The Kills: Fatal attraction

Fresh from taking no prisoners supporting Franz Ferdinand on tour, The Kills talk to Chris Mugan about their irresistible rise
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The Independent Culture

As Alison Mosshart peers out from behind her fringe and pulls a black shawl tighter around her, it is hard to imagine that she is on the brink of becoming a certifiable fashion icon. Yet one half of sleaze rockers The Kills is an hour late for our appointment because she was shopping for an outfit to wear to the Elle Style Awards. The singer is about to win the Levi Hot Look award ahead of The Zutons saxophonist Abi Harding, The Duke Spirit's frontwoman Leila Moss and a couple of models who presumably wear ripped jeans now and again.

As Alison Mosshart peers out from behind her fringe and pulls a black shawl tighter around her, it is hard to imagine that she is on the brink of becoming a certifiable fashion icon. Yet one half of sleaze rockers The Kills is an hour late for our appointment because she was shopping for an outfit to wear to the Elle Style Awards. The singer is about to win the Levi Hot Look award ahead of The Zutons saxophonist Abi Harding, The Duke Spirit's frontwoman Leila Moss and a couple of models who presumably wear ripped jeans now and again.

"You don't have to write about that," she says wearily. "I just wake up and put on clothes that I like. If people say something, it's surprising, because I'm wearing the same T-shirt that I had when I was 15 and my mother's necklaces."

While Mosshart is surprisingly shy for a vocalist, guitarist Jamie Hince is the band's spokesman and he admits style is an important issue for any self-respecting counter culture-artiste. "All those bands that made a huge impact on music and culture, most of the bands that I would pinpoint to as being life-changing, you identify with the way those people look: beatniks, the Velvet Underground, punk. I don't think I'd like Roxy Music if they were, er..."

"Dressed like roadies," Mosshart finishes for him.

"But I do feel a bit of self-disgust," Hince continues, "about the fashion houses linking up with the music industry. I'm not comfortable with that side of things." He can't explain why he wears cowboy boots with shirt, tie and blazer, for while the duo talk a lot, they rely on instinct when they make, or avoid, decisions. It does seem, though, a perfect symbol of The Kills' Anglo-American collision of reserve and flamboyance.

We are sitting in the kitchen of their spacious flat in insalubrious Dalston, north London, a former pub converted into apartment/art studio by a wife of ex-Monkee Davy Jones, to talk not about fashion awards, but about the imminent release of their second album No Wow. The Kills emerged in 2003 in the wake of the US movement of raw rock'n'roll, notable for such primal acts as White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. While proving a competent UK-based version, the duo struggled to emerge from the shadow of their peer. Now, they seem to have cracked it with a record that is even more primitive than their debut Keep On Your Mean Side, as drum machines judder, guitars squeal in agony and Mosshart's half-cool, half-strained voice sashays across it all. Already this year The Kills have hit the Top 30 with the perky Janis Joplin-meets-Cabaret Voltaire single "The Good Ones"; and after weeks of Keane and Scissor Sisters, No Wow is set to bring the wow factor back to the album charts.

Both Kills grew up in constricting, insular communities, Mosshart in smalltown Florida, where skater boys were the only counter-cultural activity. Hince's teens, several years before, were spent between Andover and Newbury, Berkshire. "A really brilliant way for a kid to grow up," he explains drily. "You've got the hunting and horse-racing sets on one side, and Andover is just a squaddie town. If you're not in the army, you're in trouble." Hince found refuge in his first band, Electric Turkeyland, though his later outfit, Scarfo, were musical nearly-men of the late Nineties.

When Mosshart came to tour with her band, Discount, in 1999, she stayed in the flat below Hince in a London housing co-operative. At nights she listened to the unemployed guitarist as he played. "He was playing my dream guitar. Really weird-sounding, broken and strange. I was dissatisfied with the sound of our band, but I couldn't do a lot about it." They did not immediately hit it off, though, as Mosshart was too shy to speak to Hince. "We were in a bar, she came up and said "Hi," then went bright red and didn't talk," he says. "I was like, what's with that girl? She's a singer? Someone that can barely speak?"

