The Killers: Las Vegas’ best bet
by Nate Seltenrich  Zeromag

 
Let it be known that the Killers aren't messing around. Having appropriated the name of a mythical band in a New Order video that was said to possess a deadly combination of sound and style, they came into being fated for greatness; or,if they failed, a heavy dose of synthesized irony. Upon forming in late 2002, they quickly set their sights on conquering not their hometown of Las Vegas, and not the United States, but the whole damn planet. The perfect  band should expect no less. "We wanted to be a band for the world," says drummer Ronnie Vannucci on the phone from Las Vegas during a welcome month-long break between tours.
At press time, the Killers one and only release, 2004's Hot Fuss, has been on the Billboard Top 200 Chart for 39 weeks. The platinum record is still climbing: this week, it reached its highest point yet-number 8. Hot Fuss was also among ten finalists for the 2004 Shortlist Music Prize, an award that honors the year’s most creative album and is decided by a panel of the world's top musicians.
Was it simply good timing that earned the Killers their big payoff' with Hot Fuss set on the heels of a new wave-post-punk revolution in the U.S.? Or perhaps they truly did manifest the utopian vision of New Order and were destined for success from the start. Well it’s never that simple, and for the Killers all roads lead back to a little town called Las Vegas. Their stylish new wave sound may be derived from seminal British bands like the Cure, the Smiths, Duran Duran, and yes, New Order, but it is without a doubt all about Vegas. Flashing neon lights, the ringing ka-ching of a slot machine payoff, the sharp style of high-limit gamblers-that is the essence of the Killers. To listen to the band’s current single, “Smile Like You Mean It,” is to strut down the Strip in the middle of the day, grinning just to be alive in this hot desert wonderland.
Upon its release, Hot Fuss was rapidly positioned by critics into a greater trend in the music business. But unlike the Killers, contemporary new wave acts stellastarr, the Strokes, Interpol, and the Rapture all have one thing in common: they are from New York, NY. Two thousand and five hundred miles away, in the middle of the Nevada desert, is a destination nicknamed Sin City-a place the Killers call home. Whereas bands that dance stiffly in expensive suits to keyboard-infused post-punk have been bubbling up to the surface of New York City for the better part of the new millennium, the story in Las Vegas has been decidedly different.
Nevada’s biggest moneymaker puts all its cards on the table night after night with over-the-top, mass-market music shows like Blue Man Group and Stomp. But there is a local live music scene struggling not to be swallowed up by Vegas’ glitz. The -"scene" is really just a disorganized, divided assortment of musicians and bands fighting to establish an identity in a city that probably wouldn’t notice if it disappeared. It is in this environment, immeasurably far removed from the hip new wave scene in New York, and for that matter the depressed streets of late 70s-early80s Manchester, that the Killers were able to forge their sound.
"I think the lack of unity lent itself to us having that kind of a vision. We were willing to try different music," says Vannucci. Before co-founding the Killers, lead singer and chief songwriter Brandon Flowers had been in a synth pop band called Blush Response, so it was natural for him to continue to work in that direction. He was only 21 years old when he formed the band with guitarist and fellow Oasis fan David Keuning. Flowers and Keuning penned Mr. Brightside within two weeks, then invited Vannucci and bassist Mark Stoermer to join the group. With all the pieces in place, the Killers were soon brightly distinguished among Las Vegas bands.
Despite their style’s inherent intimacy to the snap, crackle, and pop of their hometown, the Killers did not find Las Vegas to be a fostering environment. Many other local bands sought to differentiate themselves from the style of the Strip, instead favoring a heavier, darker rock sound. "You see a lot of funk-metal bands. Just a lot of really, really bad versions of Third Eye Blind or something," says Vannucci. "That’s why we were kind of singled out from this Vegas scene almost immediately-just because we were doing something very different from what our peers were doing.” Lined up at local gigs with laughably dissimilar bands, they stood out as misfits on the scene: "There weren’t any other bands like us," says Vannucci. "And because of that, we were eyeballed a little bit. People had fun at the shows and we enjoyed playing them. But there were a lot of oddly paired shows."
Another obstacle was the lack of appropriate live music venues: the city leaves much to be desired in that respect as well. "There’s nothing here. It’s really bad-you got the House of Blues, the Joint at the Hard Rock, and any stand-alone venues that don’t have any kind of funding coming from big casinos or anything like that generally fail after about six months. So it’s rough." Indeed, most of the small local venues in which the Killers used to perform as a new band are now closed. Zero confirmed this with about a dozen calls to bars and clubs in Vegas that feature live rock music. Despite numerous well-intentioned referrals and recommendations, the search yielded not one place beyond the aforementioned mid-size venues that had ever actually hosted the Killers: a sure sign of an unstable and unfocused local music scene. But self-destined to overcome, the Killers were able to turn this into an advantage: “I think because there wasn’t much unity in the scene, we kinda set our sights on conquering the world rather than conquering Las Vegas," says Vannucci. "We were always thinking beyond Las Vegas."This mindset helped them to become the biggest band to ever call that city home.
In order to find a label to help finance their impending international takeover, the Killers performed a series of showcases in Vegas for U.S. labels. But the Killers went largely overlooked, with no one willing to "pull the trigger." If the label representatives had only known that the band would soon commercially out-perform similar groups like Interpol and Franz Ferdinand, they might have acted much differently. Today the Killers are the only band with a new wave sound to place anywhere in Billboard’s Top 50, even though many other notables also released new records in 2004.
