Heart Of The Kills

The Kills’ Jamie Hince takes Pollstar behind the making of the indie rock band’s brand-new album, from inspiration found on the Trans-Siberian Express to how an injury led to the creation of the lead single, “Doing It To Death.”

Ash & Ice was released today via Domino, marking the band’s first new album in five years and fifth LP overall. The album kept getting pushed back because Hince needed to have multiple operations on his hand after he broke a finger and lost a tendon from the tip of his finger to his wrist.

Hince was forced to relearn how to play guitar without the finger, but explains that without the injury he never would have written the riff to “Doing It To Death.” While the first few seconds of the bass drum beat pull listeners in, it’s the thumping riff that sticks with you. Of course, there’s also lots to like about Alison Mosshart’s raspy vocals. 

With a song like “Doing It To Death” kicking off the album, it’s apparent the duo is back and ready to rock. Additional singles include “Heart Of A Dog” and “Siberian Nights.” The album was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York and a rental house in Los Angeles. It was produced by Hince and John O’Mahoney. 

During a phone Q&A ahead of the band’s recent show in Chicago, Hince also talked about the contrast of recording and touring, whereas he’s the king of the studio and Mosshart rules the stage.

Photo: Kenneth Cappello

Ash & Ice comes out in June. It must be a good feeling to be releasing your first new album in five years.

Yeah, I mean, there’s only so much you can do playing the same songs night after night. We had hoped to have put it out earlier but I had so much surgery on my hand. … I didn’t know I was going to have six operations. I’d recover from one surgery and then we’d start planning [to] record the album and so it would start getting to the point where we would be picking gigs, thinking we would be playing new songs and then have the record come out. And then my surgeon would tell me that I’d have to have another operation. So things got delayed and then these shows would come up, which we’d presumed we were going to be playing new songs and then we’d just have to play the old songs. (laughs)

And after that long of playing old songs there was a point where I just thought, “My God, we can’t keep doing this. People keep coming to our gigs and we’re playing these fucking old songs.” (laughs) My point is that that was quite punishing and now it’s such an amazing relief that finally the record is coming out. We’re playing new songs and it feels so good to play these new songs. I can’t imagine a set without them.

Let’s talk about the inspiration behind the album. You booked a solo trip on the Trans-Siberian Express. Where did you start and end your journey?

I started in Moscow. My friend is an artist. Him and his brother Jake and Dinos Chapman, they’re really good friends and they did an exhibition called “Hell” in St. Petersburg. So I flew out there to the exhibition and I just thought, you know what? This might be my only opportunity to do the Trans-Siberian Express and use it as a sort of writing retreat, to start writing the record. So I booked myself onto it and started in Moscow and ended 5,800 miles later in Vladivostok, a stone’s throw from Japan. So when you look at it on a map, you really are sort of carving through a third or more of the globe. It’s pretty incredible.

That must have been quite the experience.

Yeah, I mean … I think if you starve your body of food it starts eating itself and a similar thing happens to your brain. If you starve it of any kind of stimuli. You know, it was just silver birch trees. The landscape was a lot more boring and barren than I’d imagined. But it worked in my favor because it just starts making the brain race and just eat itself and … and kind of throw all these thoughts out and your imagination starts to go crazy. So it was just like that. And I slept like a cat. I didn’t go to bed at midnight and wake up in the morning. I would sleep for two hours and then wake up and I think there was one time when I didn’t sleep for two days. And I wasn’t drinking or doing drugs (laughs) or anything. I think it’s probably your natural state, just to grab a bit of sleep every now and again. I was so awake on that train; it was like a revelation.

Did you actually write music on the train or were you planning to gather inspiration and then write afterward?

It’s rarely all one process for me. Like I’ll spend time writing lyrics, which is more often than not I write just string-of-consciousness prose. And then every now and again there will be a few sort of bits of poetry (laughs) that will come out of it that’s more kind of suited to lyric writing. And then I’ll just go through it all and edit, find things in there and build a song around that.

I took a guitar with me. I just play a lot of guitar without really [singing lyrics]. I sing words but they’re not real words, they’re just kind of what we call hum-a-na-hum-a-na. It’s just gibberish. I’m just sort of singing sounds really, the sounds that I want to fit into the song. And then somewhere down the line I put what I’ve written and what I’ve mumbled and I start piecing those things together. So it’s a long weird process. I wrote “Siberian Nights” on the train. And that was really a story that was about 20 pages long. It was originally called “Me Tarzan KGB.” And it was a sort of homoerotic adventure that Vladimir Putin was having. These are the sort of things that your mind does to you when you’re on the train. (laughs)

Photo: Stephen Albanese / www.tailstar.com
Mayan Theatre, Los Angeles, Calif.

