How did Brandon Flowers, Ronnie Vannucci, Dave Keuning and Mark
Stoermer go from the Las Vegas dive bar circuit to selling four
million copies of their debut album, Hot Fuss? On the eve of the
band's highly-anticipated Oxegen 2005 appearance, Stuart Clark talks
to the people involved in the making of The Killers.
What a difference a year makes. The Killers came to Oxegen 2004 with
just one top 20 hit, 'Mr Brightside', the their credit and the
suspicion that they were more style than substance. The word from
the record company people with them was that they were nervous about
being Saturday's New Band Stage headliners and pissed off that they
were on the same time as their heroes, The Cure. The band themselves
were dead on their feet, with a yawning Brandon Flowers confiding to
me backstage that, "All I want to do right now is sleep. I don't
mean to be a whiney rock star, but the last time I got a proper
eight hours was Wednesday. As for days off that hasn't happened
Knackered or not, it was obvious that there'd been a
kid-in-the-sweetshop element to their ten months of non-stop
"What's been our biggest 'pinch me, I must be dreaming' moment?"
pondered drummer Ronnie Vannucci. "Playing at the Wiltern Theater in
LA with Morrissey and him standing right in front of the stage at
soundcheck. You've looked up to this guy since you were 12 and there
he is eyeballing you!" If ever there was a case of American blood,
English heard this was it!
Given Flowers' resemblance to a narcoleptic River Phoenix in My Own
Private Idaho, it was with trepidation, rather than a sense of being
about to witness a groundbreaking rock'n'roll moment, that I made my
way to the 3,000-capacity tent they were playing in.
My fears couldn't have been more misplaced. Despite the thousand
yard stares, the band proved to be everything that Cap'n Bob and The
Cure across the way weren't - compelling, charismatic and grinning
from ear to ear just being there.
"It's a good things they've no problem with being as big as the
Oasis and U2s of this world," I noted in my review, "because it
might just happen!"
For The Killers too it was love at first sight.
"It turned out to be their favourite show of the year, Glastonbury
included," says Siona Ryan, the woman from Lizard King Records who
looks after them on this side of the Atlantic. "The thing that
particulary overwhelmed them was that even though Hot Fuss was only
just out, everybody knew the words. They were tired, but buzzing
from all the amazing things they'd done in a six-month period.
You've got to remember that these were four guys who prior to The
Killers had barely left the States, yet along gone round the
festival circuit and met the likes of Morrissey, Bowie and Robert
Smith, who they absolutely worship. And when those people started
giving them namechecks, god, they were blown away!"
A native of Greystones in County Wicklow, Ryan was one of the
welcoming committee when the band made their first gigging trip to
London in September 2003.
"They played places like the Camden Barfly, which are essentially
pubs," she continues. "Being so early it was mainly industry heads
who were there, including quite a few A&R people who weren't sure if
they were signed or not. Lizard King wasn't that well known having
only been set up the previous year by Martin Heath (former President
of Arista UK) and Dominic Hardisty, who's a complete finance guy."
The Lizard King A&R man who snapped them up was Ben Durling.
"The first two songs I heard were 'Mr Brightside' and 'Somebody Told
Me' and they weren't too dissimilar to what's on the record so I
thought it was a pretty obvious thing at the time," Durling recalls.
"The whole '80s revival was starting to rear its head in the UK and
The Killers were potentially a perfect fit. Bands like The Strokes
and the White Stripes had also made it cool to be American again, so
the timing felt really right. They have such straong, catchy songs
and such great lyrics that everybody at the label was confident that
Hot Fuss would be successful."
Not that they'd heard the album in its entirety.
"Lizard King signed The Killers on the strength of five numbers,"
Siona Ryan explains, "which meant that 'All These Things That I've
Done' came as a very pleasant surprise! It was written after the
first EP came out. They'd caused a bit of a stir supporting British
Sea Power and doing their own headlining tour, but the big turning
point in the UK was them going to Glastonbury last year and
gobsmacking a tentful of people with 'All These Things....' "
Had Ryan expected The Killers to take Glasto by storm like that?
