Rolling Stone

 

Hit men By Mark Binelli

About an hour before showtime, Brandon Flowers, the singer and keyboardist of Las Vegas Eighties revivalists the Killers, crouches in front of a full-length mirror to check his makeup. The band is playing New York's Central Park -- after selling 2 million copies of its debut, Hot Fuss, the Killers have landed the opening-night slot of the park's summer concert series -- and Flowers is in his dressing room. It's a perfect June night. "We all wish we were somewhere else," Flowers admitted earlier, gazing longingly at a tree on the other side of the fenced-in backstage area. "But we're trapped here. What we're doing now is paying our dues."
And carefully applying eye shadow with a miniature pad -- left eye first, then right. The mascara wand comes out next, followed by some glittery blush for the cheeks. Flowers' hair is already flawlessly mussed, as if by a robot hand. On a nearby table, several deli platters remain covered in plastic, as they will for the rest of the evening. "I used to wear a lot more glitter," Flowers says. "Now everyone's wearing makeup. I mean, Green Day? Come on. At least leave us the makeup."

Outside, Jay-Z has just arrived on a bicycle. Making politic appearances are part of his new job as president of Def Jam Recordings, and the Killers -- signed to Island, Def Jam's sister label at the Universal Music Group -- are the best-selling new rock band of the past year. "I think they take what's old and make it sound new again," Jay-Z says. "Do you know what I mean? I don't want to sound like some weirdo artist. But that's what they're doing." He claps my arm excitedly. "My favorite part of their song is when they repeat, 'It was only a kiss! It was only a kiss!' But that's everyone's favorite part, right?"

The song to which Jigga refers is "Mr. Brightside," the Killers' catchy second single, which, even fans must admit, owes much of its catchiness to the fact that they have heard the song before, when Blondie wrote it and it was called "Dreaming." The most hyped rock bands of the past few years, from the White Stripes to Franz Ferdinand to the Strokes, wear their influences on their sleeves, but the Killers -- hailing from Vegas, after all, home of the tribute band -- sample the songs of their youth as openly and enthusiastically as Puffy in his Bad Boy prime. The big hook of their first single, "Somebody Told Me," was the tongue-twisting, gender-bending chorus ("Well, somebody told me/You had a boyfriend/Who looked like a girlfriend/ That I had in February of last year"), which is, in structure and content, a lift from the chorus of the old Blur song "Girls and Boys" ("Girls who are boys/Who like boys to be girls/Who do boys like they're girls"). Elsewhere on Hot Fuss, you'll hear snatches of David Bowie, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and U2, all delivered with enough verve to sound new again to younger fans and like a guilty pleasure to everyone else.

Flowers, who is twenty-four, understands as much as anyone how popular music relentlessly borrows from the past. Example: A few nights earlier, after a gig in Toronto, he got word that Paul Anka was dining in a Greek restaurant down the street. It's hard to imagine any rock star under fifty thinking, "Paul fucking Anka? I need to meet this guy." But that is exactly what Flowers did, because, as he explains, Anka wrote "My Way," and as a teenager living in rural Utah, Flowers was obsessed with Frank Sinatra's version of the song. It made him want to move to the Vegas Strip, conjuring Rat Pack visions of golf at exclusive country clubs and shows at the Copacabana. Around the same time, he heard Bowie's Hunky Dory and decided he wanted to be a musician. That album contains the song "Life on Mars?" -- which, Flowers points out, has the same chord changes as "My Way." He sings lines from both songs to prove his point, then says, "Without Paul Anka, there would be no Killers." He pauses, then adds, "I didn't tell him that." Pausing again, he smiles, then continues: "He didn't know who we were. His daughters liked us, though."

Flowers was actually born in Las Vegas, but his family -- devout Mormons -- moved to Nephi, Utah, when he was eight. The Book of Nephi is the first book in the Book of Mormon. It begins, "I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in the learning of my father." Flowers' father, and his grandfather before him, were produce men, working in grocery stores. When Mormon males turn nineteen, they are generally sent off on two-year missions seeking converts. Flowers' older brother Shane went to Chile. "My whole life, I thought I would do it too," Flowers says. "Then I got sucked into music."

