. They all turn up dressed to nines, hair done up, wearing jewellery and incredible clothes, and most of them really overweight. It was so screwed up. So we just wrote a story about that, like a couple coming in, fucking in the back of the gas station, and 15 years later, they’re looking at each other, like, ‘Jesus, that was one teenage fuck in a gas station and I’ve been living in a world of depression ever since’!”
Once the album was done, the duo moved to a house in North London which acts as their HQ, with a recording/rehearsal studio, space to do art and ample room to throw parties. Their vibe is ultra-positive, their relationship as complicated and mysterious as ever, their shared vision undimmed.
Jamie: “We still feel exactly the same. There’s no way of saying it that makes what we’re doing sound as important as it is for us. We want to create our own scene – maybe not to be immediately appreciated and blown up, but to accumulate, so that people can look back and see we did a lot, and made a difference.”