"I'd hoped, but didn't know for sure until about 20 minutes
beforehand when we were backstage and saw thousands and thousands of
people beelining for the New Bands Tent, which was a bit out of the
way," she proffers. "We were looking at each other thinking, 'No,
no, no!' I'm not joking, the crowd outside was probably 80 people
deep and left the moment The Killers finished. I remember Ronnie and
Brandon laughing at us afterwards because we were so overwhelmed.
The word of mouth had really tipped over."
Glastonbury was also the first time that news of The Killers'
burgeoning UK success filtered back to Vegas.
"The reaction up till then had been, 'Yeah, sure'," recalls PJ
Perez, an old musician buddy of Ronnie Vannucci's who's subsequently
written about them for the Las Vegas Weekly.
"I don't know the impression you guys have got, but pre-leaving for
Britain they weren't really that well-known in Vegas. They played in
dive bars, English pubs, video poker bars and a now defunct drag
queen club, Tramps, which had an '80s theme night on Sundays they
guested at. They were always going on last after all the other bands
who didn't sound anything like them had played, so the crowds
weren't the greatest. More often than not though, they'd win whoever
was there and get asked back. Their biggest Vegas show would have
been the farewell one they did at Tramps to 200 or 300 people."
Did Perez know from the get-go that The Killers were destined for
"Not at all," he chuckles. "Mostly because in the summer of 2002 the
line-up was completely different. Dave Keuning was going by the name
of Tavian Go, which I think is a David Bowie reference, and instead
of Ronnie and Mark you had an 18 year-old drummer called Dell Star
and a thirtysomething bassist, Buss Bradley. The only two in the
band who clicked were Tavian, aka Dave, and Brandon, who'd appeared
on the scene out of nowhere. I know he talks about being in a synth
group called Blush Response, but nobody I know ever recalls seeing
Given the hard time that The Killers have given The Bravery over Sam
Endicott being in a ska band, it's interesting to note that Ronnie
Vannucci has a rocksteady past of his own.
"Before hooking up with The Killers, he was in a ska group called
Attaboy Skip who sounded a lot like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones,"
Chavez divulges. "I worked with one of their sax players, and
actually approached Ronnie to come and drum with me, but he was
already juggling two or three other things and couldn't."
Further Hotpress investigation reveals that Attaboy Skip's set
included, er, novel versions of Twisted Sister's 'We're Not Gonna
Take It' and the Ghostbusters theme.
"I don't think anybody on the local scene was surprised when Dave
and Brandon brought the others in to replace Dell Star and Buss
Bradley - they didn't click and were holding The Killers back,"
Chavez avers. "They then disappeared, which I took as a sign that
they'd broken up. I discovered otherwise three or four months later
when I ran into Ronnie in the [University of Nevada, Las Vegas]
music department and he told me he was with The Killers now. Things
after that took off real quick, with them going to England before
I'd had a chance to see the new line-up."
Although former Green Day manager Jeff Saltzman is listed on the Hot
Fuss sleeve as producer, the band have subsequently claimed that his
input was minimal.
"We gave him credit, but we constructed all the songs and mostly did
everything ourselves," Ronnie Vannucci insists. "There wasn't a lot
of production involved. It was almost like a live show or rehearsal.
No song was more than three takes."
Outside of The Killers themselves, the person who appear to have had
most impact on the album's sound is veteran mix man Alan Moulder.
"He's worked with all our favourite bands," Dave Keuning enthuses.
"He's worked with not only the Smashing Pumpkins, but Depeche Mode.
He's even worked with The Smiths - he engineered Shoplifters Of The
World Unite - and he did Nine Inch Nails. They're not a huge
influence on us, but that was one of the deciding facts, the way he
did NIN's The Fragile. The sounds are so great on it, they're so
loud. It's a great mix and that was a big deal for us."
It was also a big deal for BBC Radio One who, having witnessed the
reception they got at Glastonbury, started playing The Killers off
the air. On the other side of the Irish Sea, Hot Fuss hit the top
spot and remained there for eleven weeks, making it the most
successful number one album here since The Beatles' Number 1's in
"When they came back in November 2004 and played the Dublin Olympia
it was as if everybody was on E!" Siona Ryan resumes. "Afterwards we
went to Lillie's Bordello to celebrate and who should be there but
Bono. I'd know Bono to say 'hello' to, so myself, Ronnie and Brandon
went over and had a drink with him. They obviously got on well
because by the time they left they'd been asked if they'd like to
support U2 on some dates! Mark and Dave, who'd gone home early
because they were exhausted, were pig sick the next day when they
found out what had happened!"
