photography / SHANNA FISHER
story / HEATHER SEIDLER
It’s a typical humid, muggy, overcast dog day of summer in Manhattan. Somewhere in the circuitous gridlock of streets in the Upper West Side, some place deep within the hallowed halls of the Gramercy Park Hotel, sometime around noon, the boys who make up The Killers have just arisen after a late night of putting the final touches on their forthcoming album, Battle Born. After a provisory hiatus and assortment of solo endeavors, everyone’s favorite Las Vegan rockers are back for battle and to prove they not only haven’t hung up their pistols, but are just beginning to really take aim at rock immortality.
Ringleader Brandon Flowers enters the penthouse last, dressed impeccably in head-to-toe black. He smiles warmly, he shakes hands, he sits down, he looks good. He has the sturdy but languid handsomeness that introduces itself suddenly at first glance and then gradually. It’s a physical alchemy that has served him well.
Not prone to verbal ramblings, Flowers speaks deliberately as he searches his mental data banks for the proper shade of meaning. He doesn’t like having to talk about himself, understandably, since from the get-go journalists have rather hamfistedly pried about his faith, his fashion, his lyrical syntax, and his mustache days. The 31-year-old frontman has swapped the mascara and feathers for suspenders and well-fitting buttonups. But the bloggers and beards in charge always need fodder for the masses.
“I don’t know if I gave them anything to talk about this time,” says Flowers with a sly smirk. “You’re never prepared for it. When we made Sam’s Town, we were so proud of it and we were so excited for people to hear it, but all people would talk about was my facial hair. It was frustrating.” Maybe Flowers ought to grow a beard right before the album is released, just to give the critics the proverbial middle finger to fodder about.
The Killers did what they came out to do—remind us why we love them and let us know the music speaks for itself. “I’ve always thought that if you were honest and undisguised, that should translate with people,” Flowers imparts in a moment of reverence. He shakes his head. “We always seem to divide people when we put out a record. The thing about the last album was we heard a little bit of grumbling that there wasn’t enough. People who were fans of Sam’s Town were a little bit displeased with Day and Age. We realize that we have so many different roads we can go down and I think we took that into consideration on this album. We also are big fans of Sam’s Town. So we’re trying to combine everything—trying to make ourselves happy and make everybody else happy, too.”
The band felt the unspoken pressure to live up to their past hype, to grow and muffle the opinions of their detractors. In 2004, their debut Hot Fussblew up the Billboard charts and The Killers became the patron saints of all things pop-and-zinger-packed. A Mormon from the middle of the desert is an unlikely rock god and good indie-rock music wasn’t generally associated with the City of Sin. But when a young Mr. Flowers responded to a local newspaper advert for a bandmate, The Killers formed and quickly went on to become one of the biggest indie bands on the face of the earth. They were rewarded internationally as MTV darlings, gathered bunches of ‘Best Band’ awards, as well as being accepted by a more music-conscientious circle of people. It didn’t hurt that they came along at a time when the musical culture was embroiled in fist-pumping, trucker hats, questionable facial hair, and power chords. The fact that this band was decidedly different and had all the sonic bigness we require of our rock stars was all it took to propel the Killers to superstardom.
After dropping way more than a few can’t-get-them-outta-your-head hits, The Killers have prepared a triumphant new record full of more potential #1 mega-jams. Whether it’s your bag or it isn’t, there are no misgivings about whether or not Brandon Flowers can sing. The other members of the quartet, Dave Keuning [guitar], Ronnie Vannucci [drums], and Mark Stoermer [bass] unargueably hold their own weight in spades and play to their strengths more than ever on their latest album.
Performed live, the songs from Battle Born pop and sparkle with the Killer’s signature frenetic energy and stadium-filling, volted-up vocals courtesy of Flowers. Performing in a grand old Manhattan bank turned event space, the Killers dominated the stage (and people’s eardrums) while taping some of their new songs for a musical TV special to air later this year. The Killers are varsity showmen, instantly connecting with the audience moments after taking the stage. This speaks volumes to their cohesiveness as a band – even as the albums change and evolves, the heartbeat stays the same. The audience cheered wildly for new and familiar songs alike, as Flowers – in his signature all-black, collar of his leather jacket popped, strutted and alternated between playing the keyboard and playing the bass. Keuning and Stoermer flanked him on both sides, providing the soulful guitar and thumping bass they’ve become famous for, while Vannucci pounded his face off at the drum kit. The entire experience was the Killers at their finest, reminding fans why they still are one of the most influential bands of the early 2000’s. Later, at their Los Angeles show at the Henry Fonda Theatre, the band again was in prime form and Flower’s biggest concern was with connecting with the audience. Whether it’s a show in front of 1,000 or 100,000 people, Flowers aims to elicit the same lightning-in-a-bottle energy from himself and the crowd.