Hince was intrigued enough to check out Discount and was blown away by what he saw. "I didn't like the music too much, but the performance, I hadn't seen anything that natural. She'd swing her mike stand around and the guitar player would get hit in the face. There was no control or choreography. She was exorcising her demons." Mosshart concurs, with much embarrassment. "I'm sorry, when it's a good show, you don't realise what you're doing. It's like I'm dreaming." This continues today, with a series of live shows that repel as much as entrance, as Mosshart confronts Hince, forcing his guitar between her legs.

They soon found they had much in common. Perhaps a good sign was that they were reading the same book, a biography of Andy Warhol's muse Edie Sedgwick. Both had rooms full of junk and broken tape recorders. Both were obsessive scribblers, of artwork and journal entries, as Hince explains. "There were shelves full of tapes never intended for anyone to hear, books of writing for no one to read and movies for no one to watch. We felt we had each found someone that had the same spirit. It is like we were living 4,000 miles apart from each other, but had been leading parallel lives.

"We over-romanticised art and harked back to some imaginary period when people were creative all the time, while everyone around us was more down to earth. They all fancied having a band in their lives, but no one was making their lives into a band."

Mosshart moved into Hince's flat and the intense period of creativity began that set the pattern for their modus operandi. "We built up these urban romantic ideas of protecting and controlling the direction. It all seemed a hit hypothetical at the time, because no one was interested," Hince says ruefully.

Yet people were interested, mainly, he admits, because with the influx of raw US bands, A&R men were desperately searching for a UK equivalent, which is why VV and Hotel (as Mosshart and Hince respectively called themselves) escaped to America. "Just from a couple of shows, we realised the result was bigger than the sum of its parts. And we started getting calls from labels and managers, not because were mindblowingly amazing, but because it was a lean time."

So they booked a series of gigs, hired a car and drove across the US. On the surface, it looks like a Beat movement ideal, something Mosshart denies. "We'd been in these four-piece bands where you get into a rhythm of recording and touring. This seemed like the most fun thing we could possibly do."

Hince, though, admits an admiration for the Beat writers. "I didn't really care too much about Kerouac and Ginsberg at the time. I liked being on the run and the whole thing being a road movie. That attracted me to that kind of art, rather than the other way round." Having recorded and toured their first album in relatively conventional circumstances, The Kills went straight back into the studio to record its follow up. Again, escape was on the agenda as they found a remote set-up in an obscure corner of Michigan. "It felt kinda similar," says Mosshart. "We didn't know what we heading into. We thought we were heading to Chicago."

They were on the trail of a semi-mythic mixing desk that reputedly drove Sly Stone mad and bankrupted the electronics company. Its owner, Dan Flickinger, never worked again, and the designer had a breakdown, Hince explains. "They delivered this desk to Sly's house and he held them hostage for a week at gunpoint, demanding that they make it levitate." They found the desk in Benton Harbour, Michigan, a settlement 90 miles from Chicago that became a ghost town after riots following the troubles in Detroit in the Sixties.

It all gave the studio an eerie air, Hince says. "Everything was thrown off balance by this desk and where we were, the environment outside and inside. The times of day were working at. Things were really claustrophobic." He wanted to imbue the studio with the same fear factor that performers feel before they go on stage. "Every band knows the importance of feeling terrified before you go on stage. It turns into adrenaline, but when people record, they tend to want comfort, verging on holiday. They want to know where the games room is."

By not allowing themselves time to think, The Kills emerged with a record true to themselves and less reliant on shared influences they are not ashamed to discuss: The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and the original sleaze-rock duo, Royal Trux.

"I'm totally proud of Keep On Your Mean Side and there's nothing I'd change about it, but your first record is a statement of intent. So we wore our influences on our sleeves a little more. For this one, we didn't think about anything like that. We didn't listen to any music while we were making it. We wanted it to come from another place and be a gut-instinct record. All the favourite songs we'd written had spewed out of us without much thought, written in 15 minutes."

Mosshart adds, "I compare it to what it must feel like to be in jail, what your imagination goes through in a closed environment, and you get in touch with different sides of yourself that you are normally distracted from by normal life. Our imaginations were really overactive. We weren't trying to entertain ourselves."

This process also removed any self-consciousness, Hince says. "There's a paradox, because music is insignificant in the scheme of things, but also life-changing. The best music is always associated with life and death."

'No Wow' is out on Domino on Monday

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