Backspin: The Kills Talk Tendon Injuries, Career-Suicidal Tendencies, and 15 Years of Kill-ing It

Lyndsey Parker

Anglo-American art-punks the Kills, aka Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince, have spent all of 2017 celebrating their 15th anniversary — most recently with their new Echo Home – Non-Electric EP, featuring a cover of Rihanna’s “Desperado” and a re-recording of “Wait,” one of their first songs ever released. But for several of those years, the Kills were largely off the scene, putting out no full-length albums between 2011 and 2016.

Casual fans may have assumed the Kills’ hiatus was due to Mosshart’s high-profile side gig fronting Jack White’s psych-rock supergroup the Dead Weather, or because Hince was focused on his marriage to supermodel Kate Moss (which ended in 2015). But as Hince reveals during the Kills’ career-spanning Backspin interview with Yahoo Music, it was actually a 2013 freak accident that sidelined the group, as guitarist Hince was forced to totally relearn his instrument.

“I used to have this problem with my fingers locking up from just playing guitar, and then they’d inject cortisone into my knuckles — which is the most painful thing you can ever have done, I think,” Hince begins. “It would sort of make it go away. And then I slammed my finger in a car door, and my hand specialist guy said, ‘Oh, I’ll just jab some more cortisone in it.’ And I went away on holiday and I got a deep bone infection, and I lost my tendon.

“I thought I was wiping some pus away from my hand, but it wouldn’t go away,” Hince continues, while a grossed-out Mosshart (and, frankly, everyone in the Yahoo studio) squirms. “And then I was pulling it [out of my hand], and I was like, ‘That is really weird — look, I’ve got this stringy pus!’ And then my wife went, ‘That’s your tendon, you idiot!'”

Yes, Hince was holding his actual finger tendon — not pus — out in the open, in front of a horrified Kate Moss.

“So I had to have a tendon transplant,” says Hince, who eventually underwent five operations and lost the use of his middle finger, “and it doesn’t really work. I can’t play guitar with it. So that was it — it was kind of like learning to find a way to play guitar again. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play guitar. I thought I was going to be one of those studio dudes with gray skin and, like, loads of [takeout] menus, so I started putting my studio together.”

The Kills (Photo: Paul Rosales)

But the Kills finally returned in 2016 with the critically heralded Ash & Ice, and Hince now says that his gruesome injury helped sparked his creativity while making the album. “It was really good, because something like ‘Doing It to Death,’ I don’t think I’d have written that if I had all my fingers. Because I probably would have done something more with a chord, whereas I had to play individual things.”

Over the past decade and a half, the Kills have gone through their share of struggles, both personal and professional, but the bond that Hince and Mosshart formed when they first met in the U.K. helped them persevere. From the very beginning, the London-based Hince knew that the Florida-born Mosshart was committed to the band, before the band even had a name and before Hince was even sure himself.

“There’s a culture of saying you’re going to do things, and that’s almost enough, just saying you’re going to do this stuff. I’m not sure how convinced I was that our band was really going to happen, and [Mosshart] absolutely flogged me with it — you know, moving over [to London] and whipping me into shape to do this,” Hince says.

Mosshart recalls the fateful meeting that brought her and Hince together in 2001. “I was on tour with [Florida punk band] Discount, which was my first band. We were touring Europe and England a lot, and [Hince’s] roommate drove the van that we were in. His other roommate booked the tours that we went on. We would always go there and sleep on the floor. I heard Jamie playing guitar upstairs through the ceiling, and I didn’t know him, I hadn’t met him yet, but I thought it was the greatest sound I’d ever heard. I was obsessed.”

“I don’t think she spoke to me for the first week,” Hince laughs. “I would say things to her and she would just light up bright red and not say a word. I’m going, like, ‘Wow, this is really bizarre.’ Then she’d kind of say little words every now and again. Then she’d come round to my place and just sit cross-legged on the floor and roll me cigarettes, and I’d play her music she’d never heard, like Charley Patton, Lead Belly, Velvet Underground, and Captain Beefheart.”

The Kills (Photo: Mario Framingheddu)

“I mean, this whole thing kind of happened really organically, but I was on tour with this other band,” Mosshart explains. “He was really encouraging me to write music, and I’d never really written music; I’d just written lyrics to other people’s music. He was really encouraging and he was like, ‘Take this four-track with you on tour and see what you come up with.’ I would stay up all night with whatever stuff I could get my hands on, and I would record people drumming and then take that and put it in, and then record bits of European radio and talking … using the Dictaphone and just kind of making these … they’re more like art collages with sound, really. Just how my brain works. That was the first stuff that I brought back to him. I’d just show him what I made as a present: ‘Here you go.’”

“I know it sounds a bit stupid saying ‘sound collages,’ but it really was,” Hince marvels. “It was like somebody who just didn’t know how to write songs, almost like someone that hadn’t heard a song before. She was making these things, and they were amazing. They were really amazing.”

However, it wasn’t until Mosshart relocated to England, in a dramatic (and comedic) fashion, that Hince realized that this was going to be a real band.

“When Alison moved from Florida to London, she arrived on Gipsy Hill station with two refrigerator-sized suitcases,” Hince chuckles. “The doors of the train opened and she was just about to push one out and go back for the other one, but the doors closed. She was inside — and she pulled the emergency cable to stop the train!”

