Dreamy and feverish, hooky and repetitive, obsessive and claustrophobic – that’s The Kills’ fourth album, “Blood Pressures”. ‘Obsessive and claustrophobic?’ repeats Jamie Hince: ‘yes, I like that. After we’d made the record, Alison and I talked about the theme: there’s a lot about gender, about relationships; it’s about sex – so, blood pressures’.
‘Right now, I would say it's quite a dark record,’ says Alison Mosshart; ‘the lyrics are a little twisted. I think I always say that about every record I do. I think we're just both obsessive people. Obsessive about what we love and maybe even more obsessive about what we hate. I need to perform this record live to see what it really is, and what it's really communicating’.
In contrast to 2008’s “Midnight Boom”, the new album is a return to the band’s trademark dark guitar rock but with a twist. ‘The music’s changed because Alison was on tour with The Dead Weather for much of last year,’ Jamie continues. ‘It was really freeing to take ideas of hers and to change them musically. “The Last Goodbye” for instance changes from 4/4 to waltz time’.
‘The Dead Weather is a very different kind of band,’ Alison agrees. ‘For one, it's a 4 piece band with a lot going on, and it's pretty spontaneous. I wasn't used to not knowing what was going to happen next on stage, having been so familiar performing with a drum machine. So I think I got better at using my voice as an instrument to make sounds and noise that could compete with guitars and feedback, rather than just delivering lyrics’.
“Blood Pressures” was recorded at Key Club Studios in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Jamie: ‘it was an absolute second home, with no distractions. I delved into sampling and programming. I spent a lot of time with drum kits. When we were recording the album, I visited a school band room: have you ever been to a band room in the US? They are absolutely huge, with walls of various kinds of drums. I sampled them all’.
‘Programming the drums was really tedious to start with. If I wasn’t a control freak, I wouldn’t do it. But if I get started on something, I will obsess about it. I really like the techno feel. I really like all my emotions to come out in the guitar playing and it’s even better against a really rigid backbeat where there’s no speeding up or slowing down. I like that tension and I like the possibilities of where the drums can go’.
The sound of “Blood Pressures” is both technological and elemental: hypnotic, repetitive structures are augmented by C21 studio techniques, psychedelic touches and passionate vocals from Alison and Jamie. One song– “Nail In My Coffin” – features an early 70’s mellotron-style keyboard called an Optigan, from which the bass drum sound is sampled on much of the album: ‘it’s designed to sound like strings,’ says Jamie; ‘I just put these wind noises through a very vintage tape echo from 1965’.
The Kills’ working relationship is that of a real collaboration, with Alison and Jamie trading lyric lines, vocal parts – as on opener “Future Starts Slow” – as well as beats and melodies. ‘I’ve been in loads of bands and done my share of thinking too much about it,’ says Jamie. ‘But it’s better to free yourself up. Alison really helps me with that. I would definitely gravitate towards things taking too long, but she forces me to be more spontaneous’.
‘Some days I think we're twins’ says Alison. ‘Some days I think we aren't similar at all. We came together because we 'liked' the same things. We had so much in common on an art and music level. We are both quite impatient. We are both quite excitable, but Jamie is a perfectionist. He won't stop something until it's just the way he imagined it. I'm not like that. I love the moment, the snap shot, the accident. Oh, and I'm American, and he's English... so there's that’.
This working relationship is exemplified by the two songs in the heart of the album, the exquisite ballad “Wild Charms” – sung by Jamie – and the brooding “DNA”, sung by Alison – both of which have the image of fire burning each other out. ‘Sometimes you sit down to write something and something else comes out. The two songs complement each other: “Wild Charms” is written from one point of view and “DNA” from another,’ says Alison.
‘We've always written songs apart with the occasional song from start to finish together’ Alison says. ‘I suppose what I do is write melody and lyrics on an acoustic guitar, and then the songs like this that Jamie likes, he takes and transforms, gives them real music and form. With his own songs, he works them out from start to finish. He's quite tormented by his songs I think. I usually don't hear them for awhile. He's very secretive. I try and help him with lyrics but often it's only a couple of missing lines I do’.
The lyrics for “DNA” are Jamie's. The second he finished the last line, I was singing it in the studio. I think it was the last night of recording the album actually. I love that song so much. “The Last Goodbye” is my lyrics: that song came out really quick. It was one of those really natural songs to write that seemed to come out of nowhere. Jamie heard it and decided it would be best on an Optigan. He made it really special’.
Alison’s lyrics are a revelation throughout, echoing old blues tropes and then taking them somewhere else. ‘How can I rely on my heart,’ she sings on “The Last Goodbye”, ‘if I break it with my own two hands’. Here defiant assertion quickly shades into brutal self-examination and candid admissions: ‘I am no better at this than you are’ (“Nail In My Coffin”).
‘The blues are definitely an inspiration,’ she agrees: ‘I feel like every piece of music that I really love, and that really speaks to me is blues or has been inspired by the blues somehow. I never get tired of the blues. I never feel disconnected from the blues.
‘Alison’s really prolific with lyrics, she’s got reels and reels of them,’ says Jamie. And she’s rooted in that type of music. ‘That’s the sound she likes. I came to it late. She’s still finding something new in the blues, and working with Jack White made it even more exciting for her. After “Midnight Boom” I was slightly frustrated and it’s a perfect antidote to racing round, thinking about trying to reproduce Compass Point and Grace Jones’.
This sense of continuity is fused with a thoroughly contemporary approach. Along with the techno flourishes – at the start of first single “Satellite” for instance – Jamie’s guitar sound has been heavily treated: ‘the guitar parts do sound quite processed. I used seven amps in different rooms, all with different frequencies, trying to get that brutal sound. I used octave pedals and very old gear – and it sounds a bit more futuristic’.
Among the artists that Jamie currently cites as an inspiration are Link Wray, Little Milton (‘the start of R&B’), Dave Bartholomew (Fats Domino’s arranger/ producer) and Captain Beefheart (‘he blew my mind when I was a teenager: I was gutted to hear the news when he died’). ‘And I’ve been listening to reggae: I got into it from Grace Jones, Sly and Robbie, and Peter Tosh. It was the last bastion of music that I hadn’t really delved into’. Jamie’s love of reggae is clearly heard in the mutated rhythms of the album’s first single “Satellite”.
Although very well-connected, The Kills are determined to pursue their own vision: as Jamie says about recording at Key Club in Michigan, with its lack of distractions, ‘That isolation was just great. You get absolutely high off playing music all days long. Being unaware of what’s going on in the rest of the world – I just love that’.
And it is this uncompromising quality that has brought them testimonials from young groups. Jamie’s reaction: ‘The XX citing us an influence. They want to meet US? That to me is quite phenomenal. We’ve given up quite a lot to do it our way. Some of our things work, others don’t. But there’s not too many bands that have that feeling, unfolding their music over six or seven albums. And there’s not that many labels who would support that.’
-Jon Savage, 2011
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