A Rock ’N’ Roll life can be fraught with injury—from AC/DC’s Brian Johnson’s hearing damage to Tony Iommi’s cauterized fingertips to ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill’s recent smashed shoulder. So what to do when the going gets tough? Schedule studio time and hit “record”!
That was the remedy for The Kills’ guitarist and composer, Jamie Hince, who slammed his left hand in a car door and had to undergo six surgeries and countless cortisone shots, and has a permanently damaged middle finger to show for it all.
Following 2011’s Blood Pressures, The Kills—Hince and composer/guitarist/vocalist Alison Mosshart—finally deliver Ash & Ice, a freakily great song collage of demonic rockabilly guitars, Mosshart’s vampish vocals, and programmed beats amplified by Daptones drummer Howie Steinweiss.
Recorded in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills (with Keyclub Recording Co.’s Bill Skibbe manning Hince’s Neve Germanium console) and Electric Lady in New York City, Ash & Ice documents The Kills’ ongoing love affair with the road, with punk rock, and most importantly, with rock ’n’ roll.
“It’s always been a journey for me to join together what I love about drum machines and dancehall, hip-hop, R&B and electronic music,” Hince says. “But my heart is in rock ’n’ roll. I grew up with post-punk and the guitar is part of my body now. When I feel angry my guitar shouts. When I’m sad, my guitar cries. We call it ‘electric guitar music.’ If you’re going to have electronic dance music, then we are electric guitar music.”
Ash & Ice is of one mind. From the album’s blazing singles, “Doing It to Death” and “Heart of a Dog,” to such atmospheric summer scorchers as dead-eyed highway growler “Let It Drop,” The Clash-worthy “Siberian Nights,” and reverb-rattling “Impossible Tracks,” Ash & Ice is rock ’n’ roll devoid of sentiment and commercial avarice. In an era bordered by plastic hip-hop and preening pop stars using AutoTune like eyeliner, The Kills grab contemporary music by the throat and shake it back to life.
Co-produced by Hince and John O’Mahony; mixed by Tom Elmhirst at Electric Lady and Tchad Blake at Full Mongrel Studios; mastered by Brian Lucey at Magic Garden Mastering, Ash & Ice spears your heart and keeps your soul on ice.
Proclaiming that he’s into both PJ Harvey and Cabaret Voltaire, Hince says “production values have become more important, especially since I mucked my hand up. I started thinking more as a producer than as a bash-bash-bash guitar player. I’d had surgeries and my hand in a brace and couldn’t move it.
“Then I saw a Les Paul documentary and it felt like he was talking to me,” he continues. “He had a car crash and it nearly ripped his arm off. There was Les Paul on the TV screen with his arm in a cast. And me sitting there watching him with my arm in a cast. He said his accident made him stop and consider what he was doing with music. Without getting too grandiose about it, that really spoke to me. I thought, ‘This is a really a chance to change what I’m doing.’ I was never the most orthodox guitar player anyway. It’s always been ideas over ability for me.”
Hince and Mosshart tracked previous Kills records almost exclusively at Bill Skibbe’s Keyclub Recording near Chicago. The pair envisioned Ash & Ice as their own Exile on Main Street, inspiring them to take over a trashed house in the Hollywood Hills and fill it with recording gear.
“I felt like we should embrace more noise and chaos like we do when we’re touring,” Hince recalled. “We rented a big house in the Hollywood Hills. It’s like our California Nellcôte. It was falling down. I shipped my Neve Germanium console and tons of reverb/dub units and echo boxes and we set up there. Bill Skibbe brought all of his fantastic equipment and we made a great studio in this Hollywood Hills house. We recorded the bulk of it there, for two and a half months.”
“Keyclub West,” as it was dubbed, became The Kills’ home base for recording guitars, vocals, piano, and Hince’s Pro Tool-ed drum patterns. The Daptones’ Howie Steinweiss overdubbed live drums to a handful of songs.
