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Over their almost decade-and-a-half career, multi-faceted rock minimalists The Kills have released only four records, each one a restless, reckless enigmatic art statement that bristled with tension, anxiety, sex, unstudied cool and winking ennui. Yet not one of them sounded like the previous one. "In an effort to not repeat ourselves, the path of least resistance has never been ours. Change is uneasy. Art should be uneasy," says Alison Mosshart, sitting at a long wooden table in her rented house above Los Angeles' Griffith Park, where she's been residing for a month, right next door to her musical partner Jamie Hince.
This is where the two friends-cum-soulmates finished their long-awaited fifth album, 'Ash & Ice,' due for release June 3, 2016 (Domino). Unlike earlier albums, which have largely been written and recorded at Key Club Studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan, this one had a rather vagabond, as well as protracted, existence with the main bulk of recording taking place in a rented house in LA (using both Key Club's and Jamie's own mobile units) and at the world famous Electric Lady Studios in NYC. Begun three years ago, the project was derailed when Hince broke a finger. The first doctor he saw gave him a shot of cortisone, which caused a painful reaction giving the guitarist sleepless nights, undue misery and the loss of a tendon in his hand. "He couldn't play guitar," Mosshart says, "He began buying all these funny instruments that you would only need one hand to play." But the idea that he would never play again was unendurable, and Hince consulted another doctor. Five operations later, with time out for rehabilitation, Hince was ready to get back to work, but only after learning how to play guitar in a way that didn't include the previously important finger. It was during the guitarist's 18 month long recuperation that he first starting sketching out what would become the songs for the album, including the song that gave the album its title.
"One of the first songs that he brought for the record was called 'Ash & Ice,' and we loved the title," Mosshart says. "I guess he was sitting at some bar or some party or someone's house, people were ashing into a glass of ice, that end of the night thing." In Hince's recollection, he was the ash-icer. "I had a drink, and I just threw my cigarette in this glass of ice, and it was just as simple as that. I liked the idea of it being these two opposite souls. I liked it being the idea of someone with a joint in one hand and a drink in the other." Mosshart likes the connotations as well. "I loved it because it's opposing ideas, because it's black and white and hot and cold and all these things. It is all sides of everything and at the end of it, maybe it's nothing but a memory, a cigarette in a glass of ice." The song itself underwent a change of title, to "Let it Drop" but the name remained for the album title.
Mosshart for her part didn't languish during her partner's recovery from surgery. She made a record with The Dead Weather, her side band with Jack White, as well as doing some serious painting. She'd always been painting backstage while The Kills were on tour -- the prerequisite was it had to fit into her suitcase. But after moving to Nashville a few years ago, she moved into a formal studio space, which allowed her to work on bigger canvases, leading to her first solo show at New York's Joseph Gross Gallery last summer. Titled "Fire Power," it featured 127 paintings, drawings, mixed media, and tapestries. That was not to say she ignored the band. During the past few years she admits to having penned somewhere around 120 songs. But writing has never been a problem for Mosshart, who composes quickly and fearlessly, rarely overthinking, just letting the songs move through her, inspired by an overheard conversation, a mood, a person, or just the sound her turn indicator makes while she is guiding her muscle car through traffic. What takes the most time is writing separately and turning it into a cohesive whole. Mosshart expounds, "If 'Ash & Ice' were a painting, it would be incredibly complex. It would be one that looked like it had been painted over and over and over and over. It would be so thick off the wall, it would be coming through the frame."
Explaining their unique and often-misinterpreted relationship, Hince says, "I still get this feeling that it's us against the world. I would take a bullet for that girl. I think she's absolutely fantastic, and I have no friendship like that with anyone else. When she has a passion for something it's just all or nothing. And I absolutely love that. We're creative and driven, and we're also competitive, and I think that's important as well. We're like two little fascists trying to be communists....I think we have mostly a healthy competitiveness. Sometimes we've fallen out over things. Sometimes you have to really struggle with somebody to get to where you're meant to be. I think in music you've got to be really careful about trying to get along. Compromise is the biggest enemy of any artist, and working in synchronicity is disastrous to a creative endeavor."
"I wouldn't say we fight actually," counters Mosshart. "It's like creative fighting. My songs will be so different than what he's coming up with, and The Kills is really the combination of those two things. That makes it really interesting to us."
They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and in this case it began with a 6000-mile train trip. To shake up his writing process, Hince decided to book a trip on the infamous Trans-Siberian Express, crossing seven time zones.
"I wanted to go away somewhere on my own and find out what I had in me. I just took my guitar, all my notebooks and a camera. The first thing I wrote was 'Siberian Nights.' I had this vision of the record being this icy, paranoid record as I was traveling through Siberia. But the rest of the songs are more about the emotion, the struggle."
Which is very rare for The Kills. Earlier albums had an air of detachment, an emotional austerity or just a psychic ambivalence about feelings, underpinned by an uneasy self-awareness and a seething, unexpressed anger. The 13 songs on 'Ash & Ice' are more understated, less tempestuous and more affecting because of that, exposing the kind of push-pull you feel when you find yourself in a complicated but all-consuming relationship. "I'm really quite a private person that's found himself in this public world. But I felt this time I had to really lay myself on the line and be vulnerable when I was writing. I certainly didn't want to lay my heart on the line in songs, but the floodgates opened up in me anyway."
As the recording continued, at Jamie's rental house in Los Angeles and then at Electric Lady in Manhattan, the band found the whittling down and perfecting of ideas to be the most complex part of the creative process. Mosshart explains, "A record really is a result of changing ideas over time. To get to one place that's cohesive, and a lot happens from the beginning to the end. When we started this record, all of the songs that I had that I thought were going to be on that, they're buried under a sea of a hundred other songs, but they're all part of it. That's the stuff you don't see. That's what's underneath. Getting to that place and getting your writing up to scratch and your ideas to change. At the end you have the thing, which is this flat disc that just seems so simple to everyone who holds it in their hand or plays it, and they don't have to hear the background noise. And that's fantastic, because that's the magic."
'Ash & Ice,' the resulting 'flat disc' is, says Hince, "the most forward thinking record we've ever tried to make." From the Trans Siberian Railway to the hills of Hollywood and to New York City via London and Nashville, The Kills' epic sonic journey meant discarding not just earlier material but also their own ideas on what it means to be a guitar band. There is a sense with both of them, that the two people who began this album weren't the same as the two that finished it. Hince concludes, "It's a not a retrospective, throwback album by any means. In fact, if anything it's running away from the past. It's a record of now and it's a record for the future."