The Kills Turn Up the Volume on ‘Blood Pressures’

It’s opening night at New York’s Mondrian Soho hotel. A blackened afternoon sky unleashes a mini Noah’s flood on the cobblestone streets outside. Rain is pooling in gutters, ravaging umbrellas, and rendering impossible the job of the five workmen trying to affix fake ivy to the hotel’s arched awning. Inside, the hotel is trilling with backstage energy. Boxes of piping and spools of electrical cable clutter the lobby, where a crew is checking the integrity of a makeshift stage. In just a few hours, the Kills’ Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart will push their way through a well-heeled mob and onto the stage, where they will perform for the first time songs from their raw-hearted new album, Blood Pressures.

Before the gig—before 32-year-old Mosshart will appear in her favorite paper-thin leopard shirt and convulse to the thumping, anthemic “Future Starts Slow” that kicks off Blood Pressures, and before she and 42-year-old Hince create an onstage chemistry that makes it nearly impossible to believe their sets aren’t bookended by bathroom-stall sex—the pair enters the Mondrian’s lobby looking exhausted. They’ve just returned from the photo shoot for this story, for which they consented to being sprayed down with water; just the night before, they flew in from London, the city where the two first met and formed the Kills. “I plan on having a few drinks and playing new songs in front of strangers,” Mosshart says about the night’s schedule. “When we get too serious about playing a party in a hotel lobby, we’re fucked.”

We settle into wicker settees inside the Mondrian’s restaurant, Imperial No. Nine, a glassed-in, chandelier-strewn hothouse complete with a garden swing set and potted plants. Hince and Mosshart do not match the fantasy wedding theme. She’s wearing a blue-plaid shirt, tight black pants, and a jacket that looks as if it were sewn together from Muppet pelts. Her eyebrows are drawn in with slashes of magenta, and, like Hince, who’s perfected the haute-rocker look his fiancée, supermodel Kate Moss, all but invented, her neck is adorned with a tangle of silver charms. (Mosshart, who contributed a “Today I’m Wearing” column to British Vogue during the month of April, counts Pam Hogg, Hannah Marshall, Burberry, and Isabel Marant among her favorite designers.) A table heaped with glass baubles divides the center of the restaurant. Hince pokes the air. “That looks like a disaster waiting to happen.”

Famously, Hince and Mosshart heard each other before they met face to face. Almost 10 years ago, Mosshart, a native of Vero Beach, Florida—“a really strange state,” she says—was touring with a former band, Discount. The group was staying in the Gipsy Hill section of South London, right next to Hince, whose own band, Scarfo, had just broken up. “I was upstairs writing songs and recording on little four-tracks, and Alison was staying in the apartment below me, and she was listening to me playing guitar. She didn’t talk that much, so she just listened outside my window,” says Hince, who grins before adding, for effect, “…with a knife!” image

“We were laughing about that the other day,” says Mosshart, who’s just returned from the restroom after extracting something painful from her eye, flopping onto the sofa in a way that communicates both fatigue and an unwillingness to carry herself as a sex symbol. “We still sit in separate rooms when we write and then we play what we’ve just made for each other, but it’s a lot quicker because we’re not thousands of miles apart.”

Their connection—as friends (best friends) and as artists—was immediate; during that first visit they produced seven songs in two days, and when Mosshart had to fly back to Florida after an all-night session, they continued their sonic courtship, sending tapes back and forth across the Atlantic. (An early obsession with mediums of communication—operators, phone lines, telephones—still crops up in the Kills’ lyrics.) When they realized that the music they were making was actually compelling, Mosshart moved to London to pursue the Kills full-time. Noms de rock were adopted, “VV” for Mosshart and “Hotel” for Hince. “It was just to get us through the day and build a little bit of romance around the band so it felt like a dream,” he says of the monikers, which they no longer use. “As soon as we got any attention we came over to America, booked our own tour, and traveled around for three months.” On Valentine’s Day, 2002, the Kills took the stage for the first time. Mosshart had the date tattooed on her left hand.

