Ask any artist who has been in the game for a while, and they’ll likely agree that the concept of a concise discography can become a bit… messy. Perhaps you’ll start with good intentions, with plans to simply release your works solely on albums and EPs, but before long, B-sides, compilations, and radio appearances add footnotes to the discography, turning it from a minimalist’s dream into an unwieldy mass of music. At least, that’s how The Kills’ discography turned out.
Since first forming The Kills close to two decades ago, founding members Alison “VV” Mosshart and Jamie “Hotel” Hince have been prolific composers. Their five studio albums, five EPs, two studio albums, and numerous singles serve as a testament to this. But now, in a year which theoretically should have brought with it another new album from the pair, they’ve closing the book on 2020 with the release of Little Bastards, a collection of rarities from the band’s early years.
Announced back in October, the compilation is officially released on Friday, and features a veritable treasure trove of content for fans of The Kills. Giving a taste of what was to come by way of a demo for the 2009 track “Raise Me”, Little Bastards is more than just a collection of offcuts. It features tracks previously released exclusively on vinyl, as B-sides, on compilations, as digital bonus tracks, and even recorded for radio sessions but never saw an official release.
Both an interesting look at the early years of The Kills, and a way of collating their musical loose ends for easy access, Little Bastards sounds less like a collection of wayward tracks and more like a profile of just how prolific and accomplished the pair have been over the years.
In anticipation of the compilation’s release, Jamie Hince spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about its origins, the material that is showcased, and what’s next for The Kills.
Firstly, congrats on the forthcoming compilation as well. It’s a great opportunity for fans to revisit some old tracks and hear ones others they’ve not heard before.
I remember [Domino Records head] Lawrence Bell coming up with the idea for it. I was just sort of in “writing these songs” mode, because y’know, we’re well into writing a new album, so I sort of said, “Well, that’s the last thing I need [laughs]; to do some retrospective thing.”
Then he kind of sent me playlists and ideas that he had, and I don’t know, his enthusiasm for it all was pretty infectious, but I started listening to it all, and really it was like a weird diary entry from like, years ago. I kind of really liked it – I was seeing the whole thing in a different light.
Was it ever something you’d thought of doing before, or was it more of a case of the way the year has been providing the opportunity?
Yeah, that definitely provided the opportunity, because, you know, anyone that knows us knows that a really part of [The Kills] is playing live, and since that was taken out of the equation, we sort of started to rethink about when we were going to drop a new record and that kind of thing. So I don’t think this would’ve come about if it weren’t for that.
And also, all those songs were from like 2002 to 2009, and it was a strange time. They were still offering all these formats: vinyl, CD, downloads, y’know? So every time you released a single, you had to come up with like, four songs – four B-sides – and you had to put something exclusive on the CD and all that kind of thing.
And I remember at the time being like, because it felt we were sort of pandering to some marketing nonsense, and I hated it, but I’m really, really grateful for it now. Because you used to write a song in an afternoon [laughs], it’s pretty pure, y’know?
A lot of artists do things differently obviously, where some B-sides are just offcuts from the album sessions. But with The Kills, I’m assuming it was more of a case to just writing to fill the gaps?
Yeah, I think we always kind of went in with that idea that we would have these excess songs and the ones that didn’t make the album would be B-sides. But it just never… It’s a lot of work in the studio when there’s just two people, so it always ends up that you get a sense of the songs that aren’t going to make the album, so you can’t really abandon them [laughs].
I think the only one that was really finished that didn’t make the album cut was “Raise Me” and that never got released at all until now. We definitely didn’t have excess material for B-sides; we were terrible like that.
Do you feel that the albums that the songs were recorded alongside might have been different had the ideas for those B-sides evolved differently?
Yeah, and that’s kind of what really irritated me at the time, was that when we were making them… I remember being tortured by a song on the record that’s called “Half of Us”, and I was tortured by it because I had such a specific vision for it, like, I could hear it in my head. And when we came to do it, I felt like we… I don’t think I ever listened to it again; I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It felt like it was unfinished, it felt like the drum machine and the beats didn’t sound anything like what was in my head, and that it came out wrong.
It’s like taking a photograph and thinking it’s crap so you don’t develop the film for years, but it takes on a completely different vibe when you see it later. But I really felt like that, listening back to it after all this time. I think if we’d have tried to finish those songs without any time restrictions in the way I wanted to finish them, it would’ve been much, much different. And, I don’t know, probably not as good, but I don’t know.
I’m assuming then that hearing some of these songs after so long would’ve been a little bit of rediscovery for yourself?
Yeah. I mean, that was part of the reason for doing it as well. Like some of these songs, like, songs on old singles as B-sides, they don’t make it to the top of the pile on Spotify or however people listen to music now. That stuff gets lost and buried, and it kind of felt like a nice idea to put it out there again.
You mentioned that Lawrence Bell had an idea of a playlist of songs, but was there much more digging involved?
I mean, it started out with about 12 songs, I think, and after digging through stuff it became… I think there’s 20 songs on there. We literally did stumble across “Raise Me”. I’d completely forgotten about that song, and again, I remember being ashamed of it at the time. I’m kind of terrible in the studio. I have these really strong ideas about how things should be, and if I’m disappointed about something in a song, it’s normally because it hasn’t turned out the way, the vision that I had.
Obviously, years later, you forget that vision that you had and you just hear it for what it is. So I stumbled across that and thought it’s about time it saw the light of day.
