“It’s been a long time coming,” ran the laconic refrain of The Kills’ inaugural art-blues signature tune from 2003, ‘Kissy Kissy’. Almost two decades down the line, the extraordinary Anglo-American partnership of Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince has left a clutch of inspirational long-players in its wake, and that sentiment of long-awaitedness fully applies to the belated assembly of 20 lesser known curios and b-sides from their ’00s manoeuvres, onto a sprawlingly inventive double album named ‘Little Bastards’.

Often raw, intimate and zero-budget spontaneous, its title is a wry comment on these excellent recordings’ neglectful fate: in many cases birthed on the fly to fill bonus-track space on CD singles, they’d effectively vanished together with the release format that necessitated their creation.

Also: Little Bastard was the affectionate nickname that the pair gave to the drum machine which enabled their initial existence as a band of only two members. “It was a Roland 880,” says Jamie, “which isn’t strictly a drum machine – it’s a sequencer, and an eight-track recorder, with its own drum machine built in, and that’s what we’d record all our beats on.” Adds Alison, “We had that machine with us for the first half of our career. It was a terrifying prospect that it might break, because then we really were in trouble. It was living on the edge – and a few times, we fell off.”

The Kills effectively formed when Mosshart took the cheapest possible flight to the UK – on millennium eve, when some were predicting a global computer crash that’d see planes falling from the sky – to be with Hince after they’d bonded during the last days of their respective previous bands. Their early time together was spent bingeing on crackly old pre-War blues tunes, and PJ Harvey’s ‘Four-Track Demos’ version of 1993’s ‘Rid of Me’ album, and forming a rare telepathic connection.

“We wanted to get a drummer,” Jamie recalls, “but it wasn’t happening. The creative side of things was advancing so quickly with just me and Alison, that it seemed like it was gonna be a hindrance having to communicate to another person who perhaps wasn’t as psychic as we were. Initially, I’d play some drums into a tape recorder, then we’d play it back and play along to it.”

One of the songs from ‘Little Bastards’, called ‘Jewel Thief’, actually documents those prehistoric days. “It was done before we were even The Kills,” says Alison, “we were ‘Sonic States of America’ then – it’s our oldest song.”

“It was recorded on Little Bastard’s eight-track,” explains Jamie, “and the drums were recorded at a rehearsal room. Y’know, I couldn’t play the drums. Over a few days, I learnt to play them as best I could, just to be able to do this song and record it. At that point, it really was the equipment and the limitation that dictated how we sounded. We’d grown up with this lo-fi attitude, and we wanted to be anti-everything that was around us.”

“The next logical step was the drum machine: when we decided that that was what we were going to do, and that this was the band – right in front of our very eyes! – it was like, ‘Oh my God, we can do anything! We can do something with big pounding Led Zeppelin drums, we could do something like The Chemical Brothers…ANYTHING!’ It felt so good.”

By the time they’d sculpted ‘Keep On Your Mean Side’, 2003’s debut long-player, The Kills were sounding far from ‘anti-everything’, as their PJ Harvey-inspired lo-fi blues aesthetic chimed with a resurgence in garage-rock values. “When we were beginning,” Jamie remembers, “the only bands getting signed were guaranteed stadium singer-songwriter hitmakers, and it was fucking boring. It was just one after another, so when we started hearing The White Stripes and The Strokes on the radio, it felt like it gave validity to what we were messing around with in our little cupboard, with our little amps and broken tape recorders.”

“But then as soon we started getting picked up on that wave, we resented it like fuck. Like, ‘We are NOT part of that!’ We definitely had our foot firmly on the throttle, we didn’t want to put the brakes on, but we spent a lot of the next two or three records steering it in a different way, or at least attempting to.”

So, 2005’s ‘No Wow’ was conceptually motivated by the idea of bridging between two super-cool but seemingly irreconcilable New York music traditions – the technologically enhanced disco of Studio 54, and the scuzzy art-punk of CBGB’s – which Hince once laughingly noted was “less a Suicide record, more like a commercial suicide record”. The Kills’ imperative to find contemporary ways of sounding raw saw them enlist noizy Baltimore hip hop producer Armani XXXchange, best known for Spank Rock’s ‘YoYoYoYoYo’ album, for their own newly bass-bumpin’ ‘Midnight Boom’ in ’08.