It’s worth noting that the Kills toured before they recorded an album. (Their debut, 2003’s Keep on Your Mean Side, was recorded at London’s Toe Rag Studios, the same place where the now-defunct White Stripes made their chart-buster Elephant.) For one, performing is their bread and butter—“We’re a band that makes money going out on tour,” says Hince. “We don’t have radio hits. We go out and we work”—but turning a profit at gigs isn’t the Kills’ real reason for hitting the road so much: The stage is where Mosshart’s nearly crippling shyness transforms alchemically into rock star exhibitionism. “I’m not trying to discredit what I do, but it comes easily to me,” she says of performing versus day-to-day social interactions. “Maybe it’s cowardly to be on stage in some ways, because I feel really safe up there. I feel like I can do whatever I want because there’s this line in the sand. I could never do that on the ground. I wouldn’t have the confidence—I know myself,” she says.

About that shyness: Early publicity from Keep on Your Mean Side through the band’s second and even third albums (2005’s No Wow and 2008’s Midnight Boom) tended to paint Mosshart as a chain-smoking, hair-in-her-eyes wallflower who’d brood where words failed her. “I don’t think that I’m shy anymore, but I’m definitely socially awkward. I wish I wasn’t,” she says. “It sucks, but I’m not great with crowds.” It’s true, according to Hince, that she’s not nearly as nervous as she used to be, and today, after a quiet first few minutes, Mosshart does warm up—interrupting Hince, even, and laughing at the backstory of one particularly intriguing photograph floating around the web of an intoxicated-looking Mosshart arm-in-arm with Mary-Kate Olsen and Kylie Minogue. “Me and, like, the two shortest women in the world walking next to me—I look like an absolutely huge giant,” she says. “They’re both stunning and tiny.” As it turns out, Mosshart is genuinely funny. image

A few weeks later, I email Mosshart to ask how the tour is going. “So far, so good,” she writes back from London. “Ask me in a few more weeks. Halfway through the American tour I’ll have some kind of answer.” But back at the Mondrian, in front of a live crowd for the first time in nine months, she’ll give a performance so grittily sexy it would make Mick Jagger blush. Mosshart compares the sensation of playing shows to drugs, a rush of adrenaline so powerful you crave it again instantly. The Kills’ music sounds like it was written to be performed—and that’s what they do best. “It’s weird when you find those things in your life that you just feel totally at home with, and it’s funny that it only lasts an hour and then you’re in search of it again. It’s like, Oh no, how am I going to feel like this again?”

In some ways, Mosshart has answered that question with her own prolific career. Not including her old act, Discount, and the bands she played in beginning in middle school back in Florida, her vocal contributions to Placebo and Primal Scream songs, and her dedication to the Kills, Mosshart also fronts the Dead Weather, a rock “supergroup” with Jack White. (The White Stripes, White’s Grammy-winning duo with Meg White, recently disbanded, fueling rumors that Mosshart is almost too good at what she does.) A few years ago, at a concert in Memphis, Tennessee, the Kills were opening for one of White’s bands, the Raconteurs, when White lost his voice. Mosshart was asked to step in. “It wasn’t an easy transition because I never consciously decided to start a new band and neither did any of the boys [White, Dean Fertita, and Jack Lawrence],” says Mosshart. “Suddenly a year and a half went by and Jamie was like, ‘Hey, are we going to do this Kills record?’ I was constantly calling and being like, Jamie, actually, I’m not going to be home for another month, those kind of calls where you have that feeling, like, shit… ”

Even as one of the very few female rockers with boozy, motels-and-squats bona fides, Mosshart doesn’t necessarily consider herself an inheritor to the rock goddess mantel. “I have so much respect for people like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, and even someone like Joan Jett, but I’d be lying if I said that they were my biggest inspirations. It was always bands like Fugazi in the DC punk scene, and I went through a real Berkeley, California, phase when I was 14, where I was like, I have to live there,” she says. “It was all punk for me—that’s what made me want to do music.”

