Nathaniel Rateliff’s explosion to prominence in the last year may seem overnight, but the Colorado songwriter has been taking a careful and workmanlike approach to music for almost two decades. He’s hit it big with his new rock/soul band The Night Sweats behind him, and they return to Portland on Aug. 27 for Project Pabst. Read on for our cover feature.
It’s not often that you come across artists that play—successfully—in more than one medium. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince, the duo that comprise the bluesy punk band The Kills, are already unique musical talents in their own right. But rather than content themselves to the musical realm, both have managed to branch out into other areas, like painting and photography, and, to the pleasant surprise of Mosshart, have seen notable success.
Where do they find the time? For most mortals, the time comes by picking one thing and working on it every day. For people like Hince and Mosshart, the time comes by devoting all the energy stores to refusing to pick one thing, and somehow managing to be good at everything.
The Kills have been touring on their 2011 release, Blood Pressures, for the last three years. In fact, touring might be an understatement. The Kills have crisscrossed the globe, blasting their gritty and relentless version of the blues, much to the enjoyment of audiences everywhere. In between, Mosshart managed to find time to join the Jack White-fronted supergroup The Dead Weather, and Hince saw the opening of his first photo exhibition, Echo Home, at New York’s Morrison Hotel Gallery. In April, Mosshart debuted her own art at ArtNowNY, a group show devoted to female artists—an experience that, by her own admission, exceeded any expectations she had for the public reception of her art beyond album covers and tour swag.
Each of the four studio albums release by The Kills since 2003 have garnered strong, positive responses from both audiences and critics alike. The group’s early sound is distinctly lo-fi, with notable punk/garage influences. Over the years, that sound has shifted into a more refined—but equally gritty—energetic and immersive realm. Blood Pressures is the duo’s most exploratory and diverse album to-date. The chunky drum beats and heavily distorted guitar are reminiscent of work done by the White Stripes, but The Kills manage to dispel any lasting comparisons with the ability to dive deep into the muck with a song like “Satellite,” and then rise up into the ether with the ever-tender “The Last Goodbye.”
The duo is currently working on recording its fifth studio album, although no release date has been set. And, perhaps, that is fitting. For two people with seemingly inexhaustible artistic outputs, pinning them under arbitrary constraints feels unnecessary. True to that nature, Mosshart pegs the completion of the album somewhere between “forever” and “the next three weeks.”
Fortunately for us, despite the coast-to-coast tours, the benefit concerts and art exhibitions, Mosshart managed to dig out some extra minutes to talk with ELEVEN about the demands of the being the road, the difficulty in saying no to the endless line-up of great projects, and how she manages to balance her different artistic pursuits on a daily basis.
ELEVEN: You guys have done quite a bit of touring and worked with quite a few groups over the last couple years. So now that you’re in the studio again, are you finding you have a bunch of new influences and sounds you’re trying to explore?
Alison Mosshart: I don’t know, I feel like I can’t really control what I write. I just write stuff, and I don’t know where it comes from. So it’s hard for me to say. The last couple of years have been pretty jolty. We’ve been doing kind of a little bit of everything, and we’ve been writing this whole time. Writing stuff and getting rid of it—I swear we have about a million songs, so whatever this record ends up being, I have no idea. . . I really have no idea. The best thing we can do is just keep writing and recording, and you start to get a picture of what the record is supposed to be, and it sort of leads you down that path. We’ve been doing that, but this is really the first time we’re trying to finish songs—really finish them. So it’s complicated. This could take forever, or it could be done next week. I have no idea.
11: Your last album came out in 2011, so it’s been awhile, and it sounds like you guys have been doing quite a few things in the interim.
AM: Well, we toured for close to two years on that last record, and we’re kind of still touring on that record. I think the problem is you keep getting asked to go play really cool things that you want to play, and I think—you know, we’re a live band; we really love playing, and I think that’s the best way we can represent ourselves is by actually showing up and playing a gig. It can be a lot of stopping and starting, because it’s a really different frame of mind doing live shows and being on tour and then coming into the studio and really locking yourself in a room and not leaving the building for a month. It’s a little bit of adjustment time to do that, so it’s been a lot of back and forth where you’re not quite in it, you’re not quite in it, then, oh shit, you gotta go.
11: I see you guys are going to be doing a show with Queens of the Stone Age, in Los Angeles, and I’m wondering how that came about?
