There have been a lot of two-piece indie bands in recent years, but The Kills explore the dynamic possibilities of the format more than any other—loud/soft, fast/slow, rock/blues, as well as the emotional dynamics of two people playing music together. Like the White Stripes, to whom they've been compared, their music has some roots in the blues. But unlike that band's two-dimensional duality (that sometimes resulted in caricature), the results here are something more varied and fractious, reflecting both musicians' punk-rock and visual-art backgrounds.
They use a drum machine for percussion, but that, oddly enough, makes their music seem more human, as they are both up front, side by side. Jamie "Hotel" Hince churns away at guitar, vocalist Alison "VV" Mosshart breathes life into her lyrics as though resuscitating a man gasping for air. The interplay between her cool, breathy voice and his guitar, incisive yet rarely ragged, makes for something that's more than the sum of its parts, and doesn't seem minimalist in the least.
From talking to Mosshart, it's apparent that The Kills largely prefer to let their music speak for itself. She is reticent to describe or analyze it, preferring to just play and let the chips fall where they may. Releasing only four albums in 15 years together, they like to let their songs breathe, too—somewhat fussy of them/her, which is surprising, given her spontaneous approach to songwriting.
"I write lyrics fairly quickly," she explains. "There's not a lot of going back and editing. There are usually bursts of inspiration, which come from life experiences, situations I've been in, looking around at what I see, traveling the world. I'm inspired by everywhere and everything; whatever I'm feeling that day or that hour, ... I try not to question them too much, or pick through them too much, or define them too much, because that slows down the process and the honesty, I think. They're just like blasts of thought."
Their songs often start with an emphatic drum beat, joined by acerbic guitar lines and finally, Mosshart's drop-dead vocalisms. They seem almost like living, breathing beings in their own right, full of passion and mystery and guts and heart. In "The Heart Is a Beating Drum," from their most recent disc, Blood Pressures (Domino, 2011), she intones, "It takes more than you wanted before/ To keep it on, it's a beating," and there's a point in their trajectory where they have transitioned from driving the music to the music driving them. It's dark and demonic, but in a very subtle way.
"I hope we've progressed as a band," she admits. "Your goal is to constantly move forward and outdo your last effort, to become a better songwriter and a better performer, and time and experience does that. But that's hard to tell; I'm too in the middle of it." From the perspective of witnessing their music live, which might provide a better vantage point than recordings, it can seem like the eye of a hurricane.
The past year was a big one for them, touring internationally and at festivals, opening for hugely popular acts like Arctic Monkeys, The Black Keys, Jack White, and Queens of the Stone Age. The duo has been working on their fifth album for a couple of years now, and with all but a few of the songs recorded, Mosshart is still elusive about which ones they might play here: "We play a varied set, so I can't tell you which ones we're going to play in Salt Lake—it'll be a surprise."
In addition to working on The Kills' new album, Mosshart has been busy contributing vocals to a new The Dead Weather album, Dodge & Burn with Jack White (due in September), and as a painter, opened her first solo show, Fire Power, at Joseph Gross Gallery in Manhattan. Hince showcased his photography in the solo exhibit Echo Home at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York. Last year, Mosshart had work in the group show Push It highlighting female artists at ArtNowNY, and placed work in Art Basel in Miami last December.
Her artwork has been compared to other expressionists with ties to the music world, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart). "The solo opening was great; it was a dream come true that I never did dream," she says.
Her artistic journey has been as full of epiphanies as her musical one: "A lot of my influences, like Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, have visual elements, but I'm also influenced by a lot of bands that don't. I love pictures, and I love music, and sometimes, they intersect. It's exciting to find new things—there's always great stuff going on."