Alison was back in Nashville. Did you email ideas to her? Or did the two of you meet up afterward and compare what you had each written? What was that process like?

I had a studio in London and she was in Nashville. I mean, I think when we’re writing songs we’re pretty clear that we have two different jobs. The songs I write are more often than not more music-based and the songs she writes are more lyric-based. And the two things are vitally important and we kind of end up a lot of the times managing to put those things together quite well.

So I was in my studio writing things and I’d send her drum beats because she normally just sits in front of a microphone with an acoustic guitar. I was sending her playlists of things she would normally never listen to, trying to get her out of her regular inspirations. I’d send her a drumbeat to write to. “Heart Of A Dog” came out of a drumbeat I sent her. And I was trying to find ways of her writing differently. A lot of it just means me throwing her a different approach, like a drumbeat or I’ll send her a guitar part. And then she’ll write around that. And kind of just sculpt my own songs over long periods of time (laughs) and then get frustrated with them and throw them away and hate myself and pick them off the floor and build them up again. (laughs) It’s really torturous.

Do you ever get to a point where you know a song is done or do you still want to go back and work on it even after an album is released?

Yeah. I do. … I have endless creatively but I’m not good at knowing when to stop. (laughs) … I kind of always feel like I’m operating above an ability, if I just do something without it being torturous than it can’t be good enough. And so I’m always thinking about … how to make it better. And at some point … if you imagine I’m in the pilot seat (laughs) and I kinda do 92 percent of the journey flying the plane and then eventually they rip me out of the pilot seat and get somebody to land it, somebody who’s proper. Which is why we ended up going to Electric Lady, a proper studio, as everybody calls it in New York. I think part of production is time management and that’s one thing I’m hapless at. So we worked with John O’Mahony, who kind of landed the plane really.

Your music is usually recorded at Key Club Studio in Benton Harbor, Mich. How did the change in location affect the album?

Well, I always have this thing where I just kind of rebel against the last record we made. A lot of it is because we tour so intensely that you do get sick of playing the same things. When it comes time to start to make a new record I always want it to be different. I want it to be this new, exciting direction that I never thought of. And one of the easiest, simplest starting points is do the opposite of what you’ve done before. (laughs) And what we’ve done before is lock ourselves away at the Key Club in Benton Harbor and make a record in secret. I figured that we should probably go somewhere more like how we live our lives the rest of the year round, which is you know, in chaos. (laughs) And we kind of embrace the noise and the chaos of the city. It felt like it might be the right time to do that. And I always worry when I’m making a record that I can’t have anyone coming around. I think it stems from when I was a kid, my mom and dad weren’t into music so I was always hiding myself in my room and playing music in secret. I felt like I just wanted to break that mold. It could be quite restrictive.

Did your parents not like certain types of music or just music in general?

Oh, it wasn’t like, they weren’t a cult or anything. (laughs) They just weren’t artistic. My dad was a construction manager and my mom was a receptionist. I say that because Alison’s mom was an art teacher and was always encouraging her to do art and things. My mom and dad always thought that art and music weren’t going to get me a job. Those were the sort of things you didn’t encourage your kids to do. So for me, it was always something I pretended I wasn’t doing, in a way.

As far as recording in New York and embracing the noise of the city, that’s apparent in the singles “Doing It To Death” and “Heart Of A Dog.” Do you and Alison have any say in which songs will be singles?

Yeah, I mean, we painstakingly thought about what label we were going to sign to before we even recorded anything, back in 2002. Before we even had a name for our band we knew what record label we wanted to be on. Because we knew that Domino was a record label that let bands do what they want. And you really were in utter control of your destiny. So we always have the final say. We always have a say.

But when it comes to singles, both of us kind of delegate that to our record company because that’s not my domain, choosing things that are going to get on the radio or that people are going to like. My favorite songs are rarely the singles (laughs). We let our record company choose that, unless they chose something that we were really against. I’m quite happy with them choosing what singles are. I’m not interested in it.

It seems like it would be kind of hard, being on the inside, to take a step back and know which songs would work best as singles.  

Well, partly it’s flattering that there’s even a fucking single at all (laughs) when you make a record. It’s flattering that they’re saying like, “Ooh. We don’t know if this one or that one or this one could be a single.” But they do. You kind of know the drill and the criteria required, which is they’ve got to be around three and a half minutes or under and they’ve got to be catchy. They’re not the things, obviously, that I’m worrying about when I’m writing songs. So I let someone else worry about them when they’re picking singles.

Photo: Kenneth Cappello

So which of the songs are your favorites of the new album?

