For GQ Magazine, Nov 2006
Las Vegas Anglophiles with a corporate mindset and a fully paid-up Mormon frontman - the multi-platinum selling Killers are hardly your archetypical rock group.
The girls are shrieking. There’s a Killer in the pool. Not just one, but three Killers, all variously pickled after a full night on the cocktails.
There’s Ronnie, the drummer, who got the shrieking started by stripping down to his undies - he’s no Adonis, Ronnie, but he’s brave. The singer, Brandon, chose to keep his kit on - he’s the bony one with the dodgy moustache. Then there’s Dave who went in topless. Dave’s the guitarist. You can tell by his tight pants and frizzy hair.
It was around midnight when all three of them took a running jump into the water. You should have heard the cheer go up around the bar. Quick as you like, a couple of random girls joined them, and now they’re all splashing it up for the cameras, giggling hysterically in the confetti of applause, disco lights and flashbulbs. There isn’t a party in the world that can’t be improved by chucking a few rock stars in the pool, and this is no exception. The edge of the pool has been monopolized by people pointing cellphone cameras into the water.
But the Roosevelt hotel in Hollywood has its own rules about jumping in pools – like ‘don’t’ and ‘especially not if you’re stuffed full of mojitos and those little shrimp things that come around on trays.’ So the fun is short-lived. The way the squad of security no-necks come charging into the party you’d have thought it was a life-or-death situation involving a small child and not a bunch of soggy rockers having a giggle.
“Pool’s closed, people. You guys, you gotta get out. Now!”
This isn’t on the schedule, this bit. At no point on the agenda does it say anything about meatheads and swimming pools. All Island Records had in mind was an official “listening party” for the Killers second album, Sam’s Town – a civilized affair where a few hundred friends, indie chinstrokers and industry backslappers could hang out with the lads on the hotel roof and enjoy the new record over a few hors d’oeuvres. And it started off promisingly enough. The place was packed well before the band showed up, and crackling with anticipation. Not only were we about to see the hottest band around, whose debut album last year went triple platinum, and whose fans include U2, Elton John, Morrissey and the Pet Shop Boys. We were also about to hear their second album, a record that Brandon Flowers, their cocky Mormon lead singer – four words you don’t hear very often – insists is “one of the best albums of the last 20 years. I’m serious. Nothing touches this album.”
Flowers’s endorsement is probably the highest praise the album has received to date. There was a more subdued listening event in New York earlier in the month where journalists reported hearing the same enunciated lyrics, the same stab at anthemic indie rock, the same yearning for stadium gigs as on Hot Fuss. Some writers heard shades of Bowie and Peter Gabriel, others Bruce Springsteen. It’s always a name from 20 years ago with the Killers - their first album, Hot Fuss reminded us of The Cure, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode. Maybe that’s why I quite like them. The young like them for their natty style, their big hooks and sensitive lyrics, and the rest of us like the nostalgia.
In any case, it’s been hard work getting to listen to this album. At first I asked for a copy but the band, the management and the label all refused, on account of piracy paranoia gone wild. So I offered to visit the label’s offices in LA and listen to it there, but that turned out to be “too difficult to organise”. I’m beginning to think it’s all the label’s clever strategy to promote the thing – keep it conspicuously hush, treat it like the Holy Grail, and build the appetite. Whatever their motives, this listening party was my only shot at hearing the record. And I could barely make it out. There wasn’t a lot of listening going on, to be honest, and no one particularly cared. The bar was free and serving mango mojitos. There were girls all over the place just giddy to be partying with rock stars. And inevitably, we got a bit rowdy, so the no-necks arrived to move us down to the pool area because we were “disturbing hotel guests” and “this is a family hotel”. And now look.
“All right, last warning. You – out! Now! And you. Out!” The grunts are swarming the rim. They’re breathing so hard, it sounds like growling.
Brandon, Ronnie and the random girls sensibly paddle to the side and dredge themselves out. But not Dave. He’s lying on his back in the middle of the pool, with a serene smile, doing a kind of gentle rolling backstroke. If it weren’t for his rock frizz straggled across his face like seaweed, he’d look almost balletic, windmilling his arms in long languid strokes and fluttering his feet.
Suddenly a hackisack lands in the pool next to his head. The spell is broken. Dave splashes his way upright, standing chest-deep in the water.
“Who the fuck threw this?” Dave yells.
“I did,” says the largest of the meatheads – a buzzcut giant about 300lbs. “Now get out of the damn pool!”
And you would, if you saw this guy. You’d get out of the pool. Sharpish. But Dave’s just standing there, his eyes blazing. “How about you get in the pool?” he yells. “Let’s dance motherfucker!”
