Have All the Songs Been Written? A Conversation with The Killers

on September 26, 2017, 12:00am

Photo by Philip Cosores

The chances are you first encountered The Killers through an anthem. Sure, the Las Vegas rock titans have branched out over the course of 13 years and five albums, but if The Killers ever died, a list of arena-ready, fist-pumping shout-alongs would be left scrawled across their tombstone. The amount of these that resonate differ depending on who you ask, but if you ever go to a Killers concert and surround yourself in those baptized in the gospel of Brandon Flowers, you’d believe that the band doesn’t just write anthems; they turn regular songs into them.

On their latest collection, Wonderful Wonderful, the band is certainly comfortable in the role of crafting stand-alones, be it the strutting sequenced-jacket-Bowie of “The Man”, the barnstorming Sam’s Town throwback “Run for Cover”, the vulnerable ballad “Rut” (written from the perspective of Flowers’ wife), or the soaring boxing-match-turned-metaphor of “Tyson vs Douglas”. There’s plenty there that will sit easily next to their beloved older tunes when they tour, but Wonderful Wonderful is also getting deservedly noticed for its cohesion. Flowers’ songwriting takes a noticeably personal turn, where suddenly the life of a rock star and a family man don’t feel unrelated to each other. Flowers and his band have never been above seeming human regardless of how big the stages grow, but on Wonderful Wonderful, they’ve never felt so within their audience’s grasp.

On the record, Flowers doesn’t hide the uncertainty that comes with growing older in a band. In a song titled “Have All the Songs Been Written?”, he dives into a pool of self-doubt with his eyes wide open. “Have all these years been worth it/ Or am I the great regret?” he asks, concluding that he just needs one more great song to get through. It’s not cool to aim to please, but it’s also not cool to find success as quickly and rapidly as The Killers do. But Flowers and his music have always wanted to be liked and dared to be for everyone. It’s long stood apart from the indie rock bands of the aughts because of that. And as the word “legacy” starts to creep into the equation, it also might be what makes The Killers last.

We caught up with Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. to discuss the trials of being in a rock band in 2017, if now is the time to get political, and whether the condescension of music critics gets to them.

You guys just released a big rock album in 2017 in a time when there’s not a lot of big-event rock albums. How much more difficult is it being a rock band in 2017 than it was when you were starting out?

Ronnie Vannucci, Jr.: That was definitely a big part of the conversation when we were making this record. Before we started, we were speed dating different people to work with — programmers, producers — just kind of getting in the studio and flexing muscles again. Before we chose to make the whole record with Jacknife Lee, that was a struggle that we had. We can build songs, we can write songs, we can do this, but how do we get it into the right vehicle for 2017? What is the right vehicle?

And it was Jacknife’s first couple comments when we first met with him, that he believed in rock and roll. When I heard him say that, it eased my fear a little bit that he knew that we wanted to make a rock and roll record. But he was also very aware of what age we were in. So, we were all on the same page. It’s very easy to go ahead and sound like the ’80s or ’90s or of a time, but how do you project for the future? And I think we did the best we could with the conversations we were having.

Really, we were just plucking records from a wall, thousands of records to choose from — old records, new records, hip hop records, weird island synth records, anything. We were referencing all sorts of things. The name of the game was to be a little more adventurous than we had been before, to take more chances, and to use the studio as a tool and as an instrument, instead of four guys saying, “Okay, hit the go button,” and then running down a few takes of the song like we were used to doing. We got a little less precious and a little more brave and made a record. I would imagine us doing more of that in the future.

There’s some really personal songwriting on the new album from you, Brandon. You’ve been really open lately, speaking about writing from the perspective of your wife and speaking about your family, and it feels like at this stage we’re getting to know a little bit about who you are outside of the rock and roll world.

Brandon Flowers: I like to describe it as I’m always sort of lurking in songs. And on this record, I am more front and center, and it was an exercise. I felt really fulfilled in the whole process, and I’m just excited that the record is finally out there, and I’m excited for people to wrap their heads around it and get to know it.

One of the unexpected things was hearing your voice saying the words “fake news” in “Run for Cover” because I never really thought of The Killers as an overtly political band in the past. Talk about that as a decision to cross that bridge.

Flowers: It wasn’t something that I labored over or lost any sleep about. It just felt right in context of the song. And obviously the reference is to the senator in the first verse, so we approached the rest of the song from the viewpoint of the senator’s wife and so it just sort of slid in pretty effortlessly, that line. I wasn’t trying to make any kind of grand statement, necessarily.

