Drummers Who Made A Difference in 2005
by David Weiss,December 2005
Ronnie Vannucci Emerges with The Killers
Destroying great young talent is supposed to be the forte of major
labels today, as opposed to developing it like they did in some
Golden Era gone by. Anyone who heard The Killers' electrifying
debut, Hot Fuss, on mega-label Island Records probably would have
sworn that they were destined for the typical big-record-company
screw-job: These guys were just too good to get the support they
But every once in a while, the majors make interesting bands a
priority instead of a tax write-off, and fortunately for hectic
drummer Ronnie Vannucci, his group The Killers are just such an act.
Only three years after crystallizing in the super-heated desert town
of Las Vegas, The Killers have emerged as intriguing pop songwriters
who just happen to be worldwide. As you may be able to tell from the
abbreviated time-frame, this is a band that was confident about
succeeding from the very start.
"The Killers...when did I know that was something special? I guess
when we got into a room together for the first time," the
29-year-old Vannucci muses. "They needed some help, but you could
see that there was some magic. We hit it off as friends first- they
just needed a drummer that could hang, you know? I told them, 'Look,
if we're going to do this, let's really do this.'
"I was jaded being in bands where there was always one guy not
really into it, bringing everyone down. I said, 'Let's not waste
anybody's time.' We all had that mindset: We're going to rule the
world. This was our mindset and mentality, in the garage every
single day, learning how to play together, writing songs. And we're
still in that garage."
The rehearsal space may remain the same, but the glam-looking, indie-sounding
rock band's reach has extended far beyond even their wild ambitions.
Hot Fuss has garnered sales of more than four million albums
worldwide, it has been on the Billboard 200 album chart for well
over a year, the video for the darkly energetic "Mr. Brightside" is
everywhere always, and the song "Somebody Told Me" earned a Grammy
nomination. Not bad for four guys who haven't even known each other
Birth Of A Drummer.
Vannucci plays with a spontaneous, high-strung style that
establishes the drums as a voice in their own right, not just a
backing beat. For Vannucci, who was actually born in Las Vegas
instead of gravitating there, the starting point was a kit his
parents purchased at a garage sale when he was a tender seven years
old. "I just got right up on that thing and started doing it," he
recalls. "That's when they thought, 'Let's get him some building
blocks, make sure he gets some rudiments down along with some piano
lessons.' I wish I did piano more, but as soon as I sat down to a
keyboard I thought, 'This is wussy. Give some drums.'"
Growing up in a household where he was exposed early to the sounds
of icons like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and Steely Dan, Vannucci may
have been a noisy kid, but he also was learning how to listen. "I
never looked at drums as pure beating on stuff," he says. "I was
always just into music. The way I was able to express myself was
just playing with my hands and feet because it was easier than
playing the piano. I listen to drummers, of course, because I'm
always trying to listen to what people are doing, but I think what
got me first was listening to music- listening to everything: to how
the vocals would carry something or how you'd hear the countermelody
clearer than the melody.
"I actually didn't exercise my brain again that way until I majored
in music [studying classical percussion at University of Las Vegas (UNLV)].
When I was little, I listened to music and how it made me feel. I
never listened to lyrics, just the sound of the lyric, the
inflections that the voice made. It hasn't been until recently that
I was listening to words and what they mean, which just opened a
whole other can of worms. That makes it even better: If someone has
something important to say in a cool new way, that's something I
realize now is important. I'm still learning, you know?"
Growing up in Vegas- the land of flash, big bands, and top-flight
musicians who could nail covers- gave Vannucci his own particular
set of influences as his drumming neurons hardened.
"When I was first attracted to drummers, it wasn't Tommy Lee," he
explains. "It was people like Buddy Rick, Gene Krupa, and all those
dope drummers. They were smiling, chewing gum, and still kicking
everyone's ass, swinging like crazy. I never lost my love for that,
but of course, as I got older, I got more into classic rock, Stewart
"My parents played me Hendrix, and no one else [in Vegas] was
listening to Mitch Mitchell. That guy is one of the best drummers on
the planet. He was- and still is- amazing. Hendrix was playing
blues, you know, which had a lot of emotion. In order to move that
music, you need to be able to articulate. Mitchell had this delivery
that was just unlike anything I'd ever heard before. He swung the
hell out of something that needed it, needed to swing. It needed to
have this heaviness and this lightness to it. It was all completely
necessary. I thought he was just the perfect combination of a jazz
and rock drummer, like Bonham was."
Heavily influenced by Mitchell, Vannucci's often free-form approach
can take him into dangerous places live- an excursion he believes
should come with the territory behind the drum throne. "When you're
a drummer, playing stuff like that, you're butt-naked. You can't
cover it up with a cool face and looking good. There's a certain
amount of style and flash, but if people are looking for it, man,
they can find it. I look like a goddamn spaz when I play, but I'm
trying to make that connection. I'm not worried about what suit I'm
wearing; I'm more worried about how the music is being translated.
