In Deapth:Killers Rising
They've sold millions of records, been nominated for Grammys and opened for U2. David Bowie and Elton John are fans. Rolling Stone and MTV recently dubbed them the hottest band of 2005. Undoubtedly, The Killers have arrived. But just three years ago, the Las Vegas quartet was playing local dive bars, honing their sound inside a nondescript UNLV building they broke into nightly and struggling to become famous. This is the story of that time.
A band of one
The ads were running regularly throughout 2001 in CityLife and Las Vegas Weekly, but they might as well have been appearing inside a black hole. Same name. Same phone number. Similar wording every time.
''Guitarist looking to start or join band,'' followed by a list of the guitarist's influences: U2, The Cure, The Beatles, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck.
A struggling musician living on a Banana Republic clerk’s meager salary, Dave Keuning could barely afford the ads that repeatedly failed to attract serious response.
In fact, Keuning, who had moved here the year before from Pella, Iowa, couldn't even afford to wash his clothes. He usually posed as a tourist at the Stratosphere to take advantage of the hotel’s free laundry facility for guests. But he kept running the ads, week after week, month after month.
''I got some weird responses, and months went by when I wouldn't get any,''recalls Keuning, a sheepish 27-year-old with a curly shock of chestnut hair. ''I’d change it up because I thought maybe it was the bands I'm putting in the ad. I just kept thinking, ''Why am I not getting calls?''
Around April 2002, almost a year-and-a-half into his quest, Keuning altered his ad yet again, mentioning that he was looking for musicians''with a love of Oasis,” the English band known for Beatlesesque melodies driven by swirling guitars.
The ad caught the eye of Brandon Flowers, a Gold Coast bellhop and fellow struggling musician with rock star ambitions. Flowers had been in a keyboard-focused group, Blush Response, until the other members decided they would only find fame in L.A.'s rock scene. They left. He stayed.''Brandon had just seen Oasis at The Joint, and he didn’t know much about them,'' Keuning says. ''But it changed him, because he was in a keyboard band and seeing Oasis made him wanna look for a guitar player. … He called, and that's how we met.'' Soon after, the two young men gathered at Keuning's place to write together.
''We didn't know what we were going to sound like, just (that) we had a lot of the same favorite bands,'' Keuning says. ''But I told him back then,''I wanna make songs like the Beatles or the Stones, just good songs.''
The first thing they penned together was a tale of jealousy and romantic disillusion, the dark lyrics set off by a repeated chiming guitar motif, a brisk tempo and an arching chorus. They dubbed the song ''Mr. Brightside.''
Two years later, ''Mr. Brightside'' became a worldwide summer hit, helping propel The Killers' debut album, ''Hot Fuss,'' to sales of more than 2 million in the United States and 1 million in Great Britain.
That kind of success was nearly unfathomable in September 2002, when Ronnie Vannucci invited a couple of friends along with him to check out a new local band he was thinking of joining.
Vannucci, then 26, was studying classical percussion at UNLV, working as a wedding photographer at the Little Chapel of the Flowers and looking for a new gig after lengthy tenures playing drums for local ska band Attaboy Skip and indie rock outfit Expert on October.
With wild flailing moves reminiscent of The Who's Keith Moon, Vanucci was known for stealing the show onstage even while trapped behind a drum kit. Offstage, he was an obnoxious flirt with frenetic energy and a clownish personality.
The Killers, as they were now calling themselves, after a fictitious band in a New Order video, consisted of Flowers singing and playing keyboards, Keuning on guitar and a temporary rhythm section handling bass and drum duties.
Vannucci and crew went to see them at the Junkyard, a dank dive bar at Eastern and Sahara avenues decorated with hubcaps.
Vannucci told friend Alexis Thornton and the others there with him he had been invited to be The Killers' new drummer. His friends found the band onstage even less impressive than the bar's decor.
''They were terrible … terrible,''Thornton says, laughing. ''Their nervousness was pretty apparent.''
The band's throwback sound was forgettable, recalling the worst'80s synth bands like Flock of Seagulls.
''It was pretty bad just because they were new, and the whole thing was so green. It just didn’t come across,'' Thornton says. “They were up to their eyeballs in rough patches.''
Plus, their look was laughable. Guitarist Keuning had a couple of 2-inch eye shadow stripes across one cheek, a la Adam Ant. Behind his keyboard, Flowers was decked out in glitter and heavy eye makeup.
''Brandon was still trying to figure out who he wanted to be onstage, and that makes a big difference because he’s the leader,'' Thornton says.
''They had this androgynous look, and they wanted Ronnie to wear makeup. We were all pretty adamant with him that this was not a good idea. But we knew he was serious about joining, so we started clowning him about it, saying,'Are you going to play with The Killers? Do you have your mascara?''
Worst of all, the band was drawing an audience tiny even for a local group.
Besides Vannucci and his party, there was only one other table of people there -Flowers' mother and four of her friends. The barflies on the other side of the room ignored them.
Only one person hovered near the stage, an attractive young woman who swayed to the music and kept her eyes locked on Flowers. Says Thornton: ''Brandon’s fiancee was the only one dancing.''
Rounding out the group
Bassist Mark Stoermer performs during The Killers' San Diego show. Before becoming the last member to join, Stoermer was among the band's pack of hard-core fans, regularly catching their shows in Vegas dives.
With the temp drummer dispatched and Vannucci in place, The Killers kept gigging, writing songs and looking for a bassist. They had started to draw a slightly larger group of regular fans.
Among them was Mark Stoermer, a lanky courier of boxers'urine samples for a local lab. He had been attending the band’s shows since their third gig.
''I could tell right away there was something very special, even though Brandon was just learning to sing,'' Stoermer recalls. ''The band wasn't very tight. I knew there was something … in the songs. Even if they weren't executed well, you could still look beyond that and see there was some magic happening.''
Stoermer befriended Keuning. Within weeks, he was the group's new bassist. The band began frequent writing and rehearsing sessions in Vannucci's garage. ''Every day after work, we'd get together,'' Keuning recalls. ''We were just continually writing songs,'' Vannucci says.
It was 140 degrees inside, but since Vannucci was the only one who owned a home, it was the only place they could practice for free. With a solid lineup finally in place, The Killers began to gel.
''The sound of the band changed a lot from the time Ronnie and I first started to the time we made a record,'' Stoermer says.
The band continued their Junkyard tenure, but with a more cohesive sound, began winning better bookings at bigger places.
''As soon as Ronnie and Mark were onboard, things started getting a lot better,''says local promoter Ozzie Sanchez, who booked The Killers’ first show outside the Junkyard. ''Everything fit in, and it seemed like they were destined to be together. They just caught fire after that.''
The group started getting booked at clubs like The Rock, Tramps and Legends Lounge, and they cut a four-song demo CD they gave out in paper sleeves at the shows.
c In a local scene dominated by screaming hard-core punk bands, The Killers'poorly recorded EP heavily reflected '70s and '80s Brit influences like David Bowie, The Smiths and Duran Duran.
While their glam rock-era makeup was unique, nothing made the band stand out in Vegas'rock clubs more than the central instrument coloring their music, something that could be a source of derision nearly every time they set up to play.''No other band had keyboards,'' Stoermer says.
Joe Almeida, a DJ who performs as Bazooka Joe and was something of a tastemaker in the Las Vegas underground scene, heard The Killers’ EP when a band member’s cousin played it for him.
''I told her it was the worst thing I ever heard,'' recalls Almeida, now a DJ in New York City.
Still, buzz was spreading, reaching people such as local music marketer Nicole Sligar, owner of Shoestring Promotions and the manager of drummer Vannucci's former band Attaboy Skip.
''I'd been hearing from people in certain circles that they were good,'' recalls Sligar, known locally as a sharp eye for spotting talent. She caught the band at Tramps, a now-defunct dive near the Hard Rock Hotel. ''It definitely wasn't my style, but they were pretty good,'' she says.
While Sligar took note of the glitter makeup and retro sound, what caught her attention was who was attending their shows.
At most local band gigs in Las Vegas, you can expect to see crowds heavily populated with post-college hipsters in their late 20s and 30s swilling cocktails.
The Killers were drawing a different age group, one much more coveted by record companies. Their biggest crowds were at all-ages shows.
''Their fans were young, and they were this edgy, weird group of kids I hadn’t seen before,'' Sligar says. She began sending The Killers’'demo around to friends in the music industry.
New rehearsal digs
From early on, the band had been supplementing their songs with a handful of covers.
Just as they were trying to boost their sparse collection of originals, The Killers lost their chief writing and rehearsal space when Vannucci sold his house. It was three months before he was slated to move into another home with a garage.
''We had no place to practice, no money to rent a space or anything because we were still working and struggling,'' Keuning says. Luckily, university student Vannucci hit upon an idea.
The band began surreptitiously meeting on the UNLV campus to sneak into a soundproof practice space inside the Alta Ham Fine Arts building along Maryland Parkway. “Well after midnight, practically no one is there,'' Keuning says.''I knew a bunch of secret entrances,'' Vannucci says, flashing a devilish smile.
For months, the 2,000-square-foot room would serve as The Killers'personal rehearsal space.
Night after night, they hauled in amps for Keuning's guitar and Flowers' keyboard and a bass cabinet for Stoermer. Vannucci used the UNLV pep band’s drums. “What can I say? We’re resourceful,'' Vannucci says.
''We just moved stuff around and made it work,'' Keuning says. ''It was free, but it wasn't supposed to be. There were times when I literally asked the janitor for keys because I got there before Ronnie. I’d tell him I was a student.''Band members remember it as a trying time, testing their commitment to the group.
''We'd practice midnight to four in the morning,'' Keuning says. ''We were working day jobs, and sometimes I had to go from there to my day job unloading boxes from six until noon at Banana Republic, doing early morning stock at The Venetian. That's the kind of lives we were living.” Still, the sessions proved extremely fruitful.
''We wrote some great songs in that room,''Keuning says.''We worked on 'Somebody Told Me' and finished the album pretty much up in there.''
''They worked hard, and they were really into it,'' Sanchez, the club promoter, recalls.''You could tell they really wanted it. You see other bands with the potential to make it, but they back off because of the work. The Killers weren't about to back off.''
The word spreads
By early 2003, buzz surrounding the band was spreading far beyond Las Vegas.
Music industry scouts from Los Angeles began dropping into town to see The Killers perform, sometimes when they didn’t even have a gig booked.
''The band came to me frantically looking for last-minute shows for label execs that were to be in town, so I hooked them up,'' remembers Ryan Kinder, the former box office manager for House of Blues at Mandalay Bay.
Kinder booked the band to open up for zoot-suit revivalists Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at House of Blues in February 2003.
Soon after, a major label executive perusing a local music scene Web site listened to some of The Killers’ EP tracks posted there, liked what he heard and invited the group to Los Angeles to showcase for Warner Bros. Records.
The label passed on the band, but a Warner Bros. UK representative took The Killers'demo back home to England to a friend who runs Brit indie label Lizard King Records. By summer, The Killers had a British record deal.
Lizard King released a slick, rerecorded version of ''Mr. Brightside''in August. Within days, the hugely influential DJ Steve Lamacq was playing the song on his BBC show.
After the band landed a gig opening up concerts for British Sea Power, an experimental indie rock band from Brighton, the London press went mad for The Killers. The group received raves in dozens of newspapers and magazines.
Soon, the band was invited to play a New York City showcase for up-and-coming bands.
There, they fielded offers from some of the same labels uninterested in them only months before. “It was kind of surreal,” Vannucci says. The Killers signed with Island/Def Jam Records before leaving New York. Says Keuning: “Everything’s been just so fast.”
Life on the road
After a whirlwind two years of ensuing success, The Killers are coping with their new lives.
They played nearly 200 shows last year and are still touring. They return to Vegas for an Oct. 7 show at The Joint. This time, British Sea Power is opening for them.
After that, they will spend a few weeks writing songs for their sophomore effort, which they expect to begin recording in Las Vegas by December for a mid-2006 release.
Stoermer readily acknowledges he's looking forward to a reprieve from life on the road. ''It's gotten really exhausting,'' he says.
Vannucci is more upbeat. The drummer, who like Flowers is married, has yet to tire of shunning countless groupies.
''Girls flash their tits,''he said recently while signing autographs for one attractive woman after another in San Diego. 'I just say,'Put 'em away, honey. I got a pair at home.''
Keuning, meanwhile, is focusing on long-term plans for The Killers.
''Hopefully, we'll be around as long as U2,'he says. ''We just wanna keep putting out good albums.''