To outsiders, it was the kind of job that gets filed under mission impossible: radically reinventing a minimalist-minded band that, for the duration of its 12-year-run, has consisted of nothing but a singer, guitarist, and drum machine.
And as if that wasn’t stressful enough, there was the spider web of subplots that ensured that Kills conspirators Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart were, for the first time in their careers, no longer flying comfortably below the radar. It all added up to a monumental challenge for the London, England–based duo, which, right up to the release of its jaw-dropping new album, Blood Pressures, was one of the most massively underrated acts to crawl out from the great rawk explosion of the early ’00s.
If you’ve been following the script, you might remember that the last time we heard from Hince and Mosshart, with 2008’s Midnight Boom, things hadn’t exactly gone smoothly. Low points during the recording of that record included the two Kills giving up on everything they’d been working on, heading to Mexico despite being dead broke, and using the getaway to forget all the frustration and refocus.
Reached in New York City, Hince is happy to report that Blood Pressures proved to be an entirely different beast.
“This was a much different record to make,” the guitarist reveals. “I don’t know why—I think I was just in a good place this time. The songs came really without trying. I went into the studio with what I thought was a bunch of clips—the odd riff, lyric ideas, and melodies—and it all just sort of came out. There was tons of stuff, and it all just pieced together.”
Given all that’s gone on in the lives of Hince and Mosshart over the past few years, no one would have been surprised if Blood Pressures had turned into Chinese Democracy. For all the trauma it caused, Midnight Boom proved a breakthrough; while radio airplay remained nonexistent for the Kills, tracks like “Cheap and Cheerful” and “Sour Cherry” popped up everywhere from Gossip Girl to video-game soundtracks, gaining the band invaluable exposure. And as if that didn’t have a whole new group of fans suddenly watching intently for the group’s next big move, there were some fairly major outside distractions.
For a start, Hince became something of a paparazzi target due to his hooking up with iconic British supermodel Kate Moss. Mosshart, arguably, was even more in the public eye, thanks to her fronting the indie supergroup Dead Weather, which features a certain Jack White behind the drum kit. Hince acknowledges that the singer’s Dead Weather touring and recording commitments made a major mark on Blood Pressures. With Mosshart absent from the studio for long stretches, he had plenty of time to figure out what he wanted the Kills to do differently this time out. Eventually, Hince would turn himself into a one-man guitar army, running his axe through a staggering seven amps at once on much of the album. Other approaches to the songs were more subtle.
“I’ve got this laptop, and when I got it, it had loads of reggae tunes on it, just piled full of it,” Hince reveals. “There was loads of Trojan stuff, so I kind of listened to that a lot. I didn’t want to make a reggae record, or a dub record, but it kind of got into my blood a little bit. I was also listening to the first Roxy Music album. None of these things at the time made sense for the Kills, but what I really loved about the first Roxy record was how different instruments tugged at different heartstrings—they’ve got Mellotrons and clarinets and saxophones, which do such different things to your emotions than a guitar does.
“So I started,” he continues, “daydreaming about using different sounds that weren’t the regular ’70s guitar tones that everyone uses in rock music. No one has really invented a new guitar tone, so I thought I’d go down that path and try and use different sounds and instrumentation. I bought a Mellotron and used that on a couple of things. Also, Chamberlins and Optigans and pianos and that kind of stuff. It’s good, I think, to try and take yourself out of your comfort zone—you attack something much differently when you’re not familiar with the instrument. There’s a vulnerability.”
The result of Hince’s experimenting is a record that not only completely changes the game for the Kills, but is also headed for this year’s top-10 lists with a titanium-tipped bullet. Hince’s affection for vintage Jamaican records shows up two songs in with “Satellite”, which meshes reggae-strut guitars with a menacing deep-dub bass line and then peels off into electro-nightmare land for its choir-of-black-angels outro. Dramatic highlights include the moaning cellos that roar out of nowhere halfway through the elastic soul-banger “Nail in My Coffin”, and the way that “Wild Charms” starts off as an incandescent ’50s-pop ballad before upshifting into a slinky turbo-funk jam.
And just when you can’t believe that this is the same band that made the 2003 garage-grime classic Keep on Your Mean Side, the Kills throw the biggest curve ball in their decade-plus history. That would be “The Last Goodbye”, which finds Hince switching off the amps for ’30s cabaret piano and sepia-toned strings, while Mosshart unleashes her inner torch singer. Given that, on previous Kills records, Mosshart has been all tuff-girl swagger, the song is nothing short of a revelation, as is the fact that, on much of Blood Pressures, she suddenlyseems to have developed some soul.
“There were times where I’d be in the studio on my own, working when she was on tour with Dead Weather,” Hince says. “She’d come back, and I’d really notice the difference, the difference in her voice, which seemed to have so much more power behind it. It was like ”˜Fantastic—let’s use that.’ I actually also really liked the vulnerability of her voice—I liked the way it cracked, and the way she didn’t necessarily sing like a rock singer. There’s a real beauty about that, and I think the combination of those two—having the power, but sort of holding back with it in places—worked really well.”
So well, in fact, that it’s hard to believe Blood Pressures once seemed like mission impossible.
The Kills play a sold-out Commodore Ballroom on Sunday (May 8).