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Interviews, Music

Interview: Alison Mosshart Talks “CAR MA”, New Music, & Skate Culture

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Alison Mosshart

Music, love, cars, travel, art, and rock and roll. This is Alison Mosshart’s life in a nutshell. Or in this case, a memoir.

Known as an avid painter, punk-loving fashion icon, and lead vocalist of rock duo, The Kills, and blues-rock supergroup, The Dead Weather, Mosshart has always been a creative force to be reckoned with. And now, after years on the road and piles of photographs and original compositions bursting from the art drawers in her Nashville, Tennessee, home, Mossheart’s first printed set work is just about ready to see the light of day.

What began as a plane ride quandary and a growing collection of memories, quickly morphed into CAR MA, a compilation of over one hundred pages of photographs, art, poems, and original works inspired by the skate culture of her youth, life as a touring musician, and of course, enough muscle cars and tire treads, to satisfy the appetite of even the most enthusiastic of motor enthusiasts.

But before CAR MA officially hits the market and is snatched up by fans, artists, and car lovers alike, we spoke to Alison about everything from skate culture and dive bars, to a new Kills record and more!

CAR MA includes writing, photography, short stories, and poetry that span many years of your life. What was the turning point or what motivated you to make the book after all this time?

It was an idea that I had on an airplane! I was coming back from New York, and I had a really inspiring time there. I’d gone to see plays, a bunch of art, and was painting in a studio with a friend. So, I left feeling really excited, but I had no direction.

I got on the plane and thought, “what am I going to do?” I had basically just come off of three years of touring. And so, this was kind of a weird moment. When you’re on tour for that long, you’re sort of trying to find your feet and something to ground you. Something to do and something to work on.

Obviously, I needed to write songs. But I’d been playing songs every day for three years! So, New York was incredibly helpful. I had such an amazing ten days there doing tons of creative stuff, meeting tons of people, and witnessing a lot of different things. I just started talking to myself about what to do. And before the plane took off, I had the idea to make a book when I got home.

So, when I landed that night in Nashville, I went into my closet. I looked through my art drawers and started pulling things out and going through them. I’d been painting and photographing and writing about cars for so many, many, years of my life. From the beginning, really. I just started laying things out, looking at all the images, and was inspired by them.

Then I started writing. I guess I was in the mood to write and it all just kind of came together. It was endless. I didn’t stop for a whole month! And then, all of a sudden, the book was done!

It was a project where I thought “oh, I’ll make something short. Something cool. 25 pages, no big deal”. But then, I looked up and it was one-hundred-and-twelve pages! I was like, “wholly fuck! This is a book. Oh my God! What am I going to do with this!?” (laughs). So, that’s basically how it happened!

But you know, that’s really how everything happens. You get into a zone and you come out the other side and you’re like, “uh oh. What did I do?!” (laughs) That’s basically it!

(Laughs) Well, I’m really impressed that you were able to keep all of your art and photos organized! How long did it take to go through everything?

You know what, I talked to my friends about this! Within four days, I had all these images together. I knew what I was doing and it was totally insane! (laughs)

I thought to myself, there’s so many connections I’m making and so many points I’d like to make. And if I really were to do this, I’d want to interview and speak with people. There are so many other things in my brain that are supposed to be within this idea of human nature and car culture.

It’s kind of like romance, this connection. It’s intrinsic. I can’t really break it apart from me. Whether or not there are other people that feel that way, I think there are so many connections between music, art, cars, love, and movement. It’s a lifetime kind of thing, and I could really get carried away! There were so many people that I wanted to talk to.

One of the things that happened in New York, was I went to Richard Prince’s studio. He was showing me all of these car doors and hoods and all this crazy car shit that he’d made. I was like, “are you my brother from another mother! What is going on?!” (laughs) We were talking about my favorite film and it was crazy!

