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Crime Scene Investigation
How did Brandon Flowers, Ronnie Vannucci, Dave Keuning and Mark Stoermer go from the Las Vegas dive bar circuit to selling four million copies of their debut album, Hot Fuss? On the eve of the band's highly-anticipated Oxegen 2005 appearance, Stuart Clark talks to the people involved in the making of The Killers.
Stuart Clark, 06 Jul 2005
What a difference a year makes. The Killers came to Oxegen 2004 with just one top 20 hit, ‘Mr. Brightside’, to their credit and the suspicion that they were more style than substance. The word from the record company people with them was that they were nervous about being Saturday’s New Band Stage headliners and pissed off that they were on at the same time as their heroes, The Cure. The band themselves were dead on their feet, with a yawning Brandon Flowers confiding to me backstage that, “All I want to do right now is sleep. I don’t mean to be a whiney rock star, but the last time I got a proper eight hours was Wednesday. As for days off that hasn’t happened since Christmas.”
Knackered or not, it was obvious that there’d been a kid-in-the-sweetshop element to their ten months of non-stop touring.
“What’s been our biggest ‘pinch me, I must be dreaming’ moment?” pondered drummer Ronnie Vannucci. “Playing at the Wiltern Theater in LA with Morrissey and him standing right in front of the stage at soundcheck. You’ve looked up to this guy since you were 12 and there he is eyeballing you!”
If ever there was a case of American blood, English heart this was it!
Given Flowers’ resemblance to a narcoleptic River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, it was with trepidation, rather than a sense of being about to witness a groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll moment, that I made my way to the 3,000-capacity tent they were playing in.
My fears couldn’t have been more misplaced. Despite the thousand yard stares, the band proved to be everything that Cap’n Bob and The Cure across the way weren’t – compelling, charismatic and grinning from ear to ear just being there.
“It’s a good thing they’ve no problem with being as big as the Oasis and U2s of this world,” I noted in my review, “because it might just happen!”
For The Killers too it was love at first sight.
“It turned out to be their favourite show of the year, Glastonbury included,” says Siona Ryan, the woman from Lizard King Records who looks after them on this side of the Atlantic. “The thing that particularly overwhelmed them was that even though Hot Fuss was only just out, everybody knew the words. They were tired, but buzzing from all the amazing things they’d done in a six-month period. You’ve got to remember that these were four guys who prior to The Killers had barely left the States, yet alone gone round the festival circuit and met the likes of Morrissey, Bowie and Robert Smith, who they absolutely worship. And when those people started giving them namechecks, god, they were blown away!”
A native of Greystones in County Wicklow, Ryan was one of the welcoming committee when the band made their first gigging trip to London in September 2003.
“They played places like the Camden Barfly, which are essentially pubs,” she continues. “Being so early it was mainly industry heads who were there, including quite a few A&R people who weren’t sure if they were signed or not. Lizard King wasn’t that well known having only been set up the previous year by Martin Heath (former President of Arista UK) and Dominic Hardisty, who’s a complete finance guy.”
The Lizard King A&R man who snapped them up was Ben Durling.
“The first two songs I heard were ‘Mr. Brightside’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’ and they weren’t too dissimilar to what’s on the record, so I thought it was a pretty obvious thing at the time,” Durling recalls. “The whole ‘80s revival was starting to rear its head in the UK and The Killers were potentially a perfect fit. Bands like The Strokes and the White Stripes had also made it cool to be American again, so the timing felt really right. They have such strong, catchy songs and such great lyrics that everybody at the label was confident that Hot Fuss would be successful.”
Not that they’d heard the album in its entirety.
“Lizard King signed The Killers on the strength of five numbers,” Siona Ryan explains, “which meant that ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ came as a very pleasant surprise! It was written after the first EP came out. They’d caused a bit of a stir supporting British Sea Power and doing their own headlining tour, but the big turning point in the UK was them going to Glastonbury last year and gobsmacking a tentful of people with ‘All These Things…’”
Had Ryan expected The Killers to take Glasto by storm like that?
“I’d hoped, but didn’t know for sure until about 20 minutes beforehand when we were backstage and saw thousands and thousands of people beelining for the New Band Tent, which was a bit out of the way,” she proffers. “We were looking at each other thinking, ‘No, no, no!’ I’m not joking, the crowd outside was probably 80 people deep and left the moment The Killers finished. I remember Ronnie and Brandon laughing at us afterwards because we were so overwhelmed. The word of mouth had really tipped over.”
Glastonbury was also the first time that news of The Killers’ burgeoning UK success filtered back to Vegas.
