The Killers are back, and aiming to restore some classic rock‘n’roll to the music scene. ShortList’s Mark Beaumont watches them let rip
“They’d have parties. Give people martinis and sunglasses and wait for it to go off. It’s crazy. They’d take school kids to designated points in the desert to watch the exploshhiaaawwnnftzzz…”
It’s just as Brandon Flowers is describing his parents’ school outings in the Sixties to watch nuclear detonations in the Nevada desert that ShortList’s Dictaphone is magnetically fried. It’s the sort of thing that happens to Flowers all the time, a roadie later tells us. Perhaps the radiation has genetically transformed The Killers’ frontman, a born and bred Las Vegan, into some kind of electronics-melting super-mutant.
There’s definitely something superhuman about The Killers. Flowers is the teetotal 31-year-old Mormon father of three who has become one of the most dazzling natural rock‘n’roll stars on the planet. His most famous song, Mr Brightside, was recently voted the best of the Noughties, and The Killers’ forthcoming fourth album Battle Born shows no slackening of their ability to write the sort of show-stopping epics that have taken them to the peak of the arena rock sphere. Tonight, at a V Festival warm-up at the O2 Academy Leeds, they’ll fritz 5,000 Yorkshire brains with blasts of When You Were Young, Somebody Told Me and new single Runaways. Proving again that they are a blinding star-pulse of a band.
But what have Flowers, Dave Keuning (lead guitar), Ronnie Vannucci Jr (drums) and Mark Stoermer (bass) been up to since the hiatus after 2008’s Day & Age? Did they steal anything from the White House when they played for Obama? And how did they become best mates with Jimmy Carr? ShortList swiftly rewires its knackered recording device to find out…
Until this bout of European festival headline shows, you’d been away for 18 months – are you getting back into the swing of it?
BF: I’m starting to. A lot of these songs play themselves a little bit now. They don’t belong to us any more. As soon as you fire up Brightside or Human or When You Were Young, something happens. I facilitate it, but I don’t know that I’m totally needed.
Have you considered sending out a hologram of yourself, like Tupac?
BF: [Laughs] I could use a week at home...
Who had the most fun during your hiatus?
BF: I did a lot of hiking. There’s just something special about getting out of your town or city and going somewhere remote. Dave tried to join some soccer league…
DK: For one day. It was non-stop sprinting, not to mention the fact that it was all Mexicans and – not to be racist – they’re good. I was in way above my head. It was downtown San Diego, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. I was like, “I thought this was gonna be a really friendly league…”
Were there any rock star excesses? Did anyone buy a crumbling chateau or take helicopter lessons?
BF: Ron has a place in the wine country.
RVJ: It’s leisurely, it’s good living. When I’m not in Vegas it’s a nice respite from the heat and everything that is Vegas. It’s the complete antithesis of where I grew up. Great food, great people.
Would you ever move out of Vegas, Brandon? It’s an odd place for a teetotal non-gambler to live…
BF: I think about it all the time. I’m gripped by some weird fear. I’m so attached to it, I feel like I would lose some part of my identity. It somehow prepared me for this because I was always around it. Even if your family wasn’t doing it you knew about the hookers and strip clubs. I get that there’s a bunch of musicians they say go there to die, and people are losing their money – I think my brain bypasses that. I thrive off the energy of that gold rush, the idea of people coming there for that and the neon buzz. I’m like a teenager about that stuff.
Have you ever had any vices?
BF: Early on in the band, I had things pulling me in certain directions but I think every band has that. You read about Led Zeppelin and David Bowie…
What sort of thing?
BF: The whole lifestyle of being in a rock band…
Drink, girls or ego?
BF: The ego thing was somewhat real, but it was a little bit of a façade, a little bit of a front for how insecure I felt. We don’t come from New York or London or LA. Dave’s from the Midwest and I grew up in Utah, and all of a sudden we’re getting popular in London – the coolest city in the world – and we were like, “This is not what we’re cut from.” So I puffed up my chest and spread the feathers – that was my reaction to that. I do have a belief in myself and in the band, but it wasn’t like that.
Dave spent his time off with his family but the rest of you wrote side-albums. Was there a fear that stopping for a year would mean the songs would dry up?
BF: Yeah. Some people have nice breaks and they come back and have these weird creative resurgences. I love that story of John Lennon taking I don’t know how long off, and all of a sudden he just felt like he was gonna write again, and he writes Jealous Guy and Woman and sh*t! There’s got to be an expiration date somewhere, but we’ve had a good run...
What did you miss most about the band?
DK: Playing shows. If there was one thing I wish I could control it’s to do everything a little more balanced, but unfortunately I can’t seem to win that battle. It’s all or nothing. Once Battle Born starts up, it’s full-on touring for two years instead of just playing two weeks and having two weeks off.