All my songs. … Nah … Playing these new songs live it’s funny how certain songs that I didn’t really care about, like “Whirling Eye,” almost didn’t make the record. I didn’t really get that song until we started playing it live and now it’s my favorite. It’s just such a beast when we play it live. In the studio … I’m a kind of king in the studio, I’m the boss in the studio and Alison’s the boss when we’re on stage so I think of things differently when I’m in the studio.

I like the intricacies of sound and sonic and sometimes a song like “Whirling Eye” will come along and it’s just like a sort of rock ’n’ roll song with a crowd rock beat and I don’t really get it until we play it live and then it’s like, “Oh yeah!” So that’s one of my favorites. But personally, “Echo Home” was a sort of personal triumph for me in the fact that it was one of my favorite lyrics that I’ve ever written. It’s one of the few songs I can say that I meant everything that I said and I said everything that I meant.

You did an interview a few years ago where you were saying that playing live was painful for you after the injury and your other fingers had to compensate for your injured finger. How is playing live now? Is it still painful?

It is a bit painful. But it’s not, you know, it’s not the end of the world at all. I mean, it’s my livelihood. In one sense we’re workers and … we don’t have medical care or anything like that (laughs) or anyone looking out for us. If something fucks up, you can’t earn any money. So I do worry. I worry about my ears and I worry about my fingers. I’m careful with it, you know. It does hurt but I think adrenaline really gets you through.

How did you injure your finger in the first place?

Well I used to have these cortisone injections in my knuckles … because my hands would sort of lock up a little bit from playing too much. And then stupidly, I was dropping my Spector off at a friend’s house and I slammed my finger in the car door and crushed the end of my finger. … My finger was flat.

And so anyway, I went to my hand specialist and he injected me with cortisone, which I don’t think was the smartest thing to do. And I got an infection. The injection went wrong and I just got a deep tissue infection and I lost my tendon from the tip of my finger to my wrist. And then I had to have all these other operations to try and prepare my hand for a tendon transplant.

So I’ve got like 10 percent movement in it now but I don’t really use it to play guitar. It won’t reach the neck of the guitar and it hasn’t got any strength in it at all. So I just adapted my style. I prefer playing like this. It sounds better to me. (laughs) It’s more thought-out, you know because things like that riff in “Doing It To Death,” I would never have written that if I had use of all my fingers. I probably would have played some angular chord or something rather than individual notes and I have to play individual notes because I can’t play chords.  

That riff is amazing.

Aw, thank you! It’s one of my favorite achievements.

It seems like it would be really fun to play live.  

Yeah, that’s a really good one live. It’s one of those songs that you can just start the first few bars of the bass drum beat and the crowd goes wild. It’s really nice that someone can recognize a song just from the drum beat. (laughs)

You mentioned you’re the boss of the studio and Alison is the boss of the stage. I was going to ask if you feel more at home on the studio or on stage, but it sounds like you kind of answered my question already.

Kind of. It never used to be like that. I always used to say that I felt like playing live was a good antidote for being in the studio and vice versa. But now I would say that I just feel better in the studio. I do. I feel more at home in the studio than live. I let Alison, that’s her domain.

You balance each other out.

Yeah, and I really appreciate that now. Where before I felt like, I should like both of them as much. But you know, it’s kind of affected my life a lot, being on the road. I’ve lost a lot of people (laughs), you know. It’s a bit hard on a relationship and friendships. So I’m kind of wary of being on the road. And being in the studio I really feel like that’s my time where … I feel like I’m standing on the edge of the feature. I’m pushing forward and my band’s moving and I’m coming up with new things that, “Oh my god, when people hear this! It’s going to …” Where, being on the road for me it’s a little bit more static and more of taking a museum around from one place to another and showing people archives. You know? (laughs)

It’s nice you have the new songs to show off.

It’s made me more determined to write things on the road, whereas I always used to think that the two things are very separate. Playing live, then write a record, then record a record, then play live. Trying to do all those things has become more essential.

You and Alison have been playing live for 15 years. How has your live show changed since when you first got together?

Before we started rehearsing new songs I went through YouTube clips of us back in 2003. It was a packed [show] and … there was just two little people on stage, two spotlights and two little amps. And that’s it. And it was so intimate and brilliant. I really thought, “Wow, we were brave to do that.” But I think what happened was as the gigs got bigger it was harder to pull off. It’s harder to expect audiences to be concentrating in that much detail on two little people. So you know, as the sound developed I guess the live show has. We’ve got a multi-instrumentalist and a live drummer with us now because I wanted it to have more soul.

As a performer, what’s the best moment of a live show? Do you prefer when you first take the stage or after wrapping up a successful performance?

