The Kills: Just Shoot Me

For Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart—the new-primitive art-punk duo known as The Kills—life in the information age can be a fate worse than death. By Tom Lanham

Jamie Hince has a theory. He knows it sounds crazy and maybe even a little misanthropic, but just hear him out. Our egotistical, tabloid-obsessed, knuckleheaded MySpace society—perfectly depicted in Mike Judge’s wicked 2006 send-up Idiocracy—has become nothing but a huge spectacle.

“I’ve not lost touch with myself enough to think that I’m actually part of it,” says Hince, the cynical guitarist/vocalist/drummer for blues/punk duo the Kills. “I’m not a celebrity, I’m not famous. I’m just a musician, doing my thing. But the problem now is that everyone’s fought so long for the rights of the individual that it’s finally gotten through to the other side, and individualism got mutated and went all out of control. And now it’s just out-and-out selfish shit, where the rights of the individual have blended with capitalism and made for a really ugly society. Punk rock was part of it.” He sighs dejectedly. “Individualism sounded like the most amazing thing, but now everyone’s just out for themselves.”

On the sinewy Midnight Boom (Domino), the Kills have dropped their pseudonyms; Hince once billed himself as Hotel, while vocalist Alison Mosshart went by the name VV. Hince has lost some of his faith in his fellow man as well. He’s just not on the same shallow page.

“People don’t seem all that concerned with quality, and even the newspapers we read are pointers that tell you a lot about society,” says Hince. “We’re definitely at an all-time low, and that’s because information is so readily available. One mouse-click away, and there’s all this stupid LCD soundbite garbage: someone falling down the stairs drunk or someone with a drug problem or who’s fucking who. Things have spiraled down, for sure.”

Unfortunately, Hince came to these pessimistic conclusions via the hardest possible path when he suddenly found himself hounded by the paparazzi last year after he began dating supermodel Kate Moss. His private life is now in the public domain; Google his name and you’re inundated with trash-talking blog entries speculating on the current state of the couple’s relationship, with photographers trailing them through their native London and on exotic getaways. Was Hince angry that Moss might’ve text-messaged her old flame, the troubled Pete Doherty? Online, such worthless inanities are buttressed so boldface big, they feel like serious news reporting and eclipse any artistic updates on the Kills’ eight-year, three-album career. You can even sympathize a little bit with Hince, who—in the eyes of photographers tracking his every move—is merely the arm candy that happens to accompany Moss these days.

Hince claims that his recent involvement with an English clothing line wasn’t what it appeared. “I went into the shop, they gave me some clothes, someone took some pictures, then they did a whole campaign with ’em,” he says. “It was bullshit! I fucking hate everyone, honest to God. They’re all out to fucking get something, and I just don’t operate that way. It’s a very weird scene, something I don’t think you can ever really get used to. But thankfully, our album was recorded well before any of this happened.”

Mosshart, a Florida native who moved to London in 2000 to create music with Hince, agrees. “I think we live in an age where you can know all the information about anyone in just a few seconds,” she says. “So I think it’s important to have some mystery, because that’s what makes people interested, and that’s what makes people have an imagination about you. If you know everything about someone, that’s quite boring and you move on.”

This is the reason she does her best to avoid being introduced to her childhood rock idols. “It’s always a bit of a letdown,” she says. “They’re usually pretty normal and really nice, and it always changes something when you meet them. So it’s better if people continue to have fantasies, I think. And I hope there’s some sort of similar aura around me. I don’t need everyone to know everything about me.”

Mosshart has a beau, but she won’t say who. She’s done a lot of modeling, but she won’t run down the fashionable list. Onstage, she hides her exotic beauty by turning sideways to face Hince and his array of guitar pedals, then leaning so far over the microphone that her hair covers her face. She even humbly plays down recent high-profile appearances: The track “Wait” (from 2003 debut Keep On Your Mean Side) was included on the Children Of Men soundtrack, and Mosshart recorded “Meds,” a duet with Placebo’s Brian Molko that was a hit in the U.K. for his band in 2006. “Oh, the band had that song and just a needed a singer on it, so I’ve only ever done that one (outside) cut,” she says. “But in fact, everything Jamie and I do is for the Kills. We’re either doing art, film, photography, writing or working in the studio—or traveling around and getting new ideas. So everything’s about the Kills, really.”

Naturally, Midnight Boom was rooted in travel. For seven months, The Kills were struggling to pen a follow-up to 2005’s No Wow, which paired Hince’s scruffy R&B/garage guitar work with Mosshart’s melancholy Whitesnake-metal moan. Mosshart had previously cut her teeth in Gainesville punk combo Discount, while Hince began in a U.K. alterna-outfit called Scarfo. Both were fed up with the band format when they first met in a British hotel in 2000 during a Discount tour.

“She wanted to do music for two,” says Hince. “We stayed up one night and wrote five songs before she had to get on a plane the next day.”

He began mailing tapes for Mosshart to finish until she finally got the guts to relocate. Hince likens their platonic relationship to a “Bonnie and Clyde thing; we totally made a pact to actively destroy our history and to turn our lives into a band, to the death, metaphorically.”

Such devotion came in handy this time around, as the Kills hurtled headlong into artistic and financial burnout, searching for their muse by recording in Michigan, Los Angeles, even Mexico during hurricane season. “We lost the plot and felt like we weren’t getting anything done,” says Mosshart. “Nothing sounded good, we’d totally run out of money, and it was all a bit of a disaster.”

