“There are rarely good people in films who are cunts as well” – A.J. Samuels interviews The Kills
With last year’s Blood Pressures, The Kills’ Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart ventured beyond the well-trodden primitive blues-punk path towards broader songwriting vistas of halcyon balladry and sampling experimentation. Recently, they’ve continued their trip into uncharted territory with the photo book Dream & Drive—a glimpse into one of the hippest and unrepentantly retrospective bands on the planet.
Jamie, you studied to become a playwright. Are there dramaturgical similarities between writing songs and writing plays, or do they require entirely different compositional approaches?
Jamie Hince: I think lyric writing for rock and roll, which is usually 4/4, is pretty restricted, really. Luckily, the music behind it gives it meaning, but trying to actually express yourself lyrically is quite hard. Or at least more limited than, say, in writing a play. But I’ve always been a big Steven Berkoff obsessive and I’ve always loved Greek tragedy, which, of course, places immense rules and restrictions on what you can write and how you can write it. So I suppose meter is a similar kind of restriction to rock and roll. I just don’t think rock and roll is the greatest way of expressing yourself with words.
The Kills are often associated with vintage everything—from recording equipment, old amps and guitars, to primitive sounding drum machines and writing lyrics with typewriters. Your artistic influences also focus on artists past, or artists present referencing artists past. Is there something about the art, aesthetics and technology of the present that turns you guys off?
JH: The aesthetics of beauty can be found more easily in old things. Maybe it’s because of the rarity, because there aren’t so many of them anymore. For me there’s often a craft and care in the construction and design of old things. People had an idea of beauty that was simply different than now. These days things aren’t built to last—they’re built for mass consumption. It’s all been cheapened in order to sell to as many people as possible. And it goes hand in hand with “professionalizing” the hobby artist. Who would have thought it, but companies have managed to convince everybody that you too can be a photographer or a filmmaker or a producer or a musician, because professional equipment is affordable for the guy who drives the Veg Van and takes pictures in his spare time.
Alison Mosshart: You also have to remember how old we are. I mean, I started using typewriters because I didn’t have a computer, and it wasn’t until I was way older that we had computers in school. We grew up using “old” stuff, so there’s a preference there—maybe even a loyalty in some way. I hang out with people who are ten years younger then me and they don’t know how to re-ink a typewriter ribbon, or clean a camera properly, and they don’t give a fuck. And that’s interesting too . . .
JH: Also, poverty has changed these days. Ten years ago, cell phones and computers were luxury items, so we recorded on a broken reel-to-reel.
AM: And it wasn’t too long ago that you would never ask Jack Kerouac about his typewriter or a musician about recording on tape, because that’s what everyone used. That’s what we used on our first records too. Now it’s suddenly thought of as retro, but actually this is simply tried and tested technology.
Well, people did ask Kerouac about writing entire novels on single type rolls . . .
JH: Look, old amps weren’t built for everybody to use or afford, and to me, it’s a really simple explanation for why they’re better. Also, typewriters don’t just replicate words on a page. They have a feel and a depth to it I happen to like.
Does this aesthetic sensibility extend to how you consume music?
AM: I listen to music every different kind of way.
JH: We’re not purists. I don’t think there should be one or the other exclusively. I love the rapidity of dragging and dropping and playing new music in iTunes.
AM: To back up a sec: the amps the Velvet Underground used were made in the same era. It’s only recently that we want to use the amps they played. There was a time when people always wanted the newest stuff. But that’s changed.
I know Lou Reed went to great lengths to get his mid-nineties Magic and Loss-era guitar sound, choosing all the gazillion preamps and new technology. There are insane pictures of his specially designed guitar rig online. Ironically, all the gear sounds way shittier than when he was using old beat-up Velvets equipment.
JH: [laughing] I’m not a total tech-head, but I know what sounds good.