I'd discovered just how in awe of U2 The Killers are twelve hours
earlier when I met them in The Clarion Hotel. Told by a mischievious
PA that the last person I'd interviewed was Bono, the band engaged
in a game of Twenty Questions, which ended with me taking them out
on to the balcony and showing them the crane U2's Hanover Quay
studio complex was hidden behing.
If Glastonbury was the tipping point in the UK, it was their
December 2004 appearance on The OC that made The Killers a household
name in the States. Confirmation of their newly acquired A-list
status came in February this year when they were nominated for two
Grammys. Their not winning didn't matter to Jay-Z who declared them
his new favourite band.
"They make old sound new again," the rapper gushed. "My favourite
part of their song is when they repeat, 'it was only a kiss! It was
only a kiss!' But that's everyone's favourite part, right?"
That every cloud has a silver lining is something The Killers
discovered a few weeks later when their former drummer claimed
authorship of 'Mr Brightside'.
"This guy is trying to sue us," Flowers told MTV USA. "We wrote 'Mr
Brightside'. He had nothing to do with it, but his wife is a lawyer,
so she sent a letter to our lawyer. You always hear about people
coming out of the woodwork once you get big, but this is....wow."
The singer was quickly back in buzz mode though, informing the music
channel of plans to make a Thriller-style video based on the love
and murder mini-story contained in Hot Fuss' 'Jenny Was A Friend Of
Mine' and 'Midnight Show', and a new song, 'Leave The Bourbon On The
Shelf', which will appear on their sophomore album.
"I'd love James Spader to be in it, and we're trying to pin him down
now. Basically, it's the tale of a girl leaving her boyfriend, him
killing her and then getting caught. To film it, we need a body of
water, maybe (Las Vegas') Lake Mead. We'd like to take the thing to
Sundance or put it on a DVD. It's a matter of time before we shoot
There has been the suggestion recently in the UK press that Flowers'
self-esteem has become a little too abundant. It's not a portrait of
the artist that Siona Ryan buys.
"I think it's the opposite, in that Brandon is still surprised when
people recognise him on the street," she explains. "He wanted to get
a train the other day in London and we had to suggest that maybe
he'd be better off going by car. Then there was them saying 'no' to
headlining Glastonbury this year because they felt it was too much
too soon. They're aware of who's headlined there in the past and
didn't think they deserved to do it with only the one album."
Festival season completed, The Killers are going in to the studio to
record album number two. Having apparently been turned down by Brian
Eno, the smart money this time is on them working with either Flood
or Steve Lillywhite - spot the U2 connection!
Fans will be able to gauge the work-in-progress on Saturday July 9th
when they play Oxegen Main Stage.
"One new song," Flowers divulges, "is called 'Where Is She'. It's
got a great feel, some great Police-esque harmonies. We didn't do
enough harmonies on our first album, so you're going to hear more on
the second. And we're playing other new songs - 'Higher and Higher',
'Daddy's Eyes', 'It's Only Natural' - which are a bit more organic,
with organs and pianos. We don't want to be 'that synth band'
AUTOPSY THE POPS - A Killers Timeline
1997 - Brandon Flowers, then aged 16, moves back to Las Vegas from
2000 - Having dropped out of the University of Iowa, Dave Keuning
relocates to Vegas and gets a job in a Banana Republic store.
2001 - Flowers' tenure with synth-poppers Blush Response ends when
the rest of the band head to Los Angeles. Nothing's been heard of
2002 - After placing an ad in the Las Vegas Weekly seeking likminded
musicians "with a love of Oasis", Keuning joins forces with Flowers,
bassist Buss Bradley and drummer Dell Star. They name themselves The
Killers after the fictional band in New Order's 'Crystal' video.
Bradley and Star depart to be replaced respectively by Mark Stoermer,
a medical courier, and Ronnie Vannucci, a major in classical
percussion at the University of Nevada and member of ska also-rans
Attaboy Skip. Start gigging in any Las Vegas dive that will have
them, including a drag bar.
