Jamie Hince of the Kills on Taking the Trans-Siberian Express

Not so many years ago, Jamie Hince, guitarist and electronics-and-production wizard for the Kills, might have had to give up playing guitar completely. After complications from cortisone injections into his knuckles to treat the strain of playing guitar so much, Hince had to have multiple surgeries and a tendon removed. He also smashed the middle finger of his left hand in a car door, which crushed the end of it. Fast-forward a few years later and one rod placed in his finger, and Hince has 10 percent movement in the finger but no longer uses it to fret chords as he once did. He also had to more or less relearn how to play guitar in his already unconventional, largely self-taught style.

In addition to tedious and painful hand exercises, Hince saw a physiotherapist who used visualization exercises as part of the rehabilitation. Somewhere between the physical and mental exercise, Hince found himself playing guitar again. But during all that time relearning his main instrument, he was forced to focus on a different side of his songwriting, and that directly impacted Ash & Ice, the first album from the Kills in five years.

“When I was sitting there unable to move my hand for weeks and weeks on end, it just made me listen to music rather than just play it,” recalls Hince. “I was still writing, but I was programming drums and concentrating on lyrics a lot more. They'd always been kind of an afterthought to me, really. So I was starting a lot of songs' lyrics just because I couldn't dive in there with guitar.”

The Kills have always been a different kind of band, thoroughly blending together rock and roll and electronic music in the studio. But the band's live performance has a strong physical presence that one might mistake for a combination of vocals and guitar only. However, in the writing of the new material, Hince and vocalist Alison Mosshart brought in more electronic elements than on any previous album while at the same time incorporating a live drummer for the first time. While the band will be using Ableton for the electronic side of the music, it won't merely be pressing the "start" button on a drum machine and sequencer, as had been the case in the past.

Before writing the songs for the new album, Hince wanted to put himself into a kind of self-imposed exile so he could be alone with his ideas and allow space for his imagination. On previous tours, Hince had taken notes and otherwise jotted down ideas, but during the cycle of touring for the Blood Pressures album, this didn't happen, so extreme measures seemed to be required.

“By the time we stopped touring for Blood Pressures, I wanted to make a clean break between Blood Pressures and the new record,” Hince says. “I sort of had it in my mind that [a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express] seemed like the best idea for a writers' retreat, because what I worry about a writers' retreat or something like that [is that it] seems stagnant, [that] you're not moving forward. And there's something about going on the Trans-Siberian Express where it was literally and metaphorically a journey, and that seemed really exciting to me. It seemed like the best way to start a record.”

The resultant Ash & Ice is not a radical departure from earlier albums from the Kills, but it does sound like a band in the process of reinvention, and sounds both more intentional and more liberated. Perhaps the addition of a live drummer allowed for alternate arrangements or learning to work around Hince's physical limitation and Mosshart's touring schedule with Dead Weather — but whatever the reason for the change, this is a particularly vibrant rock record.

Hince and Mosshart also put together a twenty-page lyric zine for the limited-edition vinyl release of the album, an object that reflects the roots of inspiration for both musicians.

“When we were discussing the artwork, one of the very first ideas [we thought about the] bands we kind of grew up with, like Fugazi, Bikini Kill [and] Nation of Ulysses,” Hince explains. “They had this kind of photo montage [aesthetic] before Photoshop. We started going through all these old fliers and posters and gigs, and they were just so fucking DIY, even for the sort of raves I first started going to. It was Xerox art, basically. That's something we've always loved the aesthetic of. And for our very first gig that we ever played together, on February 14, 2002, we did a little fanzine to give out, because that's what you did at gigs. [With all] the bands that really blew our minds, all the secrets would be in the fanzine that you gave out. So that's what we wanted to do with a zine for the special edition. It's kind of sad, though, that when you download a record now, it's art-less. You don't get the booklet or anything like that. So it made us feel like we were being more precious with the vinyl and making something you have to kind of go out of your way if you want something beautiful — seek it out and make a fucking effort.”

The Kills with L.A. Witch, Friday, May 27, 8 p.m. doors, 9 p.m. show, Ogden Theatre, 303-832-1874.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.