BF: It’s a family, so if we’re not together I do sometimes miss that bond that we have. I had another band and they were my friends and I had fun, but they still hadn’t been in the trenches like I have.
MS: Once we got in a room together it was pretty much working how it always has.
What’s been the biggest thing that’s blighted guitar music since you’ve been away?
BF: Well, guitar bands aren’t writing songs. Write a f*cking song, get over yourself. There aren’t any. Where are they? Dance music cannot compete with a really great rock‘n’roll song. There ain’t no DJ that’s gonna play something that can take Mr Brightside or Don’t Look Back In Anger. Those songs are better than that. I appreciate the dance culture, it’s cool. I love bands that are able to blend that stuff, I grew up on Depeche Mode and New Order, but there aren’t any bands that are giving it a run for its money.
Are bands not having enough fun with it?
BF: Yeah, it got serious. People misinterpret my emotions towards Nirvana because I’ve said things about how something happened with grunge that took a little bit of fun out of things. It’s no offense to Nirvana, they were one of the greats, obviously. I have no qualms with that. But something died there too and we haven’t quite gotten the groove back. It’s seen as dirty to be ambitious. What if U2 weren’t ambitious? We wouldn’t have that gift we have from them. I’ve said things like that before but people, instead of hearing the reason, they just say, “He hates Nirvana, what a dick!”
One of your new songs, Deadlines And Commitments, has an economic theme. Where did that come from?
BF: I was having dinner with Jimmy Carr, like you do, and he thought the next big breakthrough record that people were going to notice was going to be about the problems of the economy.
Hang on, Jimmy Carr the comedian?
BF: Yes. We played Comic Relief and he was there, I struck up conversation and he’s great, when he comes to Vegas we see him, and here in London. We were talking about Bruce Springsteen or something, we thought that somebody was going to make a record like that. I’m conscious of it – Las Vegas was hit harder than anywhere else. Empty houses, empty shopping malls. They built a whole shopping centre by my house in Henderson that never got occupied by one store. It’s a weird time.
There’s been talk of ditching past flamboyance – is there anything you look back on with particular embarrassment?
BF: Getting more comfortable in my own skin and feeling more confident is somehow taking the place of feathers and pink leather. I wouldn’t take back the feathers. I felt empowered when I put that jacket on, it was a ceremony, I loved it. But I can’t wear them forever. I gave them to the London Hard Rock.
In your stated attempt to become the next U2, what stage are you at?
BF: We’re a few steps behind Coldplay. There’s no catching them now. I never felt we were chasing them and I’m not defeated, but they’ve just taken that.
Can you remember slumming it on the early UK tours?
RVJ: I still think about it. We have travel days now, whereas a travel day and a show day and a press day and seeing a doctor about your cold, that was all one day. We cut our teeth on touring for weeks in a van or a splitter [minibus] making £110. That was our guarantee.
DK: The gig I’ll never forget is one we did in Lincoln. Our dressing room was in some little girl’s bedroom. There was a venue in some guy’s house and I remember putting my guitar case on a girl’s bed and thinking, “This doesn’t feel right.” Her toys were there, her stuffed animals, Barbie dolls still out.
Apart from fans, what have you missed most about the UK?
RVJ: The variety, the dynamic here, the noises, the smells, the people here. The girls who dress like girls. In a weird way the grass is always greener. But where I come from, the girls all dress like auto-mechanics.
Do you have any on-tour luxuries? The Rolling Stones have an entire village backstage…
RVJ: We haven’t got to that point yet. We had this backstage area at V Festival, a big private compound full of dressing rooms and a nice rider with top-shelf liquors and fresh fruit – everything was great, but we have a small crew, 12 or 13 people. Apparently The Stone Roses, the other headliners, had a much bigger entourage. We did an interview and it was like, “So where are all your people?” We were like, “What do you mean? How many are in the other crew?” “There was, like 300 people.” “Sh*t, it’s a party!”
Finally, you played at the White House for the Fourth Of July celebrations in 2010. Did you speak to Obama?
DK: It was small talk, “Have you guys eaten yet? Did you enjoy some food?” I really kind of felt like… I don’t do nearly as many meet-and-greets as Obama, but I knew what he was going through a bit and I couldn’t help but think that he must do a lot of that – like hours and hours just saying hi and pretending to be interested, so I kind of empathise with him, like, “Yeah, I understand, it doesn’t have to be a big conversation.”
What about souvenirs. Were you tempted to steal anything?
DK: No, I was too worried the Secret Service would be watching me.
BF: I saw a Book Of Mormon that looked like it must’ve been 100 years old, and it crossed my mind that I would like to have that.
The Killers’ new album Battle Born is released on 17 September
(Images: Steve Neaves)