The Dead Weather’s Alison Mosshart: “Right now every single thing that’s happening is untraditional”
“You gotta mean it,” Alison Mosshart tells GREER CLEMENS on the phone from New York. She’s talking about the process of recording The Dead Weather’s third album, Dodge and Burn, but it seems to be a sentiment she’d stand by in any facet of her work.
Formed in 2009, supergroup The Dead Weather features Alison Mosshart on lead vocals, moonlighting from indie-rock duo The Kills. She’s united with Jack White, one of modern rock’s most prolific auteurs, as well as Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) and Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs, City and Colour). And the group have made it clear that they have no intention of touring Dodge and Burn, because their conflicting schedules simply won’t allow it.
Instead, the album’s release was an event in itself — tracks were released incrementally, both on limited edition 7-inch vinyl available through Jack White’s Third Man Records “Vault Subscription Service” and through exclusive streaming service TIDAL (of which White is also a stakeholder and advocate). Mosshart explains that the unorthodox style of release felt right, because for The Dead Weather, “right now every single thing that’s happening is untraditional, we’re all trying new things constantly, the music industry is in a very different place than it used to be.”
On Dodge and Burn, Mosshart’s voice is truly raw, one minute full of angst, the next tinged with gleeful surrender. The songs on this album seem born in a series of fever-dreams. The instruments communicate in heated, intense exchanges. It’s heavy, drenched in distortion. Mosshart’s voice works both with the instruments and against them: there’s a tension in these songs, as each of them bubble towards boiling over. They’re unapologetically imperfect, full of energy and light and shade. The imagery in Mosshart’s lyrics can be dark, reminiscent of midnights you can’t help but lose your way in, but it’s not delivered without playfulness. As she sneers, we can also hear her smiling. The joy that’s inherent in this collaboration is clear as Mosshart describes the process of making the album — it’s freeing, exciting, surprising, like a gift.
On the phone, Mosshart is warm and personable, passionate and excitable. She describes the collaborative process with a kind of reverence, and discusses, with endearing candour, online streaming, recording in Nashville, her work as a painter, and what’s coming up for The Kills.
You guys are all such busy musicians — tell me about The Dead Weather’s process. How do you guys go about composing an album?
Well, we just stick each other all in the same room together and then a record appears. It really is that simple. If we’re around each other, we’re all there, the four of us, there’s something. There’s an incredible desire to work between the four of us. We all really, really love to make music, and we love to record together. It’s just like an obvious choice of pastime or activity to do, to hang out. And it’s really fun. Unfortunately we’re not in the same town together very often, we’re all really, really busy in all our other bands and things that we do. So it’s just fucking awesome, it’s like going on the best holiday ever.
It’s like camp?
Yeah, it’s like camp, like “Yay finally, we get to come back, our parents let us come back!” [Laughs]. It’s awesome. And we just have a really great time for a couple of weeks. And then the record’s done. And there’s a kind of air of sadness when it’s finished, because we know that we’re probably not gonna get to do it again for a while. You never know though — it’s like, we didn’t know we were gonna do the first one, we didn’t know we were gonna do the second one, and we didn’t know we were gonna do the third one. Full of surprises.
“It sounds like four people in a room having a really fucking good time”
And that collaborative energy that you talk about, that need to create, is so tangible on Dodge and Burn, and also on the other records, especially on a track like ‘Rough Detective’ where you and Jack are almost literally in conversation. Is that indicative of the whole process?
I think it is, because we all feed off each other. That song’s really interesting, that’s like a demented style of song. It’s literally so far out, so crazy, I don’t even know what the hell that is. But that’s kind of what it feels like, I mean one person does something and the other person then does something and it goes round the room, and you here a song from start to finish. It’s so interesting to hear the process because it happens so fast, and it’s in these bizarre increments where, if I look down at my page for forty minutes, the song’s done. You’re kind of just in this swirl of energy and noise, all so close to each other, all looking at each other, and for some reason the four of us make [each other] fearless — we’re all fearless in that room. And we all are kind of living out our 16-year-old fantasies, playing the guitar solos you always wanted to play, singing the crazy words you always wanted to sing, doing all this stuff — it’s freeing, it’s incredibly freeing, and I think it sounds that way. It sounds like four people in a room having a really fucking good time.
And has that collaborative energy developed over the course of making the three different records, or do you feel like it’s that same visceral energy that you had the first time?
It feels the same — the first time there was an element of surprise that was so enormous to us, because obviously the four of us hadn’t been in a room playing together before, so we really were bewildered by the fact that it was coming to us so easily, and it being so natural — you know, the “Where have you been all my life?” feeling. And that only happens once, you know what I mean? But every single time we write a song it kind of feels like that. I try to describe [it], when people ask me where the songs come from, I honestly don’t know. I’m always surprised, I’m so excited, I can’t believe it. It’s like another little gift handed to me.
I’m really interested in how you write the lyrics for this band. Are they as spontaneous as the project is musically?
They’re pretty spontaneous, for the most part. I’m either sitting in there with [the rest of the band] and I’m writing seriously, or I’m just making stuff up. And you know, you make stuff up enough times it starts to sort of roll across the floor and gather things, it starts to make sense. It starts to change, and you’re really thinking on your feet. So there’s an element of that which I really embrace. It’s a kind of wild way of writing, I don’t think that many people write like that. It’s almost like a lost art, to just babble incoherently and then somehow in your brain, while you’re doing that, start to make sense of it, change things, and work it out. And there’s two or three songs where the guys could get together and I couldn’t be there, so they’d send me some music and I’d just babble incoherently to myself until I came up with something [Laughs]. And then I’d go in and show them what I’d come up with and see if they liked it. And for some reason even that, even receiving music to listen to in my car and singing to myself in my car trying to work something out, even that was easy, and [usually] that’s really hard! I’ve tried to do that with a lot of things in my life, people give me music all the time to write to, and I can’t most of the time. Sometimes it just doesn’t come, it’s not a natural thing, but there’s something about that band — there’s something about the attitude of it, the vibe of it, the feeling it gives me, that makes words just come out of my mouth.
