Interview: The Kills Find Treasure in the Sonic Vault

In the early 2000’s the music world went through one of its cyclical renaissances and blessed us with a return of stripped-down lo-fi guitar rock. Almost overnight, and in a similar way it had a decade plus earlier when hair-metallers Poison were sidelined by Nirvana and all things grunge, MTV went from playing Stone Temple Pilots to The White Stripes; in both cases it was a good thing. The majority of this new wave of bands were not just American but decidedly New Yorkers; The Strokes led the pack that included Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and TV On The Radio, and downtown rents started their ascent.

At the same time, in London, a boy/girl duo was creating guttural, guitar/feedback-based blues that oozed with black magic and sex, and as they were decidedly cool looking and obviously appealed to the “meet me in the bathroom” set, the UK press lumped them in with the burgeoning scene. The Kills were not especially happy at being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it probably helped their career.

Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart were a mutt of a band, she had been a Florida skate punk who found teenage success with the band Discount, he was a southern England country boy with an art rock/punk pedigree. They met while on tour with their respective outfits and an immediate collaboration via exchanged transatlantic cassette tapes begat The Kills.

And The Kills they have remained for close to two decades, releasing a continuous stream of well-respected albums and EPs, while also working on occasional side projects; Hince’s 4-year marriage to Kate Moss earlier this decade might be considered one of them. This summer, with COVID having scuttled every band’s typical touring and recording routines, Domino Records, the band’s long-time label, proposed releasing a new album of their B-sides and rarities, and the band dove right in, coming up with a track list of 20 hidden gems from the first half of their career (a sequel is obviously assumed). Said compilation, Little Bastards (released via Domino on December 11), is a look behind the curtain of a band whose hits have racked up millions and millions of plays.

On the eve of its release, we got a chance to ask them all about it.

We’re talking about this new record and it seems like it came together quickly.

Alison Mosshart: Yeah, it did. We started working on it, maybe like, I don’t know Jamie, what was it? Two or three months into lockdown? I mean, it was very fast.

Jamie Hince: Yeah, not even. Depending on when you consider lockdown starting. But I think it was pretty early on, like, April.

And you had this idea to do this

JH: We didn’t have the idea. We’d been concentrating on writing new songs. That’s what we were doing, really, was writing a new record blindly. And then Laurence Bell from Domino, he was obviously thinking a lot, and I think he just thought, what am I going to do? He pointed out that bands like us, we need to tour. That’s how we sell. And he was just thinking of other things we could do, because we realized that our album, new album cycle, was going to be really fucking thrown off kilter. He was walking with his headphones on and his phone on shuffle, and this old song came on and he was like, Wow, this is brilliant. What’s this? And he looked, and it was one of our old B-sides. So he kind of went on this journey of like, searching out all these old and rare songs that we’ve recorded.

Was it a process to find the masters of all this stuff?

AM: Oh, man. It was everywhere. I feel like it was everywhere.

So it was a bit of an archeological expedition?

AM: I mean, Jamie had “Raise Me” on a hard drive somewhere. That was, you know, that was never a released thing that the record label ever had.

JH: That was one of the things that really slowed it all down, was that Domino had vaults with a lot of this stuff in it, but because of the COVID lockdown thing, they didn’t have people working there; so it took a while before we could find out what we had. And that’s kind of what I loved about the project, it’s like, no one records like that anymore. Some of it was on quarter-inch tape.

It was great to listen to, and obviously the drum machine was a big part of things back then. To hear that sound of like, such dryness. There’s no fucking reverb on that at all.

AM: It’s slapping you across the face. It’s not gentle.

It’s a lovely sound. And I don’t know why it’s taken me 15 years to figure out that there’s a huge PJ Harvey influence.

JH: Oh god, yeah.

AM: So much so, yeah.

JH: I mean, we actually, at points, talk about how we weren’t going to be, like, a PJ Harvey cover band. We loved her so much that we wrote some songs that could never be heard.

I’m kind of enjoying your version of PJ Harvey a little more.

JH: I’m kind of exaggerating, but she was a big influence, mostly, it was – I just loved the way how she could make a record like, Rid of Me, and then Is This Desire. Like, Rid of Me is like a sort of…it sounds like a three-piece band. And then she could make Is This Desire, which is like this glitchy sort of electronic record. And at the time, all our contemporaries were in bands with a drummer and a bass player and keyboards. And it seemed like if we have a drum machine, we can be anything. We can be a glitchy electronic band or we can be Iggy and the Stooges. It felt really liberating.

I guess part of PJ Harvey’s story was that they framed her as a rocking girl, a feminist. Where maybe that’s a thing that hangs around her that doesn’t necessarily hang over you guys, because you’re not…there’s a girl in the band, but you’re not a girl band. You’re just a rock band.

JH:  I’m so glad you said that because we never feel like that. We used to get asked that a lot in interviews. Do you remember, Alison, when people would say like, “What’s it like having a girl and a guy in the band?” or, “an English person and an American?”

AM: Same damn question.

