Rock howler Alison Mosshart and White Stripes star Jack White head up a new supergroup that truly kills.
Three of them had just come off a long tour and were tired and ragged. Two were sick and lost their voices. One had a slipped disk in his neck. Another had to get to New York the next day.
Sounds like the makings of a great rock 'n' roll band, huh?
"It's a really lucky surprise that we even became a band," said Alison Mosshart, singer of the highly buzzed-about new supergroup the Dead Weather.
Headed for its long-sold-out show Monday at First Avenue, the devilish-sounding, distortion-flaunting quartet is the latest side project of the White Stripes' mad genius Jack White. And it is indeed a great one.
In this case, White mostly plays drums, though he sings occasionally and produced the band's week-old album, "Horehound." The vocals are otherwise handled by Mosshart, a sly rock howler who also fronts the cult-loved London-based duo the Kills.
Rounding out the group are the bassist from White's other band the Raconteurs, Jack Lawrence, plus Queens of the Stone Age member (and sometime Raconteur) Dean Fertita on guitar.
The quartet more or less formed on a whim and a buzz when the Raconteurs finished a tour with the Kills near the end of last year.
"Jack lost his voice on that tour, so I started singing some of his songs for him, and then I lost my voice because of that," Mosshart recalled in a phone interview earlier this month. "Then on the last day of the tour in Atlanta, we were all having celebration drinks. Jack had just finished building a recording studio behind his house in Nashville, so he was like, 'Do you have any days off now? Why don't you come out and check it out?' "
They started out with a 1979 song by "Cars" hitmaker Gary Numan called "Are Friends Electric," which White intended to release as a 7-inch single on his own label, Third Man Records. After hammering out that track, though, Mosshart said, "We just didn't stop playing. We played for like five, six or maybe seven or 10 hours straight, and came out of there with five songs. Then I got up and went to New York the next day without any sleep to do some Kills gigs."
A month or two later, the sessions were back on, and it was clear this was a real band making a full album.
"Every song was kind of written by everybody," Mosshart boasted. "It all really came out of old-fashioned jamming. Someone would play something, and someone would play something else off of that. I was writing lyrics 2,000 miles an hour to keep up. It was all very spontaneous and thrilling."
Balancing between bands
"Horehound" is indeed a thriller. Over 11 tracks, it bounces, bobs and bleeds between Led Zeppelin-style blues-rock bombast to more hyper, punky gems that don't sound too far off from the White Stripes, if the Stripes had a woman out front and White was playing all his instruments at once at top volume.
The lyrics match the music's dark, bleary-eyed style and are full of bad intentions, like in the hard-pounding grinder "Hang You From the Heavens," when Mosshart sings, "I'd like to grab you by the hair and hang you from the heavens." She and White also trade off wicked verses in the freaky single "Treat Me Like Your Mother," fueled by a maniacal boy/girl dynamic that's one of the most fascinating things about the Dead Weather.
Both Mosshart and White already had a knack for writing from the perspective of the opposite sex. The gender-bending also plays out coolly in their remake of Bob Dylan's late-'70s, Christian-era "New Pony," which has been interpreted by some Dylanologists as a heaven-vs.-hell look at divorce and affairs. It's full of the electric spontaneity at the heart of the album.
Mosshart had not heard the song before they rehearsed it. "The lyrics blew me away," she said. "They're really dark and weird and obviously sung from a man's perspective, so we thought we'd have an interesting twist on it. In the end, ours doesn't really sound anything like the original."
One other big changeover in the Dead Weather, obviously, is having White on drums instead of out front playing guitar. His skills as a six-string player are highlighted in a new documentary, "It Might Get Loud," chronicling a daylong tête-a-tête he had with the Edge and Jimmy Page (opening locally next weekend at the Lagoon Theater in Uptown).
In a recent New York Times interview, White said playing drums in the Dead Weather "makes me reinvest in writing and producing music again."
"For years I've been playing guitar like a drummer," he said. "Now I want to play drums like a producer and see what happens. Looking at a song from that seat is a whole different ballgame."
Never fear, though: White also has been promising that another White Stripes album will land next year. Likewise, Mosshart plans to get back into the studio with her Kills cohort Jamie Hince by the end of the year.
Mosshart, 30, traveled a long way to form the Kills with Hince (an Englishman) in London, having spent her childhood in Vero Beach, Fla., where she fronted an emo-ish punk band. She quipped about her hometown, "There really weren't any kids, just a lot of old people and Cadillacs, and a lot of Cadillacs driving into buildings."
She loves the idea that her new collaboration with White could turn the spotlight on her old band.
"I think it's a positive way to find out about them, because it's all music-inspired. One band influencing you to go seek out another band, that's the best press I can think of."
For now, though, she is savoring her time with the Dead Weather -- and believes there will be more to come.
"We did a record. We love it. We're already starting to write another one."
Stopping to think, she added, "We're all really busy. None of us needs to have another band. But so as long as this band feels good to us and people are excited about it and want more, they're going to get more."
Like a lot of the Dead Weather songs, that sounded equally like a love letter and a threat.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658