Fast forward twelve years and ‘Little Bastards’ anthologises the tracks that fell between the cracks in that first-three-albums narrative. It tells a different and very disparate story.

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Mosshart, the whirlwind perma-creative who even matches Jack White for pace in parallel band The Dead Weather, has recently diversified further into solo recordings, publishing and spoken-word, issuing recent AA side single ‘Rise’/’It Ain’t Water’ an automotively themed scrapbook ‘Car Ma’, and the accompanying Third Man Records spoken word album, ‘Sound Wheel’. Within The Kills, she’s very much the in-house hare, while Hince freely admits he’s the tortoise, labouring over all the material they’ve spirited up together, discarding umpteen tracks and ultimately sculpting a definitive statement.

In that context, busting out ‘Little Bastards’ in late 2020 might seem a weird move, potentially interrupting their momentum. According to Jamie, the impetus behind the project arose from “that early lockdown fervour”, too. “In the early days of it, Laurence Bell [Domino Records boss] was going on long walks, listening to stuff with his phone on shuffle, and a couple of old Kills B-sides came on. He said he ended up going down this rabbit hole of our old stuff, and he came up with the idea of a compilation.

“The one thing that worried me,” Hince continues, “is that I always want The Kills to be this forward-moving band. We’d been getting so excited about the new songs we’ve written, that the idea of coming out with a retrospective was quite terrifying to me. Then when we started going through all the tracks, it was like these are all little stepping stones that got us to where we are now.”

He and Mosshart quickly warmed to these nuggets’ inherent romance as lost gems. “In this Internet age,” Jamie reflects, “there’s so much information and it all gets piled on top of each other, and in music things get buried and forgotten if they’re not on an album. It just seemed like a good idea to bring these songs back closer to the surface.”

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In that first decade in action, Kills album sessions saw pretty much only the tracks destined for inclusion getting recorded, with little or nothing left on the cutting room floor. One exception was soaring curtain-raiser ‘Superpowerless’, which the duo felt at the time “didn’t work out” but now with hindsight opens proceedings with pulse-quickening clamour.

Much of what follows derives from those Noughties CD singles. “Back then,” Jamie elaborates, “every single you came out with, you had to have three extra tracks, or six for a two-CD campaign! So, on top of recording your album, if you had four or five singles released from it, you maybe needed as much as another 20 songs! It was kind of madness.”

Looking back, says Jamie, they realise that this specific task led to a different approach to writing. “When it’s a song that’s not for an album, or a single A-side, there’s something really good about how you go about it – you’re writing in a much freer way, recording very fast often onto crappy tape recorders.”

At the time, the time constraints often left perfectionist Jamie desperately craving a more relaxed deadline. “I remember abandoning some of those songs with a lump in my throat, sort of frustrated and a bit tear-y that they hadn’t worked out. Now, years later, you hear them in a different way, and they were actually all complete. That was the point of them – that they weren’t overworked, or over-produced. I can hear things in there now that work for me much better today than they did back then.”

‘Half Of Us’, for instance, with its insanely skittering rhythm pattern and slashing guitar licks, only evokes memories of Hince “feeling really frustrated at my voice, and how I had this grand idea for how the drum machine could sound, but it all sounded very small – but now I really like that, it’s kind of the point of it.