JH: We were asked it loads. And I was like, I’m an English man, but I don’t feel English, and I don’t really feel like a man, so…I know I am English technically. And technically, I’m a man. But you just don’t know.

AM: But how does it feel? How does it feel?

You don’t get out of bed in the morning and go, “I’m an Englishman!”

JH: Never. The point is, Alison has never felt like – “I’m a woman in rock!” Like, “I fucking rock!”

And I thought there was something in one of the bios I read that said you kind of eschewed the mid-2000 Strokes, White Stripes resurgence of rock. You didn’t really want to be associated with that, necessarily.

AM: I think that kind of came out of what it was like to be in London at that time, and the way that the British press is, which is just awful. Stupid and awful. And I remember NME just lumping a bunch of people. I mean, I love all those bands…

JH: We were grateful that they kicked the door open, and we loved it. We went to see White Stripes‘ first gig in London, and like, we were down with that. But it was just…it was…I guess when we started getting attention, and then you just don’t like the way people – you don’t like your reflection, you know? You don’t like the way people are describing you. It’s like, no.

AM: I think the comments just stopped at – “White Stripes. You’re like White Stripes.” It’s like, nobody’s really listening. Nobody’s really paying attention. No one’s really doing the work, and I think it was the laziness of the journalism at that time caused us to go, like, agh!

JH: In England at that time, it was like, real sort of brat journalism. The idea is they wanted to rile you up, they wanted to insult you, so you’d kick off and…ugh.

It’s been a while since a Kills record, obviously. This year kind of screwed everyone with everything. People are putting music out and the music business is pretty…it’s kind of thriving, despite the fact that no one can go on tour. So, what’s the plan?

AM: Well, we’re writing. We have more than half a record done. I mean, written, but not recorded.

Do you guys do that together or virtually?

AM: Gradually we do, but we write alone. We both write and then we bring each other songs like little presents.

You invented the lockdown writing style. You were doing it in 2000, sharing tapes and stuff.

AM: Yeah. That’s how our band started, through the mail.

So you’re used to this.

JH: I think that initial creative spark, it’s important to do that on your own and not be compromised by anyone else’s stupid witherings on. But then coming together and making it a Kills thing, filling in the gaps. I don’t know. I always think – I think with a lot of the stuff on Little Bastards, it’s like, we kind of – we had to write those songs in a day. I always thought it was some corporate record company bullshit, having to roll out these fucking songs for another B-side. But we’re grateful for it now. It’s like, you would not force yourself to do it unless someone else had to.

It’s kind of like the old story of how the Rolling Stones started writing songs. Andrew Oldham locked them in a kitchen or something and said, “We need a song.” And back then, in the sixties, everyone was, like, “Okay, with need a single every six weeks.” Great motivation to like, crank stuff out.

AM: Yeah. We’re so close to just being able to go into a studio and record it. We really need, like, two songs, three songs. And then, how long it takes to record and then how long it takes to do interviews. How long it takes to do videos and all of that junk. I want to be on the road as soon as it is safe and good again, and I still think we’re a long way off; but I don’t even want to waste time, because it could happen in the middle of next year. There’s nothing I miss more.

I’m sure.

JH: And we’ve said on the road before, like, how much, “Oh my god, if I see another backstage, I’m going to go fucking mental.” We were laughing about it the other day, just saying like, oh my god, what we’d do now to sit on a smelly bus.

AM: Everyone’s disgusting shoes. Bring it on. I’m in.

It’s so frustrating. And it’s viscerally painful to think of – can you sit on a bus with people? Will we be doing that? Will you have to get a separate chair for everyone?

JH: Oh, like separate buses for everyone?

AM: Yeah, that’s part of the thing where it’s like, that bums me out, because you know the people who will be touring will be the very, very wealthy bands who can afford to spend the extra million on the road to do it really safely. Obviously, bands our size cannot do that. We have to get on planes. We have to get in tons of cars. We have to group together.

When you put together the set list, or the list for this record, the 20 songs, how much did you sweat the song selection? Did you go through a hundred songs?

AM: No, not a hundred, but there was definitely about 10 more that we wished we could just somehow make our record wider. We really were limited by what a double LP would hold. And I like that. I liked limiting it to that time frame. So, there was definitely a lot of back and forth about, “Aw, man, we should add this. We should add this. We should add this.”

JH: I found a couple of things the other day, didn’t I? That “Silver Dollar” song I found. I was like, “Shit! I just found this. We should put that on there!”

When you were thinking of the track listing of Little Bastards you obviously put it together around the idea of a 2-disc vinyl record. 

AM: Yeah. I was really thinking of it as an album, as a piece of vinyl, as a whole piece of work. I understand and I know it’s just going to end up being a Spotify list; but that’s not how I’m going to approach a project ever. I want it to be a complete work. I mean, for some reason, that just goes with my brain. It’s like, okay. We’re making a sculpture. We’re going to make this painting. That kind of thing. It just makes it a beautiful thing to me. A beautiful object. You know?

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