The drum machine/live drummer interface is an integral part of The Kills’ sound. Hince’s clattering sci-fi guitars find their soulful expression in ancient amplifiers and minimal pedal processing, but the peculiar drum tracks are perhaps even more essential to The Kills’ musical ethos. While the guitars’ sonic atmosphere creates a bed for Mosshart’s royal vocals, the drum rhythms—equally frigid and pushing forward—frame The Kills’ eerie, timeless music on an urban block somewhere between Al Jackson and Depeche Mode.
“There is something really liberating about a drum machine,” Hince said. “But it can be quite soulless and relentless. One thing we hadn’t really ever dealt with was groove. So I started making loops sampling old gospel records or rare punk, anything that had a weird soul groove or a spazzy feel. I looped that and then programmed really precisely to that groove. I always program drums to exactly the right groove then put the music over it so it’s sounding right. Homer backed up the programmed rhythms. We don’t break that tension of the [metronomic beat]. It’s really important that I’ve got this electronic thing going on.”
And Hince doesn’t program beats exclusively on Pro Tools. Anything will do.
“On ‘Heart of a Dog’ I programmed this crappy iPod-MPC beat and put it through loads of compressors to make it sound like John Bonham,” he says. “It sounded massive and I never thought a drummer could top it. Then Homer played over it and you could feel the way he pushes. He made it sound a lot more soulful. On ‘Doing It to Death’ I wanted the drums to sound like a human robot, that Roland TR-808 drum machine vibe. I didn’t tell Homer I chopped him up there!”
Hince’s collection of Hofner guitars and vintage amplifiers gives The Kills their ’50s radiation vibe. Ash & Ice found him playing his trusty Hofner 176 with “shark fin” pickups, among other electric stringed instruments.
“Hofner only made the 176 for five or six years,” Hince explained. “These ‘shark fin’ pickups are what I use on everything. They’re amazing single-coil pickups, that breaking glass sound. My guitar playing is super rhythmical so I want it clean so I can hear all the strings.”
Hince’s Ash & Ice guitars—which included Hofner Galaxy and Telecaster, Gretsch Silver Duke, and Supro Ozark—go through a minimal pedal board employing two Electro-Harmonix Polyphonic Octave Generator POGs, two Boss DD-3 Delays, and one Fulltone Supa-Trem pedal which controlled a blended sound consisting of four amplifiers: 1961 Vox AC80/AC50 cabinet, Selmer Treble N’ Bass Mk I, Selmer Zodiac, and Magnatone 280. (Hince writes on a 1921 Gibson L-1 acoustic guitar).
When it came to miking amps, “Bill Skibbe taught me that if you’ve got good mic preamps then ribbon microphones will give you a lot of detail in the midrange,” Hince explains, adding that they used Royers and Coles. “We spent a long time being perfectionists moving mics one inch or half an inch. Then checking the signal again and moving the mics a little bit more. We had three mics on every amp to make sure we had it all covered. It’s overkill but the guitars on the album sound great.”
During tracking, Hince and Mosshart could see each only by looking out neighboring windows into each other’s recording space.
“We used different rooms in the house,” Hince recalls. “The ceilings were high and there was a lot of marble so it was like reverb chambers wherever you looked.” A Neumann U47 and RCA 44 were placed in different areas of the space to capture Mosshart’s vocals. “‘Hum for Your Buzz’ was done in the bathroom of Alison’s bedroom; we were recording on either sides of the house. She basically sang in the shower!
“We always need to play live to feel the vibe of the song,” Hince adds. “That’s partly why it takes us so long to record. When we try out a song we record lots of versions live. Then we generally break it down after that. But there are occasions when the song always sounds better performed live. ‘Hum for Your Buzz’ was like that, ‘Black Tar,’ ‘Impossible Tracks’ too.”