Eventually, in November of 2009, after the Dead Weather finished touring, Hince and Mosshart returned to Key Club, their favorite recording studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan—it’s located across the road from both a mental institution and a prison—where they’d recorded Midnight Boom. “Jamie and I wrote a record when we should have written it,” says Mosshart of Blood Pressures. “I really love the album and whatever it took to get there.” A return to the lacerating rawness and dirty drum machines of their previous records, the sound that made the Kills a garage-blues sensation, Blood Pressures is also a more restrained and melancholy effort, with the coda-like ballad “The Last Goodbye” featuring both strings and piano as well as Mosshart’s most polished—and persuasive—vocals to date. image

“This time it didn’t feel like we had any objective other than to write good songs. It sounds stupid, but that’s what we did,” says Mosshart. “We concentrated and picked songs to work on that had good melodies and felt like they were complete, whereas usually we just beat ourselves up and drone on and act, like, bluesy and endless.” Adds Hince, “I think there’s something to be said for, after eight years, becoming better and quicker at writing songs.”

Getting better and quicker at making music was something they took very seriously, and for good reason. Recording Midnight Boom was a hellish experience that “took too long and cost too much money,” says Hince. In addition to several dead-end collaborations that nearly foundered the album, Hince’s relationship at the time with French model Valentine Fillol-Cordier messily fell apart, but lest the rocker be long without a model at his side, he met and started dating the world’s most famous “super” not long after. The couple is due to be married this summer.

At the mention of Kate Moss’ name, Hince’s face tightens painfully. Is he excited for the wedding? “I am excited.” Does he have plans for fatherhood? “I have no plans for anything.” His reluctance to talk about his relationship—he seems both apologetic about halting the conversation and harried—is understandable considering the paparazzi blitz he endures daily in London. If, as the tabloids like to suggest, Hince can be credited with taming a Doherty-drunk Moss, the Kills’ recent meteoric success must in some part be attributed to the publicity Moss brings the band. It’s an interesting turn of events considering the Kills used to book their own tours and still shirk major-label representation.

“There are so many lies written about us that I don’t want to reveal anything about my private life, even when I’m given the opportunity to come clean and tell the truth,” says Hince. He begins to list some of the more preposterous things that have been written about him: “I go to psychics, apparently. I buy Fabergé eggs. I’m always making a record with my girlfriend—but I’ve yet to hear it.”

Mosshart, for her part, isn’t in a relationship. “One day, one day, I’ll find a way,” she says in a theatrically wistful voice. “She’s married to the road,” Hince riffs. Clearly a bit pleased with the idea, Mosshart laughs, “Oh my god, I’m going to be this old haggard roadie lady with leather trousers and a screwdriver in my back pocket, ready for anything.”

The rain is still coming down in curtains in New York. “Honestly, I want to nap,” says Mosshart, stifling a yawn. She’s warily eyeing a camera crew on the far end of the restaurant. Drills, hammers, and thumps—possible samples on a future Kills album—are making conversation hard. Tomorrow night, Hince and Mosshart will play at legendary rock club Don Hill’s, the launching point for a long tour around Europe and America. And after that? Both insist they’ll continue to put out albums as the Kills. But with marriages, side projects, and the rigors of recording and touring, it’s impossible not to wonder what will happen to the duo next, or what their next album—assuming there is one—might sound like. Hince now lives in posh West London, Mosshart in the same building where they used to live together. “We’ve been super-close for almost 10 years,” Hince says. “We used to work together, live together, socialize together… I enjoy hanging out with her more than being in a band with her.” Mosshart makes an aw-shucks noise and playfully punches Hince’s arm. Then, more soberly: “I miss him.”

Photography by Marcelo Krasilcic. Styling by Christopher Campbell. Top photo: Jacket by Versace. T-Shirt by Louis Vuitton. Sunglasses by Ray-Ban. Necklaces by Giles & Brother by Philip Crangi. Shirt by Versus. Second photo:Jacket by Giorgio Armani. T-Shirt by Paul Smith. Jeans by Topman. Necklaces by Giles & Brother by Philip Crangi. Subject’s own scarf. Third photo: Vest by Maison Martin Margiela. T-Shirt by Bess Necklace by Ugo Cacciatori. Jeans by Topshop. Subject’s Own Ring. Hair by Marco Santini @ Community NYC. Makeup by Thorsten Weiss @ Community NYC. Photo Assistant: Jeremy Dyer. Stylist ’s Assistants: Lee Muston and Gina Zuniga –Baldwin. Location: Hudson Studios, New York City.

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