The problem with most bands influenced by the Velvet Underground is that they sound too much like the Velvet Underground but lack the spirit they embodied. Being intrigued by Lou Reed’s dry, deadpan delivery, John Cale’s witchy, willowy violin, or Moe Tucker’s booming, minimalist drumming obscures what that influential New York band was ultimately all about: hypnotic repetition, fearless innovation, and simultaneously seducing and repelling their audience.
With their dark, nuevo garage swagger and relentless undercurrent of staccato percussion, the Kills are obviously influenced by VU, but since their inception in 2000 they’ve sidestepped the trap of over-emulating their idols. Given the unexpected pop twists and adventurous rhythmic turns taken on their third and latest full-length, Midnight Boom, Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince are on their way to creating a catalog that could influence a whole second wave of artists who share those values.
On a bus headed towards a gig at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C., Mosshart (who is markedly more shy-sounding and sweet than her stage presence implies) chats via cell about their genuinely kinetic show the night before at Webster Hall. “It was amazing, but the venue caught on fire halfway through the set. It was really quite exciting, actually.”
If performing with actual fires on stage isn’t too far from igniting metaphorical ones, then this is a natural progression for the Kills. With the release of their debut EP, Black Rooster, in 2001, the inky-haired, long-limbed pairing of Mosshart and Hince garnered a mixture of lascivious praise and paranoid distrust for their raw, bluesy (and occasionally narcotic) punk pulse and the way their gripping, sexually ambiguous relationship played itself out in their live performances. Much of their early buzz centered on their über-hipster good looks, rumors of drug use, and almost uncomfortably erotic stage presence (Mosshart and Hince share a London residence but have consistently claimed a platonic relationship, and Hince is currently linked to rocker-friendly model Kate Moss), but a myopic focus on aesthetics overlooks the fact that they are a driven pair of artists bent on pushing themselves outside their comfort zone.
A commitment to breaking new creative ground means their writing process tends to be long and laborious. “Half of that [methodology] is reading books, cutting up pictures out of newspapers, making collages, taking photos, typing on typewriters, watching films,” explains Mosshart. No Wow, their 2005 sophomore effort, was a bare-bones distillation of sinewy guitar, stark drum machines, and the pair’s shared caterwauling vocals. It would take them the bulk of three years to get to the brighter, lusher textures and more complex arrangements that characterize Midnight Boom. “We really wanted to do something we hadn’t done before, and I think that it takes a long time to get out of your old habits,” explains Mosshart.
When the isolation of writing the dozen songs that would eventually make up Midnight Boom became too much, Mosshart and Hince decided to escape to Mexico to recharge their creative spirits—during hurricane season. “We had been working for seven or eight months in the studio, and we really felt like we needed to get out and be social. Mexico was basically our version of a holiday, but we went during hurricane season. We brought a bunch of friends from New York, and none of us had a clue what we were in for. I’ve never seen storms like that in my life.”
That tumultuous 10-day adventure in Puerto Vallarta proved to be just the palate-cleanser they needed, and upon returning to Keyclub Recording Co. in Benton Harbor, Michigan, the results began coming much more quickly, including “M.E.X.I.C.O.,” a song specifically about that bizarre detour. “We came back and felt really back on track, we just had a new energy,” recalls Mosshart.
“Cheap and Cheerful” is the song that most vividly illuminates that new focus. Initially disquieting for fans of the Kills’ harsh, dark energy, the upbeat hand-claps and downright danceable break beats signal a deliberate stretch towards more playful territory, though they haven’t lost sight of their mean side. “I want you to be crazy baby ’cause you’re boring when you’re straight,” sings Mosshart, still encouraging deviance at all costs, but deepening her dare by fusing schoolgirl chiding to her PJ Harvey–channeling charms.
“That was the first song where we felt like, ‘Yeah, this is totally different than anything we’ve done.’ It was one of those critical, little turning points.” Spank Rock producer Alex Epton (aka Armani XXXchange) also helped with some of the more hairpin-turning points in the drum department. “We knew that he was really good at programming and editing drums,” says Mosshart. “Usually we just do drums that are quite metronomic and build a loop around that, but everything we were doing on this record was quite intricate, so we needed someone who could make those subtle adjustments.”
But don’t expect the Kills to morph into an all-ProTools-engineered machine in the future. Organic approaches are obviously at the root of what has helped them outgrow their initial hype wave. “I couldn’t stand it…sitting around and staring at a computer for seven hours; I spent most of that time smoking on the fire escape.”