October 24,2005

Feature Story: The Killers

 Music Connection

Arguably the "band of the year," the Killers struck a chord in listeners who like their rock music retro-edgy and with a touch of icy-cool glamour. In this exclusive interview, MC speaks with frontman Brandon Flowers about the bandís unlikely rise from the moribund Las Vegas club scene. Flowers also gets specific about the progress that he and his bandmates are making while developing their follow-up album.

When his band inked contracts with Island Records in late 2003, Brandon Flowers was barely old enough to toast with a glass of bubbly, even if he drank alcohol at all. Signed to a major label deal just after his 21st birthday, Flowers - frontman of the Killers, one of the most successful debuting bands of the last decade - is a practicing Mormon, which prohibits the intake of booze and, well, and just about everything else in the rock & roll lifestyle.

Nevertheless, Flowers and company (guitarist Dave Keuning, bass player Mark Stoermer, drummer Ronnie Vannucci), buoyed by a deliciously melodic collection of instantly memorable modern rock songs, are enjoying all of the buzz of the rock & roll dream. Their debut album Hot Fuss, powerfully played, stunningly produced, and just edgy enough, has spent more than one year on Billboardís Top 100 Albums chart and generated sales of nearly 4 million units in the U.S. alone. The bandís tireless promotion of Hot Fuss (more than 300 live dates around the world in the last 16 months) has helped further their cause.

Patched together by musicians answering personals ads looking for collaborators in Las Vegas, the Killers - band name courtesy of a New Order album cut - were born inauspiciously, pounding away at their music in stiflingly hot desert garages, honing their craft and songsmithing, playing dead-end gigs on a Vegas Strip virtually devoid of a local music scene. Then, thanks to a well-produced demo of the bandís signature tune, "Mr. Brightside," they caught the attention of London-based Lizard King Records, were shepherded across the Atlantic to play a series of live dates, and became toast of the British music press. By the time the Killers returned Stateside a few months later, U.S. labels were clamoring to sign them. And the rest is, essentially, history - hit singles, arms full of trophies, and world stages shared with rock gods like Elton John and Bono.

On the phone from Atlantic City, where the band is this close to wrapping their epic tour, the recently married Flowers, now 23, reflects on the bandís origins, fast rise, and forthcoming sophomore album.

The Killers have become so successful so quickly. What's been the biggest surprise of "making it"?
It's not that much different, really, from playing bars when we weren't signed, when nobody knew who we were. We just play at nicer places. That's all it really is. Sometimes these places now have showers. It's really cool. There are so many bands out there, and right now we're playing places that have showers.. But we're not done. We might have made it, but we might never write a hit song again. We might go away. If we don't take very seriously the opportunities we have right now to be the best we can be, to keep pushing ourselves, we will go away.

The Killers certainly seem built to last.
We take it very seriously. We really want to be around a long time. We want to be important. These are the bands that matter: U2, Morrissey and the Smithe, the Beatles. Those bands really left marks and we want to be in that company one day.

Is there anything the band might have done differently in its quick ascent?
The Pepsi Smash. I wish we wouldn't have done the Pepsi Smash.

I don't know. It's just a little...you know...A little cheesy. It felt a little dirty. I don't think we're sell-outs, officially, because of that, but it didn't feel right.

But you got a lot of free cola.
(Laughs) Yea.

Hot Fuss, the Killers' debut album, has been out for well over a year now, the songs are all over MTV and the radio, you've been touring for 15 months. We've got to ask: are you guys making any money yet, or are you still paying off that advance?
(Laughs) Yeah, uh, we're making a little money. We're doing all right. We couldn't retire or anything. But we're starting to see it, and it's great. (laughs) We don't mind it. But, really, no matter how corny it sounds, the money is not the biggest thing here, I'd rather be broke and be around a long time, so we're worrying more about our songs than anything else.

Las Vegas is a town known more for its kitsch than its substance. How much of your hometown is in what you do?
I think Las Vegas is a big part of what we do. It's really there in our performance. It's there in our look and in our approach to the live show. What we do onstage is very Las Vegas. But I don't know: is there a Las Vegas sound? Some people say we sound English, but I think of a song like "Midnight Show" and it reminds me of the lights on the Strip, flying by them in a helicopter. Everybody takes something a little bit different from what we do.

What were your experiences on the Vegas club scene? Is there much of a local music scene in Vegas?
There wasn't much going on, really. We were playing next to people who were doing meth-rock and funk and metal. We played with all of it, and nobody was really drawing anybody. And the gigs would get cancelled at the last minute, because a place would get shut down when someone was murdered in their bathroom or something. You had to find a place to play and then you had to hope they'd be open the night you were booked and that someone would show up and that the bands playing around you would be cool. It was a constant struggle.

