With vintage effects, meaty amps, and mature songcraft, the leanand- mean duo deal a deathblow to the naked scuzz-rock sound that they helped perfect.
“WE MADE this record in such a different way,” says The Kills’ Jamie Hince, pausing to reflect on how he and Alison Mosshart prepared for recording their fourth album together—a seething potboiler of art-punk swagger called Blood Pressures (Domino). “A lot of the songs came together really quickly, and then I didn’t really strike upon a way of making it until we got quite far into the sessions. There was the vibe of certain records that were really getting to me all those Compass Point [Studios] bands like Grace Jones, Sly & Robbie, Talking Heads, and Tom Tom Club—and that was mixed while listening to lots of the first Roxy Music record. So I had this idea about using different instruments to tug on different heartstrings.”
In the end, Blood Pressures marks a telling progression beyond the keening, angular textures of the duo’s 2008 cult breakthrough, Midnight Boom. That album bristled with compact, tightly rendered and spiky-sounding garage pop songs, many of them inspired by children’s playground chants from a 1967 documentary short called Pizza Pizza Daddy-O. This time around, the scope was more expansive, with Hince and Mosshart working separately and in unison to flesh out finished songs from a stockpile of ideas, and then building up a careful layering of the different parts for a heavier, cage-rattling tone throughout the album.
Teaming up once again with co-producer Bill Skibbe at his Key Club Studios in Michigan made the process feel familiar at first. “I have pretty strong memories of sitting in my little spot in the corner of the live room,” Mosshart says. “I had my [Tascam] 4-track cassette recorder, my acoustic guitar, my microphone and my reverb unit, and I was just writing most days, filling cassette tapes with ideas sometimes almost fi nished songs, and then showing everything to Jamie. It’s what I always do, really.”
But Hince felt immediately that Mosshart’s song sketches were coming from a deeper source; she’s been doing this for a while, after all, and the time she spent on the road last year with Jack White and Dead Weather certainly didn’t hurt. Hince knew his instrumentation had to match the energy. The Kills are a true “power duo,” in the sense that Mosshart belts out the lead vocals while Hince lays down the music with only programmed drums and one of several Hofner Galaxy guitars, which he de-tunes on the low string so he can play bass lines and chords simultaneously. But before he started work in earnest on Blood Pressures, he upgraded his old Akai MPC60 to an MPC4000, and assembled an arsenal of guitar amplifiers to get the big, beefy sound he needed.
“We had all the amps isolated in a separate room,” Skibbe explains, “with Jamie and Alison performing the songs in the live room. He has a crazy pedal board set up with two Boss [DD-3] delays and two Electro- Harmonix POGs. We usually use one of the POGs to thicken up the sound, and that feeds three guitar amps—a modified Fender Twin, this amazing Vox AC50, and a ’60s Silvertone 610 that bit the dust right after we’d finished tracking everything [laughs]. We split off the other POG for sub frequencies to help with the bass, and that goes to a ’68 Ampeg SVT with an 810 cabinet. Leave it to Jamie to have to be a full band, right?”
The big sound comes through like a sledgehammer in “Satellite,” which kicks off with a regenerative feedback effect that Hince gets by setting one DD-3 delay to overload the other. On the steady-rocking “Baby Says,” the main guitar part modulates through a vintage Maestro G-2 Rhythm ’N Sound—more of a suitcase than a pedal—while a faraway Mellotron comes in near the end of the song, doubling the guitar line in the upper registers, Eno style. In fact, Hince sometimes didn’t play the guitar at all; “Nail In My Coffi n” features a clavinet cycling through an Echoplex Mark IV over a stripped and insistent backbeat.
A sparsely arranged song like “Nail” is the perfect vehicle for Mosshart to step to the mic—usually a Neumann M249, at the top of a vocal chain that includes one of Skibbe’s custom-built compressors. Based on a vintage LA-2A schematic, his Red Stripe 5-9c was used on most of Blood Pressures, but figures most prominently on “You Don’t Own the Road,” where Mosshart teases the edges of distortion whenever she goes strongly for a note.
“When you hear that on an old Stevie Wonder or James Brown record,” Skibbe explains, “the vocal is going in way too hot to the tape machine, and it’s over-modulating. I wanted to get that sound on this record, but since we’re going into Pro Tools, the best way to do it is crank up the gain [on the Red Stripe] and let Alison push into that over-modulation. We set the reduction all the way up, and let it over-compress the whole time, so when she’s singing, she’s really mashing the compressor. The only EQing we did was a highpass filter on about 80 or 100 [Hz], just to get rid of that low-frequency rumble so the limiter wouldn’t hit it.”
It was always important for Mosshart to be able to feel the compression dynamics during her performance, which meant printing her takes with the effect, instead of adding it afterwards. “I think I absolutely play to it,” she says. “I moan and complain in the studio if something doesn’t sound a certain way, because I’m playing for the bigger picture. You sing differently if the vocal is breaking up. You start to play with that and use that when you’re singing. If the delay is a certain length, you might lengthen and shorten words accordingly—things like that.”
For all the attention to sonic detail (and there’s more: the studio’s custom 32-input Flickinger console—a fabled piece that was rescued in 1975 from Sly Stone’s Hollywood den of hedonism—was used to add some bottom-end heft to most of the sampled and live drums on the album), Hince’s main concern was to make sure Blood Pressures came across as a hard-hitting statement of how The Kills have grown as a band. Even so, he’s quick to point out that he and Mosshart remain true to what inspired them to start making music in the first place.
“It’s almost like the songs are less important than the attitude we put into playing them,” he says. “That’s always been the thing, which I guess is the spirit of punk, and it’s the same with early blues. When you’re making music like that, you have to be a good editor. You have to know what to throw out, to know what’s good and what’s bad, and then commit all the way to what you’re doing.”