- 06 Jun 18
They’ve had to confront tragedy and heartbreak, but with another number one album and a triumphant world tour that’s on its way to Dublin, life is pretty sweet right now for The Killers. Tom Petty, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Trump, Vegas’ indefatigable spirit, going into the closet with Elton John, and magic band moments are all on the agenda as RONNIE VANNUCCI talks to STUART CLARK
That rings a distant bell. Hopefully we’re a little more liked in Ireland now!”
Ronnie Vannucci is laughing as I remind him of his first Hot Press interview, which was behind the New Band Stage at Oxegen 2004. We were shooting the breeze when an overly refreshed randomer who’d managed to sneak into the artists’ area came up and slurred, “Who are you? The Killers? Never heard of you... but I bet you’re rubbish!”
Five number one albums, countless awards, headlining turns at the likes of Glastonbury and the Isle of Wight and 22-million plus LP sales later, and old Mr. Drunky Drunkface has been proved comprehensively wrong. “I don’t want to sound cocky, but what I do for a living – and the level we’re doing it at – feels very natural and comfortable,” Ronnie reflects before adding: “Which isn’t to say that I don’t still have, ‘What the fuck’s happening here?’ pinch me moments.”
The latest of those was in April when The Killers got to play ‘American Girl’ and an itty bit of ‘Freefallin’’ in honour of Tom Petty at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland.
“It was just like somebody stabbed you in the heart when you heard that he died,” Brandon told the crowd. “His music will never die and we’re grateful for what he did, and I wish we could tell him.”
Nodding in agreement, Ronnie says: “Any chance to pay your respects to somebody like Thomas Earl Petty is to be grabbed. To be in a position where you’re asked to do things like that is sort of the icing on the cake for me. Despite the obvious sadness, it was a fun night. One time, when I was in LA for a few months, a bass-player and myself were supposed to go to Tom’s house and work on some songs. I was over the moon about having a jam with him, but it never came to fruition. I’ve met some of the Heartbreakers, though, and they all speak really highly of him.”
If ever there was somebody a young band could look at and think, “That’s how you do it with grace and dignity for 40 years!” it was Tom Petty. “He always had a nice barometer for quality,” Ronnie agrees. “The guy just bleeds it, you know? Writing new, worthwhile chapters for yourself isn’t easy, but he did it. That Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison all wanted him in the Travelling Wilburys says it all.” I imagine that Brandon comprehensively lost his shit later in the night when he presided over the Hall of Fame inauguration of The Cars, a band he’s salivated over many a time in Hot Press.
“‘Salivate’ is right! He has a lot of respect for Rik Ocasek and everybody in The Cars, but on this occasion managed to hold it together. That band are probably one of our biggest influences and, contrary to what they say, it’s good to meet your heroes. It would have been even better if Ben Orr had been there, but sadly we lost him eight years ago now.”
Ronnie was also pretty blown away when he got to go into the closet with Elton John who famously sent copies of Hot Fuss to all his pals as Christmas presents when The Killers were starting out.
“You know, he was a lot funnier than I thought he was going to be,” he remarks. “Elton’s got great wit and comedic timing. We hung out with him in Atlanta and he gave me a tour of his closet, which is this massive walk-around affair. There were like 300 Cosby sweaters in there. We were all joking about his rather loud collection of Armani clothing! We were very honoured recently to do a version of ‘Mona Lisa And Mad Hatters’, which is one of my all-time Elton and Bernie Taupin favourites, for their Revamp album.”
And, ahem, a killer cover it is too. I love the story about Elton going straight from one LA recording session with Engelbert Humperdinck to another with Eminem.
“I don’t want to spread any rumours,” Ronnie deadpans, “but you never see Eminem and Engelbert Humperdinck in the same room together. I’m pretty sure they’re the same guy… You only have to spend a minute in Elton’s company to realise he’s massively into music of all types.”
Not all of Ronnie’s celebrity encounters have been quite so convivial.
“I was in a restaurant in Dublin with Kanye West – we wouldn’t BBQ together or anything like that, but he’s always been nice to me. He and I were talking when Frank Ocean, who was new on the scene, came in with five or six other people. I’d met him once before, so I went up to say ‘Hi!’ and one of his bodyguards put a hand on me. Funny enough, six months later we were curating a festival that Frank asked to be on, and I said, ‘The only way you’re getting the gig is if you leave your security guys at home or in the hotel. You can’t bring them with you.’”