“Stuff like ‘Jewel Thief’ and ‘Magazine’,” he goes on, “make me proud, just for the wildness and lack of restrictions that we managed to put onto tape – from a band that is quite restricted, by having only two people that weren’t really virtuosos at anything, trying to get these ideas from our heads, out into the world. The amount of kids we’d have coming up back then, saying they’d never heard music that raw…”

As Alison points out, though, ‘Little Bastards’ is “a real mixed bag”, which also extends to demos and radio recordings (the bubblingly molten XFM session take on ‘Love Is A Deserter’ is a highlight) and some mouth-watering cover versions. These range from an uncharacteristically jazzy stab at ‘I Call It Art’ (their contribution to a Serge Gainsbourg compilation), right through to ‘Sugar Baby’ by Appalachian banjo-picker Dock Boggs, rendered in a pulsating psych-rock idiom akin to primetime Spacemen 3, and a tilt at Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ immortal ‘I Put A Spell On You’ weirded up à la Can’s ‘Mushroom’.

“I used to play Alison so much music – records and artists she hadn’t heard, even as I was discovering them,” recollects Jamie. “It was pretty incredible seeing her hearing something like ‘I Put A Spell On You’ for the first time, then trying it ourselves and hearing her sing it, and then being in the studio the next day doing it. That was how we rolled! It was like, ‘We’ve got to get this! Quick – learn it! Press ‘record’!’ And we’d come out with this crazy, overexcited interpretation of a song that everyone else had got jaded by.”

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If 2002’s ‘Jewel Thief’ is the starting bookend for the timespan of ‘Little Bastards’, the other extremity is marked by the Cabaret Voltaire-cover-Dylan clatterings of ’09’s ‘Raise Me’. Also from that era, ‘London Hates You’ derives from the B-side of the previous year’s ‘Tape Song’ single, and features a time-honoured ’60s beat generated by Alex Epton.

“When he played it back,” Jamie laughs, “I was like, ‘That’s just fucking Phil Spector!’ He was like, ‘Listen to the song!’ Then it was like, ‘Hmm, yeah, I suppose it does work!’ We were really butting heads, me and Alex. We didn’t speak for a while after, but a few years after, I got the most beautiful email from him, saying, ‘Now I realise that was one of the most important records I made’. I was like, ‘I feel the same, mate!’”

By the time The Kills returned to the fray with 2011’s ‘Blood Pressures’, single formatting had drifted from CD and MP3 towards streaming and there was no requirement for hastily coined auxiliary music. By then, Little Bastard had been consigned to the great electro-dump in the sky, and the future-forward duo’s onward march took them far beyond the often scratchy sonics documented on this present compilation.

“It’s awesome to be so far away from that place,” says Alison today, “and to see it now. It’s been fascinating going through the tracks – it turned into a double LP in the blink of an eye. I also started going through all the old footage from back then, which I’ve never spent any time with – the shows, us touring around. The record sleeve is all old photo-booth pictures from those years, from all over the world. we were always constantly hunting for photo booths on the road. I’ve been saving those things forever, and I enjoyed putting them together for this.”

Listening to the aural contents within may prompt a reappraisal of The Kills: time perhaps finally to acknowledge their top-flight aims, their fastidious avoidance of cliché, their sometimes unmetered experimentalism, their breath-taking variety while using such minimal tools. They themselves are happy that this hidden trove of music has been salvaged.

“Doing this is a journey,” chuckles newfound Angeleno Jamie, “and there is no looking back, in that sense of being nostalgic about the good old days. But I certainly don’t see that in this record. I’m fascinated in it more like finding a diary that you wrote when you were a teenager. It came from you, but it’s almost unrecognisable!”

“It feels really good as a historical document of The Kills,” Alison agrees. “These are like the back-route, deep-cut songs that would definitely get lost, because they were never going to rise to the surface on Internet playlists or whatever. I’m not pulling out all our old 7”s all the time, so it’s nice to have them in one place. Plus, it’s a beautiful record.”

‘Little Bastards’ is an unexpected and highly nourishing platter to be served up as COVID uncertainty creeps on through winter 2020. The Kills themselves, rest assured, are pointing avowedly in an advance direction. “Jamie and I have this time now to finish writing, and get the new songs recorded,” Mosshart concludes, smiling ever hopefully. “I, for one, can’t wait to share sweat again, and you can be sure we’ll get back in the groove full-force, when the groove is full-forcing in the world again.”

Andrew Perry
London, September 2020