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The Kills' killer chemistry

Greg Kot

10:29 PM CST, January 15, 2012

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The most stunning moment on the latest Kills’ album, “Blood Pressures” (Domino), is the one that’s perhaps most out of character. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince have long been celebrated for their scuzzy take on electro-blues and punk, but the song “The Last Goodbye” puts them in a decrepit lounge at closing time, delivering a sparse, tough-but-tender ballad.

“I wrote that song in literally five minutes, as long as it takes to play it,” Mosshart says. “It just fell out of the sky, the lyric, melody and guitar part came together in one go. But it changed dramatically. It used to be kind of a Patsy Cline song in four-four (time). It was a little more bluesy, a little more straight, so we tried to find a way to make it more interesting. We started roaming around the studio in a circle playing different instruments, trying different meters, and then Jamie started playing the Optigan (a ‘70s keyboard). And I said, ‘That’s it.’ That completed the song.”

The Optigan put the appropriate wobble in the song, keeping it in step with the duo’s slightly skewed sensibility, and illustrating once again the chemistry between the two seemingly unlikely collaborators.

The two met in the late ‘90s when Florida native Mosshart was touring England, where Hince had already put in a decade with various bands. They bonded on outsider art and music, and saw an opportunity to start over, with no rules. At first they collaborated long-distance, shipping tapes between Florida and London, until Mosshart moved to the U.K. in 2000.

“We were rubbish as a band at first, but I always felt there was something there that said we should keep going, because it felt bigger than both of us combined,” says the singer, who financed the Kills’ first tour with her credit card. “I don’t think he felt that confident in us at first; he was just going along with this crazy girl (laughs). But when we sat together and played guitars for the first time, I knew it was going to work.”

Her confidence has been rewarded with four studio albums that have brought the duo increasing acclaim and enabled them to play concerts in front of ever-larger audiences. Though the music has expanded, the “band” has not – Mosshart and Hince sing and play all the instruments, aided only by recorded drum tracks on stage. They come from a long tradition of stripped-down bands that have used drum machines to devastating effect, including Suicide and Big Black, and they have no plans to change that approach anytime soon.

“We thought there would be someone else, but early on we realized how difficult it was just to find each other, how amazing that was, and so how the hell do we find someone else to fit in with this two-person gang we created?” Mosshart says with a laugh. “We were always so secretive, so immersed in what we were doing, that it almost seemed like an impossibility to bring someone else in. Over the years, we’ve gotten a little better at working with other people. We’ve even worked with some drummers as the stages got bigger and bigger, but creatively it’s always been just Jamie and I. I have a feeling that’s the way it will be until we wake up from this little dream of ours.”

Drums and drum machines nonetheless have always played a vital role in shaping each album’s sound. “Every time we go into making a record, the drums dictate a new kind of sound,” Mosshart says. “We change up what we play – Jamie played live drums on the first one and we looped them. We used a cheap Rhythm King drum machine on the second album and an early hip-hop sampler on (third album) ‘Midnight Boom,’ and then a more current MPC (Music Production Center drum machine) on ‘Blood Pressures.’ Jamie set up an MPC station with headphones and was toiling away at all hours, jumping around the studio to no music except the drum sounds, and getting really excited. That transformed the way the record sounds. For us the drums are the backbone, they dictate the sound, and we have to match that with the songwriting and the vibe.”

The drums may be the backbone, but the heart and soul is the dynamic between Hince and Mosshart, in the studio and especially on stage, where their give-and-take showmanship dramatizes the violence and tension in the music.

“I would say it’s never comfortable being on stage, it’s always terrifying,” she says. “That fear and those nerves make it what it is. You’re on stage facing a bunch of people playing something you put your whole heart and soul into. There’s so much different energy flying around. The idea of it is so insane, but it makes us react a certain way. I can’t remember doing good shows. You come off and it’s like you went somewhere else. And then there are shows where things are breaking and the sound is bad, and you’re thrown out of that dream world and you have to face the reality that it is not going how you want it to go.”

When all else fails, the Kills inevitably salvage the evening by just being themselves – two people with an undefined chemistry.

“I think some of it has to do with just watching a male and female interact onstage,” Mosshart says. “It allows a lot of flipped scripts. You get both sides of the stories, you get role changes, confusion, you get everything. But it’s also precarious. I don’t want to dissect something that works, but you can feel the difference straight away when something works and is meant to be and when it’s not. It makes you appreciate how hard it is to find that person, that band, that thing that works. You can go through your whole musical career looking for it. So I feel lucky to be hear talking about it now.”

greg@gregkot.com

The Kills: 8 p.m. Friday at the Riviera, 4746 N. Racine, $24; etix.com.