Rock’s most potent transatlantic combo, The Kills – American frontwoman Alison Mosshart and Brit guitarist Jamie Hince – are back. Ash & Ice is their fifth album – and first since 2011’s Blood Pressures. The Kills have dealt with much drama – and experienced adventure – in the interim. Gossip reporters zoomed in on Hince’s split from his supermodel wife Kate Moss. But, perhaps more seriously, Hince faced the prospect of never playing guitar again after breaking his middle finger and reacting adversely to cortisone. The Londoner endured multiple operations.
At one stage Hince took a solitary journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway – during which he penned The Kills’ current single Siberian Nights. Meanwhile, Mosshart, devoting herself to painting in her Nashville, Tennessee pad, held her inaugural solo art exhibition at New York’s Joseph Gross Gallery. She also cut a third LP, Dodge And Burn, with buddy Jack White’s supergroup The Dead Weather.
The Kills clicked circa 2000. Mosshart, from Florida, was a member of the ’90s punk outfit Discount when she met serial band man Hince on the road in Europe. Initially unimaginatively compared to The White Stripes, these “friends-cum-soulmates” soon forged their own identity with a modishly lo-fi, minimalist garage blues composite. The Kills’ aloof demeanour masked latent sonic tension – call it passive aggressive rock. However, following 2003’s cult debut Keep On Your Mean Side, the duo progressively slicked-up – emerging as a mainstream phenom, their songs synced for TV shows like The Vampire Diaries.
With Ash & Ice, The Kills determined to recast their sound. They even sought new locations for recording – first Hince’s rented “mansion” in the Hollywood Hills, then NY’s fabled Electric Lady Studios. While some reviewers remain unconvinced of any radical reinvention, Ash & Ice does have a greater emotional heft. And the lead single Doing It To Death has a distinctly urban swagger. Indeed, Canadian director Wendy Morgan’s sublimely choreographed video, shot in a cemetery, is an American gothic masterpiece – Mosshart emphasising its “celebratory feeling”. “Jamie and I went to dance class for two days, which was pretty amazing!,” Mosshart laughs. “Actually insane. It was really cool.”
The Kills will perform Ash & Ice material at Splendour In The Grass, having last toured here for 2011’s edition. “I’m just super, super-stoked to be coming back to Australia again,” Mosshart enthuses. “It’s been a really long time and I miss it so much – I cannot wait.”
Music Feeds: You’re coming back to Australia with a new album in Ash & Ice. The title is very visceral, as is the music. It’s a bit Game Of Thrones. How do you feel The Kills sound in 2016 – what is your vibe?
Alison Mosshart: Well, it’s definitely not Game Of Thrones – I’ve never seen Game Of Thrones before! You know, there’s five years between records – a lot of life has been lived, a lot of things have happened. We’ve been working on this a long time. I am really proud of this record – I feel like we pushed ourselves to a place that felt fresh and new to us.
It wasn’t exactly an easy record to make. It was so much like, write a song and rework it – and try to push it to an uncomfortable place that we weren’t particularly masters of and then try to master it. I’m just really proud of it. I love this record.
Your creative exchange has always been fascinating. Reading interviews, it seems that you and Jamie need independence, and space, in which to create, as much as that time together in the studio. Jamie also claims that you guys are “competitive”. Has your dynamic changed over time?
I don’t think our dynamic has really changed. We both are songwriters – we both like to write in private. It seems like a private thing, especially in a two-piece band – ’cause you can’t sit around and jam, it doesn’t really work like that. Songwriting is more like putting a puzzle together with us because there’s only two of us. It either starts with lyrics or it starts with melody or it starts with a drum beat and then the pieces are layered and fit around it.
So we both write songs – we both bring them to each other, like little presents. Then we decide what songs to do and what songs not to do – what songs fit the sort of agenda, from feeling new and feeling exciting. But I don’t really think our dynamic has changed very much. I think that it’s pretty solid from the day that we started – and so whatever this is now, we still kind of work in the same way.
Do you see it as competitive?
I mean, I think it’s competitive in the way that we inspire each other and challenge each other. The competitive part is to try to get the other one excited. It’s very positive competition – it’s probably not the best word… We’re really encouraging of each other.
In interviews Jamie has described in graphic detail what happened to his finger. Though he’s made light of it, it sounds horrific. How worried were you during this whole ordeal?