"You've got to allow yourself that vulnerability. I think that's the
great thing about drummers: the lessons, the rudiments, the chops,
the flam paradiddles can be spot on, but when you're playing drums,
you can tell when there's no heart in it. Mitch Mitchell, John
Bonham, and Keith Moon- I haven't seen other drummers have heart
like that. Billy Martin's got it, he's amazing. Art Blakey had it.
All those great drummers, It's difficult to show when you cross over
to pop music; at least, I find it difficult for me to show it
because it raises the question, 'How much do you want to play for
the song?' It's difficult."
For Vannucci, finding the ideal songs to play for meant finding his
fellow killers out in Casinoland. Vocalist/keyboardist Brandon
Flowers had refused to move to L.A. with his previous synth-pop band
but had linked up with guitarist David Keuning when Keuning's local
paper ad named his beloved Oasis as a musical influence. Bassist
Mark Stoermer got in on the fun as he was making runs as a medical
courier toting blood, urine, and assorted limbs- all they needed was
the right drummer instead of the wrong ones they started out with.
Vannucci finally crossed paths with them when another band he was
filling in with shared a bill with The Killers. Each entity was
impressed with the other, but it took a minute for things to come
"I was going to UNLV and studying music," Vannucci recalls. "We
started running into each other. They said they were looking for a
drummer, but I wasn't interested in joining- I was interested in
finishing school. It was a 'no thanks' type of thing, but then they
gave me this demo they made with their old drummer, and I just fell
in love with the tunes. I thought, 'I can really make this better.'
I was mulling it over when me and my girlfriend were on a road trip.
She convinced me, and she later became my wife."
The year was 2002, and the next move was for the foursome to start
writing songs for hours on end in that aforementioned garage, where
the temperature sometimes hit 120 degrees. With the right personnel
in place, The Killers had a fast flow toward creating the
songs that would grace Hot Fuss. With all that going for them, the
desired world domination came pretty darn easy.
"It wasn't very hard," confirms a very cocky Vannucci of his band's
path to getting a record deal. "Nothing was a concerted effort,
really. We said, 'Look, we're all into this. That's it.' It was all
action. We'd play some funky clubs and get the hairy eyeball: 'These
guys are wearing mascara!' We were a cocky band, and people were
taking notice of it. We had that energy that Ziggy Stardust had, and
people were blown away by it. They'd never seen anything like it.
Everyone was green, and we were like this burst of energy, this
fiery ball, and people like that."
A few curious labels started to come and check The Killers out but
promptly withdrew, saying the band wouldn't be anything. The band,
naturally, shrugged the denials off and kept right on working. "This
guy who later became our manager hooked us up with a guy in
Berkeley, California with Pro Tools and a drum room in his house,"
says Vannucci, "and we started making demos which actually became
Hot Fuss. So we were in [the garage] playing 'Jenny Was A Friend Of
Mine' and 'Mr. Brightside,' then three days later we'd say, 'We'll
go up to Berkeley, lay these down, and see what comes out.' These
songs were really young at the time, and we just kind of built them
Something To Fuss About.
While not exactly a lo-fi recording like The Strokes' Is This It?,
Hot Fuss is a snapshot of a band just on the first edges of
self-discovery, those precious moments when they understand their
songs are great and everyone seems to have finally memorized their
parts. With a half-proper recording under their belt, the band
released "Mr. Brightside" on the London indie label Lizard Kings to
high critical praise, then attacked higher-profile shows in the U.K.
and New York City with more outrageous glam bravado than ever. This
time around, they had their pick of the A&R litter. "We did these
showcases, and more and more people were intrigued," Vannucci says.
"Out in New York City, all these record company people were looking
at the next record company guy saying, 'Who's gonna pull the
trigger?' Once one of them believed in it, they all did. We ended up
signing with Island, and we've been on the road ever since."
If that makes it sound like getting a record deal is no sweat,
Vannucci agrees that that's definitely the case, as long as one key
thing is in place. "You've got to have a good band and good songs.
People are always talking about needing luck to get a record deal. I
think it's easy to get a record deal. What' isn't easy is selling
records. Anyone can sign you for five cents, but will your music
grow legs and do something? That's the hard part.
"We just believed in ourselves. That's what a lot of record
companies are looking for- someone with self-sufficiency, who
doesn't care about getting a record deal. We wanted to rule the
world and be an important band and be recognized for that. If people
wanted to take part, cool, and if not, it wasn't going to rain on
our parade. We would have done it anyway. We just happened to get a
record company that signed us and believed in us."
Vannucci refers back to what his ears were teaching him when he was
a young kid, listening to and unconsciously analyzing his parents'
LPs. "You can be interesting, you can be great musicians with really
cool lyrics, but if it's pop or rock music, you've got to have a
song," he states. "I think that's what we're good at. Brandon has
catchy lyrics, David has great melodies, and that's what separates
our band from the rest of the pack.
"It's also all timing. That label may have a different way of doing
things. They may pour all their time and attention into a hip-hop
act or another act that's doing well right now. You've just got to
have a group of people behind you that like you and believe in you.