The influences and sounds on your last album Blood Pressures seem more disparate than previous albums – occasionally veering away from minimal blues stomp towards more pop experimentation. The changing melodic trajectories of “Baby Says” and Alison’s starlet-past-her-prime vocals over skipping records on “The Last Goodbye” immediately come to mind. Is this the beginning of more sonic branching out?
AM: When we write, our only objective is to write something that’s not like the record before. We started Blood Pressures pretty soon after we finished Midnight Boom and were still fucking around with MPC and stuff. But I felt we certainly focused more on songwriting, even though we put together Blood Pressures really fast.
JH:I think Midnight Boom was the record where we first decided to move away from the punk-blues stomp rhythms. Not to demystify something that people find romantic about our music, but a lot of that simple stomp sound was a product of trying to make records quick without money and good equipment. By the time Midnight Boom came around, I had fallen in love with making rhythms and programming.
But your beat programming still often mimics live drums more than perfectly straight electronic syncopation. The occasional unsteadiness and imperfection adds to your groove in a mysterious way.
JH: I’ve got quite spazzy rhythm, actually. I used to say it with a laugh, but my drum sensibility is more lurching than straight. It’s totally in tune with the way my body works.
Alison, you live in London but you’re from Florida, which is always a pretty important swing state, especially in the upcoming election. Do you vote?
AM: Absolutely. I always send in my absentee ballot. I might be in Tennessee in November, so maybe I’ll vote from there. That’s a swing state, right? Lots of Republicans. But then I think I would have to be a resident there, no?
JH: Do you vote?
I always send in an absentee ballot, even though being from Massachusetts it doesn’t mean a hell of a lot for federal elections. Speaking of occasionally meaningless activities, Jamie you said in an interview that, “People are so stumped by things that have no meaning; it’s a pretty powerful weapon.” I think you were referring to the Dada manifesto, but do the Kills also utilize the power of meaninglessness? And what’s so powerful about meaninglessness anyways?
JH: Well, I don’t think hard about making vacuous statements, but what I said was a response to questions about a song we did called “Fuck the People”. Everybody wanted to know what it meant. Was it nihilist? Was it fascist? For me, I always liked the fact that it maybe never meant anything. And if I wasn’t honest I could try and infuse it after the fact with all sorts of meaning, but it was really only the depth of a feeling, a reaction to majority stupidity. The same thing happened when we put Florence Rey on the cover of the Black Rooster EP. She and her boyfriend lived in Paris and were just tired of being dumbed down, so they stole a car, ended up in a chase and then shot loads of people. It was all “Viva anarchy!” and what not. People wanted to know what it meant and why they’d done it. For me, one of the most important aspects of using her on our cover was that she was beautiful. I don’t mean it in a superficial way, but she was more palatable to people because she looked like a film star, with her orange bob cut and chiseled face. It was like art imitating life imitating art. I like the chaos in that.
But focusing too much on aesthetics can also be problematic when it comes to ethics—Holocaust literature and film immediately come to mind, especially the stereotype of the “beautiful Jewess”. It’s not too cool to communicate that doing bad things to Jews is only wrong because their women are hot.
JH: Yeah, people do that to make it absolutely clear. But there are rarely good people in films who are cunts as well. It’s always so clear-cut. Say you have sympathy for a main character, but at the same time he’s the guy who punches his girlfriend’s teeth out. Because that’s the kind of thing that does happen, of course.
Do you hear new rock and roll, or is it a genre that resists updating? Do you think of yourself as genre innovators or more as art- ists working within rock’s established confines?
JH: My mind changes, but I generally don’t think new things can happen, really. That’s why rock and roll is fucking dead, or at least dying—because it can’t be renewed. People say there’s nothing good happening in rock and roll and that’s probably because there’s nothing left happening in rock and roll. And why uphold this idea that there is? People talk about their shirts being rock and roll, or, like, “You’d love my friend, she’s so rock and roll!” I certainly don’t want to uphold that.
Speaking of shirts, you guys have strong connection to fashion. Is that something you actively pursue or is just an inevitable part of being who you are and who you’re close to?
