Louise Donovan talks to Brandon Flowers about sampling, Sin City and his dormant stadium-filling band
Sorry, what was the question? I zoned out,” says Brandon Flowers. He’s in his Las Vegas hometown, but he’s distracted, um-ing and ah-ing before answering: “Yeah, no, I think so... ?” I've just asked the 33-year-old singer whether solo albums get any easier, but in the silence that follows I can hear children (most likely his three sons) screaming with laughter in the background. Despite his small-talk difficulties, it’s hard to be annoyed at The Killers’ frontman. Swaggy bravado, an irrefutable self-belief and sharp cheekbones aside, this is one of rock’s most intriguing and enigmatic stars.
FROM POOR TO MOR(MONISM)
The rest of The Killers wanted to take a break after touring, but Flowers didn’t. So here we are. For his second solo album, The Desired Effect, Flowers enlisted the help of Grammy-award winning Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Charli XCX), plus the likes of Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Danielle Haim on drums. From synth-heavy single Can’t Deny My Love to the Bronski Beat-sampling I Can Change, it’s definitely one for Killers fans. “We got permission from Jimmy Somerville [for I Can Change]. I didn’t just steal it like everyone seems to do. I’m a religious person, you know?” Flowers says, laughing.
Anyone with any interest in Flowers would know. His father was an alcoholic who stopped drinking when his son was five, and converted to Mormonism. He was 22 when The Killers released Mr Brightside and, despite the church forbidding booze and smoking, he gave in. But not too much. Ironically, growing up in Las Vegas lay a good foundation for good behaviour, he says. “I got a fake ID when I was 16 and went to bars on the Strip. Getting that out of my system helped me not become a casualty of rock.” After getting married aged 26, he gave up life’s vices for Mormonism. (YouTube it: ‘I’m Brandon Flowers and I’m a Mormon.’)
Leaving the “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll thing” has not had an affect on Flowers’ musical game. Indeed, solo projects began to emerge during Killers breaks. Flamingo, in 2010, was his first solo album, and for the follow-up he has once again written every track. In an era of singers that have nothing to do with their career-transforming hit single, it’s refreshing to see his name in the sleeve notes.
Standing out was never a problem for The Killers. In 2004, Flowers was responsible for those Soldier/Jenny/Brightside lyrics still etched into your brain. Does he have a favourite lyric? “There’s a bit in A Dustland Fairytale [from 2008’s Day & Age]: ‘He’d look just like you’d want him to/Some kind of slick chrome American prince.’ It’s a cool line. It reminds me of [Jack] Kerouac. I think Kerouac would have taken that line."
If this is starting to sound a little, contrived, it wouldn't be the first time. Beat poet comparisons aside, one criticism of Flowers is his brand of rock can seem weirdly forced. And then there’s his notorious ambition: a rock star who refuses to stop when his band does. If there’s a tension there, Flowers doesn't notice. “Being ambitious should be a beautiful thing,” he says. “U2 were ambitious. So were Queen and The Beatles. Somewhere in the Nineties ambition was suddenly a dirty word. When you succeed, there’s nothing better. So I’m going to keep shooting for the moon.”
Flowers’ lyric sheet is worth an hour in the psychiatrist’s seat. Between Me And You, a song about keeping problems to yourself, includes the lines: “These hours I’m working ain’t nearly enough/And I feel like I got nothing to show/For this life and I've been wondering what I’m supposed to do.” You wonder how much is storytelling, or if there’s a lot of Flowers in there.
“Sometimes I’m obligated to write songs about my observations or experiences I wouldn’t have had, had I not been the lead singer of The Killers,” he explains. “And maybe there’s a little bit of my dad, or my brother-in-law – things I see them going through – in that song. It’s about the pressure of being a provider for a family, the pressures that can be put on a man. It’s hard."
But with four Killers albums selling more than 25 million copies, surely he could hang up his boots? “Yeah, no, but I still…” Flowers stumbles. “From what I gather,
a lot of us go through these phases when you feel like you’re not doing it well.” It’s about being the best. “I’ve always gravitated towards more grandiose stuff,” he says. “There are so many great songs – I have such a long way to go. I’m 33, and I take inspiration from people who were great in their thirties and forties. I’m never content. I always feel like there’s something to prove.”
MAKING A KILLING
If the fact that Hot Fuss dropped nearly 11 years ago wasn't terrifying enough, it’s how the musical landscape has changed in that time. Pre Spotify, Soundcloud and YouTube, music today is a different beast. If The Killers started out now, it’s possible their music wouldn't have stormed Britain. Flowers isn't sure they’d have made it at all. “Record deals have changed. The radio now only looks at the charts. They play a song a few times, see how well it’s doing on iTunes and if it’s not doing well, they’ll stop promoting it,” he says. “That would have been a disaster for The Killers. Mr Brightside was released twice. It didn’t go down well first time. It wouldn’t have the opportunity in the current climate."
The Killers’ music era was a good one. Alongside bands such as Interpol, Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes, there was a sense of indie-rock identity. But with the likes of Jess Glynne dominating the charts now, there’s arguably a lack of definitive bands around. Flowers is inclined to agree. “The War On Drugs made a good record. Father John Misty is great,” he says. “But it doesn’t feel like there’s some wave of bands. I don’t hear one in particular swinging for the fences.”
Luckily, The Killers haven’t written off swinging for their own fence. Brandon recently told Rolling Stone the band just needs a “kick in the pants”. When will that happen? “I don’t know. We need to find that spirit that brought us together. If we could, it’d be fantastic.” And, just like that, he’s back. Distracted or not, we needn't worry about Brandon Flowers.
The Desired Effect is out 18 May (Virgin)