“I got yelled at so much,” Alison cackles, blushing beet-red.

“They opened the door. There’s all these people yelling at her. She’s pulling the other fridge-freeze out of the train. One rolls down onto the track. This is the beginning of my band.”

Mosshart and Hince decided to go by the mysterious stage names “VV” and “Hotel,” but they still hadn’t settled on an official band name or even a defined sound yet. However, that didn’t stop them from playing their first gig, at London’s now-defunct 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street, on Feb. 14, 2002. And the rest was history.

“I always think it’s funny that we didn’t know what we were going to sound like,” says Hince. “I thought we were going to be like an acoustic band. Or like [England] used to have this terrible cabaret act called Peters & Lee, a blind guy and his wife — I thought we might sound a bit like that, like middle-of-the-road kind of acoustic-y stuff, because we’d never played out loud before.”

“We’d never had anywhere that we could plug anything in and be loud, so we had no idea what it would sound like to sing through a mic in a room,” says Mosshart. “We were very pleased when we played. We kept looking at each other, like, ‘It’s so loud!’”

“It just all really worked. It kind of surprised us that there was loads of people were just really into it,” says Hince. “We had a little crowd of people afterwards asking us what we were doing next, and we said, ‘Well, we’re going to come up with a name,’ because we didn’t have a name. We just got gigs booked one after the other after that.”

The duo’s raw, lo-fi debut album, the blues-punky Keep on Your Mean Side, made them instant critics’ darlings with British music rags like NME when it came out in 2003 — but the Kills instantly bristled at the idea of being categorized with other trendy “the” bands of that “garage rock” era, like the Strokes, the Hives, and the White Stripes. So they stayed true to their “anarcho-punk” backgrounds and willfully committed “commercial suicide” when it came time to record their follow-up, 2005’s sinister, sparse, and severe No Wow.

“We were supposed to be a proper band and do the sort of thing that people do on their second record, like cross over and make much more palatable music — and we made much more unpalatable music,” shrugs Hince. “I couldn’t believe that we were lumped in with this new wave of garage rock. … I was so offended by this ‘garage rock’ thing. I really wanted to be anti-garage.” Hince recalls being delighted when he played the album for Laurence Bell, head of the Kills’ label, Domino Records, and he got the reaction he’d hoped for. “We were all sitting on my bed in Room 105 at the Chelsea Hotel, and I played it on a little boombox. He said, ‘It sounds like LL Cool J.’ I was like, ‘Yes! We’re not a f***ing garage rock band. See?’”

The Kills never wanted to pigeonhole themselves (“I don’t want to get into a rut of playing the same songs and same kind of style of music. … I always wanted to be a band that changed,” says Hince), so the experimentalists took another bold artistic detour with 2008’s immediate and at times almost poppy Midnight Boom, which featured the boisterous breakthrough single “Sour Cherry” and production from Alex Epton of Baltimore indie/hip-hop act Spank Rock. Then the duo’s dynamic changed even more during the making of their fourth album, 2011’s Blood Pressures, as Hince settled into domestic bliss with Moss while Mosshart hit the road with the Dead Weather.

“I started a relationship — I settled down, really,” Hince recalls. “My ex-wife’s social group is a real social environment. There was always tons of people around, and you were always encouraged to perform: ‘Play that song!’ I really hate that stuff, and this is the first time that I broke through it, and it was enjoyable. ‘My God, it’s enjoyable!’ It was actually quite encouraging getting feedback from people when you were writing a song. They’d go, ‘I love that,’ so you think in your head, ‘This is a song that’s gonna work.’ I’ve never had that before. Writing songs was always something you did in private, in secret.

“It was the first time I realized you could make a record being happy,” Hince continues. “I always thought you had to channel a bit of negativity to be creative, and really live hard. We used to talk about that a lot. That’s kind of what ‘keep on your mean side’ meant — it was about keeping in touch with some negativity and misery in order to be able to make something positive. This was the first time I spent most of the time just sitting around with friends, playing guitar and drinking wine, which I’d never done before. … I never had an acoustic guitar before, and it’s the first time I was playing by a fire. Just all these songs just happened. It wasn’t a torture for me, like it normally is.”

At the same time, Mosshart’s Dead Weather experience helped her build her confidence and hone her badass performance skills, and when the Kills finally reconvened, the result was an album with the formerly aloof singer’s growling, rock-goddess vocals front-and-center like never before. “I did learn a lot doing the Dead Weather, because I toured so heavily and did so much stuff I actually hadn’t done before,” Mosshart says. “I was all fired up, so by the time we came back to do this, [Hince] was in a happy place, I was just going a thousand miles an hour, and we made this record.”

Which brings us to the present, as Hince (healed hand and all) and Mosshart look forward to another 15 years of Kill-ing it. “The next 15 years, I don’t know,” Mosshart muses. “I mean, I hope it keeps being as exciting as it is, or more exciting, and we keep feeling creatively inspired. It’s all about that — the reason we’re still doing it is because it still feels so great to do, and it’s still so inspiring, and we still have so much more that we feel like we have to do. So we’ll carry on until something changes.”

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