The band is a four-part machine—each element with its own chosen speed and climate. When they come together, all the cogs fit into place after first being taken apart. When the fellows reconvened to start recording Battle Born, the transition wasn’t a difficult one. “It had been a few years since we had been in a studio together, but after a couple days everything just kind of fell into place,” says Flowers. “It could have been ten years ago last night. It didn’t feel much different. I don’t think any of us changed have that much.”
Flowers admitted there were times at the end of their first record that things got pretty volatile. They spent two and a half years being cooped up together and it began to wear on them. The guys were experiencing the big rush but also the road-weariness and its encumbering wear-andtear. To try and create new music over this was like drawing in the dirt with a stick during a wind storm. But after taking time apart to tend to some solo projects, the boys are back with some full-grown, full-blown pop excellence. More soaring, desert-soaked neon songs about discovery, love, surrenderance, and suchlike…all with the Killers’ integral glitzy synths and that refrain that sounds like it’s twinkling underwater. Battle Born has all the grandiosity of albums past but additionally has the band’s most heartfelt, forthright lyrics to-date. But there’s no way to gauge whether or not an album will take off despite its quality or the success of its predecessors.
“There are songs that just get better with age and it takes people a long time to understand,” Flowers explains. “There’s a song from our last record, Dustland Fairytale, that just in the last few shows we noticed kind of stepped up a couple levels when we played it live. Even though we’ve played it two hundred times, something happened in the last couple years. People have obviously grown with it and have some attachment to it that’s been made bigger over time. It’s hard when you feel strongly about a song and people don’t react to it the way you imagine.”But does the band think Hot Fuss would be as popular if had been released in 2012, amongst the climate of technological immersion that runs tandem with shortsightedness and immediacy, a collective amnesia that people seem to feel a need for?“
I do think it would be successful,” Keuning responds. “It seems like labels and press are always trying to act like there’s a certain scene going on. I’ve noticed this.” He continues: “They’re always like ‘Oh, this is what’s happening!’ but at the time they didn’t really believe that what we were doing was happening. But I think if you just put out a quality album – especially now when there doesn’t seem to be that much to compete with – it can be a success. It could be hair metal and if it was really good people would like it. That’s why I think that if it were something of quality right now it would take off, regardless of what it is.”
Surprisingly enough, I don’t think Flowers thinks of himself as a rock star. With all of his past pomposity and misinterpreted chest-puffery, he doesn’t give off that all-too-familiar aura of the self-indulgent exclusivity that’s usually exploited by the people of his profession. There’s a little known side to Flowers that not a lot of people get to see. Those closest to him say he’s got a hell of a sense of humor. He’s very quick with the witty and beguiling. He’s also quite polite. His warm cordiality was ever present as he addressed fans, friends, and industry-folk backstage after their Los Angeles gig.
Whatever ego he exhibited in his youth, he admits was a façade, a front to cover his insecurity and reluctance to be under the microscope. “We realized early on, especially on red carpets,that it was unnatural for us. There have never been four more uncomfortable people on the red carpet, it was so awkward,” Flowers recalls. “We realized this was going to do us more harm than good because the interviewers were latching onto the wrong things. It was so uncomfortable. We were more effected in the beginning, but now it’s toned down and we made it out pretty much unscathed. In 2010, when Flowers released his solo album, Flamingo, he refused to do a single press interview. You can see he doesn’t like having to sell himself as a product. Within The Killers template, Flowers has learned how to navigate the rigged world of the self-serving media. “Now it’s blessing because we’re the first people at our record label who they wanted to be stars, they intended us to be rock celebrity. Then they realized that we aren’t like that, and now we’re free, even though we have success,” Flowers says. “I don’t have people banging on my door. I go to the movies and we still have a normalcy, so we’re really happy.”
After retiring his famed feathered jacket to the London Hard Rock Cafe, Flowers—the non-smoking, drug-free father of three , now finds confidence takes the place of the pink leather and feathers. He admits he is feeling more comfortable being who he is and he’s truly proud of who The Killers are. “People ask me all the time what it’s like to be famous and I just tell them my life’s a lot more busy. That’s it,” Keuning adds. “I’m pretty much the same person, I just have a lot more to do.”
The inspirations that trickled into the album’s sound was a culmination of, “Things that wouldn’t be normally be a part of the recording process like the movies TERMINATOR and BLADERUNNER,” Flowers says. Both he and Keuning are big Sci-Fi buffs. He gathers and pulls from his surroundings. After many thunderous years of creating and touring almost nonstop, the four bandmembers compiled experiences that ultimately sculpted their dreams, influences, and desires. This album marks their reflection of it all. It makes sense that the album title takes its name from the words on the Nevada state flag. Las Vegas: the place where the shadows run from themselves. Flowers found inspiration in hearing the experiences of those roaming Sin City. From the conversations of strangers overheard at restaurants and bars, to things happening to his own family and friends, “Sometimes you don’t seek it out, but it follows you,” says Flowers.
