Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story.
With Ash & Ice, the Kills have once again pushed rock ‘n’ roll forward without forsaking its storied past. MAGNET asked acclaimed musician/comedian/actor Reggie Watts to sit down with Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart to see how you can get there from here.
Photo by James Elliot Bailey
Rock ’n’ roll is really a spirit. It’s easier to go back in time. It’s always borrowed from Mississippi blues to electronic folk to boogie woogie, then coming out with a mixture of jazz, then that bouncing to and back from the U.K. You can see the first time when an electric guitar influenced Jimi Hendrix. For me, this conversation—and the balance between Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart of the Kills—is about a derivative sincerity and responsibility that references the eras that came before. The Kills’ rock ‘n’ roll is Mosshart’s Detroiter four-track minimalism and Hince’s rock-music knowledge. It’s a heaviness and an accountability. Really, it’s its own thing: sparse, minimal ’60s reverb crunchiness, and then the vocals that dance between a few lines that are rough and get your hands dirty. It alludes to something older, but it exists in a space that is now—especially the Kills’ new record Ash & Ice. “Doing It To Death” has a trap beat mixed with EDM arpeggiations and this dirty guitar line that snakes with a distorted vocal approach. I remember the first time I heard it, I was like, “I don’t know, not sure.” It seemed like maybe these elements were forced together. Then I realized that was it, that was the song, and that there was something to be discovered each time I listened to it. It’s what you get when you arrive at one place from two different directions, where the struggling artist meets the pure conduit. Ash & Ice: a.k.a., the new rock ‘n’ roll. —Reggie Watts
Reggie Watts: Thanks, you guys, for agreeing to do this interview.
Alison Mosshart: Reggie, other way around! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview.
Watts: You’re welcome. [Laughs] Well, I’m not the best interviewer, but I’ll do my best. So you guys have a new album. You’ve been together for more than a decade, and this is the fifth record. Something that I think probably a lot of people already know, but I don’t: How did you two meet up?
Mosshart: Well, we met in London a long time ago. I was playing in a band called Discount, and we were touring over there. Two people who lived below Jamie, one of them booked our tours and the other one drove the van. So I met Jamie from being at that house. It was a really long time ago. I saw Jamie a couple times before we decided to play music. Actually before the last tour we did with Discount, Jamie gave me a four-track and encouraged me to write music on it. Before, I had just written lyrics, not full songs. And then he was really encouraging. So while I was on tour, I recorded a bunch of things that I brought to him, and that kind of started the whole thing.
Jamie Hince: It was good that you brought the four-track back. I was expecting songs, but she had also recorded these weird, cut-up montage things from the radio. There would be a little break, and it sounded fantastic. We put some of it on our second record, actually. What was it called, “Radio Germany”? It was really avant garde, really different.
Watts: So kind of like sampling or like a collage?
Mosshart: Yeah, it was recordings of foreign radio, so I didn’t know what they were really saying. And I would record bells during sound- checks and mess around with buttons. I just kept adding stuff; it was so cool. I got really into it. That’s all I wanted to do for a while, record on four-tracks. I was refusing to go modern. I loved it so much.
Watts: When you captured these things, were you capturing them on the four-track yourself?
Mosshart: I also had a little Sony handheld recorder that I would record vocals on and such, and I would feed it into the tape machine that way as well. I would collect things all day, then at night I would put them all together.
Watts: That’s amazing. Four-track was such an essential tool before computers. Did you find the limitations exciting? Jamie, did you use one, too?
Hince: I would mess around with four-tracks. I remember I did this solo project thing and was using a four-track, and I put an EQ on it. And people were looking at me like I was fucking stupid. When we first started playing shows, all technology was in complete limbo. So we started with four-tracks, then mini-discs, then digital.
Watts: With that style of songwriting, is that how you approached the new record? From the history of exchanging things? Or have you moved to something more modern?
Mosshart: Yeah, I use GarageBand, but I use it the same way I used the four-track recorder. Not in any fancy way, just to capture what I’m doing. But Jamie is totally of the times.
