“R&B, dancehall, electronic and hip-hop are genres that are really pushing the limits,” Jamie Hince, the Kills’ British singer-guitarist, told Rolling Stone recently. “But guitar music isn’t. Most bands are just tributes to the 1970s or the Nineties.” With their new album, Ash & Ice, out June 3rd, the Kills aim to change that. “I feel some allegiance to pushing electric-guitar music into a different realm,” Hince adds, “somewhere that isn’t retrospective.”
For the Kills, the future of guitar music isn’t necessarily all about guitars. On Ash & Ice, Hince and Nashville-based singer Alison Mosshart – also frontwoman for Jack White’s goth-blues band the Dead Weather – polish their edgy sound, built on his caustic riffs and her witchy wail. But the difference on this LP, the band’s fifth, is all in the beats; when asked who or what influenced the shift, Hince cites a rapper. “It’s amazing looking at bass-drum patterns or drum-machine programming from, like, Pusha T,” Hince says of the Jay Z and Kanye West collaborator. “Those are sounds and influences that are new to this record.”
During a chat with RS, the band – currently wrapping a U.S. tour – discussed shaking up its songwriting process, Hince’s inspirational solo trip on the Trans-Siberian Express and album-delaying hand surgeries, and the duo’s decision to break tradition to record in Los Angeles. “Anything is possible there,” Mosshart says of tracking Ash & Ice in the City of Angels. “If you want to make a different record from the one before it,” adds Hince, “then you start off doing things in the opposite way.”
It’s been five years since the prior Kills album, 2011’s Blood Pressures, which is your longest break between LPs. …
Hince: The bulk of what we do is as a touring band. For Blood Pressures, we toured for two and half years. And the difference between the Kills in the studio and on the road was becoming more and more bipolar. We’ve become a real studio band. There’s a lot of crafting and sonic work. And then we have to figure out how to perform the songs live. There’s always a moment of wondering how we’ll play these studio songs live on stage. It just takes time.
Jamie, you underwent several hand surgeries. What happened?
Hince: My fingers were locking up a bit from playing, so I had cortisone injections in my knuckles, which strengthened my hand. But too many shots will start to weaken your hand. Later, I slammed my finger in a car door and my surgeon gave me more injections. But they went wrong and I got an infection, and ended up losing a tendon from my middle finger to my wrist. I had six surgeries over two years to try transferring the tendon. So now three fingers do all the work. I had to adapt my playing and work out how to carry on as a guitarist. But it’s actually quite easy. It forced me to play differently. I can’t play standard barre chords like everyone else. I’m being forced into a different style.
What was the biggest challenge with writing and recording Ash & Ice?
Mosshart: Deciding which songs are going on the record and which ones aren’t. Which songs to finish and which songs to put aside. For me, that’s the biggest challenge on every album.
Hince: Some bands have a particular sound, like the Bad Seeds or the Cramps, and never really reinvent themselves. But for us, it’s a bit different. I always want to reinvent our sound. Part of the challenge is to create a record that’s a development from the last. That’s something that the Kills do. I feel some allegiance to pushing electric-guitar music into a different realm, somewhere that isn’t retrospective. There’s a lot of guitar bands that are a tribute to the 1970s or the Nineties. I want to experiment with guitar music more. R&B, dancehall, electronic and hip-hop are genres that are really pushing the limits. But guitar music isn’t. So I always struggle to find somewhere that it can go.
This LP might be the band’s most accessible yet – there are new production sounds, paired with catchy guitar and vocal riffs. Were there new influences you were drawing on?
Hince: I’m a guitar player. I’ve carved out my own style of guitar music, so I don’t look for inspiration with playing guitar. But I do look for inspiration with rhythm – programming and making beats is my other job in the band – and that’s a never-ending source of inspiration. It’s amazing looking at bass-drum patterns or drum-machine programming from, like, Pusha T. Those are sounds and influences that are new to this record. I’ve always been a big fan of Pusha’s rhythms, but this time around I was looking at the rhythms a bit differently.
“This time, we thought something new would come out of putting ourselves in the noise and chaos of the city.” –Jamie Hince
For previous albums, you recorded in rural Michigan. Why switch up the formula and record in Los Angeles for Ash & Ice?
Mosshart: Because we could rent a big house and tuck ourselves away in the hills to make a lot of noise. A lot of people have studios in L.A., there are amazing session musicians, and you can get any gear you need. It was a vast difference from working in Michigan in the middle of nowhere. There, if something broke, it’d take a week to get it fixed and we’d have to drive to Chicago. So L.A. felt exciting, different and new for us.