Laughter breaks out throughout the bar. The funniest part about it is Dave’s not kidding - the soft-bellied pasty rocker with the girly hair wants to fight The Fridge. And what’s more, he nearly does. When he eventually gets out of the pool he gives the feller a shove, triggering the typical meathead overkill response. They jump him, prone him out and yank him out of the hotel in a full nelson, leaving soggy footprints as he goes. And all the way, Dave is snarling at them: “You fucking bitches! You feel good about yourself now? Fucking bitches!”
“Ha ha!” Ronnie’s standing there in his black Y-fronts, rubbing his hands like it’s Christmas. “This is one for the book!”
The next afternoon, I find Brandon Flowers on a sun lounger in a Hollywood mansion, waiting to get his picture taken. He seems disappointed.
“No one listened to the record,” he says. “At the one in New York people sat and listened, but AT this one we were just background music. That’s not… We’re not really…”
He shrugs. It’s a slow day. Soporific. The clouds are swollen, the air is close. The only sounds to be heard are the caw of birds, a faraway helicopter, the lulling vhut-vhut of sprinklers. And the faint mumbling of a band nursing a hangover. When the makeup girl tries to liven things up with some music, she couldn’t have picked a better tune – Dr Dre’s “Keep Their Heads Ringin’”.
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” says Brandon, as a wardrobe woman paws at him with a lint roller. “Last night isn’t typical. We don’t get in trouble ever time we go out. That’s just Dave. Seriously, if he has a fuse at all, it’s about that big.”
Still, it must make for some good tour stories.
“That was probably the best one, last night. Touring gets pretty repetitive. We did 300 shows in a year once and you kinda become like robots. I would be doing shows and not missing a word, but I’d be thinking about conversations I had and what I did that day.”
No trashed hotel rooms, no hurling TV’s out of windows?
“No… I mean, that stuff - it used to be if you threw a TV out of a window, there had to be some cosmic reason behind it, some mythology. Sure in the 60s, it was probably exciting and new. But now, when I hear about people doing that, I just think they’re asses.”
What about the sex and drugs?
“None of us have a live-fast die-young thing. I love the earth, I think it’s beautiful and I want to stick around. It’s the same with our career. We could leave now, and there’s gonna be people that will remember us in 30 years. But we want to stick around.”
Don’t you at least want to try the sex and drugs thing? Know what you’re missing?
“Well, I still have those tugs of wanting to do things that I think I’m supposed to do because I’m in a rock and roll band. And it sounds fun when you read about it - people hanging out in hotel rooms for three days together. But David Gilmour said he wished he hadn’t done any of that stuff. And that’s David Gilmour.”
So what are you saying – does the rock star myth need updating?
“Well, bands are businesses. The Killers is a business. And we have to be happy with what our company’s producing. People say, ‘oh that’s dirty, my art’ and all that. No - there’s so much more that goes into it. We approve every picture, every article, if there’s ever going to be anything in movies or… A lot of bands leave it up to their manager or their label but we don’t. We want to look back on our career and be proud.”
Maybe it’s not so surprising that a band from Las Vegas, America’s Gomorrah, should be so disciplined and driven. The children of drinkers often turn out soberer than the rest of us – they’ve seen it all before, they’re not impressed. But in Flowers’s case, there’s more to it. He’s a Mormon – not a lapsed or lip-service Mormon, but a genuine believer in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He even goes to temple.
“I think it helps my outlook,” says Flowers, sheepishly. “I told you about those tugs I get… So you know, it helps.” Certainly it was the Mormon in him that married his sweetheart last year, at just the point when women everywhere would start hurling themselves at him. It might be a stretch to say that he’s applying to rock stardom the traditional Mormon virtues of hard work and simplicity. But it’s a stretch that a Mormon should be a rock star at all. Few institutions are less ‘rock’ than the Mormon church - it’s one of the most conservative and stentorian institutions in America. “I think Bob Dylan said you can’t be a Mormon and be cool,” grins Flowers. “But I don’t know. I feel pretty cool, sometimes.”
Another mystery about Brandon Flowers is the source of his endless confidence. No question, he’s a talented singer and songwriter, but is he really as good as he thinks he is? Is anyone as good as he thinks he is? Maybe his cockiness is just self-doubt in reverse. Maybe it’s his shield. Maybe he doth protest. But it doesn’t come across like that. Flowers won’t get in your face like Liam Gallagher. He’s more assured. He just knows.
“Right now, we are the best band,” he says, quietly. “We raised the bar with this album.”
Anyone else worth a mention?
“I think the Strokes are a good band,” he says. “The Kooks are good.” Shrug. “But they don’t have this album. We’re waiting for it to explode.”
