Having just pumped each other full of bullet holes, Dead Weather cohorts Jack White and Alison Mosshart decided to relax with a visit to the childhood home of their shared musical hero, Captain Beefheart.
"We were covered in blood," Mosshart says fondly of the July pilgrimage. "Fake blood from head to toe, with 70 bullet holes through us. You know, we were just totally gross. We showed up at his house and left a bunch of beetle shells — dead beetles we'd found in the desert — and some burned sticks under his tree. It just seemed appropriate!"
Mosshart says the family now living in the Lancaster, Calif., house had never heard of the eccentric musical genius who had spent years there listening to R&B singles with schoolmate Frank Zappa.
"A bunch of dudes with no shirts came out of the house, and they had no idea who he was. And because we were all covered in blood and we had the film crew with us, all these kids were coming out of their houses and were like, 'Is this an episode of Cops?'"
The ultra-violent video for Dead Weather's second single, "Treat Me Like Your Mother," plainly suggests a band that's gotten in touch with its dark side. The fact that White and Mosshart are now working together (along with White's Raconteurs-mate Jack Lawrence and Dean Fertita from Queens of the Stone Age) also seems like a validation of decade-long comparisons between their best-known bands, the White Stripes and the Kills. But Mosshart sees it as anything but.
"It's like a 'fuck you' to everyone who wrote that," she insists. "Jack and I have been friends since 2002 — we've always loved each other's bands and always thought that we come from the same family of the blues, but interpret them completely differently. It's just stupid, comparing our bands because they both have a girl and a guy."
Mosshart already had three albums under her belt with her "childhood band" Discount when she first hooked up with Jamie Hince to form the Kills back in 2000. And while the electronically inclined Englishman and the husky-voiced Florida native have yet to exchange bullets, they did more or less beat the shit out of each other in their "Last Day of Magic" video.
"It's intense, yeah," says Mosshart. "It's like a weird relationship. Onstage. In front of a lot of people. The Kills is very much two people who are equal in writing and stage presence.
"But in the Dead Weather, it's almost like being alone, in some respects, being onstage with three other people. You don't have this one person to funnel everything at, and it's weird. I definitely feel like it puts me in a different place, and I'm trying to figure out what to do in that place."
Night bus to Nashville
The Dead Weather's initial formation took place last fall under what were both auspicious and unlikely conditions. The Raconteurs and the Kills had been touring together, and Mosshart was recruited to sing with both bands after White had taken ill.
"It was the last night in Atlanta," she recalls, "and Jack was super-sick and lost his voice — he had bronchitis and a slipped disc in his neck," recalls Mosshart, who wasn't doing all that well herself. "I had been singing some of his songs and doing my full set every night. I had lost my voice; I had bronchitis. And then I went to the hospital that afternoon and I couldn't speak or anything."
It was a match made in heaven, or hell, or somewhere in between. Mosshart says that White proposed she join him for a recording session the next day at his newly built studio in Nashville, just 20 minutes before the two were set to go their separate ways.
"If I hadn't gotten on the bus that night in Atlanta and gone back to Nashville with him, then it probably wouldn't have happened. But it seemed like a good idea at the time."
The idea was to cut a 7-inch single. After minimal sleep, White climbed behind the drum kit, his house guest Fertita picked up a guitar, and the future "supergang" played its first song: a fiercely rockist version of Gary Numan's 1979 synth-pop single, "Are 'Friends' Electric?"
"Jack was like, 'We should do a cover just to play together — you know, just to start out — so why don't we just try to do this song?' It was a song that all of us liked but weren't totally familiar with and had never covered or played or even thought to. And from doing that, you know, we just went on a rampage and wrote four songs that night."
Is that you choking?
The Numan song never made it onto Horehound, the group's debut album, although it was released as a quick-and-dirty video. ("We just kind of put that out there to say, 'Hey, we look good,'" Mosshart says with a laugh.) But a provocative cover of Bob Dylan's already perverse "New Pony" did make the cut, fitting neatly alongside such brutal offerings as "Hang You from the Heavens" and "Treat Me Like Your Mother."
"I Cut Like a Buffalo," one of the first songs the group wrote, is no less cruel, with Mosshart and White howling, between strangled coughs, "Is that you choking / Or are you just joking?" Musically, the track stands out from the pack with its ominous reggae pulse and Fertita's domineering Hammond riffs.
"The music really inspired me," says Mosshart. "I'd have a lyric that would be quite dark, and then the music would seem to follow me. And then, you know, everything would just get darker."
Which is altogether appropriate for a songwriter whose first album with the Kills included a song, "Fuck the People," dedicated to Florence Rey, the Parisian anarchist who was convicted of accessory to murder 10 years ago and just recently released from prison.
"It's really interesting when young people act out and do really insane stuff," says Mosshart of Rey and her boyfriend, who died during a failed robbery that turned into a shootout. "I don't condone those things, obviously, but I am fascinated by them completely."
So does Mosshart have any elements of reckless misspent youth in her own past?
"I hope everybody does," she answers. "I wouldn't wish it any other way."