I was sympathetic because he was going through hell. I wasn’t worried about anything in particular – I was mostly hopeful, and hoping, that everything would be all right with it. It always felt the whole time that everything would be fine – that it was just gonna be a very long, gruelling process to get him back together again (laughs).
He was starting to buy alternative instruments to play! What did he actually accrue?
I don’t remember really what instruments he bought. He ended up buying quite a lot of studio gear – which was used on the record. He bought some very old kind of keyboard-type thing – I can’t remember what it was called – that was cool [and] that we used on a couple of songs. Something I’d never, ever seen before. I’m not helpful because I’m not a gearhead. I don’t remember names of anything. But he bought a lot of amps. This is coming from a guy who doesn’t know if he’s gonna play guitar again – he was just buying guitar amps like a crazy person!
He bought tonnes of them. So he was definitely feeling pretty sure that he was gonna be playing guitar – even though he had his whole hand in a brace and a cast and everything. I don’t know – yeah, lots of studio stuff. Lots of things that I am not the person to ask what they are or what it is. Lots of stuff with lights on it (laughs).
It was always intriguing when on (2008’s) Midnight Boom you brought in XXXChange to work with, because he’s associated with electronic club music. And The Kills are usually a very contained unit. What other musics seep into your rock ‘n’ roll world?
Jamie listens to basically everything on the planet. When I’m writing, I tend not to listen to anything at all – aside from what I’m doing or what we’re working on. I come and go into that zone and come out the other side. A million records could have come out and a million things could have come and gone and I wouldn’t even know about it. I kinda go into a weird creative bubble. But he listens to tonnes and tonnes of, like, hip-hop production.
He’s very, very interested in rhythm – soul records and hip-hop and stuff like that, he’s really interested in their production and how their sounds have been pushed forward so much. He’s going, like, ‘Rock ‘n’ roll music never gets pushed anywhere else, but what it is.’ So being an electric guitar band that we are, his goal is to push it somewhere else.
You have a whole other life as a visual artist – and you exhibited not long ago. How important is it to you to have another outlet for your creativity?
When Jamie and I met, when I was 17 or 18, we were both doing art and music all the time. I’ve been doing it since I was basically born. My mother was a high school art teacher so, as a child, I would be sat at a table with a tonne of paints and paper. It’s just something that I’ve aways had in my life and done. I went to art school. I’ve always done it.
The only difference between my whole entire life and now is that I posted a few pictures of something that I made on Instagram – and I got a show! So the only difference is other people see it now. But I’m surrounded by it – and it’s something I’ve always done. We have paints on the road, in hotel rooms… We’ve always kept journals and scrapbooks and collages and taken photographs and had so much to do with all of our videos.
We’ve been such a visual band. Jamie and I have had exhibitions before in galleries in Europe. It’s not new, in any respect. I think it’s just people have suddenly read about it – which is cool! But it’s not really another life – it’s exactly the same one as always (laughs).
You haven’t slowed down, because last year The Dead Weather dropped an album – but you were limited in touring because of everyone’s schedules. Do you envisage more activity on that front or is The Kills now your focus?
You know what – I’m one of those people that lives in the present. I try really hard… At the moment I’m on tour [with The Kills] until the end of November and then back on tour again at some point in December and then I’m sure it will carry over into 2017 for most of 2017. So, at the moment, that’s what’s happening. I don’t know when The Dead Weather will tour again.
Every single one of us is insanely busy – always. It’s always just like a magic trick when we can get together. We all live in the same town [Nashville] and we never see each other. It’s an amazing day if we’re all home at the same time. We immediately run to hang out – and that usually becomes writing a song or two… Never for any purpose exactly, just because we really love to do it. So the band has always operated in that way. We toured those records before because we could at that time.
Everyone was between projects and obligations and it was just great timing. I don’t know when we’ll have great timing again.
Do you mind being that busy, because it must get overwhelming at some point? Do you ever wish that you had more time to yourself?
I don’t know – only sometimes when I’m tired, but not really.
Of course you will be here for Splendour In the Grass. How much new album material will you be doing in the shows? And how is it sounding live?
We’ve been playing I’d say 80 per cent of the record on stage at the moment. We’re switching songs in and out, but we’ve been playing all the songs – aside from, like, two maybe. So probably a lot. There’ll probably be a lotta new songs at SITG – depending on how long our set time is.
Do you have a favourite song to perform of the new ones?
Yeah, Whirling Eye is my favourite right now.
Saturday, 23rd July
Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Tuesday, 26th July
Enmore Theatre, Sydney, NSW (All Ages)