But the London-based indie label Lizard King Records knew that in Vegas, a small gamble can pay off with rich rewards. And given the U.K. roots of the Killers sound, it’s no surprise that an English label was the first to “see the light, as Vannucci puts it. Lizard King Records’ Ben Durling offers his take: “The whole 80s revival thing was just starting to rear its head in the U.K. and the Killers, American or not, were potentially a perfect fit,” he says. “Bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes had also made it cool to be an American band in the U.K. again, so the timing felt really right.” Perhaps the label was also familiar with that New Order video legend and figured the possibilities were just too grand to ignore. Lizard King flew the Killers to London where the band played its first four gigs outside of Las Vegas. Despite their lofty goals, the Killers still didn’t quite expect this interest from a small label in London to deliver the goods as rapidly as it did: “At the time, we looked at it as a free trip to England,” says Vannucci. But their new U.K. partners knew better: “They have such strong, catchy songs and such great lyrics that everybody at the label was very confident that the album would be successful,” says Durling. “But to ship over 1 million copies in the first six months? The fact that the band is so strong and charismatic live has also helped their success massively, both in the U.K. and the U.S.”
A subsequent U.K. tour with British Sea Power and an appearance at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City raised the Killers’ buzz to such a fevered pitch that a U.S. label finally decided to pick them up, as Island Records inked a worldwide deal with the band. The group got right to work on their debut album, finishing up their arrangements and recording 11 songs in no more than three takes each. Although final mixing was provided by a couple of industry pros, the Killers self-produced the entire record. “We’ve been little bitches right from the get-go about wanting to have 100% creative control over all publishing. We’ve made it such that we can have that kind of right,” says Vannucci. The band refused to allow business pressures or other outside influences to co-opt their Vegas-born vision.
Hot Fuss was released on June 15, 2004, foreshadowed by the monstrous single “Somebody Told Me.” The song, which honors the Las Vegas lifestyle with the line “Heaven ain't close in a place like this,” is still somewhat of a radio staple almost a year later. But the record ultimately offers a lot more depth than just punchy, melodic pop. The album’s opener, “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” is a sparkling post-punk number featuring an exuberant, flowing keyboard track that plays around with the bounciest bassline this side of Parliament Funkadelic. “All These Things That I’ve Done” breaks the post-millennial new wave mold by introducing the “Sweet Inspirations” gospel choir, which is recognized for its past work with Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley. The choir makes the repeated line “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier,” one of the album’s most unforgettable moments. The next track, “Andy, You’re a Star,” sets a considerably slower cadence. It opens with a sparse electronic rhythm track mated to the syncopated strum of a guitar, then transitions to an aching refrain: “Andy, you’re a star / In nobody’s eyes but mine.” Recouping its original splintered march, it fades out as mysteriously as it arose.
A year and a half of touring for the Killers finally came to a close in early March. On his first night back from Japan, still wide awake late at night thanks to the effects of jet lag, Vannucci decided to go out alone, slightly undercover, to check out a few local venues and assess if the music scene had improved since he had last been home. Instead, he found, “It’s gotten worse.” But he’s still happy to be back home, away from hotel beds and unfamiliar places. A lot has changed for the Killers over the last year and a half, and the four Las Vegas musicians who once felt like outsiders in their hometown are now international superstars with one of the nation’s most popular records. Life will never be quite the same. “We all take it a little differently,” says Vannucci. “I myself am just trying to remain grounded and just normal. I’m trying to keep it real. It hasn’t affected us yet too much I don’t think.
“Now that we’re back, we’re decompressing and getting ready to tidy up the new songs, and maybe write some other ones,” he adds. “We’re just gonna take a break, then get back in the garage and hash it out.” After preparing two or three new songs, they’ll pick up where they left off—on the road. The band will spend the next few months touring, including a sold-out April 19 gig at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The official releases of two more singles—“Smile Like You Mean It” and “All These Things That I’ve Done”—will likely draw an ever-greater number of fans to subsequent performances. The tour will culminate with a few shows supporting U2 in Europe as well as summer festival appearances both here and abroad.
Vannucci expects recording for a second album to take place sometime around November, with a potential release date in early 2006. As for how it might sound? None of the new songs they’ve worked on thus far sound too different from anything on Hot Fuss, but there are certainly some new ideas percolating below the surface. “We’ll see what happens,” says Vannucci. “We’re just interested in writing some good songs, and having some songs that people can cling to and own and be part of.”

Pull Quotes:
"I think because there wasn’t much unity in the scene, we kinda set our sights on conquering the world rather than conquering Las Vegas."

"We’ve been little bitches right from the get-go about wanting to have 100% creative control over all publishing. We've made it such that we can have that kind of right."

 

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