But for March being the rainy season in Paraguay, The Killers’ current Wonderful Wonderful World Tour could have come to a tragic end.
“Yeah, Brandon took a tumble off the stage at the Asuncionico festival there – naturally there’s a YouTube clip,” Ronnie winces. “It was a big drop, but thankfully, it was a rainy, rainy day so he landed in mud. If the ground had been hard, we’d be talking a very different story. The South American leg of the tour was brilliant, though. The craziness levels in that part of the world are pretty high: they’re not afraid to show the love!”
Although The Killers are now inarguably one of the biggest bands in the world, Ronnie says, “The positivity and ambition and hunger we had when we started out hasn’t lessened in any way. I feel like we’ve a lot left to do – the well is nowhere near dry. I feel privileged to be in the position we’re in. To be able to make a living from something I’ve been consumed with ever since I can remember is beyond real. Keeping at it just seems natural to me.”
A big Las Vegas show is usually a cause for Killers celebration, but it was with the heaviest of hearts that the guys joined Imagine Dragons, Boyz II Men, David Copperfield, Penn & Teller and Cirque du Soleil in the T-Mobile Arena before Christmas to raise funds for victims of the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino massacre.
“That was tough,” Ronnie almost whispers. “Vegas is and has always been a resilient town. It’s adapted to change and diversity and ups and downs. I’m not surprised by how well people have bounced back from it. I’m also not surprised by the way people responded and acted: I’m really proud of those who were there to help the wounded. I’ve heard some stories that are just heroic. Although it’s undoubtedly the worst thing that’s happened to Vegas in my life, you saw some of the best qualities come out in people.”
I only became fully aware of rock ‘n’ roll’s redemptive powers when I saw U2 play what was the first major post-9/11 gig in Madison Square Garden. New York was hurting and Bono & Co. helped them find some light amidst the darkness.
“Music is a powerful thing,” Ronnie agrees. “The guy, who had an obvious mental disorder, opened fire on a country music festival, but it could have been any gig in any city. You never know what the target’s going to be. I keep my politics private, but I’ll say this: there’s no reason for that sort of machinery to be available. We could benefit from a stronger, more stringent vetting process when it comes to guns. Shit, it’s harder to get a driving licence or a beer.”
How did The Killers find Trump’s America when they toured round it at the start of the year?
“I think people are just watching the show. I don’t feel qualified to speak for the whole country, but no matter what side you’re on you can’t take your eyes off what’s unfolding on a daily basis.”
On a happier note, Tuesday June 26 finds The Killers heading to Dublin 4 for their RDS blowout.
“We’re delighted to have Franz Ferdinand playing with us,” Ronnie enthuses. “I’ve always got on with those guys. We did a show with them around December time in Portland and they sounded so cool. Now I’m thinking, ‘Shit, how do we follow that up?’”
Who’s going to win out in the sartorial elegance stakes: Brandon or Alex Kapranos?
“Oh, man, don’t make me choose sides!” Ronnie laughs. “What I will say is that you’re going to see two of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll frontmen there are at the peak of their respective powers!”
Their RDS show is trailed by the unleashing a week earlier of The Killers Career Vinyl Box, a 10-disc monster, which were it to drop on to the Clarkian doormat would be assured of a loving home.
As The Killers reach another milestone in their career with its release, does Ronnie have a top three of those “What the fuck’s happening here?” pinch me moments?
“It could be a top 40,” he concludes. “Being able to do that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing was right up there. I forgot to mention that Dire Straits were also there, albeit minus Mark Knopfler, and that I got my picture taken with Jon Bon Jovi. It’s captioned on our Twitter as ‘Ron Jovi’. This tour in general has been amazing. We weren’t sure how it would shake out with regards to Mark and Dave not being on the road with us, but here I am in Perth, Australia about to play to a sell-out arena. It’s fucking great! Going back, opening for U2 on the Vertigo tour was pretty mindblowing, as was being invited to play at the White House by Barack Obama. As I say, it’s been a privilege.”
The Killers play the RDS, Dublin on June 26 with Franz Ferdinand