Yesterday, you guys were at the Global Citizen Festival, and you’re sharing a stage with Stevie Wonder, who went out and made this really big political statement by taking a knee. Obviously, he has these profound issues facing him, living as a black man in America. But, as an artist sharing that stage, do you find that inspiring or maybe that you want to do more with your power?

Flowers: Yeah, it’s something that crosses my mind, and I’m aware of it, and I’m aware of people who have done it really well, which also keeps me from doing it as much or as often. And the way I’ve described it in the past is that Bob Marley did it really well, as did The Clash, Neil Young, Pete Seeger. You know, it’s like if you’re gonna go into that territory, if you’re going to step up to that plate, you better bring your big bat is how I see it.

Yeah, but I also feel like you and The Killers have never shied away from taking big swings, either.

Flowers: Yeah, for the most part and just get criticized for it. So, I don’t know why I would venture there if I don’t feel like I’m ready. I think if something is coming from the heart, then you should by all means go for it. I just had a very specific vision on this record, and once that path was illuminated, there was no going back and it just didn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump. And it would be cheesier or it would just be silly to try and jump on that bandwagon if it wasn’t coming from my heart.

So, what was the illuminated path that you had to follow for the album?

Flowers: When you go in to make a record, it’s strange for that exact kind of moment to happen. For me, I was stuck with what to write about. It wasn’t until I started really writing more personal things and pulling down some walls that I had had up for a long time that the album started to present itself. And I’ve been pretty protective of my wife and my family, but for some reason I gave myself permission to go there on this record.

You’ve started playing shows now for this album, and half of your band has opted out of touring, which has to be a bit of a blow for the band camaraderie. How are The Killers coping now that it is it just the two of you with other guys who aren’t necessarily creative parts of the band?

Vannucci: I get it. It’s a double-edged sword. Ted [Sablay], Jake [Blanton], Taylor [Milne], and Robbie [Connolly]. Ted has been with us since Sam’s Town, so he’s familiar with the stuff. And even though he’s still familiar with it, he’s not Dave [Keuning]. We miss Dave and Mark [Stoermer]; we really do. But, it ain’t happening. They don’t want to do it. And that is their prerogative. And so we want to do it, we’ve got an album to promote, and it made sense to put Jake and Ted out there in front.

I’ll be honest with you, touring is not fun with people that don’t want to be on tour. So, that’s my perspective. Being out and busting our ass on this is a little more enjoyable without knowing that somebody is not enjoying themselves. I feel better about them being happy because it’s a band. We’re individuals, but in this scenario, we are a band. We feel it when somebody’s not happy, and it affects the whole group. It makes me feel better that they’re at least a little happier, even though they’re probably not happy about missing out on stuff. The good part of it, obviously, is playing shows and stuff like that. But it’s their own prerogative; they’ve got their own lives to lead. I totally support them and their decision to do that. I just hope that we can get back to being normal again, whatever that means. In the meantime, this is how it has to be.

Is that happiness and joy of being in a band still present when you’re writing and recording?

Vannucci: Well, with Mark it was because at that time we knew that Mark wasn’t going to do the tour. I think he knew that he was like, “Okay, I’m not doing this, but I’m going to pour everything I have into this recording process.” And Mark was really present, and it was like the old days.

Being in a band is the greatest thing in the world, and it’s also a huge pain in the ass, too, if you let it be. It’s not inherently a pain in the ass, but if you let it, anything can be a pain in the ass. That’s just how it goes. Dave made his decision a little later. We talked about it, and he had a long time to think about it.

You performed at Lollapalooza this year and threw in that cover of Muse’s “Starlight”. Muse had had to cancel their set the day before, and it was a pretty remarkable moment because of how polished and well-rehearsed it sounded. Did that really all come together within 24 hours?

Vannucci: We learned that backstage, the first and only time playing that was on that stage.

So, here’s where this stems from: we come from working-class Vegas families. My mom and dad worked at the casinos, Brandon’s parents worked at casinos. We would save up, and we would know about a show two months ahead of time and buy a ticket from somebody or get a loan from a buddy who had an extra 50 bucks to get a ticket. We know what it feels like when bands cancel and we know what a letdown that is for a festival scenario. We thought we could do right by at least giving the fans a little taste and tipping our hats to this great band. We did it for Kings of Leon, too, at Firefly Festival when it got rained out one year. It’s also fun to step inside somebody else’s shoes for a while and see how they write songs. It’s good for us.