We owe a lot to Island."
On The Drums.
While everything seems Utopian, Hot Fuss naturally has its share of
detractors- Vannucci, for starters. "I'm proud of our record, but as
far as drumming is concerned, for me, it leaves a lot to be
desired," he says. "It was basically a demo, nothing was more than
two takes. It was the skin of my teeth, you know. Of course, when
it's all mixed, they put al these sound replacements and compressors
on there, it loses a lot of its finesse. It's a mix deal- there are
just so many variables, I can't even narrow it down. If I had to
pick a song on Hot Fuss to sum up the entire band, it would be
'Jenny Is A Friend of Mine.' It's got everything that our band
represents, with clever musical ideas, kind of dark with a pop
sensibility. The bass has got just as much of a hook as the chorus,
the spaces were really cleverly thought up, the keyboard line at the
end of the last chorus is nice.
"When you see us live, I just think there's a lot more energy
involved. There's a lot more passion. I think the delivery is
better. I kind of like the fact that it's not always really smooth.
As long as it has passion and the connection is made and people see
that, I think that's what's more important. If they want to hear
something that's perfect, go buy the record- although that's not
With almost nonstop touring being the M.O. since the release of Hot
Fuss in 2004, Vannucci has an increasingly better grasp of what he
likes to do as a drummer. "You have to do what's best for a song,"
he says. "If a song is going in one direction, I'm not going to
cover it up with a fancy drum fill. I won't overplay, but at the
same time, I don't think the record suffocates me. I won't let it,
because that's not who I am. I won't say i didn't take chances on
Hot Fuss. I'll just say there's a lot of things that could have been
done that might have exposed me as a drummer more, but I might have
withheld for the sake of the song. I think any good musician will do
"The constant touring has definitely made me a little more concerned
with being tight and consistent. We didn't realize how much Vegas
has shaped us as musicians and as a band, but we're a lot more showy
than a lot of bands. I didn't realize until people started calling
us on that stuff, 'Wow, you're a showy drummer- you play like Max
Weinberg!' That's how I think people should play! You should have a
certain amount of zeal. And when people put two and two together and
say we're from Vegas, looking back I guess we do have a little bit
of glitz and glamour, although I wouldn't expect us to have a white
tiger onstage with us anytime soon."
According to the drummer's analysis, his signature sound starts with
what's between his legs. "The snare drum is probably the most
important part of the drum set," he points out. "You play it so
much, it's got to sound good, with a certain amount of
responsiveness. I like brass drums- there's such a wide range that
you can do with brass. You can play really light with a brass drum
or play really heavy, and they're going to have different sounds,
but either way, when brass sings, it's a really beautiful sound. I
also love wood; it just depends on the playing situation.
"I usually like to have my drums ring out like Buddy Rich's did. I
don't like to sound like I have an entire love seat in my bass drum!
But I love the way Matt Chamberlain's kit sounds on the Fiona Apple
records. It sounds like he's got two pillows in the bass drum, but
it fits the song."
Bigger cymbals, with a wide selection of rides, also figure heavily
in Vannucci's sonic attack. "I also play with large cymbals,
including a 24" ride, a 22" sizzle ride on my left, and a 20"
crash/ride. I like big cymbals, especially the older cymbals. Those
old rides are thin enough to crash on and make a statement but also
big enough that you can dance all over them, and they sound like a
ride again. You can kind of dig into it- I like to be able to dig
into the cymbals, you can actually feel it and connect with it. And
a lot of those big cymbals, they don't really take over, they just
give you more to work with, especially because they have so many
different spots that you can learn to use for your song. I can get
more out of one big-ass cymbal that three crash cymbals- that's kind
of the way I hear things."
Now that The Killers are Official World Rulers, they're going to
have to produce a great second album to retain that title. Vannucci
is confident- sort of- that they'll be able to do just that. "So far
so good," he says of the next recording. "We've got probably 30 or
40 ideas out there, which is a nice feeling. I'm still nervous. I
want it to be a good second album. We've got a lot to live up to,
but I'd really be nervous if we didn't have a lot more in the
"We welcome the pressure. It's every musician's dream to be
successful, and what I mean by successful at the very least is to be
recognized for what you do, for your art. I'm not talking about
money: I'm talking about being recognized for writing good songs and
playing good music. There's always going to be pressure- because
this one was a success, people will always compare the two. Where do
you go? Grow up? Remain consistent? Do we have another 'Somebody
Told Me' on the next record? Another 'Mr. Brightside'? I don't
Whether The Killer's Record #2 is totally brilliant or sucks, Ronnie
Vannucci will definitely deliver the goods on the drums, the only
way he knows how. "If you're playing music, you've got to have a
fire inside," he affirms. "You've got to have a level of passion, a
certain level of talent, and a good balance of technical ability and
know-how, but you've also got to have the heart. Without the heart,
you're nothing. I can show you a million rudiments, dazzle you with
my paradiddles, but if I've got no heart behind it, nothing
controlling that, nothing making it musical? It's not worth it. It's
not worth anything to anybody."