Then Hince had an inventive brainstorm. Intrigued by the songs he’d discovered via Pizza Pizza Daddy-O (a 1967 documentary shot by Bess Lomax Hawes at a playground in L.A.’s Watts section), he wondered if a contemporary reworking of such sinister innocence was possible.

“I started getting fascinated by those handclapping and jump-rope rhythms, which are so rhythmically upbeat and positive, while their lyrics were always commenting on miserable social situations like death, abortion and miscarriage,” says Hince. “The Kills have always gravitated toward primitive, stripped-back things, so I got really fascinated with building rhythms around those handclaps. Then we started writing lyrics as if they were modern playground songs.”

Ultimately, the Kills ended up back in Benton Harbor, Mich., where the duo recorded No Wow, using the same 24-track mixing board employed on Sly And The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. With production assistance from Alex Epton (a.k.a. Armani XXXchange of Spank Rock), the Kills made an album so sing-song skeletal, it’s scary. Midnight Boom opener “U.R.A. Fever” is a chanted duet plastered across a bass-driven handclap rhythm and punctuated by a static guitar bridge. More rope-skipping schematics pop up on “Sour Cherry,” “Alphabet Pony,” “Black Balloon” and the quasi-military “Cheap And Cheerful” (on which Mosshart’s voice ratchets up slowly from come-hither croon to banshee shriek). The difference between Midnight Boom and the Kills’ previous work isn’t so dramatic that it’s off-putting, however. Longtime fans will wallow in the punk-frantic assault of “M.E.X.I.C.O.C.U.” and the propulsive blues stomp of “Last Day Of Magic.” Like a music box creaking shut, the set ends with a disarmingly gentle ballad, “Goodnight Bad Morning,” leaving the listener either ready for an energetic round of hopscotch or a few numbing shots at the local tavern.

The lyrics—some by Hince, some by Mosshart—are suitably grim. “Last Day Of Magic” is based on Raskolnikov, the tragic figure in Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment. “His room is just described so amazingly in that book,” says Hince. “It’s like a brain, a paranoid brain. That’s what the song’s about, really: having a sickness, a paranoia and just wanting someone to love, wanting that person to be there on that last day of magic. But they’re not there. You’re on your own, basically, at the end of the day.”

Think that’s heady? Don’t even get Hince started on the impetus behind the album’s penultimate track, the Phil-Spector-at-CBGB “What New York Used To Be.” As a kid growing up in England, Hince would sit in his bedroom and play Television records, dreaming of the Manhattan punk scene. “You could go to a gig, and it wasn’t theirs, it was ours,” he says. “It was scary when you first went to rock shows as a kid; there were bigger kids smoking and fighting, people dancing and pushing everyone out of the way. But that was all part of growing up, that was our rite of passage. It was exciting, and it’s what made all those musical genres happen.”

In Hince’s mind, that primal experience is a thing of the past: “They’re telling us, ‘You need looking-after, you haven’t got a brain in your head, you can’t make any decisions. So we’re gonna tell you that it’s bad to smoke, and not to smoke in a rock club. We forbid it, we won’t allow it. And we’re gonna have people standing at the door telling you not to lean on the banister, because you might fall over and hurt yourself.’ It’s just such a nanny state, it drives me fucking crazy that there are all these rules surrounding rock shows. Everything’s different now. Drugs aren’t the same, fun isn’t the same, TV isn’t the same, love isn’t the same. So that song is almost a call to arms, really. Something’s gotta give. You can’t have all these state-sanitized punk shows without something exploding at some point.”

Curious about Led Zeppelin’s December reunion gig in London, Hince went online a couple of hours after the show. He found full-length blogger reviews describing the set list and every last nuance of the concert, and he wasn’t happy about it.

“There’s no wonder anymore, is there?” he asks rhetorically. “There was no slow word-of-mouth on Zeppelin, nothing. And that’s what empowers society to think we need them to look after us, we need them to show us the way to live and not hurt ourselves. Everyone’s just blindly accepted that, in the same way we all just take new technology for granted. There’s still a lot of chaos and punk attitude around, but the fantasy is being played out by people on computers. So I just hope people take it back, physically, instead of retreating into chat rooms. Because I, for one, don’t wanna live like that.”

As if on cue, a cluster of coffee-klatsch hens starts clucking so loudly on their cell phones that Hince is compelled to exit the once-quiet café where he’s having lunch. Outside, the cacophonous din of passing firetruck sirens deafens him even further. But hey, New York—where the band has flown to do interviews—just ain’t what it used to be. Thankfully, he has Kate Moss back home in London, and he’s practically counting the minutes until his JFK flight boards.

At the mere mention of her Kills partner’s departure, Mosshart starts to whine: “Jamie’s leaving New York tonight. I’m gonna be here for two whole days afterward, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” Left to her own devices in this symbiotic relationship, she concludes, “But it’ll be fine; we’re used to it. Usually, there’s not enough time that passes when the Kills aren’t together for us to have any anxiety over things. So obviously, we very much have our own separate lives. But there is some separation anxiety when we’re apart. But we’re OK. The Kills can deal with anything.”

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 28, 2009 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    Great article! I can’t get enough of these guys. I know they want to keep a mystery about them but I can’t help reading all of their interview because the things they have to say, particularly Jamie, are things that I can relate too and agree with and can think about and sometimes disagree with. They are just inspiring for me. Last Day of Magic is one of the best things ever written.

    Cheers