“The reaction up till then had been, ‘Yeah, sure’,” recalls Pj Perez, an old musician buddy of Ronnie Vannucci’s who’s subsequently written about them for the Las Vegas Weekly.
“I don’t know the impression you guys have got, but pre-leaving for Britain they weren’t really that well-known in Vegas. They played in dive bars, English pubs, video poker bars and a now defunct drag queen club, Tramps, which had an ‘80s theme night on Sundays they guested at. They were always going on last after all the other bands who didn’t sound anything like them had played, so the crowds weren’t the greatest. More often than not though, they’d win whoever was there over and get asked back. Their biggest Vegas show would have been the farewell one they did at Tramps to 200 or 300 people.”
Did Perez know from the get-go that The Killers were destined for greatness?
“Not at all,” he chuckles. “Mostly because in the summer of 2002 the line-up was completely different. Dave Keuning was going by the name of Tavian Go, which I think is a David Bowie reference, and instead of Ronnie and Mark you had an 18 year-old drummer called Dell Star and a thirtysomething bassist, Buss Bradley. The only two in the band who clicked were Tavian, aka Dave, and Brandon, who’d appeared on the scene out of nowhere. I know he talks about being in a synth group called Blush Response, but nobody I know ever recalls seeing them play.”
Given the hard time that The Killers have given The Bravery over Sam Endicott being in a ska band, it’s interesting to note that Ronnie Vannucci has a rocksteady past of his own.
“Before hooking up with The Killers, he was in a ska group called Attaboy Skip who sounded a lot like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones,” Chavez divulges. “I worked with one of their sax players, and actually approached Ronnie to come and drum with me, but he was already juggling two or three other things and couldn’t.”
Further Hot press investigation reveals that Attaboy Skip’s set included, er, novel versions of Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and the Ghostbusters theme.
“I don’t think anybody on the local scene was surprised when Dave and Brandon brought the others in to replace Dell Star and Buss Bradley – they didn’t click and were holding The Killers back,” Chavez avers. “They then disappeared, which I took as a sign that they’d broken up. I discovered otherwise three or four months later when I ran into Ronnie in the [University of Nevada, Las Vegas] music department and he told me he was with The Killers now. Things after that took off real quick, with them going to England before I’d had a chance to see the new line-up.”
Although former Green Day manager Jeff Saltzman is listed on the Hot Fuss sleeve as producer, the band have subsequently claimed that his input was minimal.
“We gave him credit, but we constructed all the songs and mostly did everything ourselves,” Ronnie Vannucci insists. “There wasn’t a lot of production involved. It was almost like a live show or rehearsal. No song was more than three takes.”
Outside of The Killers themselves, the person who appear to have had most impact on the album’s sound is veteran mix man Alan Moulder.
“He’s worked with all our favourite bands,” Dave Keuning enthuses. “He’s worked with not only the Smashing Pumpkins, but Depeche Mode. He’s even worked with The Smiths – he engineered Shoplifters Of The World Unite – and he did Nine Inch Nails. They’re not a huge influence on us, but that was one of the deciding facts, the way he did NIN’s The Fragile. The sounds are so great on it, they’re so loud. It’s a great mix and that was a big deal for us.”
It was also a big deal for BBC Radio One who, having witnessed the reception they got at Glastonbury, started playing The Killers off the air. On the other side of the Irish Sea, Hot Fuss hit the top spot and remained there for eleven weeks, making it the most successful number one album here since The Beatles’ Number 1’s in 2002.
“When they came back in November 2004 and played the Dublin Olympia it was as if everybody was on E!” Siona Ryan resumes. “Afterwards we went to Lillie’s Bordello to celebrate and who should be there but Bono. I’d know Bono to say ‘hello’ to, so myself, Ronnie and Brandon went over and had a drink with him. They obviously got on well because by the time they left they’d been asked if they’d like to support U2 on some dates! Mark and Dave, who’d gone home early because they were exhausted, were pig sick the next day when they found out what had happened!”
I’d discovered just how in awe of U2 The Killers are twelve hours earlier when I met them in The Clarion Hotel. Told by a mischievous PA that the last person I’d interviewed was Bono, the band engaged in a game of Twenty Questions, which ended with me taking them out on to the balcony and showing them the crane U2’s Hanover Quay studio complex was hidden behind.
If Glastonbury was the tipping point in the UK, it was their December 2004 appearance on The O.C. that made The Killers a household name in the States. Confirmation of their newly acquired A-List status came in February this year when they were nominated for two Grammys. Their not winning didn’t matter to Jay-Z who declared them his new favourite band.
“They make the old sound new again,” the rapper gushed. “My favourite part of their song is when they repeat, ‘It was only a kiss! It was only a kiss!’ But that’s everyone’s favourite part, right?”