I didn’t know all this about Richard Prince. He’d always been one of my favorite artists, and there we were, just geeking out about muscle cars! All the same shit! (laughs) It really excited me and I thought, there’s so much to this. It touches people. Especially in American culture, cars are quite a big deal. My family are all from Detroit, and I kind of knew this motor city vibe. I didn’t grow up there, but it was fascinating to me.

So, all of this kind of fell all at the same time. I was putting the book together and I realized, “this is a much bigger project than I’m actually capable of doing right now”. And, if I was going to go through with it, I’d literally need to carve out a year of my life and say, “I’m making a book this year”.

But that’s not what I really wanted to do. I wanted to make something cool. I almost wanted to make a piece of art in itself. I didn’t want there to be rules.

I don’t know of any other book that’s like this with all these different styles of writing and mediums mixed together. So, I don’t know what it is and I don’t know what to call it. But it sure was fucking fun to make!

(laughs) That’s what it’s all about, right?

Yeah! (laughs) I honestly can’t wait to do another one. I’m obsessed, it was so much fun!

I got a chance to look through CAR MA the other night, and one of my favorite pieces was a line that read, “the past is in the present tense”. It made me think, do you have any favorite or funny memories that came up when putting the book together?

That line actually relates another story from New York! This one is interesting to me because I have such a deep history with the area. Jaime [Hince, guitarist of The Kills] and I both do.

We went there very early on as a band and we lived at the Chelsea Hotel. That was our home base in America, and we would stay for months at a time. At that point, we were on Rough Trade Records, and the deal was, if you were going to sign to Rough Trade, you needed to have your officeat the Chelsea Hotel. So, we did. It was kind of bonkers for four or five years and we were in and out of that place all the time before it closed down. So, this story is about the Chelsea Hotel.

Just before I had gone to New York this last trip, I read a book that my friend had written about the time he’d been living there. And, it was the same time that I’d been living in New York, but I didn’t know him them.

It was really eerie for me to read, and I was having all these memories of being twenty-three. You know, that kind of weird, “two lives passing and crossing and meeting up twenty years later” feeling! (laughs)

It’s very strange when you have all the same kind of memories as someone else! I don’t know what it is, but it seems to be happening to me more and more the older I get. It’s like you were standing next to somebody for years of your life, but you never knew them.

So, that’s what that piece is really about. It’s about being in two places at once, in two different times, yet at the same time. It’s quite confusing! (laughs) But, I tried to explain the weird psychedelic trip, being in New York, and thinking back to that time and what it was giving me. It’s probably a longer story!

Well, I was just watching Star Trek, so the idea of two worlds, colliding universes, and time ripples, are resonating with me for sure!

(laughs) That’s awesome!

You spoke about picturing images while reminiscing. Do you ever see pictures when writing lyrics or find lyrics while you’re creating art?

Yeah! All the time! For me, music is really visual, and it always has been. I don’t know if it’s the same for other people, but in my case, songs definitely have form and colors. It’s kind of like emotions. Emotions can change. The scene can change. The songs can change, whether it be how it looks to you over time, or with a different performance. All those things are totally intertwined. I think I paint and write and sing and play music all from the same exact spot in my head. It happens simultaneously, and I can’t quite tell them apart sometimes.

That’s interesting! I know, personally, as a photographer, one unique thing that stood out to me while going through your book, was your use of film photos. Was this for a nostalgic effect or a different intent?

I’ve always had a camera on me since I was very young. Maybe fifth or sixth grade! My mom gave me an old SLR Canon to shoot pictures with, and in my first year of junior high, I learned how to develop and print film.

Everything was done in the dark room, and you could not pull me out! I basically lived there all throughout high school! (laughs) I’ve always loved taking pictures on film, and it’s something I’ve always done.

CAR MA is available from Dover Street Market. First edition is a limited edition run of 500 copies.

Going back in time a little bit, in addition to photography, I read that you were also really immersed in the skater culture growing up. Would you ever consider painting skateboard decks or giving a car a new, creative paint job?

