NEW YORK — The Hotel Chelsea has been a haven for novelists, artists, leftists, Marxists, Expressionists and theorists since it was built back in 1884. Everyone from poet Dylan Thomas to artist Claes Oldenburg to actor Ethan Hawke has called the place home. Andy Warhol shot scenes from his movie "Chelsea Girls" in Room 442. Sex Pistol Sid Vicious may or may not have murdered his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in Room 100.
And every time the Kills — singer/guitarist VV (a.k.a. Alison Mosshart) and drummer/guitarist/singer Hotel (a.k.a. Jamie Hince) — are in New York, they make it a point to stay at the Chelsea in Room 105, which used to belong to Warhol actress/muse Edie Sedgwick. It wasn't the first room Sedgwick rented at the hotel, but it was the one management finally placed her in after she had shown an affinity for setting previous rooms ablaze.
"Edie set fire to a bunch of rooms and her wrists and things," Hince said in a thick British drawl. "There's a book with all these photographs of her ... she's all burnt and blistered ... and when I first stayed [at the Chelsea], I filmed every corridor because I had to capture everything. I'm an absolute sucker for that kind of thing. I'm in touch with what inspires me ... the legends and the mysteries and the over-romanticism of things. That's what makes me want to do things. I want to live up to things like that."
And it's that kind of spirit that inhabits No Wow, the Kills' second album. It's a record partially indebted to rock and roll's bluesy, raw roots, partially indebted to the grimy, gritty punk of the '70s and totally in love with the darker, sexier sides of both. Throughout 40 smoky, skuzzy minutes, Hince and Mosshart push themselves into unexplored territory, sounding entirely cohesive one moment and on the verge of collapse the next. It's claustrophobic yet expansive, confident yet panicked — often all at once. Which has an awful lot to do with how the duo chose to record the album.
"We went to Benton Harbor in Michigan to make this album," Hince said. "When we got to the airport, the people from the studio picked us up. We thought the studio was in Chicago ... [but] we drove for 20 minutes, and then 40 minutes, and we were, like, 'Where the hell is this place?' It turned out to be this burned-out shell of a town."
"I don't think it was a disadvantage to where we decided to record — unless you wanted to go out and see human beings," added Mosshart, her stringy black hair in her eyes. "Other than that, it was so perfect: there was no one there. It was a great place to work."
There was a reason — aside from near-total solitude — why the Kills chose to record in Benton Harbor. For months, they had been hunting down a "cursed" mixing console, which Hince had heard about from two French studio hands. The console, made by a company called Flickinger, had driven men to madness and businesses into the ground, or so it was said. And Hince knew he needed to have it.
"There were all these stories of a legendary Flickinger console that was made for Sly Stone. It was the last one ever made, and legend had it that it was cursed. It caused the company to go bankrupt and the designer to have a nervous breakdown," Hince said with a wry smile. "And Sly Stone held the delivery guys hostage for 10 days under gunpoint and demanded they make the console levitate. And so it became this magnet, like, 'Wow, let's find that console and go and record with it.' And we found it up and running in Benton Harbor."
So, working in a burned-out town with a possibly cursed mixing board, the Kills cranked out No Wow in just three and a half weeks, ripping through songs at a self-imposed frantic pace. Some artists prefer to make albums in cushy studios with plasma TVs on every wall and a PS2 in every corner. The Kills chose quite the opposite, which is what makes No Wow both most difficult thing they've ever done and a blistering, brooding success.
"It's a weird thing, making a second record," Mosshart said. "You can either be thinking about how weird and scary it is, or you can make something drastic and make it impossible for yourself. We chose the latter."
"There's a million different ways to make a record," Hince added, "and for me, my favorite songs we've written weren't things we labored over. They were things that came out as a gut reaction, and there's a real beauty about that. My favorite songs were written in 20 minutes, so we wanted to make an album filled of songs we'd made in 20 minutes."