How times do change.
The last time I interviewed the Kills, in 2002, we were talking about their stellar debut EP, Black Rooster, which had just been released on the upstart Dim Mak label. Black Rooster’s five songs had been recorded to 8-track analog in London’s fabled Toe Rag Studios, by a bunch of people who clearly didn’t much care about things like track bleeding, high-gain distortion and mixes so muffled the whole record sounded like a rusty railroad spike wrapped in cotton. Dirty cotton — cotton you’ve blown Pall Mall smoke through.
But that, goes the old saw, was then. Now it’s three years on, and the Kills have just dropped their second full-length record, No Wow. Recorded in NYC’s legendary Sear Studios, which has hosted high-end acts like Third Eye Blind, Lou Reed and Suzanne Vega, No Wow is out on Rough Trade, and distributed through music-industry behemoth RCA. Alison “VV” Mosshart and Jamie “Hotel” Hince have been written up in Playboy, The New York Times and — get this — Teen Vogue.
If No Wow initially sounds like the work of a cleaner, gentler Kills, it’s only on first listen; in fact, the Kills may be raunchier and filthier than ever. Cleaning up the production hasn’t softened the band’s sound. Actually, it seems only to have uncovered the scars beneath the grime.
“I kind of aimed to make a hi-fi record. It was a big step for us, really,” Hotel says, now on the California leg of the Kills’ current six-week tour. No Wow was recorded on a 24-track, where 2002’s full-length debut, Keep On Your Mean Side, was made on an 8-track. “It’s not just a question of the sound; it’s a psychological difference. When you work with a limited number of tracks, you’re forced to make decisions about the most vital pieces of each song; you have to decide which parts are absolutely essential to keep. And this time we had to make those decisions entirely by ourselves, because the technology wasn’t going to dictate it.”
The title, then, is our first clue, and it’s something of a gearhead in-joke. As any analog enthusiast knows, “wow” refers to the slow up-and-down pitch variance caused by imperfections in tape recording machinery. In its song context, the phrase comes off like a laconic observation on the inevitably short shelf-life of wide-eyed innocence (“There’s no wow now/They all been put down”). Heard from another angle — it’s the opening cut on the record, after all — “no wow” might be the Kills announcing their embrace of hi-fi technology, a declaration fans of the band’s raw, gritty sound might view with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
But that, Hotel says, was the point. Keep on Your Mean Side “sounded like it had been recorded at a distance. It sounded like an archival piece the moment you heard it. I wanted the sound on this record to jump out of the speakers, so the first thing we did was remove the reverb, so everything sounded very dry.”
Much of the power of the Kills’ music comes from its essential minimalism. Every sound on the band’s albums is performed by VV and Hotel, and the close layering of instruments begins to sound tight, almost claustrophobic. Previously, what ambient space there was on the Kills’ records was provided by echo and reverb effects. For No Wow, that artificial space was the first thing to be stripped away.
“It was quite frightening the first time we heard the playback,” Hotel says. “Alison kept saying, ‘Please put some reverb on my vocals,’ but we knew we really didn’t want to do it. Those kinds of effects can make the music sound really good, but reverb smooths everything out, and we definitely didn’t want that. I really wanted to be able to hear the band on this album.” That reductive philosophy — what can we tear away from what we’ve got here? — became the flag, as Hotel puts it, that he and VV carried throughout the writing and recording of the record.
The first element that registers about No Wow is the pristine clarity of the instruments, particularly VV’s vocals. No longer muddied by the mix, the Kills’ notoriously enigmatic lyrics come to the front in a way that’s not only startling, but actually, immediately disturbing. Before, VV’s voice seemed to advance and recede in a sort of disembodied way, as if she were projecting her performance through the ether into the speakers. Here, as on the song “The Good Ones,” her voice seems to be aimed directly at the listener, and when she gets to the ominous chorus — “Did you get the real good ones?/Did you get the good ones?/Did you get me the good ones?/The real good ones what you got?” — you get the urge to start looking through your pockets to find whatever the hell it is this twitchy girl wants before something bad happens. To you.
Ah, and there it is, what we’ve always dug about the Kills: the way they can take seemingly ordinary language, tweak it and deliver it so it becomes something at once threatening and arousing. As anyone familiar with any of the band’s music will attest, there’s something jumpy and jittery and vaguely horny about the whole project, even on songs that seem devoid of overt sexual content. I’ve used this image before, but it still seems to me the best nonmusical analogy for the Kills’ work: It mostly sounds like two horny kids fighting each others’ buttons and zippers and snaps with sweaty fingers, and more than willing to just ram something into someplace, if they can’t get all the right parts freed up in a couple more seconds.
I don’t know how it works, I can’t decipher the code, but Hotel may be onto something when he blames it on the drum machine, a device the Kills have used to great minimalist effect on every recording they’ve made.
“We’ve been working with it for so long now, it’s a part of the song I always hear. A drum machine is the antithesis of rock music, which tends naturally to speed up in tempo, and which is full of small explosive moments. With a drum machine, you’re constantly being held back. When I think about how it affects the performances, I always get a mental picture of the two of us, sitting opposite sides of this drum machine that’s going ‘click-click-click’ at a constant rate, the hairs on our arms standing up because we’re not allowed to speed up or slow down, we’re having constantly to keep a constant tempo. It works amazingly well live, actually, when you go onstage and your whole body is buzzin’, your heart rate is elevated, and your natural instinct is to play fast. Being forced to hold back makes it even more tense.
“I find that really exhilarating,” Hotel says, his already low voice dropping a bit further, rumbling and humming through miles of phone cable. “Not being allowed to explode.”
Saturday, April 2, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700) with Scout Niblet. Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org