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Thrill Kills

London-Based Duo Mine Passion and Betrayal on the Raggedly Sensuous No Wow

SMOKING KILLS: Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince do that sexually charged, blues-based duo thing up right.

By Suzanne Ely | Posted 4/13/2005

Big accomplishments are often born of small, sometimes trivial pursuits. The same can be said of the sophomore album from the mysterious bluesy-punk duo the Kills. Before Alison Mosshart, 26, and Jamie Hince, 32, hunkered down to record the follow-up to their critically praised 2003 debut, Keep on Your Mean Side, they first embarked on an odyssey to find an elusive mixing desk once owned by Sly Stone. The new album, apparently, couldn’t be made without it.

Mosshart, who decamped from her native Florida several years ago to live with Hince in England, recounts the treasure-hunt tale with dead-on seriousness. “There were all of these stories going around about this one mixing desk,” she says, via phone from her and Hince’s London loft, a hybrid home/work/art space. “No one knew where it was or if it was working. Sly Stone had it made by a company called Flickinger, who I think only made about 20. The people tried to come over and install it in Sly’s house, but he was really insane at that point.

“He held everyone hostage at gunpoint for about a week, and told them to make the mixing desk levitate,” she continues. “He told them to paint it a certain way so he could snort cocaine off of it.” Mosshart clears her throat. “I don’t think Sly ever paid for it. The person who designed it had a nervous breakdown and the company went under. Basically, the whole company went bankrupt because of Sly Stone. It was a really big mess, and no one knew where the mixing desk wound up after that, but we knew the desk did exist.”

The desk had found its way to a rinky-dink, burnt-out town in Michigan called Benton Harbor, where two young electronic geniuses had lovingly preserved it. “The desk was reckoned to be cursed so we just went after it,” Mosshart says with a devilish laugh. Mosshart and Hince—who also go by, respectively, the stage names VV and Hotel—packed their bags for Michigan, and thus began the creative process that birthed No Wow, a work that, in Mosshart’s words, is “right in your face and very, very dry.”

Passion and betrayal remain the preferred themes, as evidenced by the taut, jagged edges of “I Hate the Way You Love” and the jittery rhythmic confrontation of “Love Is a Deserter.” “Get the guns out, get the guns out,” the two exhort repeatedly, and you get a hint of what their idea of a cozy Saturday night at home is. They’ve eased up on the reverb, kicked up the drum machine, and, Mosshart claims, nudged into an electronic direction. “It’s our take on a hi-fi record,” Mosshart explains, though she admits that most people hear the very opposite on No Wow—a lo-fi, more stripped-back sensibility.

Mosshart and Hince arrived in Michigan in mid-2004 with no expectations except that they wanted to write the entire album under an enforced time line. “If we were as good a band as we thought we were, we could do it,” she says. In what Mosshart calls “a three-and-a-half-week space of daydreaming,” the two immersed themselves in their private journals, photographs, and other little keepsakes they’d acquired on their last one-and-a-half-year tour. “We blocked out the outside world and just tried to get to the heart of what we are,” she says. “We were just trying to get our minds out of ordinary spaces.”

There’s little evidence that Hince and Mosshart inhabit a commonplace world. Darkly enigmatic to the core, they’ve taken perverse fun in toying with the public’s perception of their relationship. Performing live, Mosshart sings about betrayal and heartbreak facing Hince, delivering a personal diatribe, seemingly oblivious to the audience. “At first we played only for each other,” Mosshart explains. “But now we’re acknowledging that there are a lot of people out there watching.”

What they see is Mosshart spitting lyrics in Hince’s face while he thrashes his guitar in front of her, working out emotions at which the music only hints. The visceral scene is something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the punk set. Based on the unsettling live shows—all pent-up sexuality and orgiastic releases—it appears that they are as much a romantic couple as musical partners.

“No, we’re not together,” Mosshart responds, quickly adding, “but I don’t think there’s anyone in my life I’m closer to. He’s my soul mate. We hang out 24 hours a day, and he’s absolutely my best friend in the whole world.” You wonder exactly how either maintains outside relationships. “It’s difficult for everyone around us,” Mosshart admits. “We’ve struggled for a long time to let the romantic thing work, but we don’t want to let ourselves settle down or get too comfortable.”

Mosshart met Hince when her previous band, Discount, was touring through England in 1998. At first neither had the courage to talk to the other, but after Mosshart passed Hince a tape of her work, they clicked. The two remained in touch after she went home to Florida, sending each other letters, tapes of themselves talking, and snippets of music. Mosshart eventually left the U.S. in 2000, taking up permanent residence with Hince.

Last July they moved into an old gallery that used to be the home of the Monkees’ Davy Jones. Though they’ve spent scant time there due to their exhaustive touring schedule, their goal is to create an artistic environment that operates as a modern-day version of Andy Warhol’s Factory. At the moment, though, “our home has turned into a junkyard of photographs and music,” Mosshart says.

As befits two explosive and artistically voracious personalities, the realm of music has already become too constricting to remain a satisfactory breeding ground for their aesthetic ambitions. A French book publisher offered them a deal recently, whereby they’d have free rein to express themselves. Mosshart and Hince envision the book as a pastiche of their short stories, photography, drawings and collages.

“As a band there are few creative outlets,” she says. “You have a web site; that’s alright, but it’s not very tactile. You have poster campaigns—but that’s advertising, so it’s a bit dull. CD art is the size of a postage stamp, and videos have thousands of rules imposed on them.” The bottom line, Mosshart says: “We don’t ever want to bore ourselves.”

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