If someone asked me to paint a skateboard deck, I would do that in a heartbeat! I painted a surfboard for a charity and it came out really great. But it’s funny, I’ve never surfed! I have an aversion to the beach and sun, it’s just not my thing. But skateboards, they’re so awesome! I loved skateboarding as a kid! I was never very good, but I was obsessed with it and was drawn in, very young, to my neighbors who lived next door.

I was five and they were in high school. They built half pipes and were blasting punk music all the time. I was like a moth to a flame. I’m sure they hated it because I would not leave! (laughs) But I would have my ear jammed up against the boombox watching everything that they were doing. I was totally fascinated with it.

That really started my obsession with skateboard art and punk culture, fashion, music, and everything else. I just ate it up! So, yes on the skateboard deck! Just give me a call if you need one done! (laughs)

(jokes) I might have to take you up on that! As far as painters go, I heard one of your favorite artists is Don Van Vliet, the singer of Captain Beefheart. Do you like to play his music or your own while working to get into a creative headspace?

I don’t actually play my own music when I’m working. That’s one thing I’ve never done! But painting is probably the time I listen to music the most because, usually, I’m working on music and I never get to listen to anyone else’s songs.

So, there’s two times I listen to music, when I’m in the car or when I’m painting. Those are two very happy places for me!

Regarding Don Van Vliet, I’ve always loved Captain Beefheart. One day, I was in the studio in Brooklyn and a guy named Andy Taub, who we were recording with, had a neat book. I was sitting on the counter and I was like, “what is this?” There was a beautiful painting on the front of it and I thought, “man, that’s cool!” I started flipping through it, and then, all of a sudden, it occurred to me. Oh my god! These are the paintings from thefair! From Captain Beefheart! My brain just exploded. I mean, literally exploded! I felt so excited and inspired because they were the coolest paintings that I’ve ever seen.

Don Van Vliet’s my favorite painter across the board. He’s also the only one where I’ve gone to a museum to see his work and I literally have to be dragged out. There’s no amount of time that’s long enough for me to look at his art. I love it!

And it makes perfect sense that he was a musician, that he was Don Van Vliet, and that he made all the craziest, weirdest, music that I love so much. Because it’s all so incredibly and completelyconnected.

It’s like listening to one of his best songs while you’re looking at one of his paintings and having the inside scoop about where it came from or where it was. I can just feel the connection when I’m looking at it! So, that was a really big thing for me.

I’ve done artwork my whole life. But when I saw that book, I remember thinking to myself, “I’m really, really going to paint now. And why not? He did it. He did anything he wanted to do!” And that made me very excited.

I remember leaving the studio, coming back to London, and getting art supplies so that I could actually paint for myself. I’d always done art, but this time, I wanted to paint a beautiful picture for no reason. Usually, I design record artwork or this or that. So, there’d always be a reason behind it. But suddenly, it was just for me. That was really cool!

I’m glad you found such a great inspiration! Are you an art collector as well, or do you own any of Don Van Vliet’s paintings?

I do have one of his paintings. I saved up for four years to buy one and I’m actually looking at it right now, here in London! (laughs)

That was the first artwork I ever bought. And it was one of his! Since then, I’ve purchased a few more things. There are a lot of photographs that I’ve bought over the years, as well as some small pieces and works on paper. I don’t have a ton of other people’s art because it’s a lot of money. But I’d be very happy to own quite a few more of his works. If I saved up enough again, I’d probably go right back to the Michael Werner Gallery and buy another Don Van Vliet!

That’s awesome that you have a piece of his

Yeah! (laughs) I was shaking when I bought it! I’m not even joking. It was such a big deal to me!

I can imagine! (laughs) In addition to the art world, you’re also the lead vocalist for two different bands. One of which, The Kills, just teamed up with Seagram’s 7 Crown Whiskey to release a 7” vinyl for National Dive Bar Day. What inspired that collaboration?

