Midway into a short but intense show recently at Spaceland, the Kills singer Alison Mosshart and guitarist Jamie Hince are facing each other, almost ignoring the audience. That’s how it goes most nights, her eyes locked on his as they churn out simple but psycho PJ Harvey-style blues, bodies jerking together in time. Instantly, the audience is made a part of the pair’s strangely transgressive sexual politics, which goes a long way toward revealing the dark power of its midnight fever songs.
“I don’t normally pay any attention to the audience,” says Mosshart, a.k.a. VV, 23. “My biggest critic is him, you know? He scares me the most and makes me the happiest. It’s just more intense that way.”
If this sounds like a complicated master and servant relationship between VV and Hince, who goes by the name Hotel, it’s only about increasing the tension in the music. The two are not a couple, says VV, though she adds that “everybody” asks.
During the final song in the Kills set, the two are inches apart, simulating the final throes of a sex act, VV’s reed-thin body and black mop flailing, ever-present cigarette flaming, and Hotel’s short, Lou Reed-type swagger given way to guitar onanism.
It’s almost too intimate to watch, and the crowd gets noticeably restless.
But these are the strategies that squeeze the Kills’ songs, transforming them from gutter blues rave-ups to hard-bitten contemporary love songs. This is also what sets them apart from other, more extroverted blues or garage-rock duos like the White Stripes or the Raveonettes.
There is love in the Kills music. It’s just love that’s tortured and depraved.
On the duo’s debut album, “Keep on Your Mean Side,” released in the U.S. last month, VV, the former singer with Florida punk band Discount, and Hotel, a now-27-year-old Londoner and former guitarist with the post-wave UK band Scarfo, drop their former musical personas to explore a dirty blues fraught with anxiety.
Comparisons to indie Rolling Stones-worshippers Royal Trux are fair, and they certainly look the part, with VV’s sexy leather-jacketed dishevelment, but her vocals have more of the power of Harvey, often grinding down into guttural whimpers and howls.
And though she claims she and Hotel were more inspired by the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart than any old blues man, the Kills seem to be reaching past these relative moderns to something old and simplified, a deeply localized idiom without a location.
VV grew up in the coastal town of Vero Beach, Fla., and joined pop-punk group Discount at 14, staying with it for seven years and three albums, including tours with Bis and Get Up Kids. But she never wrote for the band, and around 1998 began writing her own material, which explored dim corners Discount never touched.
“I’m allergic to the sun,” she chuckles, half-joking. “I’m really not like a sunny, happy-go-lucky person.” Then, regarding Hotel, she adds, “Neither is he.”
During Discount’s first tour of the U.K., the band stayed in a London apartment downstairs from Hotel. Over the next two years, the two saw each other occasionally but never spoke. After Discount dissolved in 1999, the pair finally began talking music, and swapped tapes across the Atlantic.
Both were into lo-fi experimentation. VV had been making hers playing bad guitar into microphones pulled out of telephone receivers, for the distant, scratchy effects. Hotel had been making solo albums under the name Fiji, a kind of post-punk experiment on which he programmed drum machines and played all the instruments, including kazoos. The two were immediately lost in one another, and after six months VV moved to London.
“I saw Fugazi play when I was like 13,” says VV, “and I was just completely blown away by how connected they all were. That kind of set my standard, and I never felt like I was working with the right people until I met [Hotel]. This is the person I was looking for forever. This works.”
The two originally intended to expand their efforts with a full band, but when they played their first gigs using backing tapes of Hotel on live drums, it added something special. He recorded the tracks while drumming to a metronome, producing no speed or volume changes, a kind of robotic slam that leaves all the musical dynamics to his live guitar. This, says VV, produces an incredible tension that sucks in the whole room.
“It’s really rigid and stressful, especially when you’re getting into it and you constantly have to hold back,” she says. “It’s fantastic to play to. Everything starts boiling inside your body, because you’ve gotta stay on this thing and face what you’re doing.”
This boiling, she says, drives her to lock her focus onto Hotel.
Now they’re committed to a kind of performance co-dependency, needing each other to unlock their persona as the Kills. Though this can be unsettling to watch, the heat in the music is no joke. To the Kills, the audience will always be paying voyeurs.
“We’re like a two-person cult,” laughs VV. “Like a little gang. We started thinking about having other people, and we just thought we’d just be mean to them. You can’t come in to the secret society.”