When a car door closed on Jamie Hince’s hand in 2013, the guitarist for cross-continental indie rock duo the Kills thought his career might be over. The injury required a series of five operations, after which he lost use of his middle finger and, along with it, his dexterity. “I had to learn to play again,” he says. “At one moment, it crossed my mind: ‘What if I’m not a guitar player anymore?'”
Listening to Ash & Ice, the Kills’ forthcoming LP and their first in five years, you can’t hear any of Hince’s doubts about his future as a musician. On tracks like “Black Tar,” his riffs are deliberate and steady, more careful and mannered than before the injury. His playing is a fluid conversation with Kills lead singer Alison Mosshart, devoid of the dissonance that used to be the band’s signature.
It takes a few listens to notice these differences, but the Kills had time to evolve their sound: Because of Hince’s injury and other projects, the gap between this record and 2011’s Blood Pressures was the longest of their career. Fans noticed, but it doesn’t faze the band. “It’s kind of surprising [to hear] ‘It’s been five years since your last release,'” says Hince. He and Mosshart were in the U.K. prepping for their tour and spoke to the Village Voice via phone. “The fact is, that’s just how long it takes [to make] a record that’s exactly how you want it to be.”
Ash & Ice begins with its lead single, “Doing It to Death,” a title Hince says means “doing something [so] relentlessly it loses its meaning.” Opening with clean guitar riffs and percussive synth beats, the track signals that the Kills have left behind the crunchy distortion of their earlier work and smoothed out their sound. Mosshart’s lyrics — “I know we gotta slow it down/But when the waves come, you face them/And you know we can’t stop it now” — set up Ash & Ice as an album about the cyclical nature of life, particularly when it comes to desire and pleasure-seeking.
Mosshart says a change of location, a “big thing” for the band, put her in this more observational songwriting mindset. The duo previously recorded at a remote studio in Michigan, which turned their thoughts inward. But for Ash & Ice, they recorded in Hollywood and polished the results in New York. “We invited [in] the rest of the world, in a way,” Mosshart says.
“I feel like you can hear those places on the record,” she continues. “L.A. in the daytime to me is this kind of wonderland, so colorful and bright.” The energy of a beachside metropolis sparkles in the crisp hiss of “Heart of a Dog,” and the rhythmic tick of a New York minute drives “Let It Drop.”
The Kills’ musical influences are also more pronounced, pulling from blues, gospel, and dancehall. “I wanted there to be more soul, more groove in it,” Hince explains. For “Impossible Tracks,” he sampled drums from “I Thank the Lord,” a 1971 demo by gospel revivalists Mighty Voices of Wonder. Hince says the demo sounds like it’s “on the brink of falling apart” and has a rough warmth he wanted to bring into his own efforts. Meanwhile, “Hum for Your Buzz” is stripped down and devoid of percussion, the result purposely intimate. Equal parts pastoral metaphor and a riff on spiritual hymns, its minimalist instrumentation casts an unwavering spotlight on Mosshart’s voice and Hince’s fretwork.
Chaos and near-destruction are themes that recur throughout Ash & Ice, mirroring the fluctuations that marked its production. From the unrelenting frankness of “Hard Habit to Break,” which explores the addictiveness of attraction, to the confessional poetics of “That Love,” the Kills don’t just acknowledge their vulnerabilities and struggles, they venerate them. Despite the circumstances — Hince’s surgeries and the long hiatus — Mosshart says the process was just a slightly more dramatic version of what always happens.
“Writing a record is always a long journey. It’s scary, it’s painful. You don’t believe that it’s ever going to be there until it is,” she says. “At the end of every record, the thing that you relearn over and over again is that it always works out.” Even if your guitar player almost loses a finger.