It’s funny, they called us up and said, “do you like dive bars?” And we’re like, “well…yeah! We live in them!” (laughs) We started our first tours there, and still to this day, we play in them. Without dive bars, we wouldn’t be a band. That’s a fact! You need somewhere to perform where there’s only going to be twenty people watching you. Somewhere that only twenty people can sit in a room. You need that! On the first American tour we ever went on, we were driving a two-door car with amps on our laps across the entire country, in a big circle for three months. We played in dive bars, and it was awesome!

They really saved our lives. And to this day, when we’re on tour, we still go back to the places that we first played in. That’s where we want to hang out. That’s where we want to go after our shows. You know? They’re these little homes away from home.

I think dive bars are so important in communities. They’re literally where everybody gets together to talk, meet, and make plans. It’s the local watering hole and it’s important. I just hate every time when one of the places that I grew up going to, loved, and have made so many memories in, closes down. It sucks! I hate getting back to a town, say like somewhere in Chicago, where my spot is now a condo. It really bums me out. So, this is kind of what that initiative was about. It was about saving those places and bringing people’s attention to it. Getting people to go out and celebrate areas that are beautiful and family run and very much a part of their communities. I think we were a good fit. When they asked us, we had so much to say about it. We told them, “this is basically where we hang out every day!” (laughs)

In regards to the 7” vinyl you’re releasing for the project, I was curious, why B-Side tracks?

They wanted things that hadn’t been massively released and songs that not many people had heard. Something very specific. Almost like a song that we would have written in a dive bar. And I think those two definitely qualify!

Because, that’s the other thing, dive bars are where we would hang out. That’s where we’d write in our journals. That’s where we came up with ideas, and where we’d sit and drink and figure out songs. So, those two tracks definitely filled the category of being authentic to the idea of creating and working in spaces when you don’t have anywhere else to go, which is a reality when you’re in a band on the road.

I like that, keeping the spirit alive! 

(laughs) I’m definitely trying to!

Between your two bands, The Kills and The Dead Weather, do you have any new music or other projects in the works right now?

There are always new things! I’ve been writing a lot of songs for a lot of little projects. And right now, Jaime and I are writing for our next record. It’s becoming more and more exciting by the day! So, we’ve got a ton of stuff kicking around. Aside from that, I think that’s about it. (jokes) I know I’d like to write about six more books right now, but I’ll hold off! I’ll let this book come out first, and then we’ll see! (laughs)

Jaime and I just really want to get another Kills record out and get back on tour. We toured for three years and we swore that we really needed a lot of time off. But now, we’re both set. We hate being home. We’re ready again, and it’s so sick! (jokes) We keep saying, what’s next, what’s next?! (laughs) Vacation’s over, I guess!

(laughs) Well, we, the fans, are ready for you!

Thanks! (laughs)

To wrap things up, I have a couple fun fill-in-the-blank questions. Would you like to give it a go?

Sure!

If I could travel anywhere, it would be…

I’d like to go somewhere I’ve never been, but there’s not that many places left! Right now, in my current mood, I’d like to go back to Mexico City. I really miss it, and have been all week!

One song on my summer playlist is…

I’m definitely going to give a shout out to The Raconteurs’ new album, Help Us Stranger, because I listened to it four times in a row this morning and it’s fucking great!

It’s funny to hear the album in London because I just had an entire epiphany. I listened to it in Nashville and I see those guys every day. I thought, “yeah, it’s really good”. But then, I got to London and I listened to it four times over coffee. I was like, “YES!” (laughs) So, that might be my thing, let’s just go with the whole album!

If I could collaborate with anyone, past or present, I would pick…

Don Van Vliet! We’d paint and maybe make a song together!

Last one for you! My favorite tour snack is…

An avocado, duh! (jokes) It’s every meal, come on!

 

 

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