While acoustic piano was tracked in the Hollywood Hills, sub bass sounds via a Korg MS20 and ARP modular synth were recorded at Electric Lady with Depeche Mode’s Kurt Uenala. Hince recorded miscellaneous sounds using Native Instruments Maschine “Vintage Organ” plug-ins as well. Hince’s latest acquisition, a 1950s Selmer Clavioline keyboard, was also used.
“It’s got a whole sub section on it,” Hince exclaimed. “It floored people when I told them it was made in 1952.”
“I loved the vibe of The Kills as soon as I heard their records,” says Tchad Blake from his studio in the Welsh countryside. Mixing exclusively in the box using Pro Tools and an Icon D Control (“It impresses clients when they visit”), Blake relied on a wide array of plug-ins from UAD, SoundToys, Waves, PSP, Kush Audio, and McDSP.
“There’s a big debate on which is better—analog or digital,” Blake muses. “For me, they’re simply different. I prefer digital. I had lots of trouble in the analog domain. I have no love affair with tape. I’m loving Pro Tools and how it works. I can do Peter Gabriel records in my home studio instead of going to a half-million-dollar pro studio.”
When it came to mixing Ash & Ice, Blake went for a big low end, focusing on enhancing the kick. “I believe a bass instrument of some sort needs to be the real low mutha on every record,” he says.
“I like crunchy,” he continues. “I like contrasts. If it’s too clean or too distorted it doesn’t work for me. I will perhaps distort the drums and have a clean vocal. Or the other way around. But I never formulate things I my head. I figure out where the vibe is coming from in the band’s rough mix. Then I try to bring it into my world. It’s an unfolding process every time.”
Blake’s secret weapon is an arcane hardware piece originally developed in the 1980s by Howard Klayman of Hughes Aircraft, called the AK-100.
“It’s a surround sound synthesizer,” Blake explains. “Sony used it on the Trinitron SRS TVs. It’s on everything I do. I don’t put it on the mix. I put effects through it, like a vibrato or a rotating speaker sound or a modulating frequency filter. It doesn’t have great frequency response; it doesn’t go over 2k. But the curve is so great that everything that comes out of it sounds very warm instead of bright and sparkly.”
At his Magic Garden Mastering studio in Los Angeles, Brian Lucey has brought a discerning ear to the recordings of Lucinda Williams, Chet Faker, and the Black Keys, to name a few.
Lucey’s mastering console essentially comprised six pieces: His chain includes a modified Focusrite Blue 315Mk2 mastering EQ, Elysia Alpha compressor, Fairman TEMQ Tube Master Equalizer, Mytek 192 DAC, and MAGIX Sequoia software, with conversion via a 1990s-era Pacific Microsonics HDCD converter “through the lowly Waves L2 hardware, then a Crane Song HEDD 192 for rounding off the square waves with a little bit of harmonic distortion,” Lucey says.
The mastering engineer monitors mixes via a Bricasti Design M1 SE DAC, to a Crane Song Avocet as router to 70Wpc Class-A Cary Audio 211FE mono-blocks powering Canalis Allegra loudspeakers.
“The Kills record has big low end, and some really powerful qualities across the board. I was leaning into the limiter, leaning into the tube output,” he explains. “The punchiness and balance of the drum electronics with the guitar, the song, and the vocal—all of those things had to be maximized. It’s like juggling balls. You’re trying to elevate the single tracks while tying them together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Of mastering, Lucey says, “It begins with a great room and is part frequency balance, part transient-to-compression balance, part distortion balance, and then levels,” he says. “Within those seemingly minimal areas of freedom, there is a lot of power that results in real differences from engineer to engineer.
“Mastering picks up where mixing leaves off, and brings a next-level perspective. We look first at the big picture—this record versus all music—and then we work back into the parts,” Lucey adds. "We’re making a whole where things tie together, while at the same time we're making each single song stronger. After mastering, you should have a cohesive artistic statement and each track should be up a level or three from where they came in as a mix.”