A little cockiness never hurt a front man in a rock band. And Flowers loves being up front. Even though he came to role late, he says “I feel like I’ve been preparing for this all my life. When I’m alone, I imagine people are watching me. I’ve been like that since I was little. I don’t know why.”
Neither his mother nor father were entertainers. Like the rest of the band his background is working class – none of the band come from money. His father works as a bell man at a casino, a job he tried himself for a while before getting a job at a golf club, aged 19, parking cars and polishing clubs. There was no plan back then, no sign that he’d become this engine of rock ambition. He started a band with a friend from the golf club, with the awful name of Blush Response, and when that broke up, he found an ad in the paper placed by Dave “let’s dance, motherfucker” Keuning. “We just hit it off,” he says. “We liked all the same bands – everything from Sinatra to New Order. You know, all the major English bands of the 80s like the Smiths, the Cure, Duran Duran. That’s a pretty rare find in Vegas.”
In a matter of days, the two of them wrote the band’s biggest single to date – Mr Brightsides, the story of a man who imagines his girlfriend is cheating on him. In a few months, they would ditch their old bass player and drummer for Ronnie Vannucci and Mark Stoermer, their present line-up. And they got themselves a decent name. Or rather, they stole it from a fictional band in the New Order video of “Crystal”. The Killers was up against Genius Sex Poets for a while, but that didn’t last. Besides, it turns out that Brandon might have actually killed a man, he’s not sure.
“I hit him pretty fast,” he says. “I was going about fifty. He was a local man and he was drunk. He just walked out into my lane on the freeway and I was honking and hitting the brakes but I couldn’t stop in time. I hit him. It was terrible. Pretty traumatic. He hit my windshield, smashed it up. And they never told me what happened to him.” He looks a little shaken at the memory. “His shoes fell off. Their shoes fall off, did you know that? I don’t know why.”
We’re on our way, the Killers and I, to a sushi place in Hollywood. The radio promotion guy from Island is driving us in an A-Team style van which just reeks of weed. But it’s not the Killers stinking the place out. The previous tenant was their Island label mate, the hip hop DJ Rick Ross. “We don’t have any weed on us,” says Dave. “And if we did, we wouldn’t tell you.”
Then Brandon asks me, out of nowhere: “Do you think music can save lives?”
Definitely - do you?
“Yeah, it’s like prayer. Doctors say people who have religion are more likely to outlast diseases. Like if a Catholic and an atheist have cancer, then the Catholic guy’s got a better chance. It’s the optimism, the faith. Music is like that – it gives elation and a belief in something that’s good. When you pay your $25 to go see a band, and it’s like a religious experience, you can beat cancer.”
Tell me about a gig that was like a religious experience.
“There’s so many. Like when I was 15, seeing Morrissey for the first time in Salt Lake City. It was for Maladjusted - totally underrated album. Every bit as good as You are the Quarry.”
What was religious about it?
“The anticipation for something that is better than you are. And it absolutely was. The band played something from South Park Grammar for five minutes before Morrissey came out. That was the best moment in my life. Oh, I was also Morrissey’s busboy at one point.”
“When I was 18. I was at Spago at Caesar’s Palace. He ordered the mushroom pizza.”
Typically, Flowers is quick to add that he also had a religious experience listening to The Killers’s single Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine in the studio. “It just felt really powerful,” he says. But I want to ask them about the 80s and about England. All over the first album there are shades of Duran Duran, the Cure and New Order. Flowers is a fan of mascara and glitter on his keyboard. There’s a New Wave revival thing going on.
“No, no, no, everyone says that, but it’s not fair,” says Mark, the bass player. He’s the six foot five, Norse-looking one with the imperious expression. Mark doesn’t talk that often, but when he does, he will be heard. “People say the 80s just because we use keyboards. But Pink Floyd used keyboards, the Smashing Pumpkins used keyboards. It’s not just an 80s thing.”
What about the make-up, the lurid pink jackets, the poppy hooks?
“You’re onto something with the hooks. We’re a rock band that sees the art in a pop song. And the last time a lot of rock bands were writing pop singles was in the 80s.”
And they were mostly from England. The bands you grew up listening to are the ones people recognize in your music.
“But that’s bound to happen. We live in the postmodernism of rock now, so that’s what rock music is about - it’s about putting things in a different way.”
Where better for a postmodernist New Wave band to emerge from than the mish-mash Babylon of Las Vegas? Nowhere else quite regards the past in the same way - as so much raw material to be shamelessly repackaged and resold with shinier suits and brighter lights. Few other cities better epitomize the showy materialism of the 80s. And the city’s influence on the Killers is plain – they share Vegas’s hunger for the mass market, its compulsion to self-promote and hype, and its taste for showmanship. Flowers cites as an example the glitter he stuck on his keyboard.
