You're Back Already!? An Interview With the Dead Weather's Alison Mosshart
"We could have waited until after the next the Kills, Queens or White Stripes record, but who knows when that would be?" says the supergroup's front-woman during an in-depth conversation with PopMatters about their latest album Sea of Cowards.
There has been one question hot on the lips of the indie press of late: Are the White Stripes going to split? For the benefit of this piece -- which happens to focus on Sea of Cowards, the latest album from the Jack White-featuring supergroup the Dead Weather -- let’s get that issue out the way immediately. According to Alison Mosshart, the Dead Weather’s primary vocalist, "everybody's still doing everything. I'm in the studio right now doing a the Kills record that should be out by the beginning of next year and Dean [Fertita, nominally the band’s keyboardist, though all involved wear many different hats] is going away to work with Queens [of the Stone Age]. Everybody's doing everything at the same time. That’s how it’s been since day one. It’s a real labour of love for everyone; everyone's been doing all of their other work too and just forfeiting any days off or personal time." That ‘labour of love’ idea is something that constantly seems to come across when I speak to Alison, the primary vocalist of the Dead Weather and 'VV' of the Kills. As she tells me, “you know it’s been such a pleasure doing the Dead Weather."
This is the second record from the Dead Weather in ten months, and the band has had to make a label-switch from Sony to Warner, as the former didn’t feel it was right to come out with a new full-length so quickly. “The decision to put the second record out was like hell,” groans Mosshart. “Why, when you've done something that you're proud of, do you have to sit on it for a year? So it makes sense for it to come out, so everyone's ready for it.” The band’s touring activities also affected the decision, as Mosshart points out “we wanted more songs to play [live] as we only had one record, so we wrote more songs on the road and now we have two records. We could have waited until after the next the Kills, Queens or White Stripes record, but who knows when that would be? At that point, we really want to have written another record.”
The Dead Weather’s first album, Horehound was written over a very short time-period before the band, which also features the Raconteur’s Jack Lawrence, started hitting live stages last year. Mosshart says things were no different this time around. “The time frame was pretty much the same for this record. The songs seem to write themselves and suddenly they're done,” she says. “Everything just falls into place. It's quite magical, but that’s how it should be. Because this record was written on the road we were testing these songs out and playing them to audiences before we recorded them. When you're recording in the midst of touring you get a different sense about you. Things are more rocking, darker, heavier and louder. You're thinking about the audience that you're seeing every night”.
Something that strikes you when you see the band live is the musical chemistry between Mosshart and White. “I remember the first time we played together on stage it just felt right,” she recounts. “I'm from the school that [believes] playing live is the most important thing. It’s real. It’s a performance. As a musician that part is really the most important to me. In the studio you can always stop, rewind and do it again but on stage you can never do that, it's a different energy. It separates good bands from bad bands, being able to play, perform and really capture an audience. I think that’s the hardest part.” Another thing that seems obvious is Mosshart’s appreciation of getting to stick to vocals while performing onstage, as she used to during her days with Florida-band Discount. “Well I do love playing guitar,” she counters, “but there are so many people in this band there's not really any space to!”
Just before Sea of Cowards was released, White explained that the album’s title is a reference to critics who he believes only feel safe attacking others because of the anonymity granted them by the internet. Mosshart agrees that “Sea of Cowards is definitely to do with the internet, but it’s kind of to do with all cowardice. People making statements, claims and voicing their opinions without showing their faces. It’s kind of like being horrible but hiding behind a fucking rock. I think all of us have experienced that too many times. Nobody takes any responsibility for what they say or what they write.” Was the album art, which shows the four band members hidden behind various masks, an attempt to visually expand upon this concept? “Wearing a mask or hiding behind something is quite cowardly,” explains Mosshart, “but it’s more of an artistic version. That image was inspired by an old Captain Beefheart photo; it’s the four of them and they're all wearing homemade tin can masks in this black and white photo. It’s really beautiful.”
On the record itself, there are points where it is difficult for the listener to separate the vocal tracks of Mosshart and White, such as on the brooding, blues stomp ‘I’m Mad’. “I don't know what happens when Jack and I get in the studio,” says Mosshart. “People keep saying that we're singing like each other. It makes the gender more confusing and the story more interesting when you really can't tell. Maybe that just happens naturally from being around each other and singing all the time.”
Mosshart also mentions that there is a quite surprising inspiration for some of the work on the record. According to her, a certain fashion-loving, chart-topping, female artist became an unlikely muse for White while writing one of the album’s more floor-thumping tracks. “On 'The Difference Between Us' Jack had this idea to write the song that he wished she would do,” she remembers. “Seeing Lady Gaga explode on the scene makes you think ‘what is it about that’? What would you want a girl like that to sound like if every little part of it was completely delicately put together? In his mind he thought it would be really cool for her to sing a song like that. Instead, he just decided to write a song like that [for the Dead Weather].”
Something that must become frustrating to the members of the Dead Weather is that their band is constantly referred to in the media as a ‘Jack White side-project’, especially given that the rest of the band aren’t short on record sales themselves. Mosshart, however, thinks she understands where the tendency comes from, claiming that “everybody wants you to do this thing that you've always been doing forever. That’s what they want, they want Martin Scorsese to make the same film two hundred times rather than trying to be something different. I don't think people are generally open-minded when the person that they attach to this band goes and does something else. It’s sort of annoying to everybody. But people need to realise that part of being an artist is trying as many things as you can. You want to push yourself and not sit in your comfort zone. I don't care if people want to call it Jack's side-project, I'm quite secure in knowing what it means to me. It’s not something that any of us take lightly and we're working hard at it.”
White’s other activities have helped the band in one significant way, as they recorded Sea of Cowards in his newly built Third Man Records studio, at his home in Nashville. The use of this venue seems to mark a distinct change sonically, as the band continues to experiment with their sound. “It was definitely a different recording process,” Mosshart says. “Playing to demos, bringing in another 8-track tape machine and playing along with yourself to try and extend songs or write new parts. There were all different kinds of crazy methods. We were building the record which was different to the first time. That’s the beauty of Jack having his own studio, you just get to try whatever you fucking think of, and nobody's going to stop you.”