Hince: I kinda like it. You’ve got to want to be into that sort of thing, and I’m glad that Alison’s not. She can just sit down with an acoustic guitar and write songs. This is the first time we’ve put a studio together and worked out all the nonsense.
Watts: And that was done in L.A., right?
Mosshart: Jamie was working on stuff in London for a while, and then we moved to L.A.
Watts: How long was that?
Mosshart: We were there for about two and a half months, in this old 1920s Spanish house in East Hollywood. It was quite a massive undertaking. The whole house was a crazy mess of mics and amps and wires running everywhere. We wrote and recorded about 75 percent of the record there. And when the lease was up, we went to New York and finished at Electric Lady, and it was a lot more organized.
Hince: I like that most of the record is chaos. No restrictions; you can work until eight in the morning if you want. It’s quite punishing; it takes a lot out of you. I’m not very good at time management, so I need someone to pull me out of the pilot’s seat sometimes. I would gladly stay in the studio for another year. I really like it.
Watts: All the work you did in the house in L.A., how much of that material did you bring to Electric Lady? Or did you redo things?
Mosshart: We kept everything we recorded in L.A. We just finished them in New York. We started with about 40 songs and narrowed them down. Some were just not right for the record. We tracked almost everything at the house, and we were at Electric Lady for like two weeks.
Hince: We’ve never been a band that demos a song and then goes into the studio and tries to get it right. The recording part is more and more blurred. When I’m writing in the studio, I’m not too good to be around. I’m actually a nightmare. I’ll stay up all night a lot. That’s my magic moment. We did about six or seven songs several different ways because I’ll keep changing it. It’s a weird process for me. We had so much to listen to.
Watts: I’ve never been a person who would’ve thought to demo something and do it for real, so it’s nice to know you guys use as much as you can when you record it.
Mosshart: We only rerecorded a couple things, like if guitars were out of tune. We would figure that out when we laid a keyboard track down. But for the most part, we just cleaned things up in New York. And we actually wrote two more songs in New York. We didn’t stop writing until recording was over. Electric Lady is a really in- spiring place. It was a good place to work.
Hince: I can’t stop feeling that we could do better and write more songs. Alison writes songs all the time, and there was never a moment when I thought we should stop.
Watts: I understand the need for that.
Hince: Like they say, you have to drink an ocean to piss a cupful.
Watts: I agree with that. I saw in the bio that your music was described as being “emotionally attached.” Do you agree with that?
Mosshart: All of our records are filled with emotion. They document our lives at that time. But when we came to this record, we wanted to write lyrics that were more honest and open. In that studio and not seeing other people, you go far into your imagination. It’s really insular; it gets crazy in there. We wanted to open the doors a little bit and write in that way. I wanted to write songs that people related to.
Hince: Making a record in secret and creating our own little world, putting stuff up on the walls. When you do that, the point was to make our own little world. You have to rely on your imagination.
Mosshart: It was a really different state of mind that we needed at that time, and we wanted to do something different this time. We had people come in to play stuff. We had a drummer come in, and a piano player, and for us, that was new. We wanted to make a more welcoming record this time around. That’s what people are talking about, I think.
Watts: And being in California definitely had something to do with that.
Mosshart: Yeah! You have to feel the place when you’re there. You feel it inside of you. There’s California all over that record.
Hince: It was time to make a record that felt like that. When we started this record, I didn’t have anything to write about, which is weird, but I wanted it to have a language that spoke to people, rather than rock ’n’ roll clichés.
Watts: Do you run into that in the writing process? The history of the music of where you’re involved? I believe the younger generation does like to rock, but I wonder how educated they are about rock ’n’ roll and if they think it’s new, or if it’s a reproduction of an era.
Hince: I know exactly what you mean. There’s probably kids who are 20 and they think of rock ’n’ roll as a reference board. They think it’s leather trousers, and they aren’t sure how to feel it. It’s a weird thing.
Mosshart: Every generation hijacks from the generation before it. It just morphs and evolves and changes.
Hince: Rock ’n’ roll has become very referential. Every guitar band is churning out a replica of something. It’s tough to make a guitar record that’s new and doesn’t sound like the Rolling Stones. [Laughs]