“It’s everything. You take the stuff that you grew up listening to, you took the stuff that you’re still finding,” Flowers says. “I’ve taken the stuff that people are talking about in a restaurant at the table next to me, things that happen to my brother or my cousin. Everything you absorb is going to come out somehow. The more you take in, the better.”
“Working with Brandon was a lot of fun and quite interesting,” says Herschel Gaer, who played bass alongside Flowers during his solo shows. “He just loves creating. After a show most people in bands want to go out partying or whatnot, but Brandon loves nothing more than getting back on the bus to pull out his keyboard and start bashing away. Every night he’d come up with new material that left me in awe. Even when he’s just tinkering around, his melodies and song ideas are like golden water flowing from an endless faucet that never gets shut off. It’s just second nature to him and effortless. He’s constantly bristling with ideas he needs to get out.”
After a decade of being a band, The Killers seem to have arrived at a place of balance that is perhaps wiser, but no less hopeful and grand. Not quite “mature,” since these Vegas boys are still driven by their big, bleeding, collective teenaged heart, but musically Battle Born attains a nice balance of arenaready fire, glory, and nuance that previous Killers efforts inevitably toppled over in their hell-bent quest for significance. Their first single, “Runaways” proves they haven’t lost any of the ability to manufacture the soaring melody first exhibited with “Mr. Brightside.”The Killers have shed their boastful pretensions while holding onto their precipitous quality control. Flowers’ Buckleyan vocals are perhaps in the best form of his career, and there’s something about Keuning’s plucky guitar playing that has kept the bar as high as it ever was. But outside the recording and performing spaces, the wunderkinds of 2004 are not so much interested in rock pageantry or lifestyle accoutrement for a rarefied life.
“We just go home and to the studio that’s it—back and forth. Mostly we spend twelve hours a day recording.”“We have hopes and dreams,” Flowers laughs. “You never know what’s going to happen. We’ve been really lucky with our first singles, but you never know. You really never know.
True, you can’t know for sure, but you can predict. And with a box of (sonically profuse) magic moments surrounded by a ring of confidence and liquid engineering from five A-list producers (Daniel Lanois, Steven Lillywhite, Damian Taylor, Stuart Price, and Brendan O’Brien) it’s a low-risk gamble to say the album will do well. Even though lazy journalists/bloggers liken their sound to Springsteen, The Killers have never made music to please the descriptors; they make it for themselves and for their fans.One of their fans happens to be President Obama, whom the band played an intimate performance for in 2010 at the President’s invitation—and there was much media talk about the private lunch Brandon Flowers had with Presidential canditate Mitt Romney who says on the record that The Killers is his favorite band. Tim Burton was such an avid fan he offered to direct their music video, the one and only music video Burton ever directed. From dive bars to the White House lawn, The Killers have come a long way. So what’s The Killers biggest fantasy as of right now? There’s a quiet calm for a minute while the Flowers and Keuning consider their answers. Flowers laughs, “Nice reviews. Glowing reviews of our record.”
Keuning: “I guess one fantasy would be to have sales like the ‘80s, numbers close to that. It’s just impossible now. It just doesn’t happen to anyone except Katy Perry but to get an album to hit ten million would blow our minds.”The Killers have already proved it isn’t a bad thing to be super ambitious. They started with grand ambitions of U2 megalithic proportions and sold an astounding seventeen million copies worldwide, no small feat in an industry gutted by illegal downloading of music. With so much over-saturation, the near extinction of “rock radio,” and the domination of the glow-stick movement, how does a band like The Killers still fight in the arena? It’s what separates the men from the boys.
“There’s more stuff to do now,” Keuning weighs in. “People play video games and watch songs on YouTube or maybe they just listen to the song two times and they never pay for it. It used to be that you had to buy the CD, the vinyl, or the cassette. I remember how precious it was having a vinyl record, the pride of ownership of having that record and the artwork on it—reading the inserts to the lyrics. I would listen to it several times a day. It was such a different experience when I was younger. Now I download it things to my iPod and listen to it when I’m on the go. It’s just junk food now the way people listen to music.”
“It’s definitely the weirdest time to be in our business, but it’s fine with me,” Flowers remarks.
Though The Killers can’t change the way people listen to music nowadays, they can provide a return to the storytelling rock anthems, words you carry away with you, show-stopping epics with melodies that blend whatever the band is playing securely into the category of big-shiny-dancey pop music. This is what the band does well, which will hopefully please fans of earlier sounds and new alike while keeping them at the peak of the arena rock sphere. Because these boys are definitely ready to battle to stay on top.