"Brandon was probably the only Smiths fan in Nephi, period," says Wyatt Boswell, a friend since the 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 kind of off. 'You play golf? You listen to Elton John?' He caught a lot of shit for that."

Flowers was a serious enough high school golfer to consider going pro, but in his senior year, his car -- and clubs -- were stolen, and he took this as a sign that he should pursue his other love, music. By that point, his family had moved back to Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, and Flowers was able to find simpatico folk who aspired to rock. After a stint in a band called Blush Response, he answered a newspaper ad placed by future Killers guitarist Dave Keuning. The pair immediately clicked -- Keuning being from an equally small town, Pella, Iowa, where his father ran a plumbing and air-conditioner-repair shop. "I was supposed to take over the family business," Keuning says. "They still bring it up once in a while: 'It's waiting for you if you want it.' "

After settling on a lineup that included bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, the Killers recorded a demo and began playing showcases, where their unpolished live act roundly failed to impress. "Every label said no," recalls Flowers. "They said I didn't have sex appeal or charisma onstage. That was when I realized how much the whole package has to do with it. I went out and bought a bunch of concert movies: Ziggy Stardust, Rattle and Hum, Gimme Shelter. I'd like to say you just go up there and play your songs. Some people can do that. But there's also something special about going over the top."

The Killers -- who had been dressing sharp since their first gig -- finally signed with the only label to offer them a deal, a tiny U.K. indie called Lizard King, in the summer of 2003. They flew to England to play a week's worth of shows, all four members getting time off from their day jobs. (Flowers was a bellman at the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino; Keuning worked at Banana Republic; Stoermer transported body fluids and parts for hospitals; Vannucci took photos at a wedding chapel.) After the album broke on the U.K. charts, American labels came calling.

"I'm still devout," says Flowers, who has a fiancee back in Vegas. "I don't really drink or smoke much, and I'm trying to stop. And I feel like what we're doing is very positive. I mean, when we end the night with 'All These Things That I've Done,' for those 5,000 people who are in the audience, the world is a better place."

Onstage at Central Park, Flowers does indeed end the night with "All These Things That I've Done," channeling Bono with his introduction: "This last song is about skin. It's about bones. It's about blood. But most importantly, it's about hearts." A guy behind me hisses, then mutters, "Dude, you can't say that kind of shit in New York."

It's a minority dissent, though. Flowers has yet to evolve into a truly dynamic performer, but he certainly dresses the part, tonight decked out in a pinstriped shirt, black tie and white suit jacket, and the crowd loves him, whether he's crooning, Sinatra-style, from the front of the stage, or playing a keyboard that he had studded with rhinestones the very day he found out Bowie would be attending an earlier show. As Flowers works the stage, lung-shaped pools of sweat form on the back of his white jacket, proving the dangers of outdoor dandyism. Meanwhile, in the VIP area, Keanu Reeves and his girlfriend, Lynn Collins, ferociously make out. ("The One is here!" Flowers will later whisper excitedly to me.) Model Christy Turlington, actor Ed Burns and Island Def Jam chairman Antonio "LA" Reid -- who greets Jay-Z with a jolly "What's up, bitch?" -- are also in attendance.

"I still don't banter much when I'm up there," Flowers says after the show. "I never know what to say." He's changed into a black Killers T-shirt -- he says it's his only clean shirt -- and chunky Chanel sunglasses that look like a designer version of the sunglasses old men in Florida wear after cataract surgery. Nearby, Reeves is sitting alone on a folding chair, smoking. There's something a bit stiff about Flowers, a bit Madame Tussaud. He has a tendency to hold his face very still and doesn't seem comfortable in a suit and makeup.