That every cloud has a silver lining is something The Killers discovered a few weeks later when their former drummer claimed authorship of ‘Mr. Brightside’.
“This guy is trying to sue us,” Flowers told MTV USA. “We wrote ‘Mr. Brightside’. He had nothing to do with it, but his wife is a lawyer, so she sent a letter to our lawyer. You always hear about people coming out of the woodwork once you get big, but this is…wow.”
The singer was quickly back in buzz mode though, informing the music channel of plans to make a Thriller-style video based on the love and murder mini-story contained in Hot Fuss’ ‘Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine’ and ‘Midnight Show’, and a new song, ‘Leave The Bourbon On The Shelf’, which will appear on their sophomore album.
“I’d love James Spader to be in it, and we’re trying to pin him down now. Basically, it’s the tale of a girl leaving her boyfriend, him killing her and then getting caught. To film it, we need a body of water, maybe (Las Vegas’) Lake Mead. We’d like to take the thing to Sundance or put it on a DVD. It’s a matter of time before we shoot it.”
There has been the suggestion recently in the UK press that Flowers’ self-esteem has become a little too abundant. It’s not a portrait of the artist that Siona Ryan buys.
“I think it’s the opposite, in that Brandon is still surprised when people recognise him on the street,” she explains. “He wanted to get a train the other day in London and we had to suggest that maybe he'd be better off going by car. Then there was them saying ‘no’ to headlining Glastonbury this year because they felt it was too much too soon. They’re aware of who’s headlined there in the past and didn’t think they deserved to do it with only the one album.”
Festival season completed, The Killers are going in to the studio to record album number two. Having apparently been turned down by Brian Eno, the smart money this time is on them working with either Flood or Steve Lillywhite – spot the U2 connection!
Fans will be able to gauge the work-in-progress on Saturday July 9 when they play the Oxegen Main Stage.
“One new song,” Flowers divulges, “is called ‘Where She Is’. It’s got a great feel, some great Police-esque harmonies. We didn’t do enough harmonies on our first album, so you’re going to hear more on the second. And we’re playing other new songs – ‘Higher And Higher’, ‘Daddy’s Eyes’, ‘It’s Only Natural’ – which are a bit more organic, with organs and pianos. We don’t want to be ‘that synth band’ forever!”
Autopsy The Pops
A Killers Timeline
1997 Brandon Flowers, then aged 16, moves back to Las Vegas from Nephi, Utah.
2000 Having dropped out of the University of Iowa, Dave Keuning relocates to Vegas and gets a job in a Banana Republic store.
2001 Flowers’ tenure with synth-poppers Blush Response ends when the rest of the band head to Los Angeles. Nothing’s been heard of them since.
2002 After placing an ad in the Las Vegas Weekly seeking likeminded musicians “with a love of Oasis”, Keuning joins forces with Flowers, bassist Buss Bradley and drummer Dell Star. They name themselves The Killers after the fictional band in New Order’s ‘Crystal’ video.
Bradley and Star depart to be replaced respectively by Mark Stoermer, a medical courier, and Ronnie Vannucci, a major in classical percussion at the University of Nevada and member of ska also-rans Attaboy Skip. Start gigging in any Las Vegas dive that will have them, including a drag bar.
2003 Go into the studio with Jeff Saltzman (top right) who, before turning producer, had been a manager and attorney engineering deals for the likes of Green Day, Rancid and Offspring.
Sign to UK independent Lizard King Records on the strength of a five-track demo and on September 22 release the Mr Brightside EP comprising of ‘On Top’, ‘Smile Like You Mean It’, ‘Who Let Go’ and the title-cut. Island Records snap them up in the US.
2004 Hot Fuss receives its respective UK and American releases on June 7 and 15. Cause a major stir at first Oxegen and then Glastonbury, where ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ is one of the songs of the weekend. Play second Irish show in the Olympia on November 11 and afterwards meet Bono in Lillie’s Bordello.
Their Stateside stock rises dramatically on December 2 when they guest on The O.C.
2005 Nominated for two Grammys and The Shortlist Music Prize. Support U2 on three of their European shows. Sell the fourth millionth copy of Hot Fuss. Are asked to deputise for Kylie at Glastonbury, but decline saying that they’re not ready yet to headline such a major event. Give a live airing to ‘Uncle Johnny Did Cocaine’, ‘Higher And Higher’, ‘I’m Talking To You’, ‘Daddy’s Eyes’, ‘Where Is She’, ‘The Stereo Of Lies’ and several more songs that are earmarked for their second album, due early in the new year.
Read Hot Press' interview with Brandon Flowers here