How much did the scene affected what you did, both onstage and in your songwriting?
We played out a lot, but we never paid much attention to the whole scene. Our focus was on writing better and better songs and improving what we were doing. We didn't worry too much about the scene. I was more interested in what was big on the radio and who were the important artists. I was thinking about the White Stripes and the Strokes, not the hair band that was playing before us on a Thursday night.

You grew up the youngest of six kids and moved around a lot. It has been reported that you describe yourself as an "alienated kid". What did music mean to you as a young kid?
I was never, like a kid who sat in a corner and contemplated suicide. But music was very important to me. Music was very, very important to my brother, and he was the coolest person alive in my mind, and so we'd listen to bands together all the time. His bedroom walls were covered in Cure posters and Smiths posters and I'd go into his room when no one was home and I'd just stand and stare in awe at these posters. It felt like such a sacred place to me, his room. And he handed it all down to me - the vinyl and the posters - when he got into CDs. He told me, "this is the good stuff." He knew how important it could be in shaping who I was going to be. And I'm forever indebted. Music plays such a huge role in who we are. With a different brother, I could've ended up listening to hip-hop and I wouldn't be here today.

It has been reported that the first tune you could play on the piano was the theme song from the TV soap opera the Young and the Restless.
(Laughs) That's how I ended up getting piano lessons. My mom and my four sisters were all big fans of that show, so it was on every day. And we had this piano and nobody played it. It just sat there in the living room, And I don't know, one day I sat down and started tinkering around and I figured out that song. My mom was so impressed. (Laughs) She got me piano lessons.

What was the first cool thing you could play on the piano?
I thought that song was really cool. (Laughs) But then I started learning Elton John songs. I think that's where I learned a lot about pop music. Before that, I didnt know what chord changes were, I didnt know much about theory. I didnt think about that. I'd just learn the songs and I'd know what made them great. They just felt great.

Tell us about your first experience performing in a band onstage. What was that like for you?
Most people talk about how they knew they were destined to be onstage, that it was meant to be. But I was literally looking for a place on the floor to throw up on the night of my first gig. It made me so nervous. I'm very self-conscious, and it's hard for me to get out there. Even now sometimes. But that gig, it was Las Vegas, and it was one of those places where everyone had their nose in the air and everybody was too cool. It had an art house vibe, and it was difficult to get out there and play for a bunch of holier-than-thou people. They think they've got a radio and some money and a couple of CDs and they know everything there is to know about music. That's where the Killers song Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll came from. It's from the way those people made me feel wehn I walked out there that night - and wanted to throw up.

What are some of the obstacles young bands face today?
People worry so much about their manager or their hair. You go see so many bands today: they're in a bar, they've got 20 fans, they've got this perfect hair, but they don't have a chorus. That's something I noticed right away. You need to think of the 10 best songs you've ever heard and know that the chorus is probably the biggest reason you're thinking of that song. It's not easy to write a great chorus; I'm not saying that. But you can have the coolest clothes and the biggest hair and everything else going for you, but you need a chorus.

Why did the Killers sign with Island Records?
We had a lot of people interested in us, but when you're signing with a label, you're really signing with an A&R man. The guy at Island, Rob Stevenson, we felt really good about him. He's a good guy and he loves our music, genuinely, and that's the reason we went with Island, it was not about the big label. It was about the A&R guy. And Island has geen great to us.

Some bands start each day with a business meeting, and other bands turn it all over to counsel. What's it like for the Killers?
We approve everything. We have weekly approval meetings where we all sit together and go over all the issues - will we play here, endorse this, how much will we spend on the show, what do we want the stage to look like, do we want to sit for a photoshoot with Spin, will we give our song to this movie, who do we want to direct the video. It's all very democratic.

Have the Killers licensed your songs to movies, TV shows, or video games?
No. We really haven't done much. I was really, really excited about the movie Jarhead. The producers wanted the song All These Things That I've Done for the trailer. I was really reluctant, because I don't want people to see it as a war song, I think everybody's jumping on that whole anti-war bandwagon and it makes me want to puke. But they took the song and cut a trailer and it was really tasteful and really powerful and they didn't even use the part of the song "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier". I thought that was cool. The guitar line, the song, it was mixed with all of these amazing images. It was incredible. It felt like what Oliver Stone did taking Creedence or Stones and cutting them over Vietnam images. It really worked, I was very excited about it. But the studio ended up going with Jesus Walks by Kanye West, because they wanted the track more urban. (laughs) That upset me a little bit.