Hince: L.A. was a simple starting point. We always used to lock ourselves away in secret. This time, we thought something new would come out of putting ourselves in the noise and chaos of the city. That’s how we live our lives the rest of the year, in the mess and chaos and action. It felt like we shouldn’t hide away. There’s a sense of the world passing you by when you do that. Like you’re the Unabomber hiding out. It was time to do something different.
What’s the band’s songwriting process? Did you two send demos back and forth during the past five years, or did Ash & Ice start as a blank canvas?
Hince: When we start writing, we do it separately and give ourselves a lot of time and opportunity to develop the song as far as possible without feedback. Then we get together. We don’t finish songs before playing them for each other; we’re aware the contribution from the other person is what pushes a song to become a brilliant song. The first stage is a one-man dictatorship; the second stage is firing each other up to see where the song can go.
Do you have a favorite track on the new album?
Mosshart: They’re all our babies! [Laughs] But “Siberian Nights” is really fun to play live. It takes on a whole new life onstage.
Hince: I love playing “Hard Habit to Break” and “Whirling Eye” live. Sometimes a song will take you by surprise. You take it out of the studio and onto the stage, and it’ll be a force to be reckoned with. I love when a song is conceived as a jigsaw puzzle in the studio and then it’s a natural to play live. That’s my gauge of success for a song.
Alison, on “Whirling Eye,” the album’s closing track, you sing, “Neon red, white and blue, catching up with you/Got a dream, doesn’t mean you know what to do. …” What were you getting at there?
Mosshart: “Whirling Eye” was interesting because it had a totally different set of words. It was exactly as it sounds now, except about something entirely different. But then we spent all that time in L.A., so I decided to rewrite the whole song about L.A. life. If you interchange the lyrics, “Whirling Eye” has two entirely different versions that sound the same. But you hear the L.A. version on the album.
Hince: Alison doesn’t have difficulty rewriting. She can do it in an hour and it’ll be brilliant. She can go from extremely cryptic and personal to more relatable.
Mosshart: For “Whirling Eye,” I searched for one line for a while. I didn’t feel rushed, because we were working on 100 other songs at the time. But I went back to that song a lot to make changes. I don’t typically do that, but I wanted to get that one right.
The lyrics really stand out on Ash & Ice.
Hince: I was quite determined to concentrate on the lyrics. The lyrics for Ash & Ice are definitely thought out. I wanted to find a language that I was comfortable with, a language that spoke to people, and not necessarily in rock & roll clichés or images. I hate to use the word, but I wanted to find something honest. A language that I’d be proud of.
So you had to take a solo trip on the Trans-Siberian Express to find it?
Hince: Yep! I didn’t want to just write songs; I wanted to go in search of something. I’m not so good at sitting in my room and just imagining. So the Trans-Siberian Express was my version of a writing retreat. And I needed it. I’d lost my way with writing. It becomes harder and harder to write and express yourself in rock & roll. I wanted go away and use that time to start a new way of writing. The train was constantly moving. It was two weeks and 6,000 miles. It was punishing, but also liberating.
“Siberian Nights,” a song about Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, was inspired by the trip.
Hince: I’ve always had this adage: “You need to drink an ocean to piss a cupful.” I took a dozen empty notebooks and returned with them full. [I wrote] a lot of bizarre and imaginative stuff. I was thinking bizarre things about music, quantum mechanics and gods, so I wrote this story and went off on a tangent about Putin’s masculinity. He’s this Stone Age caveman, who’s wrestling bears, riding bare-chested on a horse and joy-riding with the Hells Angels. He enjoys his masculinity so much that the next step is to be erotic. He celebrates masculinity, but he’s secretly sick of it and wants to cuddle with another man before returning to being a tyrant the next day. It’s a sensitive look at a masculine man and tyrant, who cuddles and then carpet-bombs the Ukraine.
This year the Kills turn 15 years old. The band have seen a lot of change in the music business. What’s the secret to your longevity?
Mosshart: I always feel dedicated to the Kills. For me, I just like to work a lot. I like to make things all the time. It just keeps me happy.
Hince: When you’ve been in a band that long, it changes the way you are, whether you like it or not. People are always fascinated by that and ask, “What differences have you seen between now and when you started the band?” It’s an interesting question. The most important thing is that life changes. We started at the beginning of the Internet revolution. The way people consume records has changed so much. The most important part is that we were able to adapt.