“We grew up with the billboards of Sinatra and Engelbert Humperdinck,” says Flowers. “So we definitely got some of the showmanship. And we got the optimism. Vegas is an optimistic place – everyone wants to win a fortune and have a sweet life.”
“Yeah, we’re happy people.”
Vegas also shaped the Killers’s sound, in its own peculiar hands-off way. While traditional music scenes like Seattle and New York tend to leave a print on the bands they generate, Vegas does the opposite – like a bubble, it shields its bands from outside influence. When the band first came together in 2001, the Strokes were coming out with “Is This It?” and all eyes were on New York. “But we weren’t part of that,” says Mark. “We didn’t have to sound a certain way, like in New York where they were afraid of the word ‘pop’.”
In so much as the Vegas scene existed at all, the Killers were it. They played whenever and wherever they could, eventually turning a Sunday night spot at a gay drag bar into one of their biggest nights. At their last gig, 300 people showed up. That’s a lot of trannies.
“No, no, no, we didn’t have a tranny following,” says Mark, seriously. “The trannies came on other nights. They just turned the club over to a regular alternative rock night on Sunday.”
So where did all the trannies go?
“I don’t know. Maybe trannies take Sundays off.”
In the early years, they rehearsed in Ronnie’s garage, where temperatures rose to 120 degrees in the summer - hence the name of the first album, Hot Fuss. But in that baking, desert hotbox the Killers were channeling some of the best in rainy, British miserablism, in the Smiths and the Cure style. It made for a winning collision of Vegas glam and English gloom that combined songs of rejection, heartbreak and wounded pride with some of the weirder stories of Sin City, like androgynous girlfriends and stalkers. Though the band reject the tag - the best British band to come out of Las Vegas – because it’s too simplistic, it sounds fair enough to me. Certainly beats the bill posters for their first UK shows: “Four Heartbreakers from Las Vegas”.
The Killers put the lie to the Vegas marketing board slogan – what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. In fact, what happens in Vegas leaves for England if it knows what’s good for it. Like the Strokes and the White Stripes, the Killers fall into that illustrious category of bands who were first championed in England before America realized what it had. While every label in America rejected the Killers - one of which saw them play live 10 times – the small London indie, Lizard King, signed the band on the strength of a demo tape. It flew the boys over for a brief tour where they were loudly feted by the NME, and by the time they got back to Ronnie’s garage, Island Records were waiting in the drive, their checkbook flapping.
“Hey I’ll admit it, England has better bands,” says Dave. “Much better.”
“And they listen to music better in Britain,” says Brandon. “People hum along to keyboard parts. That’s something that never happened anywhere else. I think they’re just more excited and less… there’s a cool thing out here. There’s a camaraderie about the English. When you see a bunch of dudes in a bar singing Don’t Look Back In Anger…”
It’s not the first time Oasis has popped up in the Killers story. Oasis was one of the bands Dave mentioned in the ad that Brandon answered. Brandon’s arrogance is reminiscent of Liam, and like Liam, he has been involved in beefs with other bands, notably the Bravery and Fall Out Boy. But while Liam wanted to wade in fists flying, the Killers, despite their name, engage in only the meekest and most bloodless of tiffs. Brandon’s argument with Fall Out Boy is more of a corporate dispute, one for the business lawyers. He’s ticked off that Fall Out Boy share the same A&R executive – he feels the Killers’ interests aren’t being best served.
It’s a dispute that speaks volumes about the Killers and the torch they bear for indie rock music. As Brandon keeps saying, the band is a business. Indie rock may be the traditional refuge for the rebel, the musical outsider, but the Killers want nothing more than mainstream success - they want to abandon the fringes and play stadiums like U2. The robotic touring schedule, the hands-on attention to every decision in their careers, the safe new New Wave rock stylings – at every step, they’ve worked hard and risked little. They are the antithesis of the Vegas spirit. And along the way, they have epitomized a nakedness of ambition that says there’s no shame in wanting to be the most popular, to sell the most records, to make the most money. Of all the things to get het up about, their relationship with an industry executive is near the top.
But every so often, the veneer cracks and the band will jump in the pool. So however controlled they like to appear, the road ahead is full of twists and bumps. Will the Mormon front-man be able to resist the temptations of touring? Will he learn to stop worrying and love the bong? One thing is certain – if the Killers are after immortality, and they are, they’ll need stories to tell, stories that remind us that rock stars really do write their own rules. And that depends less on their discipline as their willingness to dance. Motherfucker.