There's such a visual sense to your music and to your image. It has been reported that when you're writing you've actually got movies in your mind. Can you elaborate on that?
I've always been a fan of story songs and I've really gotten into the music of Bruce Springstein. You take the beginning fo the song "Thunder Road" - "the screen door slams and Mary's dress sways." You're hooked. Everybody in the world, no matter who hears it, sees Mary and her dress and how it moves. It's a different girl and a different dress and it's moving differently in your mind than it is in mine, but it's right there. I think that's such a cool thing. A song can start with just one line. I see a person or a place and that can start a song for me. It is visual.

There's a real tension in a lot of your songs - faith and temptation, jealousy and aggression, and sexuality. There's a lot of conflict. The easy reductive thing to assume might be: Vegas Mormon. Is that too simple?
(Laughs) No. That's actually pretty good. It makes a lot of sense. It is a strange thing, the Vegas Mormon in a rock & roll band, but I've never felt too awkward about it, it's just who I am. But you know where a lot of that tension comes from? I actually am a very jealous partner, boyfriend, husband. I've been known to be that way, and it comes out a lot in the songs. It's really easy to write about things when they deeply affect you, so a song, like Mr Brightside comes naturally. I am Mr Brightside. I wrote that when I was very upset after a really bad experience. You take those dark things and you turn them into songs.

Are these songs autobiographical, then?
I'd say they're 50-50. I'm not spilling my guts out in every song. I still like the prospect of making something up out of nothing, but a lot of these songs do come from my life.

You wrote "Mr. Brightside" very quickly and on your first meeting with Dave Keuning. What can you tell us about that?
Dave gave me this little cassette that he had. There were four songs on it and in between there were these guitar riffs and little fragments. I don't think he even meant for me to hear a lot of the fragments, but on that tape there was the "Mr. Brightside" guitar line - a little bit of a verse and a pre-chorus, though it was all really just a sketch at that point - and that's what really jumped out at me. So we got together and he played it and I sang over it and the lyrics all came really quickly. I slapped a chorus at the end of the pre-chorus and it was done. We didn't know how good it was. It felt good, but we didn't have a drummer and a song like "Mr. Brightside" without drums is only half-done. With the whole band, it's a great song. The Killers are a great band because we have a great rhythm section. They've got really strong hands. (Laughs)

You guys have been on the road forever. The tour ends soon. What then?
We just picked producers for the second album. Flood and Alan Moulder. We've got a bunch of songs together. We've been writing a lot and I'm really excited about them. We're going to record in January.

Bono supposedly told you to "spare us the interesting second record." Are you going to heed his advice?
(Laughs) That is good advice. (Laughs) No matter how many records the first one sold, it's not time for us to get all weird. We've got a lot left to prove. We can't just go out there and forget our choruses. There are a lot of people out there who hope our second album is the worst album ever. That's just how the human brain works. But I think it also works where a lot of people are hoping we make the best album ever. There's a lot of pressure, but it's going to be great.

How will the new songs differ?
They're a lot more mature. They have better chord changes. I love a hit song that isn't necessarily verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, and so on. I like the idea of putting a song out there that mixes it up a little bit. The Talking Heads are great like that. They're not just weird; they're doing things their own way. Their songs are not perfect things. They're not just about perfect structure. That intrigues me. "Somebody Told Me" and "Mr. Brightside" and "All These Things" are really great at following a structure, and that opened the door for us a lot, but I think we're going to push a little bit on the next album. That's important to us.

Lyrically how are the new songs different?
I have one song called "Why Do I Keep Counting." I think it's my best lyric. It's a good story. My favorite line is, "if all my days are numbered, why do i keep counting?" I think that's a really good song. But a lot of the new songs, they kind of make you feel dirty.

What does married life mean to a guy who's in a hot rock band?
(Laughs) It's hard, you know. (Laughs) But I love my wife and I'm excited to have a family. I need to stay grounded. But the guys in the band think I'm crazy.

How do you pass time on the road?
Watching The Sopranos. I bought all the boxed sets. I'm in season five right now, and I'm totally sad that it's almost over.

It has been a wild couple of years for the Killers. When you look back at it all, what does it mean to you?
It has all happened so quickly. I know one day I'll enjoy looking back on it all, checking out the photographs and all of the press, but right now I can only take it as it comes. Today, it's all unreal. We're living a dream that so many bands have and we feel fortunate to be here. We take it very seriously, the hard work and the great songs that are required if we're going to be around for a long time. That's what we want, to be on top for a long, long time.