When guitarist Jamie Hince’s hand started rotting from the inside out, it could have spelled the end for The Kills. Instead, it freed him and bandmate Alison Mosshart to reinvent their bluesy sound, discovers Kevin EG Perry
Jamie Hince is giving me the finger, but he swears he can’t help it. Three years ago, just after work had begun on the new record by The Kills, the duo he formed with American singer Alison Mosshart in 2000, Hince slammed a car door shut on the middle digit of his left hand. His doctor then gave him a shot of cortisone for a pre-existing case of ‘trigger finger’, a common guitarist’s ailment that affects the tendons. When Hince went on holiday to Morocco, he managed to contract a deep bone infection that rotted the inside of his hand.
“At one point, I was pulling my tendon out of my hand,” explains Hince, as Mosshart grimaces beside him. We’re sat in a restaurant underneath the brutalist towers of London’s Barbican watching Hince ditch his red wine so he can waggle an imaginary tendon at us. “It was,” he adds, somewhat unnecessarily, “a nasty scene.”
The upshot is he can no longer bend that middle digit, so he’s had to relearn how to play guitar while giving a permanent one-fingered salute. You imagine Johnny Cash would be proud. While Hince now shrugs off the setback – “It doesn’t make too much difference, really” – there was a time when he thought he may have to give up the instrument. It was out of that adversity that The Kills’ fifth record took shape. Limitations, as Mosshart sagely points out, “set you free sometimes”.
Keeping things simple has worked for The Kills before. Their lo-fi debut, 2003’s ‘Keep On Your Mean Side’, was recorded in Hackney’s Toe Rag Studios in just two weeks. Mosshart and Hince had first met when she was the singer in Florida punk band Discount and he, 10 years older and with a series of band splits behind him, was almost ready to quit music. They bonded over a shared love of poetry, obscure novels and The Velvet Underground. Musically, they kept things sparse and primal: just her voice, his guitar and a drum machine.
This time around, Hince’s damaged finger led him to buy synths and keyboards that he could play one-handed. “I felt like maybe I wouldn’t be a guitar player any more,” he explains. “That absolutely changed the way I was writing. We’d get together and Alison’s demos would be on acoustic guitar, like mine used to be, and mine would have all this electronic stuff going on.”
That coming together of guitars and Kraftwerk-indebted electronics is all over the resulting record, which was recorded at a rented house in Los Angeles and then at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. It got the name ‘Ash & Ice’ after Hince put a cigarette out in a drinks glass at some late-night party. It’s a suitably debauched image for a man who was a fixture in the Primrose Hill party set even before his marriage to Kate Moss in 2011.
Hince and Moss have reportedly now split, and the guitarist began the writing process for this record by setting off to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway alone. “On that trip my imagination was going crazy,” he says. Onboard he wrote ‘Siberian Nights’, a song about “a homoerotic version of Vladimir Putin where he’s taken a day off and he just wants a cuddle from a man. He’s going: ‘I can’t keep this up.’ He just wants some warmth from a masculine body.” Expect to see Putin waving a rainbow flag at a Kills show soon.
Mosshart found her own measure of solitude when she ensconced herself at Hedgebrook, a women’s writers’ retreat on Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle. “You live in a cabin for 10 days. There’s no one there. You have no phone, no internet and you work,” she explains. “I think that kind of thing used to be far more common, but in the modern world it just doesn’t happen.”
It led Mosshart to write some of the most brutally frank songs of her life. ‘Heart Of A Dog’, named after the Mikhail Bulgakov novel she was reading at Hedgebrook, is a desperate declaration of loyalty to a lover, while she says her gut-wrenching vocal performance on ‘Hum For Your Buzz’ was born out of “total frustration”.
Mosshart is something of a creative whirlwind. Both she and Hince agree she writes and works at a faster pace than he does, so she found another creative outlet working with Jack White. They formed The Dead Weather in 2009 and released three albums in the following six years. On top of that, on the road she turns the band’s dressing rooms into private art studios and last year she held her first show at the Joseph Gross Gallery in New York.
She’ll have to pack up her paints again now as The Kills are heading back out on tour across America this month. They return to Europe in June, including a stop at the Isle of Wight Festival, and then the following month they’re due to visit Moscow. Assuming Putin lets them leave the country, they’ll play a full UK tour in October.
For a band as famed for their electrifying live shows as their records, Hince’s injury could have stopped them in their tracks. However, having come through warm-up shows in Amsterdam, Paris and London unscathed, they’re itching to get back on the road. “At the moment, playing shows just feels right,” says Hince.
After five years away, The Kills are back. They’ve dealt with injuries and setbacks in the best possible way: by learning to play music with one middle finger raised.