The creation of The Pretty Reckless’ fourth album ‘Death By Rock And Roll’ was blighted with tragedy. In 2017, the band scored the gig of a lifetime supporting Soundgarden on tour, but their lives were understandably rocked after the tragic loss of the grunge legends’ vocalist, their touring partner and friend Chris Cornell.
Leaving tour to regroup and process what had happened, frontwoman Taylor Momsen headed home and slowly started to work on songs. There were plans to work on them with close friend and collaborator, producer Kato Khandwala, but then the unthinkable happened, as the band received the call to tell them that Khandwala had passed away.
During the period of grief that followed, Momsen found solace in her love for music, something she credits for saving her life. Years of turmoil, turbulence, and a thirst to live life to the fullest are encompassed with their fourth studio album ‘Death By Rock And Roll’.
In the latest instalment of NME’s In Conversation series, Taylor Momsen explains how writing this album because a cathartic experience for the band, the full circle experience of collaborating with Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron, and how rock’n’roll saved her life. Here’s what we learned.
Taylor credits rock and roll to saving her life
There’d been an understandable radio silence from The Pretty Reckless following their departure from their 2017 spring tour with Soundgarden after Cornell’s passing. Momsen explains that it was “so stunning” to learn how emotionally unequipped she was to handle Cornell’s death.
“I left tour and went home to try to regroup and process what had happened,” she says of the aftermath of the tour. “I started to get my feet back on the ground and move forward, I’d written a few songs and was calling our producer Kato.
“As soon as we started to kind of put those plans in motion, I got the phone call that Kato died in a motorcycle accident. That was really the nail in the coffin for me, I went into this very, very dark place of just depression and substance abuse… I didn’t really know how to get out of it, and I didn’t know if I wanted to. I hit a point where I kind of just gave up on everything, I gave up on life, I didn’t see the point anymore… It was rock’n’roll that really saved my life.”
Momsen started to listen to records by her favourite bands, beginning with The Beatles, which led to her being able to listen to Soundgarden again “without falling apart”. Next came picking up a guitar again, starting to write songs and eventually it led to Momsen starting to work on the album.
“The writing of this album, ” she says, “and the creation of this record – I really credit it to the reason I’m still here, and the reason I’m alive today.”
This album’s a rebirth
Creating ‘Death By Rock And Roll’ was a cathartic experience for the band. Explaining the mindset of the album’s creation, Taylor explains: “I think I hit a point where I had to make a conscious decision of death or move forward, and I just chose to move forward.
“I really consider this album a rebirth in a lot of ways, personally and as a band, it really feels like the first album again. It’s something very near and dear to my heart, but also something I’m extraordinarily proud of, and in my humble opinion I think we’ve really made something special, and I think it may be my best album yet!”
‘Death By Rock And Roll’ is about living life to the fullest
“There’s a lot of dark and heavy themes of this record just due to circumstance,” Momsen says of ‘Death By Rock And Roll’, though she also explains: “I see it as a very hopeful record. ‘Death By Rock And Roll’, the song, might sound very morbid and very dark due to the title alone; but that line, “death by rock and roll”, was something that Kato used to say all the time. It was an ethic, and a lifestyle code.
“It may come across as very depressing, but to me it’s a battle cry for life. I think this album was the first where I had a title before I had all the songs, and when [Kato] passed that phrase just kept ringing in my head over and over; it was just very relevant again.”
Momsen explains that if you listen to the album in full from start to finish it may start by feeling “very heavy and almost bleak”, that midway through there’s a musical shift “where you start to realise there is light at the end of the tunnel and there is hope”.
Recording with Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron was a “full circle” moment
‘Death By Rock And Roll’ features a handful of big-name guest appearances, including a collaboration with Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron on ‘Only Love Can Save Me Now’.
“We became fairly close after everything that happened,” Momsen explains of their musical friendship. Having written ‘Only Love Can Save Me Now’, she thought the song would fit Thayil and Cameron’s sound, joking: “My joke was, dare I say it, ‘Only Love Can Save Me Now’ has a very “Soundgarden-esque vibe” to it and if you guys don’t play on it, I’m just gonna sound like I’m ripping you off!”
They recorded the song at Seattle’s iconic London Bridge Studio, where great records such as Soundgarden’s ‘Louder Than Love’ and Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ were recorded.
“I’m a firm believer that places are like people – they have memories and they hold all that energy in the walls, and I think that studio proved me right,” Momsen says of the experience. “When you walk in the walls are bleeding this excitement and energy that you can’t really describe, so to be there with Matt and Kim creating something new after everything we’d all gone through, I don’t want to speak for them but for me it felt like a full circle moment and it was just a really beautiful experience.”
Their Tom Morello collaboration brings the album to the next level
Another collaborator on the album was Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who appears on ‘And So It Went’. Having known each other for a few years, Momsen and Morello reconnected when they both played with Soundgarden at the 2019 ‘I am the Highway: A Tribute to Chris Cornell’ concert in LA.
While writing the song ‘And So It Went’, Momsen found that she couldn’t hear it without imagining a solo by Tom Morello on the track. She sent him the demo, he agreed, and Momsen explains that when Morello sent back his part “it did exactly what I thought it’d do – it just explodes into Tom Morello awesomeness right at the perfect moment.
She adds: “That’s, that’s my favourite thing about musicians. Especially iconic ones like Kim [Thayil] and Matt [Cameron] and Tom… they have such a distinct and unique voice with what they do. When you hear a Tom Morello guitar solo, you’re not going to accidentally mistake it for someone else – it sounds like a human voice. I just I felt like Tom’s sound in particular on ‘And So It Went’ would really take us on to the next level.”