THE KILLS -- the Anglo-American duo comprising guitarist-singer Jamie Hince and singer-guitarist Alison Mosshart -- recently made its first appearance at Austin's South by Southwest music conference. Hince, the Anglo side of the equation, says there's no equivalent gathering back home.
"Oh, my God, it's unbelievable, just wall-to-wall indie rock! I felt sorry for the regular punters who were going along to see bands because I don't know how they get to see anything. . . . It seemed like every venue had lines outside of kids trying to get in and not being able to get in."
During live shows, the Kills -- Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart -- seem magnetically drawn toward each other.
Which, it's suggested, is much better than kids trying to get out of a show.
"Yeah, that's true," Hince concedes happily.
Not that that's been a problem for the Kills, who arrived a few years back cresting on a new wave of raw, stripped-down, garage-rock-inspired acts such as the White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Raveonettes. The Kills' first full-length album, 2003's bare-bones "Keep on Your Mean Side," and the recently released, even more primitive "No Wow" are potent examples of the duo's minimalist aesthetic, with guitars and vocals clattering atop basic drum machine beats.
But it's the Kills' onstage dynamic that's truly riveting, with the raven-haired Mosshart initially prowling around Hince delivering fierce screeds about seduction and betrayal, relationships run aground, and dreams and aspirations battered by reality. As the title track of the new album tersely puts it, "You're gonna have to step over my dead body before you walk out that door / This ain't no 'wow' no more!"
As the show goes on, Mosshart and Hince inch closer to each other, gradually slipping into a combustible reverie that seems to shut out everything else. Eyes lock across microphones that now face each other, sexual tensions and emotional obsessions voiced with vitriolic urgency in such songs as "Kissy Kissy" or the new two-part "I Hate the Way You Love" and "Love Is a Deserter."
It's as if "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" has been turned into a punk musical -- except that Hince insists he and Mosshart are no George and Martha, much less sonic outlaws, despite England's NME once insisting that "if Bonnie and Clyde had traded in their guns for guitars, they would have sounded like [the Kills]."
In fact, according to Hince, he and Mosshart are not now, and never have been, a couple. "People seem a bit deflated by that."
There's another important factor at work on stage, Hince adds. "We always get really nervous before we go on stage, and that gets turned into adrenalin and there's the performance. Without the nerves, there's no adrenalin, and without the adrenalin, there's no performance."
According to Hince, it all goes back to the two years he and Mosshart spent locked away in his London apartment, defining their sound and subject matter before going public, only to discover they suffered from stage fright.
"So we automatically reverted to what we were comfortable with, which was sitting in a rehearsal room staring at each other and playing with our microphones turned in on each other. That's where we found solace and comfort, and so that's what we did live. But because of the nerves being turned into adrenalin, it had this kind of viciousness, where the audience felt like we were detaching ourselves from them and deliberately ignoring them."
Neither Hince nor Mosshart were music biz novices. In the late '90s, he was in punky power-pop trio Scarfo before doing multi-track solo recordings under the name Fiji. In Vero Beach, Fla., a 14-year-old Mosshart had founded punk band Discount with some junior high school friends. In 1999 -- seven years and three albums later -- Discount's last tour brought Mosshart to London, where she first heard Hince's angular and abrasive guitar sounds wafting through a ceiling.
As Hince recalls, "I was doing my own studio project in my apartment, and Alison's band was staying in the apartment below. I met her in a bar down the street, and she was very, very shy: She came up and said hi and then went bright red. We didn't speak for a while, but I heard she was a singer in a band and thought it incredible that someone so shy and socially awkward could be a singer.