AM: Well, I’m sort of interested in clothes. Wait, no—I’m really interested in the clothes that I like. But fashion is something that’s pursued us since we first started the band. There was a time when the music press didn’t pursue us and the fashion press did . . .
JH: But not like Vogue or whatever. Rather more the cultural magazines, which were far more cutting edge than the music press. Dazed and Confused, ID, Sleezenation, Self Service—they were always mixing up articles about music, fashion, Rimbaud and Nietzsche . . . And they really liked us at a time when music press wouldn’t give us the time of day. There’s a big cliché about the fashion world, and people are afraid of the term “fashion”. It connotes superficiality. Of course, most people would give value to poetry and say how important it is, but if you went to a poetry reading these days, it would be the most embarrassing, pretentious thing in the world. Fashion for me was vitally important in terms of getting into music because I always picked out albums based on the covers and what the people looked like—whether it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
I recently walked past the Mozambique Embassy in Berlin and saw their flag for the first time: it was an AK-47 crossed with a hoe on top of a book, and in the background was a star. What would be on the Kills flag?
AM: Designing one would be a project and a half . . .
JH: I’d like to do one right now, but I’d want to put as much thought into it as Mozambique did. I think I’d have Florence Rey and an MPC . . .
AM: On top of a giant cup of coffee.
Were you in London during the riots?
AM: No, we were in America. But the whole thing was just so shitty. People just went into stores and stole Nikes and shitty things like that.
JH: People took the power themselves and ripped off sport shops. It’s like, have you been dumbed down so much that that’s all you fucking think you want anymore? This wasn’t the power of the people. It was just the power trip of a few people.
Jamie, you do sort of have a protest background—you were one of the first people to squat Berlin’s legendary Tacheles. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
JH: Well, I had been in a band active in the anarcho-punk scene, and we toured all around the Eastern Bloc countries at the end of the Cold War. We ended up in Berlin in 1989 and played Tacheles around three days after it was first squatted. We built a stage and worked on the plumbing and all that. In the past, Alison and I used to make a point of going back to Tacheles everytime we were in Berlin, but now it’s kind of pointless. Just tourists, really.
I know you grew up skating, Alison. That’s been a really important part of so many people’s musical upbringings. The t-shirt ads in the back of Thrasher were my first introduction to so many bands. The same goes for early skate videos. What kind of influence did skate culture have on you musically?
AM: Don’t forget the stickers! Both Thrasher and Transworld were hugely important for me growing up. There were essentially no music venues where I lived, but there were a lot of skaters. Or at least enough for me to learn from. And they were mostly older, so they already had their boomboxes at the sessions. Of course, the visuals and graphics were also incredibly important to me—especially Powell Peralta decks. I was completely obsessed with skate art.
You’re about to release a coffee table book of Kills photos, Dream & Drive…
JH: [laughing] Don’t you dare call it a coffee table book!
I was actually wondering if you’d find the term offensive.
AM: No, we don’t really care, but I still think it’s not a coffee table book. I mean, it fits on a shelf. Our dear friend Kenneth Cappello collected photos of us all from around the world over the past eight years, and there are just so many pictures that capture that brilliant cocktail of dreaming versus reality. It’s a trip, and it’s one that’s really, really intimate. From our very firsts shows, it’s all sweat and glare and drink and dressing rooms.
Did you hear about the new study showing that driving while tired is as dangerous as driving while drunk?
AM: No, but I believe it.
JH: Hell, we should have just called it Drink & Drive. But we get along drunk or sober.
Do you work more productively as a band in conflict or when you’re getting along?
JH: With Keep on Your Mean Side I was proud and confident and loved the record. No Wow I was paranoid and disillusioned and loved the record. Midnight Boom I was heartbroken and destroyed and I loved that record. For Blood Pressures I was happy as hell and I loved that record . . .
AM: That’s Jamie over the years in pictures.
JH: No, in flags. ~
Published November 28, 2012. Words by A.J. Samuels.