AM: Yeah, we’ve played with them a bunch of times; we’ve known them for a really long time. We’ve all been friends for a really long time, so this Halloween show—they just asked if we wanted to play a Halloween show with them. I don’t know how you say no to something like that. It’s like the best Halloween ever. So that was that, and we booked a tour around it because we had to get there.
11: About your artwork, it looks like you’ve put quite a bit of time into that, how does it feel getting some of your more personal stuff out there?
AM: Yeah, I have been painting forever, and drawing forever, and taking photos and doing all that stuff. I went to art school in college, and all of that stuff kind of came from skateboarding—you know art, music, and skateboarding kind of blew up, like this huge explosion in my head right at that perfect age where all those things led to all of these things. I never thought about showing my work. I never thought about selling it. Not that I’m opposed to it, I just have always done it and then just put it in a stack. I don’t know what I ever thought I was going to do with it all. Until now, every time we’ve needed a record cover or a poster or a t-shirt, something like that, I’ll try to do it at the time because I really love that part of it. It’s what I always have done. It’s nice, though, to be asked to be part of the group show [Ed. Note: ArtNowNY, devoted to female artists]. To sell everything was really mind-boggling to me. I couldn’t believe it. It was totally nuts. So now I’m going to do more! You know, I’m just, like, “Well damn, this is really cool.” I’ve got so much work. I literally have hundreds and hundreds of paintings, and I paint almost every single day. I quite like the idea of work that I’ve done hanging up in peoples’ houses and people seeing them—I don’t need to have them all. What am I going to do with them?
11: It sounds like you have a pretty prolific creative output between touring, writing songs, and then your artwork now on top of that. Do you use one as an outlet for the other, where if you’re feeling up against a wall with a song, you turn to painting, or vice versa?
AM: Yes, that’s how I’ve always been. If I get stuck, I’ll get to something else. I’ll get stuck on that. I’ll get sick of painting, then I’ll play music for a day or two, and then I’ll get sick of that, and I’ll just get stuck or whatever and I’ll go back. A lot of days, I do both—literally an hour of this and an hour of that, and I can’t stop. That’s not to say that it’s all good. It’s just part of the process. But then I also just write in my book; I just write, write, write for like three hours, and then play music for two, and then I paint until I get sleepy. It does create a lot of stuff. But it’s good, you know? It’s my job, and it’s a good thing that I love doing it so much.
11: Do you have any influences? What is your favorite medium to work in?
AM: I don’t even know what my influences. . . I’m influenced by everything. I see something that I like and I like it. I don’t have a favorite artist because I love so many. I love seeing everything. When we’re on tour, anywhere we can possibly get to an art gallery, I’m there. I try to see as much stuff as I can. I love it. But my preferred medium, I don’t know. It’s funny because I’ve been painting out of a suitcase for so long that it’s small stuff, small paper, stuff that will fit in a suitcase. And I usually go with paint because I have no time to wait for oil to dry; it’s not happening. Whatever I find is good—whatever I can find. It’s getting more interesting in my studio now because I’ve got space and I can start trying different things, which has been really fun this year because I’ve had some time. It’s gotten a little bit more wild. I’ll go to the art store and find something I don’t know how to use. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what it’s going to do, and I try to make something with it. That’s one of my favorite things to do—find something else. So I don’t know. My preferred medium is whatever I can get my hands on!
11: And Jamie has been doing some photography, it looks like?
AM: Forever. Since the birth of The Kills and before, he’s been taking photos of everything, and filming everything, and painting. We both do all of this stuff all the time. He’s really into photography, and he’s got about a bazillion cameras, as many cameras as he’s got guitars. He’s always buying them. He literally has thousands upon thousands upon thousands of negatives from the past fifteen, sixteen years, and probably even before that. The case is absolutely enormous in our house. It’s nuts. Even going and pulling out just a couple of contact sheets—it’s a life’s worth of work; it’s so insane. He did that Morrison Hotel art show, which was great. He printed off this picture he took of me and his dog for charity. It was such a nice picture, and he printed it off and gave it to them, and they were like, “Shit, your pictures are great. We want to see more.” And within a month he had a show. It was so fantastic.
11: Did that play into your decision to play the Open Road Aperture benefit concert?
AM: Well, we said yes to that because we love Robert Frank so much. So, anything that has to do with him, we’re there, absolutely. He’s been a huge inspiration, and I think it’ll be great.
11: How did you get looped into that? There’s a pretty diverse line-up of performers. How did your guys’ name come up, do you know?