You recently had your first solo exhibition of your paintings in New York, and they’re a big part of your art practice, and I know you’re really interested in photography. Obviously you’re juggling all your musical projects as well as other artistic pursuits — is that difficult, or do they feel interconnected?
I think everything’s interconnected because it’s all rolling through my head. I don’t know how to draw the lines together, but I know that they are because they all come from that same creative part of my brain. I’ve always painted, so it’s not a new thing to me, it’s just that I showed people the work for the first time. So, I guess it’s juggling when it becomes real like that, you know, when suddenly you’ve gotta be somewhere at a certain time, and get your paintings in a long-distance frame to get them shipped, and then stand there and talk about them — suddenly it’s [very] different to just painting in your studio, letting it dry and throwing it into a box, which is what I’ve always done. I’ve got thousands of paintings, I’ve been doing it forever, but never thought that I’d have the time to show anybody, or really [have] the desire to sell. It’s incredibly personal to me, they’re like diary entries. It’s gotten to this point in my life where I have so much of this [artwork], I do it so much, that I can’t think of a reason to hang on to every little tiny thing like a crazy packrat. It’s awesome that people love them and it makes me so happy. If someone wants to hang one in their house, it’s the coolest thing in the world.
The release of this record was kind of unorthodox, with the slow releases on Tidal and vinyl and then the remixed/remastered versions of those tracks appearing on the album. How do you consume music these days? Do you use those streaming services?
I’m wondering if I ever will, but I don’t yet. When I think I want to play a record, that’s still not the first thing I think of doing, I just put a record on. So I haven’t been trained in that way, that’s not how I’ve grown up, but I do realise that I’m a dying breed. [Laughs] So you can’t live in a fucking antique little curled-up ball and be like “Why doesn’t everyone do it like me?”, because that’s not gonna go well. I don’t buy CDs, I stopped doing that, because for some reason I tend to trash them so quickly, it was pointless trying to buy them. But I do buy records, and I buy songs on iTunes so I can have them in my car, but that’s about as crazy as I’ve gotten. But I’m gonna try, I’ve just gotta figure out what everybody’s fucking talking about. [Laughs] I’m pretty happy.
So [the release] wasn’t a traditional way of doing things, but right now every single thing that’s happening is untraditional, we’re all trying new things constantly, the music industry is in a very different place than it used to be, and you do have to embrace it if you wanna survive. And because we weren’t touring this record because none of us had time to do it, we figured “Why don’t we try to do everything differently?” [Not touring is] the most untraditional part of this. Generally a band puts out a record so they can tour. Your music is advertising the fact that you’re gonna show up in town, which is where you do your work, like you show up and you go to work. It’s a bizarre idea, [the fact that] that part’s not happening. So, with that being different, it kind of seemed like, well why don’t we do everything different? Let’s see what we can do, let’s see if we can make really cool films, or just be creative about it. It’s totally been interesting, I have no idea how well it will go, but you never know until you try.
I’ve done the traditional thing two thousand times in my life, I’ve always done everything you’re supposed to do. It’s incredibly time-consuming, and we’re just not a band at this point, this year or even next year, where we can get on a plane and go do press all over the world, and then get on a bus and go tour all over the world. It’s just not possible.
“Third Man Studio feels like the fifth member of the band”
The album was recorded at [Jack White’s studio] Third Man in Nashville. Obviously Nashville is a very rich city musically — is that sense of place important to the record, and to the project in general?
I think the studio itself is. I couldn’t say anything about the place, because we’ve never tried to record anywhere else, but the studio itself has a very certain sound, really unique, and our records sound a certain way because of that studio. They sound a certain way for lots of reasons, but part of it is that studio, it feels like the fifth member of the band. We’re recording on 8 tracks, on tape, which is really nothing when you’ve got four people in a band. Everybody else in the world is recording on a hundred virtual tracks, and it’s really different. You have to make a lot of decisions quickly. You have to be always giving a yes or a no, there’s no “Maybe, I’ll think about it, I’ll go home and listen to it, maybe, maybe not, I don’t know.” This is why you can get a record done in three and a half weeks that way. You just have less options, you gotta mean it, and that’s it, and that’s a certain sound in itself. I mean, it is not the most well-crafted sound in the world, there’s hundred of mistakes all over that record. And you’re like “Well, there was this beautiful moment so we’re gonna keep it.” That’s the reality of this band. “Not every note is in tune, oh well!” [Laughs] That’s okay, you know? That’d be a point of contention for most people when they go into a recording studio — it’s like, you wanna get it completely as perfect as you possibly can, even if you can never play it that well ever again in real life. I understand that too, I’ve done that a million times too. I think the studio does have a lot to do with it, and the studio is in Nashville and Nashville is a beautiful place to be, and there’s definitely music in the air. It’s gracious in every way to the musicians, because everybody is a musician.
And what are you working on at the moment? Is there any new material in the pipeline for the Kills?
You know, I’m just standing outside in New York in the rain, because I’m actually in the studio with the Kills right now, and I just stepped out because there’s no reception down there. So I gotta go back inside and do some vocals, so that’s what’s happening! We’re finishing the Kills record, it should be out, I’m guessing early next year at some point. Like early summer. As soon as it’s mixed and mastered we’ll have a real date. We’re almost there, we’re so close. I don’t picture myself being in the studio longer than another week and a half.
The Dead Weather’s Dodge and Burn is out now through Warner.