How do you feel about the NFL coming to Las Vegas? Do you think you’d want be involved in that launch as you have been with many of the other big Vegas ventures, like Life Is Beautiful Festival or the new hockey arena?

Flowers: Sure. It’s going to be a big stadium, so it would be a new scale for us. We do have a stadium called the Sam Boyd Stadium, we used to call it the Silver Bowl, and this I’m sure is going to be even bigger and even more … it’s going to be pretty amazing. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures of what the plans are, but it’s going to be pretty impressive. Nobody has reached out to us yet, but it’s exciting. We’ve never had any teams, so you’ve had to find some kind of history. I had to look back to my dad’s history to find a team to root for in the NFL. My dad was from Pennsylvania, so we were fans of the Steelers because we had no team. It’s exciting to have a team. I feel like it’s a good thing.

One of the stranger stories about Brandon that I’ve read was about saving your beard hair shavings, and you didn’t know what you were going to do with them. Did you ever figure out what you’re going to do with those? Is that something you’re still doing?

Flowers: I started doing it after Sam’s Town. Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys saw that we looked like a different band for the promotion of that record, and he expressed some concern that we were trying to be more important than pop music. And it made me take a look at my life, and I wondered what it is that I’m chasing and what did that do? What did me growing out my facial hair represent? And I started to save it. I actually still have it in a large Ziploc bag.

Recently, you guys did an interview with a quote that went viral where you talked about saying the current rock bands weren’t as good as the bands that came out around the same time as you. Have you had a chance…

Flowers: I saw a lot of negative feedback around that, almost like a lot of negative reviews seem to revolve around that quote.

Yeah, the question there was, have you had a chance to think more about that statement or roll back that idea? Or is it something you stand behind still?

Flowers: I mean, I pretty much stand by it. I’m not saying that nobody’s good, I’m just saying the caliber and amount of bands that are producing great material just isn’t the same as it was. I still believe that. Does that mean that nobody’s good? I wasn’t saying that, no. I like The War on Drugs’ new record, I like Sheer Mag’s new record, and I like this Matt Maltese kid coming out of England that’s got some really great songs. But, yeah, if that’s what you’re going to judge my music by, me having that opinion, then by all means judge away.

When I read about The Killers, a lot of times I sense an attitude of condescension from writers who think that they’re too good for The Killers or above it. Is that something that you feel being in the band?

Flowers: Yeah, my wife calls it “keyboard bangers.” No offense to you. She sees me when I let it get to me. And it’s frustrating. I think music journalism in general is just different than it was maybe in the seventies. There’s so much history and I do this to myself already, when I have to write a record, I think, what do I have to offer? How can I compete with everything that was done in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s? It just starts to really weigh on you. And I feel like a lot of journalists … I don’t know. I don’t know if I have an answer. It’s frustrating sometimes, and I think you need to live with the record. Because they’ve been dead wrong before. Obviously Sam’s Town was lambasted and burned at the stake and all of that and now it’s stood the test of time. You don’t know how anything is going to really play out. I just know that we should know how these songs make us feel right now, and we hope that that resonates with our fans and that they stay in the truck with us.

Vannucci: I don’t feel that condescension. I don’t read a lot of what’s written about us, either. Listen, nobody is saying, “These guys are great; end of story, and nobody is saying, “These guys are shit, end of story,” either. They’re just trying to be fun and crafty with their words and to get in and make their place as a literary dude. They want to be a writer so they have to write something incendiary or slightly controversial. Showbiz is all selfish. I think writers are selfish too because they really don’t care so much. Very few writers care, you know? They’re trying to get a foothold for their own betterment.

Care about what?

Vannucci: Did you ask to do this story? How much do people really care?

Oh, me personally? I love the Killers.

Well, I appreciate that, but you’re one in a 100.

I get it. Sometimes it’s a job.

And it’s like, I don’t feel people being … I don’t feel writers are especially condescending. We were just looking at a Metacritic review, and this has been our highest critical acclaim record thus far. And I remember we were darlings, we were at the tip of everybody’s tongues when we were just babies coming out with Hot Fuss. My point is, your world, your literary world as you call it, is filled with mostly people who aren’t interested in the betterment of music or the escalation of art. They are in it to get a personal foothold for themselves, to make themselves seem clever. And I know this. My best friends are writers. Ted used to be a writer. I know how it works. And I’ve been doing interviews for 16 years; it’s how it is. That’s how your world spins; that’s how it goes. And if people really dug in and really examined it and were a little selfless about it, you may not feel that way.

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