AM: I don’t know. The people who were organizing it just got in touch with us and we said yes. We met them—they actually came to Jamie’s photography show, and they were all excited. So I don’t know why they thought of us. Maybe because we’re always doing stuff like that? I don’t ask too many questions. If it’s for Robert Frank, I’ll be there.
11: So you guys are going to be playing the Wonder Ballroom in Portland. Do you guys get through Portland fairly often?
AM: Well, we haven’t been there in a while. We try, when a record comes out, at least to play there twice. It’s far, but I love Portland. We’ve played Portland a lot of times, been there a lot, and we have friends in Portland. I really love it. It always feels like it’s time to go back.
11: There are quite a few different sounds and bands that come through Portland. You can’t really nail down the city for a specific style of music. You guys have that really gritty, bluesy sound that has a good edge to it. Do you guys meet up with other artists from the Northwest that you’ve enjoyed playing with?
AM: Oh, yeah, of course. We always have a great time in Portland, and there’s a lot of great bands there. I’m really shit with names—Jamie would be a better person to ask—but we’ve made a lot of really good friends there, and we always have such a good time when we’re there. And I quite like having the day off in Portland because I don’t want to leave. I always want just more time, and I love it. It’s a really musical city, it really is. It always has felt that way. I remember our very first tour going through there, and it was one of the best places we played. People kind of welcomed us with open arms even though we didn’t have a record out and no one had ever heard of us, which was cool.
11: You’re recording the new album in Michigan this time around? I thought I had read you were recording in London?
AM: We have never said we were recording in London, so I’m not sure where that came from. I never know where we’re going to record until it’s over. We could end up anywhere. We could do two songs here, three songs there—the music’s going to tell us where we need to go. I mean, right now, we’re pretty much writing and recording everything, and we’ll see how far we get in the next three weeks. And then I have no idea where we’re going to go.
11: What’s your collaborative process like?
AM: Well, it’s kind of odd because we don’t really have a way of doing anything. Jamie writes songs, and I write songs. I’m quite good at writing half songs and not being able to finish them, and Jamie’s great at finishing things. So, I’ll write like a hundred half songs, and he’ll write like five really damn good ones. But I don’t know, you know? Sometimes I write lyrics to his songs, and sometimes he’ll change lyrics to mine. He’ll pick a musical part from something I’ve written and put it in one of his songs, or he gives me a drumbeat he’s been working on, and I’ll write a song to that. It’s kind of all over the shop, everywhere. And then there are songs where solely one person did all that, and the other person came in and sang on it. There’s not really a “way” we do anything. Sometimes I think it would be easier if we did actually have a way of doing things. But we don’t, so it’s always different and it can take a long time, I think, because of that. You’re just searching for something—you’re searching and searching and searching, and it takes a while.
11: How does that compare to when you’re playing in a larger group, like the Dead Weather, when you have a bunch of different people all working together trying to craft a song? Do you prefer working with one other person, or is it too different to even compare?
AM: It’s so different. So, so different. There’s no way of describing how Jamie and I work. It’s odd. It’s so odd. I don’t know anyone who works like us because we can’t even define it—how it is we work. The Dead Weather, you know, it’s very traditional. It’s four people playing in a room at the same time, jamming, writing everything at once. Really rarely would someone come in with a part. Somebody would just start, and then everyone else would follow, and then suddenly you’re following someone else, and then two hours later you have a song that’s recorded and done, lyrics and everything. And also you’re talking about. . . those guys are fucking pros. They’re such great musicians. There’s not too much confusion or wandering around. That band was really about capturing a moment, and you can do that when you have a live drummer. You can just go with it. You can slow down. You can speed up. You can change.
There are a lot of things you can do. I mean, with The Kills, we’re programming drums. So if you want to change something, then you have to wait a day to make that change. It’s going to take a long time to figure out the next thing that you can try to play to, so you try to play to that, and that doesn’t work. So, literally, a drumbeat to a song can take, like, two weeks to nail down and get it totally right. And then you have to put a vocal on it, and it’s just not quite working. So you have to change it again. Or a guitar, and it’s not quite working, so you have to change that, too. It’s labor-intensive. It can be lonely! It’s a different way of working, whereas the Dead Weather is people jamming and coming up with shit off the top of their heads, and that being the thing. That’s it. Leave it. Of course, I’m sure, the songs could be a hundred times better if we approached it a different way. At least they’d be different—a different thing, a different energy. That band’s about the energy and the moment and that being it, and you just live with that—that’s what it is. And then you write another song. »
– Charles Trowbridge