The 'Fuss'in Sin City

The Killers put Vegas on the musical map with songs about jealousy, paranoia and murder.

LA Alternative Press
April 2004

By Jaime Buerger

It’s a funny and sad fact that whenever the topic of Las Vegas-bred rock acts comes up, talk inevitably turns to Slaughter and Toni Basil. That these well-worn references continue to pop up in print, too - in everything from local alternative weeklies to an Island Records press release that makes bold mention of the city's ''culturally underperforming past'' - says volumes about what Las Vegas music fans and critics have to contend with. Sure, there’s the occasional local band that gets signed to a respectable label, though they almost always get dropped. (In the case of RCA, Las Vegas rockers have had a particularly spotty history: 12 Volt Sex was on the label for three years without ever releasing an album, and Clockwise's Healthy Manipulation did make it to stores, but they were dropped by RCA a few months later.) And despite a few genuinely impressive musicians, locals don't kid themselves: Las Vegas has had a lot of shitty bands.

Which makes Las Vegas's latest export, the Killers, a huge curiosity. The band has yet to release a proper album- their major-label debut, 'Hot Fuss,' comes out on Island Records in June - but the Killers have been riding high on a wave of critical praise from such music powerhouses as Spin and NME. The Brits, in particular, can't seem to get enough of the Killers' retro ’80s-flavored music, which kind of sounds like Joy Division's Ian Curtis fronting Duran Duran. They signed to the British indie label Lizard King last fall and, after playing several U.K. shows, watched as their current single, “Somebody Told Me,” debuted on Britain’s Top 20 charts. Maybe you’ve caught the tale of androgynous love (''Somebody told me / you had a boyfriend / who looked like a girlfriend'') on the radio, where it's been receiving airplay from national tastemaker KROQ. ''It's really, really nice because it's kind of happening like it should happen, like it used to happen,'' says drummer Ronnie Vannucci of the song's rapidly increasing momentum. ''A lot of times these days radio stations are paid off; there's payola involved, you know. We've gotten the single going, and it's really kind of on its own flame right now.'' Presently, the band is in the midst of a 35-date-tour with Stellastarr* that started at Austin's South by Southwest conference and ends with an appearance at the super-hip Coachella music festival in Indio.

For the Killers, hailing as they do from Sin City, all this means closer scrutiny and the weird attention that being a rock band from Las Vegas draws. But to the local scene that sprouted them, vocalist and keyboardist Brandon Flowers, guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and Vannucci are already stars.

But then the Killers have always seemed a little too big for the city, even when they were just playing dingy Las Vegas clubs to a few dozen people. They hadn't even been considered a''local band'' for very long, playing together for about a year and a half before they branched out to Europe and signed a multi-album deal with Island last fall. Ditching day jobs that included work at the Gold Coast casino, Banana Republic and a job as a photographer at a quickie wedding chapel, the Killers adapted quickly to the next-big-thing lifestyle and were notoriously aloof with the local press, rarely doing interviews. Furthering the mystique, their new wave-ish, revivalist sound was noticeably, and wonderfully, different from Las Vegas's normal diet of punk and machismo rock.

“If you're from Vegas, it's such an easy target,'' Vannucci says. ''People think of Vegas as a really glamorous place. And in many ways it is compared to other cities. I don't think it would ever become a problem, but we don't want that ever to supercede or overshadow what the music means to us.

“We don't come out with, like, pompadours or Elvis suits or anything.''

Elvis suits, no. Suit jackets with sneakers, yes. Add to that eyeliner and glitter and the wily onstage antics of Flowers - as charismatic of a front man as they come - and it’s little wonder that the Killers have garnered a reputation as one hot live band. Just as important, though, is a ready arsenal of dizzying, booty-shakin' songs, and the forthcoming “Hot Fuss” - mixed in part by Alan Moulder, who worked on Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral - is packed with cleverly crafted pop gems. The 11 tracks are all swirling synthesizers, catchy choruses and lyrics about jealousy, paranoia and murder. The band even called on the Lord, bringing in the Sweet Inspirations gospel choir for two of the songs. “For a couple of songs we wanted these really huge backgrounds,'' Vannucci says. ''We had all the ideas and studio trickery, but we wanted the real deal. And so we got a gospel choir. A little ambitious for the first record, but we’re an ambitious band.''

And it's distinctions like that that will help set the Killers apart from the other bands they're most often likened to. ''I think it's natural for anyone, especially journalists, to make a comparison,” Vannucci reasons. “But I think people will start to see things the way we see them, hopefully. I don't think you'll find Interpol having a gospel choir on their record. People always ask, 'So what do you guys think of this new wave development?' The whole new wave name just sounds real temporary. And I don't see us as being a temporary band.''

If their mild success so far is any indication, the Killers will be around for a while. ''We're not rock stars,'' Vannucci says, adding that they're still in the process of ''winning everybody over.'' Still, for this interview at least, conducted while the band was on the road between Detroit and Chicago, Vannucci interrupts himself several times to put me on hold in a way that slightly reeks of attitude, while his bandmates'laughter can be heard in the background amid talk of''some madness going on with the van.''

But then, maybe it's just us. The city of Vegas needs them to be its very own homegrown rock stars. Because, frankly, all apologies to Ms. Basil, but it’s high time for Las Vegas to move past the one-hit-wonder of ''Mickey'' and to replace Slaughter with The Killers when referencing the city's musical milestones. The Killers will be playing The Casbah in San Diego on April 29 and will perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio on May 2.