Speaking to Alison earlier this year, she noted how her solo single sort of arrived the same way, in which she was able to revisit it later and realise the potential this old idea actually had.
Yeah, and I think things change depending on the time. Sometimes you don’t like a song at the time because you feel like… I don’t know, I’ve listened to old, old stuff – really old stuff – that I’ve done and I remember feeling a bit embarrassed at the time that I was copying an artist at the time.
But there’s all sorts of different ways of hearing things, and putting a bit of time between something makes a bit of difference. So I don’t even recognise it as my own thing anymore, some of it. I can’t remember some of the stuff either, like “Jewel Thief”, I can’t remember the “me” that recorded that.
I guess in some ways that could be a blessing in disguise, that sort of surprising yourself with the gift of a new song.
It’s kind of interesting to me, listening to it, how much the sound quality and production is just…How high-end production has become available to everybody. You might even say ‘overproduction’, and it’s really nice to hear stuff that was recorded really lo-fi; two mics in a rehearsal room, some of it. It just felt like a bit of fresh air, hearing that. You’re just bashed over the head with digital effects so much these days.
You mentioned “Jewel Thief”, which is the oldest song on the compilation. Is it correct that it’s origins pre-date the band itself?
Yeah, I think it was originally called “Million Horses”. It was two songs, actually; “Jewel Thief” was one song, and “Horses” was another song. And we recorded it… We didn’t really have a name for what we were doing, and we sent a cassette demo to a magazine under the name Sonic States Of America. So that was originally how it started, then we sort of smashed the two songs together. But they’re the recordings from that time, we didn’t re-record it or anything.
Speaking of the early days, the title of the compilation is fitting for a release like this, but it refers mainly to the drum machine you used in the early days, right?
Yeah, we had a drum machine, well, it was a sequencer called Little Bastard – it’s a Roland 880 – and it was kind of like… In those days we were always getting asked about “Why haven’t you got a drummer?”, like it was so amazing to them, but not in a good way. So Little Bastard became like a superstar for us, like the antichrist that everyone hated, but we loved so much, because it didn’t mean we had to have a fucking drummer.
We toured for years with just this one Little Bastard – no backups or anything – and the show only ever went wrong once. And then we got a tour manager who said, “You really need to have a backup”, so we got a second Little Bastard. So it’s Little Bastards; one and two.
It’s fitting isn’t it, given the fact that without Little Bastard, the band possibly wouldn’t be what it is today?
Yeah, I mean, everyone else thought it was so restricting, but I found it so liberating. I was like, massively into PJ Harvey at the time, and it felt like… I just loved the way she could do an album like Rid of Me which is really, really raw, and then a record like Is This Desire?, which is all like, glitches and electronica, drum machines, and it felt like you were always able to do whatever you wanted without a drummer. So I found it really liberating; Little Bastard is really deep in my heart for that.
You mentioned going through the archives a bit, but was there anything in particular that didn’t quite make the cut for this record? Or could you even have enough for a second volume of Little Bastards?
We would have to dig really deep for that. This was rather easy because a lot of it was released, but just released in super limited formats… Sometimes I think about it because we’ve got tonnes and tonnes of demos, just a massive body of work. Maybe at some point, but the thing is that they were never finished, so it’d be an odd record. But there might be a time when you want to hear a record like that. People would want to hear just really primitive ideas. I love it, I could listen to that shit all day.
There are plenty of artists out there who do extensive box sets which have countless discs of false starts and outtakes, so there’s definitely an audience for it.
I think our stuff is a lot less professional than false starts in the studio. Really, some of this stuff is just weird sort of sound collages of talking with some little riff in the background. We really went out there with some of it, but it never got released.
The first song that folks heard from this compilation was “Raise Me”, and its video appears to serve as a perfect example of the material coming out of lockdown. What was the thought process behind that?
There was no idea behind it, there really was no idea. It’s interesting, me and Alison are really opposites in so many ways. Like, she was talking about how she got rid of so much stuff during lockdown, and I kind of realised that I just accumulated so much more stuff. For Alison, this whole lockdown meant like, “Get all this excess stuff out the way. Keep it simple.” But for me, it was like, “I need all these things to create more.”
So I bought like, an old 1960s photobooth to do a project on photobooth strips, and then I bought a drumkit so I could record a drumkit to record my own drums. And then I bought a camera, and that was really the start of the video. I just took it out, and went out driving with my camera and filmed all this nightlife.
The end of the “Raise Me” video, driving down the Second Street Tunnel, that was kind of the start of it for me. Meanwhile, Alison had done all this kind of close-up mouth stuff, so we just started chopping in the material. There wasn’t really any concept behind it. It was really more just like a conversation between LA and Nashville. But you’re right, it really was dictated by lockdown.
Obviously the compilation is out in December, but what is the next focus for The Kills? We’ve heard you’re working on a new album, but with everything the way it is, is that looking like it’ll be finished soon?
I don’t know. I kind of anticipated this question, but really, I don’t know. It’s the one thing that makes me a little bit exasperated, because it’s so important for us to… It doesn’t make sense dropping a record without being able to tour, so we’ve got two-thirds of the album finished, and we’ve definitely taken that off the accelerator pedals, and there’s no foreseeable deadline for it. There’s no point in having an album finished and then not having it come out until like, March 2022. But it feels like that could be realistic.
The Kills’ Little Bastards is officially released on Friday, December 11th, with pre-orders available now.