But then again, he might simply be tired. The band has been touring for about a year and a half and will continue throughout the summer. "I can't wait to be done," he says. Some people have complained about the band's short set -- it clocks in at just about an hour -- but the guys are reluctant to play too many new songs, and they don't feel polished enough to pull off the few covers (by Kenny Rogers and Morrissey) they know.

Then there's the microcontroversy surrounding the feud between the Killers and similar-sounding New York throwback band the Bravery. Flowers started the fight, telling MTV, "They're signed because we're a band," and uncharitably making reference to the fact that Bravery frontman Sam Endicott previously fronted a ska band called Skabba the Hut. Endicott responded on a San Francisco radio station, comparing Flowers to "a little girl." The bands are labelmates and are both represented by William Morris; a source close to the Killers sighs deeply at the mention of the feud but insists it has been quashed.

Still, it seems odd for a band like the Killers to start a fight about "authenticity." Flowers, after all, is very aware that he has created an image. "I didn't come out of the womb like this," he says, gesturing at himself. "When we signed with Island, we said, 'We want to be successful.' But we still want credibility. You don't want to lose the kids."

The band is looking forward to opening three dates for U2 in Europe. "The Beatles were the best, but they broke up after, like, six years," Flowers says. "U2, it's been the same four guys, and they've never put out a shitty album. What other band can you say that about? The Stones have put out some shitty albums."

A kid in a Ramones T-shirt and a stylish mohawk -- he turns out to be a fan who begged to be allowed backstage -- wanders over and interrupts in a tone that's both fawning and vaguely hostile.

"Hey, Brandon, you're a Mormon, right? My girlfriend's a Krishna, and I want to become a Mormon so I can have a bunch of wives. You think that'd be cool?"

Flowers makes minimal eye contact with the kid and, smiling nervously, mumbles, "Yeah, Krishnas and Mormons are so similar."

"Hey, Brandon," the kid continues, "how many wives do you have?"

"That's funny," Flowers says, not looking at the kid at all. "Except polygamy ended about a hundred and fifty years ago."

"We're gonna rage Mormon-style!" the kid shouts. "What about Brigham Young? No matter how young, you bring 'em, right?!"

Flowers' face is frozen in a smile. "What were we talking about?" he asks me.

Soon, though, the band has piled into a van, en route to a weekly New York retro dance party called Misshapes, and Flowers seems more relaxed, other than the fact that he's rolling an unlit cigarette back and forth in his palm. (He doesn't like to smoke until he's had a drink, so he's waiting until we arrive at the club.) "I saw Phantom of the Opera last time we were here," he says as we pass the marquee. "So good. Andrew Lloyd Webber could have written rock hits." Then, as if the thought has just occurred to him, he blurts out, "I want to be the Phantom! Maybe when I'm, like, thirty. I can't do it now. I'd need to take voice lessons."

"Donny Osmond did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for seven years," Boswell says from the front of the van.

"I don't want to do it for seven years," Flowers says. "But I'd do it for a month."

The Misshapes party is packed and sweaty. A seven-foot-tall transvestite is standing outside, as is the kid in the Ramones T-shirt, who is denied entry. Flowers is eventually lured into the DJ booth. He bobs his head to "Need You Tonight," by INXS, though when one of the other DJs plays Britney Spears' "Toxic," he exits to grab a drink, quickly disassociating himself from the choice.

However flamboyant many of his icons may be, Flowers, at heart, is all about sincerity. Earlier, we spoke about the similarities between Bruce Springsteen and U2. Flowers says he recently figured out how to play "Thunder Road" on the piano. "That song has my favorite line," he says, shaking his head with a sheepish grin. "I'm such a sucker. It's 'Hey, what else can we do now except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair/Well, the night's busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere.' I'm one of those people who really rolls down the window at that point!" He shakes his head again. "Springsteen, U2 -- it's hard to pull off something that big and sincere without being corny. But they do it. I was talking to Simon Le Bon once, and he said -- I think he was quoting someone else, but it's true -- 'There's a fine line between charisma and bullshit.' That's what I'm trying to figure out."