I don’t know because you have to take so much into account. But before I go on stage it’s quite often, we’re both really nervous, which can usually be translated as feeling uncomfortable. I wouldn’t say walking on stage. But I do really like the feeling when you start playing and you realize that you’re on fire. You know? (laughs). When you realize that this is going to go good. It’s almost like an out-of-body thing.

Photo: Kenneth Cappello

Upcoming dates for The Kills:

June 4 — Oakland, Calif., Fox Theater
June 11 — Newport, England, Seaclose Park (Isle Of Wight Festival)
June 14 — Clermont-Ferrand, France, La Cooperative De Mai
June 16 — Madrid, Spain, Caja Magica (Mad Cool Festival)
June 29 — Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Rockhal
July 1 — Marmande, France, Parc Des Expositions (Garorock Festival)
July 2 — Herouville, France, Chateau de Beauregard (Festival Beauregard)
July 3 — Belfort, France, Eurockeennes Festival Grounds (Les Eurockeennes de Belfort)
July 6 — Kiev, Ukraine, Olympic Stadium (U-Park Festival)
July 9 — Moscow, Russia, Russian Exhibition Center (Park Live)
July 14 — Carhaix-Plouguer, France, Les Vieilles Charrues (Festival Les Vieilles Charrues)
July 15 — Biarritz, France, Big Festival Grounds (Big Festival)
July 16 — Benicassim, Spain, Benicassim Festival Grounds (FIB Benicassim)
July 22 — Bankstown, Australia, North Byron Parklands (Splendour In The Grass)
July 23 — Melbourne, Australia, Forum Melbourne
July 26 — Newtown, Australia, Enmore Theatre
July 28 — Auckland, New Zealand, Powerstation
July 29 — Wellington, New Zealand, Shed 6
Aug. 6 — Katowice, Poland, Dolina Trzech Stawow (OFF Festival)
Aug. 7 — Prague, Czech Republic, Roxy Prague
Aug. 8 — Leipzig, Germany, Taubchenthal
Aug. 9 — Copenhagen, Denmark, Store Vega
Aug. 11 — Oslo, Norway, Toyenparken (Oya Festival)
Aug. 12 — Goteborg, Sweden, Slottskogen (Way Out West Festival)
Aug. 13 — Helsinki, Finland, Suvilahti (Flow Festival)
Aug. 18 — Hasselt, Belgium, Kempische Steenweg (Pukkelpop Festival)
Aug. 20 — St. Polten, Austria, Green Park (FM4 Frequency Festival)
Sept. 02 — Pomona, Calif., Fox Theater Pomona
Sept. 03 — Los Angeles, Calif., The Wiltern
Sept. 04 — San Diego, Calif., Observatory North Park
Sept. 07 — Dallas, Texas, Granada Theater
Sept. 08 — Austin, Texas, Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater
Sept. 09 — Houston, Texas, White Oak Music Hall
Sept. 12 — New Orleans, La., House Of Blues
Sept. 13 — Atlanta, Ga., The Buckhead Theatre
Sept. 14 — Nashville, Tenn., Marathon Music Works
Sept. 17 — Milwaukee, Wis., The Rave
Sept. 18 — Cincinnati, Ohio, Bogart’s
Sept. 20 — Portland, Maine, State Theatre
Sept. 21 — Montreal, Quebec, Metropolis (POP Montréal Int’l Music Festival)
Sept. 23 — New York, N.Y., Terminal 5
Sept. 29 — Manchester, England, Albert Hall
Sept. 30 — Glasgow, Scotland, O2 ABC Glasgow
Oct. 1 — Leeds, England, Leeds Beckett University
Oct. 2 — Nottingham, England, Rock City
Oct. 4 — Oxford, England, O2 Academy Oxford
Oct. 5 — Bristol, England, Anson Room
Oct. 6 — Birmingham, England, O2 Institute Birmingham
Oct. 7 — London, England, Roundhouse
Oct. 18 — Paris, France, Olympia
Oct. 19 — Paris, France, Olympia
Oct. 22 — Berlin, Germany, Tempodrom
Oct. 23 — Hamburg, Germany, Grosse Freiheit 36
Oct. 25 — Cologne, Germany, E-Werk
Oct. 26 — Munich, Germany, Tonhalle
Oct. 27 — Zurich, Switzerland, Volkshaus
Oct. 29 — Milan, Italy, Fabrique
Oct. 31 — Lyon, France, Le Radian
Nov. 03 — Lisbon, Portugal, Coliseu Dos Recreios
Nov. 08 — Nantes, France, Stereolux
Nov. 09 — Antwerp, Belgium, Arenbergschouwburg

Visit TheKills.TV for more information. Follow the band on social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.