"We thought there was actually going to be a revolution and people might need this stuff,” Jamie Hince tells me, just a little sardonically. He’s explaining why he owned a big red firetruck as his daily drive in the ‘90s, whilst his housemates at the time (or more precisely ‘squatmates’) were proud owners of other emergency services vehicles including an ambulance and a police truck. They parked them together in the carpark of their squat inside an abandoned London youth prison. “You’d be ready,” Alison Mosshart observes drily.
Mosshart and Hince are The Kills, the iconic American/British garage rock duo who latched onto the departing shadow of rock’n’roll as it dissipated into the digitalized mass-consumption aether of the early 2000s – just as modems changed everything, and as MTV stopped playing music. Musical comedian and beat boxing legend Reggie Watts described their sound as: “a heaviness and an accountability... it’s its own thing: sparse, minimal... vocals that dance... and get your hands dirty. It alludes to something older, but it exists in a space that is now."
I’ve gathered with Mosshart and Hince on a long circular lounge amidst a verdant copse of palm trees at The Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Mosshart has a distinctive jawline and a quick rapport, Hince has thoughtful eyes and an easy coolness that avoids being aloof. Although their live performances now include deputized musicians, The Kills remain a fundamentally two-part proposition. 2017 marks their 15th year together as a duo, and their synchronicity in person is just as pervasive as their music suggests – finishing sentences, laughing at unexpected insights, egging-on favorite anecdotes.
In a time when musical identities are heavily crafted by spin-doctors, social media teams, and even focus groups, The Kills have an enviable authenticity. Consider Hince: from squatting anarcho-punk amateur firefighter to a jet-setting tour schedule coupled with marrying (then divorcing) Kate Moss. Consider Mosshart: from skater-obsessed child in Florida “in the middle of nowhere where nothing cost anything,” to filling Jack White with bullet holes in a video clip for the supergroup she and White are a part of, The Dead Weather. Together as The Kills, Hince and Mosshart have defied the bell-curve and flexed the fingers of commercial success whilst managing to avoid becoming just another appendage of the machine.
Their modest beginnings are a big part of that. “When I grew up it was Thatcher and Reagan and there was all these pockets of radical art and music ‘cause it was this sort of underbelly and the underclass expressing themselves against this establishment,” Hince reflects in his thick London accent. “And now, decades later, there’s a kind of liberal norm. And people accept that ‘there should be funding for the arts’ and things like that. I don’t disagree but it can make polite and...” “Living room art. Hotel lobby art,” Mosshart offers. Hince nods, “Makes it a little bit sterilized, a little bit easy, and that’s never made great art or music. There needs to be a fighting spirit. As far as I know, there’s never been a heavyweight boxing champion from a wealthy background. You gotta have something you’re trying to fight against, something you’re trying to get away from.”
Mosshart sees just this sort of potential in the on-going political disintegration in the United States – a time of suffering for many perhaps, but a time of pushing boundaries too. “It’s really going to inspire a lot of people to be their best selves, their best performers, their best inventors. They’re going to be inspired and they’re going to be angry and they’re going to have to make something beautiful out of something terrible.”
Beauty and taste are elusive concepts, particularly in a world where everything has to be for sale. The Kills credit much of their longevity to an initial resistance to external influence and a willingness to say ‘no.’ “We saw so many bands losing control of what they wanted to do,” Hince reflects, “I think it’s important for bands to do it your way at least for the first couple of records before it goes out of your hands.” This year sees The Kills doing their 15th anniversary tour and releasing a new live album that will accompany their one live and five studio albums – the new one recorded at Electric Lady Studios in front of a crowd of friends, fans, and family.
Each of The Kills’ LPs have been flavored and inspired by the shifting sceneries of the road and the changing cities they’ve based themselves in, yet for a definitive transatlantic band, there’s perhaps a certain irony in just how switched on to the downsides of globalisation Hince and Mosshart are – but then they have toured a lot. “Because of the internet there is no regional variation.” Mosshart observes. “Everyone’s looking at the same thing, getting ideas from the same stuff. It is because we are all staring at the same screen. We are in a new world where it’s harder to tell where you are. You can wake up in any city and look out the window and you’re seeing the same thing. It’s the same thing everywhere.”
“You do seem to find these places left that are more untouched,” Hince adds thoughtfully, “that haven’t been gently touched by the fucking hammer of globalization.” “Gently touched by the hammer!” Mosshart laughs, relishing the turn of phrase. “And you find yourself thinking that you want to steal some of those ideas and put them into the global arena,” Hince continues, grinning at this inevitable trap of commerce: “Like you see things in Japan and think ‘wow, people would go nuts for this in L.A.!’”
There’s a monkey on my back makes me act like that/ There’s a monkey on my back makes me talk like that – the pair intone over Hince’s percussive, primal guitar in “Monkey 23” from 2003’s debut Keep on Your Mean Side. Genres of music are defined by much more than their sound – they’re reflections of the culture they emerge from. Movements in art become synonymous with the icons we embrace as embodiments of them, often long after the fact. The Kills’ career has tracked the swell of the age: “We started our band when the wave of the cyber revolution began,” Hince notes.
Just how or where this wave breaks remains to be seen. We don’t know how far along it’ll wash or what detritus it will sweep away in its wake. It will put out fires certainly, but may create the inferno. “You know the cool thing about owning a firetruck is that if there’s a big fire you have to get involved, they can be like ‘we need you to come,’” Mosshart informs me. “Yeah,” Hince confirms, “there’s a thing where in times of emergency they can commandeer your vehicle.”
Perhaps it’s time for artists to start commandeering art again. Look to The Kills for a good way to find the spot fires.
Written by Gus Donohoo
Photographer: Scott Lipps for One Management
Stylist: Keegan Singh for Art Department
Hair: David Keough for Art Department
Makeup: Nicole Walmsley for The Wall Group
Location: The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel