A killer gig

A Pella guitarist moves to Las Vegas and becomes a rock star


July 1, 2004

Pella native David Keuning hit the jackpot in Vegas, though not with the usual quick roll of the dice or pull of a lever. The aspiring rocker faced incredibly steep odds when he moved to Sin City in January 2000 as a guitarist in search of a band. He got a job at a shoe store and bided his time.

It wasn't in vain. Today, Keuning, 27 - with the chiseled cheekbones of young Jim Morrison and a tangly mushroom of curly hair that makes the English ladies swoon the same as their mothers did for Marc Bolan of T. Rex - is on the cusp of pop stardom in America.

Things have been going so well for his band, the Killers, that Keuning has been homeless since September.

His cash flow is fine - it's just that the Killers have been making frequent trips to Europe, where their celebrity has been blazing well ahead of the smoldering interest here in the United States. So on the rare occasion when he's back in Vegas, or in Los Angeles on record-company biz, he rents hotel rooms.

"I just put my stuff into storage," Keuning said last week from an airport terminal, another setting that has become one of his makeshift homes.

The Killers released their debut CD, "Hot Fuss," on June 15 on the same label, Island Records, that helped turn U2 into a household name.

They're a top 10 phenomenon in the United Kingdom. They've become popular enough over there since their first visit last September that they now headline their own tours, even snagging a slot at last weekend's Glastonbury Festival, a massive three-day lineup of acts that included such giants as Paul McCartney.

"Hot Fuss" earned a 31/2-star review in Rolling Stone - "The Killers threaten to pry dance rock from the steely grip of hipsterdom and thrust it unrepentantly into the mainstream," praised the mag - and so far it has sold 23,000 copies in America. The band performed a couple of weeks ago on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and might end up on David Letterman's show in August.

At first the Killers were mentioned in the same breath as such raucous garage-rock revivalists as the Strokes and the White Stripes. Now the music press has zeroed in on the quartet's tragicomic love songs and its 1980s new-wave flourishes, such as the synthesizer that Brandon Flowers plunks away at while singing lead vocals.

"As a young band we just didn't sound that good," Keuning said. "We're a little bit tighter now, so they're lumping us in with a lot of '80s retro bands, the Cure and Duran Duran."

That's fine with him.

"Those are two of our favorite bands."

If anybody can make a hard-bitten assessment of the Killers' potential, it's Johnny Beach at the Mercury Lounge in New York City. He books one hype-heavy band after another into the A-list venue and saw the Killers perform there last week.

"I think it's just been a really good month for them; a lot of people have tuned in to what they've been up to," Beach said. The Killers packed the club and left fans spilling out the door and into the street.

Inspired by classic rock
The quiet Dutch town of Pella bears little resemblance to glitzy, teeming Vegas - unless you consider that both tourist destinations have done their best to recreate the environments of far-off locales through their architecture.

It was the blare of Aerosmith and AC/DC and the rest of the classic rock canon - "bands you'd be into when you're going through puberty," as Keuning described them - that inspired Keuning to pick up his first guitar at 14.

"He was pretty determined to try and master guitar," said Keuning's father, Chuck, Pella's assistant public works director. "Of course, like most parents, we had no idea he would carry it this far."

"I just always could hear him practicing in his room," said his mother, Sandy. "We kind of miss that; it's kind of quiet in the house now."

Keuning honed his chops in order to join the Pella High School jazz band as a sophomore. Beyond that, Keuning played with a Newton-based Christian rock band called Pickle for about four years.

Pickles drummer Keith Nester and Kyle Reynolds, on bass, first met Keuning in 1993 when they strayed to Pella in search of a guitarist.

Today Nester, 29, is a youth pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Davenport, while Reynolds, 37, still lives in Newton and works as a pilot for appliance maker Maytag Corp.

"He was just like a monster on guitar at this early age," Nester said. "He was really, really good."

"He always had a real knack for coming up with original riffs and original arrangements to songs," Reynolds agreed.

"Quiet," "shy" and "super nice" are the words Nester and Reynolds use to describe their former bandmate. He was never one to lose his temper, they say.

Though Keuning never considered himself a "Christian rocker," he credits Pickle as his essential proving ground.

"It was cool to be part of something positive," he said. "They were great musicians. They helped me get better. They taught me a lot of new things."

Keuning's occasional gigging with Pickle lasted into college. After graduating from high school in 1995, he enrolled in Kirkwood Community College and then attended the University of Iowa.

"That didn't work out, so I quit, and that was just at the time I didn't know what to do with my life."

Laid off at shoe store
Vegas is better known as the former stomping grounds of Frank Sinatra's ring-a-ding-ding Rat Pack, home to schlock king Wayne Newton, where pop stars such as Celine Dion and Sir Elton John set up camp after they tire of touring.

But Vegas a rock 'n' roll town? Not so much.

"(The band) Slaughter was from Vegas," Keuning said. "Crystal Method, Curl Up and Die. That's most of the scene - hard-core and punk and metal. And we're nothing like that."

Yet Keuning was drawn there, by the unglamorous lure of cheap rent; $1,000 a month pays for a plush pad in Vegas, Keuning said, relative to the rat trap that the same money will afford in Los Angeles.

"Anyone who thinks (L.A. is) the place to go to start music, that's probably the hardest place," he said. "Bands actually pay at some places to get a gig."

Keuning, the struggling musician, was laid off from his shoe store job in Vegas in August 2001. After 9/11 he found it all but impossible to score another job in a city whose lifeblood (tourists flocking in by plane) was in short supply.

"I used the time wisely, while I was unemployed, to write songs," he said. "It was a blessing in disguise, sort of."
Flowers was the first fellow Killer that Keuning met in Vegas, through the most old-fashioned networking tool in the musician's handbook: placing an ad in the local paper listing your influences. The pair found common ground with Oasis, the Smashing Pumpkins, U2 and Beck.

They cobbled together an early incarnation of the Killers and performed regular gigs in a Vegas dive bar.

"It had a lot of space in it, couches and stuff," Keuning remembered. "Bums would sleep on the couches sometimes, and no one would kick 'em out. The place was open 'til 6 or 7 in the morning."

That humble setting was where current Killers bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci , then a classical music student at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, first met Keuning and Flowers.

"He's one of the most talented musicians I've come across," Vannucci said of Keuning. "He has extremely good ears, a good sense of melody."

After establishing a fan base in Vegas, it was the inroads that the Killers made in the United Kingdom and their first tour over there that convinced Island Records to sign them.

The real money won't roll in until "Hot Fuss" goes platinum (sells 1 million copies), Keuning said. But he was able to quit his most recent day job - at Banana Republic. "I've said goodbye to folding clothes forever, hopefully," he said.

This summer the Killers are busy flitting back and forth between Europe and the United States. The band already has nine songs written toward its sophomore album, tentatively due by the end of 2005.

"By the hour, everything changes," Vannucci said. "We move so fast it's difficult to realize things or assimilate things the way a normal person should or would."

Keuning agrees that life as a Killer on the run can seem like a blur of unfamiliar faces - not that he's itching yet to return to the calm and quiet of his hometown.

"It's too small for my tastes, although my mom would love me to move back," he said of Pella. "Living in Vegas the last four years, there's slightly more to do."