May 23, 2004

The Killers

Their debut single hit Dan Cairns right between the eyes. Now, with the Killers’ album and UK tour imminent, he’s looking forward to the slaughter

A truly great song can draw on a whole host of components — lyrically telling a tale of love, heartache, lust, anger, alienation, triumph, euphoria — and communicate its message in any number of musical idioms. Dance, garage, rap, electronica, blues, heavy metal, punk, pop, MOR: none of these is a guarantee of greatness, but nor does any of them preclude it. And if the single is on its last legs as a commercially viable product, it still possesses (especially when it is an act’s first release) the ability to serve as a clarion call, to knock you for six, to leave you gasping for air.
Once in a blue moon, such a debut single arrives. And what separates it from the chaff is not that you understand it in an instant, that you plug in at once to its core. You don’t. Rather, you experience only an inkling of comprehension. Instead of setting your emotions in stone, it makes you flounder. The old shiver up the spine is present, for sure. But so, too, is a baffling combination of rapture and sadness.

No wonder, then, that so few songs pull off such a devilish trick. And no wonder, either, that word spread fast in this country last September when the Las Vegas four-piece the Killers released a debut single called Mr Brightside on the independent label Lizard King. I say word spread fast, but for the most part, words failed people. Those exposed to the song’s three minutes 41 seconds of synth-pop perfection attempted to do justice to the lyrics’ distillation of end-of- the-affair wretchedness and paranoia and jealousy, to its over- whelming guitar intro, to the way the keyboard part enters so majestically after the first chorus, to its aping of Teardrop Explodes’ Reward at the close — and, by and large, we failed.

So, too, on a sunny afternoon in San Francisco, does a local DJ. Sitting pretty in his swivel chair, a master, apparently, of the knobs, faders and jingle buttons in front of him, this West Coast taste-maker grins across at four exhausted twentysomethings and seems, like us, lost for words. Opposite him, the greatest pop band in America look for all the world as if fate has dealt them a particularly useless hand. After nine weeks on the road, hauling their cases on and off airport transit buses, their clothes are stiff and crackling with stage sweat, their matted hair sculpted into messy, just-out-of-bed bouffants. They begin a live, acoustic rendition of a song, only for the DJ to cue Morrissey’s new single. In profile, their manager’s benign smile takes on a fixed, glacial quality. Are you, the jock inquires cheesily, the best band in the history of Las Vegas? “No,” deadpans Brandon Flowers, the band’s 22-year-old Matt Dillon-lookalike singer, “we’re the best band in the history of the world.” The session is an unmitigated disaster.

This is a key moment for the Killers. They have a humungous record contract with Island in the States; they have just returned from supporting their idol, Morrissey, in Los Angeles; their first, rapidly selling-out headline British tour begins tonight; and Mr Brightside, play-listed on national radio, is rereleased tomorrow. What’s not to like? “We all had expectations of what this would be,” says Flowers later. “And some things are getting met, and some things aren’t.” He accepts the Killers have a lot to learn about grinning and bearing it. “The problem is not that we failed but that we were more ourselves,” he reflects about the radio encounter. “People who are on our side call it ‘coming out of yourself’, when really they want you to fake it.” “It’s as if,” interjects David Keuning, the guitarist, “they want you to be a comedian and an actor.” “I think,” Flowers continues, “we need to find a middle ground.” He pauses. “A half-fake.”

After trying and failing in other bands, and drifting through jobs as a bellboy, a wedding photographer, a medical courier delivering body parts, and a shop assistant, the four Nevadans soon realised — Mr Brightside was, incredibly, the first song Flowers and Keuning wrote together — that they had stumbled on something special. If Keuning is their moody musical genius, the towering, laconic bassist Mark Stoermer their John Entwistle, and the mad, acrobatic drummer Ronnie Vannucci their snare-thrashing Clem Burke, Flowers has the stillness and quiet power of a true front man. The youngest member, he grew up in Las Vegas, moving as a teen with his family to Iowa, before returning at 16 and savouring the Sin City nightlife on a fake ID.

One of the many qualities that make his songwriting stand out from the crowd is his affection for what he writes about. Hot Fuss, the band’s sensational, hit-stuffed debut album, abounds with Vegas characters he has observed, and whose complicated — in some cases doomed — lives he chronicles. Midnight Show and Jenny Was a Friend of Mine are two-thirds of a promised murder trilogy, and Believe Me Natalie and Andy You’re a Star similarly narrate the attempts of their subjects to better themselves in a cut-throat city. In setting these stories to music that betrays his enduring love for British new wave — the Killers are named after the mock band that appeared in the video for New Order’s Crystal single — Flowers has, he insists, accidentally hitched his fortunes to the current fixation among American acts on the disco-punk glory days of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In Britain, the band’s melding of this era with the best of Bowie, the Cars, the Smiths and Pulp is, predictably, going down a storm. America, he says, may be another matter. “America’s the market that’s the hardest. We have the big dogs behind us, but there are so many bands that do. If you’re not Kid Rock, it’s going to be really hard.”

As a foursome, they exhibit many signs of a group of people who have spent too long together. Earlier that day, driving to a photo shoot, they hear one of their songs for the very first time on American radio, and their faces are creased with sheepish grins. Yet within only 20 minutes of this momentous event, three of them are bickering when Stoermer’s unannounced disappearance for a pee means their departure is delayed. Tiny things, in other words, can trigger a spat; conversely, when they feel collectively threatened, as, through a simple misunderstanding, they did at the radio station, they close ranks.

“We lose it every once in a while,” Keuning acknowledges, adding, in a muttered aside, “some more than others.”

“We’re an intelligent band and we have intelligent songs,” says Flowers, “and these people who are interviewing us are used to these kids, which we’re really not. We have the mentality almost of an underground band, but they’re asking us mainstream questions. That’s where we’re colliding.”

Another collision that you sense is occurring is the one between the band’s total pride in Hot Fuss, and their apprehension that, even as it shifts millions of units, their baby will be subsumed into the reductive, mass-market platitudinising that robs creativity of its distinctiveness and edge. Flowers isn’t the only one with expectations (and, in his case, fears). Before his departure for Warner Bros, their record-company boss, Lyor Cohen, was, says Flowers, “just so gung-ho about us. In meetings, he would be like, ‘I’m going to burn this building down for the Killers’”.

Right now, what the Killers want and what they end up getting may be very different things. Keuning’s wish list is topped, he says, by a desire for a kip. “I think of it more than I ever used to,” he says wearily. “I’d sleep on this bench right now.” Flowers is wide-eyed at the idea of success in Britain — “We can go to Sheffield and play to more people than we can in Las Vegas. It’s unreal” — and a touch more vexed about a breakthrough back home.

They should lighten up a bit. Those airport transit buses will soon be a thing of the past. They will have their clothes laundered and understand how to deal with DJs. Formidable both on disc and on stage, they will conquer at least some of the world and keep hold of their integrity. They may even, if they can stop squabbling and trust in their luck, learn how to look on the bright side.