By Mark Guarino
The Kills aren’t kidding about the name. When the London duo plays live, they aim for assault. At this year’s South By Southwest music conference in Austin, they demonstrated how serious stage commitment at every moment is spine tightening and thrilling. In other words, these two kill for intensity.
The band just sticks to basics — Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart both sing and play guitar and the beats are digitized. The less is more formula is responsible for the intimacy they share onstage and also the bombs they drop intermittingly. During “Love is a Deserter,” Mosshart shook herself around the stage like a rattlesnake tail before returning to stand alongside Hince. They became a gutter punk Sonny and Cher, squeezed face to face to sing, creating the impression you were witnessing a private moment that wasn’t supposed to have an audience.
The night became more of the same — Hince’s machine gunning riffs and the booming electronics sending Mosshart to the extreme until returning to plant herself inches away from his face. The performance could be considered contrived but a day before, during a routine afternoon soundcheck in the blinding daylight with few people watching, both got lost inside the music in much the same way.
“That’s how our nerves are translated onstage,” Hince said a day before their nighttime headlining show, walking through downtown Austin on a mission to find shade from the sun. Mosshart trails his thought: “It’s real freedom. It does feel like you can do anything or be anything. I guess that’s the reason why I’m addicted to it.”
Everything about the Kills — how they met, how they write and record — is built upon adrenaline and instinct. The duo met in the late ‘90s when Mosshart, a Florida native, played in a band and was touring England. Hince, who was playing in his own band at the time, said he found her mysterious, which was key to sparking an artistic relationship. “We really didn’t know much about each other. It might sound ridiculous but we were both a bit star struck,” he said.
After Mosshart returned to Florida, they began corresponding, exchanging artwork and musical snippets. She ultimately committed to moving to London to try starting a band together. “I was always trying to find somebody, even when I was in bands with three people,” she said.
The motivation in the early days, both say, was mystery. First, they made a pact to commit their lives to the band. Secondly, they both adopted stage names — he Hotel, she VV. “Having three or four people in a band meant three or four people pouring water on an idea and diluting it. We were just really two little people in this rented squat basically, always in danger of getting kicked out,” he said. “We built this legendary romantic world around us. It came from there.”
Luckily, the White Stripes were one step ahead of them, opening the door for electrified blues that was less about guitar precision but more about raw power and dark psychology. Their 2002 debut, “Keep On Your Mean Side” (Rough Trade), is built on sexual tension and an ugly beauty reminiscent of PJ Harvey and the Velvet Underground. “No Wow” (Rough Trade/RCA), the follow-up just out, expands the palette with stronger melodies and songs with wider interpretations. “I Hate the Way You Love” is in two versions. With Hince’s guitar whacking away, making his guitar sound like a machine in a factory, the two sing the title refrain with pure disdain until it switches meters and the same words now intimate warmth.
To write the second album, the duo chose to camp out for a month at Key Club Recording, a studio in Benton Harbor, Mich. whose clientele has mostly been bands on the indie rock circuit including the Dishes and US Maple. The chief appeal was the studio’s rare Flickinger console custom built for Sly Stone in the ‘70s and rumored to be cursed. Like the White Stripes, they were drawn to using vintage recording equipment to connect to the naiveté of a previous era. “Technology is a bit boring,” Hince said. “If you get a handwritten letter in the post, it’s an incredible day.”
The choices were part of the duo’s effort to keep their working methods continually on pins and needles.
“Everyone’s aware that when they go on stage, that their nerves get turned into adrenaline,” Hince explained. “That’s a big part of the show. But when they go into the studio to write and record, they do the opposite. They want comfort and security and they want — ”
“PlayStation,” adds Mosshart.
“Yeah, PlayStation, wide screen TVs and food. They come out 50 pounds heavier than when they went in,” he said.
The duo say they intend to keep their world protected from those kind of contrivances as best they can. Only now are they doing interviews after shutting out the press for over a year. They also refuse to stoke speculation about the nature of their relationship. They are not, they insist, a couple. It’s a non-gossipy answer they say has left many questioners disappointed.
Still, their live show leaves the question open to interpretation. At their Austin showcase, Hince turned his guitar neck on the audience several times, pretending to spray them with bullets. Then, as Mosshart bent very far backwards letting her long hair splash on the ground, he leaned on her chest, intertwining their bodies. Unlike most bands where a lead singer is backed by supporting musicians, there is no hierarchy in the Kills. Instead, the music and performance are both wrapped inside a ball of tension wound extremely tight, making every gesture, whether surrender or supremacy, feel like it is hot-wired, refusing to be ignored.