2003 - Go into the studio with Jeff Saltzman who, before turning
producer, had been a manager and attorney engineering deals for the
likes of Green Day, Rancid and Offspring. Sign to UK independent
Lizard King Records on the strength of a five-track demo and on
September 2002 release the Mr Brightside EP comprising of 'On Top',
'Smile Like You Mean It', 'Who Let Go' and the title-cut. Island
Records snap them up in the US.
2004 - Hot Fuss received its respective UK and American released on
June 7 and 15. Cause a major stir at first Oxegen and then
Glastonbury, where 'All These Things That I've Done' is one of the
songs of the weekend. Play second Irish show in the Olympia on
November 11 and afterwards meet Bono in Lillie's Bordello. Their
Stateside stock rises dramatically on December 2 when they guest on
2005 - Nominated for two Grammys and The Shortlist Music Prize.
Support U2 on three of their European shows. Sell the fourth
millionth copy of Hot Fuss. Are asked to deputise for Kylie at
Glastonbury, but decline syaing that they're not ready yet to
headline such a major event. Give a live airing to 'Uncle Johnny Did
Cocaine', 'Higher And Higher', 'I'm Talking To You', 'Daddy's Eyes',
'Where Is She', 'The Stereo Of Lies' and several more songs that are
earmarked for their second album, due early in the new year.
- Hotpress subjects Brandon Flowers to a forensic examination
While keen to present themselves as a four-way democracy, it's
obvious that Brandon Flowers is The Killers' dominant creative force
and has a power of veto which is regularly exercised.
The only member of the band who was actually born in Las Vegas, he
moved to Nephi, Utah with his Mormon parents and siblings when he
was eight. Being from the big city wasn't the only reason he stood
"Brandon was probably the only Smiths fan in Nephi, period," says
Wyatt Boswell, a friend since sixth grade who now tours with The
Killers as a guitar tech. "He never had a girlfriend the whole time
he lived there. It's a little farm town that thrives on football, so
he was seen as a kind of off. 'You play golf? You listen to Elton
John?' He caught a lot of shit for that."
By the way, that wasn't a typo - Brandon Flowers is a mad keen
"I don't have time for it at the moment, but at my best I played to
a five-handicap," he reminisces. "I was 16 and thought that maybe I
could make it as a pro. I'm glad I didn't because I really don't
like those sweaters they were!"
The person who supervised his musical education was Flowers' 37
year-old brother, Shane.
"What got me into music - well, proper music, was him showing me
stuff like Smiths videos and Rattle & HUm, which was a really big
deal because you got to see not only the band but hte way the crowd
were reacting to them," Brandon reminisces. "The next thing I picked
up on was The Cars - without 'Just What I Needed' I wouldn't be
here! That was the one that made me go buy a cassette on my own. The
Killers really are (Cars mainman) Ric Ocasek's fault!"
Their name crops up regularly, but nobody, least of all Flowers, has
said whether his first group Blush Response were any cop or not.
"We were pretty good. I'd come up with vocal melodies and play them
on the piano while the girl in the band wrote and sang the lyrics. I
never felt right just playing the piano - I was a lead singer
trapped in a keyboardist's body, I was living a lie! The first time
I sang on stage with The Killers was totally petrifying, but now
it's something I really like and need."
He must have been a bit miffed when, reviewing that gig, the Las
Vegas Weekly compared them to A Flock Of Seagulls.
"Oh, man," he sighs. "People are so narrow-minded. They see a
keyboard and automatically think '80s'. They're not musically
literate enough to put you into context, so they revert to cliche."
Brandon Flowers ought to be using his new found superstar status to
snort cocaine off supermodels' breasts, but no, the silly boy's gone
and got engaged to his Urban Outfitters store manager girlfriend
"She's been with me the entire time I've been in The Killres," he
coos. "She wasn't a Mormon when we met, but I didn't convert her.
She just saw how my family was and it was attractive to her. I
didn't put it upon her at all."
The complete works of The Cars aside, which records would Brandon
rescue from a burning house?
"I've got five!" comes the instant reply. "John Lennon Imagine;
David Bowie Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust; Morrissey Vauxhall & I;
and The Cure Head On The Door. Life without all of those would not
be worth living!"