New Killers in `Town'
On new CD, they have a rootsier sound and bushier look
By Sarah Rodman, Globe Staff  |  October 22, 2006
Boston globe
Ronnie Vannucci is well aware that while some fans and critics are rhapsodizing about how the new Killers album, ''Sam's Town," slays them, others are screaming bloody murder. And that's just fine with the drummer for the Las Vegas quartet.

To tell you the truth, I like having the mixed reviews because it's telling me that we've done something a little bit out of bounds, a little bit unusual, and I'm glad that we're doing that," he says by phone from Los Angeles.

''Hot Fuss" might have been the title of the group's quadruple platinum 2004 debut -- it spawned the ubiquitous singles ``Somebody Told Me" and ``Mr. Brightside" -- but the expansion of the band's sound on ``Sam's Town," which debuted at No. 2 on the pop charts this week, is truly heating up the band's audience.

Where the first album openly tipped its cap to the synth-pop and glam rock sounds of artists such as David Bowie, Queen, Duran Duran, and Depeche Mode and had the glossy look to go with it -- shiny suits, eyeliner -- ''Sam's Town" is a somewhat rootsier affair, examining the middle-class, small-town flipside of the band's neon-suffocated hometown.

Songs like single ''When You Were Young" and the churning title track take anthem rock cues from some of the same sources, as well as the Smashing Pumpkins, U2, and, to a much lesser extent than you may have heard, Bruce Springsteen. (The album's co-producers, Flood and Alan Moulder, previously worked with both the Pumpkins and U2.)

Accordingly, the band has taken up a bushier look, complete with droopy mustaches and Western wear.

''We didn't make this concerted effort to try and change, we just did," Vannucci says of his bandmates, singer Brandon Flowers, bassist Mark Stoermer, and guitarist David Keuning, who play a sold-out show at the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday.

''Brandon was on a creative roll this time around. It was very important for him to lyrically grow a bit. He felt like there was a lot of pressure on him to say something important instead of writing about teenage girls and murder trilogies and things like that -- which is important, I don't want to discount murder at all," says Vannucci, 30, with a laugh, talking about the noirish tales on ``Hot Fuss."

Instead, Flowers and the band explore recurring themes of change, aging, loss, and nostalgia, partially inspired by the values instilled in the Mormon Flowers by his parents.

''You just name it, [stuff] has changed," Vannucci says. ''Stuff has gotten more superficial ; you've got these [expletive] stupid reality shows on TV, it's just like nothing is sacred anymore, and I think that merits singing about the good old days."

And certainly things have changed for the band as it has rapidly ascended to rock star status.

[Brandon's] a ripe old 25 now, and he grew a little hair on his face," Vannucci says. ``He's grown up, and we grew as musicians, too. I don't think any of us are really interested in writing another `Somebody Told Me.' I think it's a great song we wrote together, but it's got a place, and that place is three years ago. But we still like to play it. We're just moving on."

Even if you use some of the same oils, Vannucci says, ''you don't paint the same painting."

Not that the trajectory from ''Hot Fuss" to ''Sam's Town" is like switching from Expressionism to Dadaism.

''I still think there's a very, very common vein in our songs," Vannucci says.

One fan who agrees is Jimmy Kimmel, who hosted the band on his ABC late-night show for three consecutive days prior to the album's release this month.

''I don't get that `it's a huge departure' stuff at all," says Kimmel, a fellow Las Vegas native. ''I think it sounds like the Killers' second album."

The main difference, and one that Vannucci says was an unspoken mandate, is the scope of the album's sound. They wanted it to be big. Audience-singing-along big. Fists-pumping-in-football-stadiums big. Heavy-rotation-on-classic-rock-radio-in-30-years big.

''To be recognized as one of those classic bands, I guess, is the ultimate goal, and hopefully we're still kicking around and getting along [then]," Vannucci says of his future hopes, perhaps silently calculating the Killers' first year of eligibility into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Flowers has also been given to big proclamations, telling MTV that ``Sam's Town" may well be ''one of the best albums in 20 years."

''People [have] got to understand that we're a young band, not really broken in on the whole being careful what we say," says Vannucci with a laugh, recalling sitting next to Flowers as he made that statement. ``Because I'm sure if you're around talking with your bros over some Doritos and a beer, you're not watching your p's and q's, where if we say the slightest thing it's taken very seriously.

``It's kind of funny in a way; it's like what we say is written, and we're just dudes, just like the rest of you.

''But you know," he adds, ''as far as Brandon speaking highly of our record and saying it's the best album in 20 years, when you're in there and you're in the studio and you just get done listening to what you laid down and you're just buzzing, really pleased with what you just did, you're going to say stuff like that. It's like winning your football game or whatever you like to do. It's important, very near and dear, so you want to speak highly of it. For all we know, it might be the best record in 20 years."

That thirst for bigness, however, does not extend to their offstage personas, according to Kimmel. ''Quite the opposite, in fact," he says. ''It's funny, because if you read articles about them, it seems like they're this cocky group of guys."

But Kimmel says he was amazed at the lack of transformation between their first appearance in 2004 and their recent residency on his show.

By way of example, Kimmel says when he asked where the band was staying when they departed for San Francisco, he was told: on the bus. The quartet takes a single room for pre-show showers and primping.

''It's amazing. I said to them,''I get the idea you guys have no idea how popular you are,' " Kimmel says. ``They do not even have any of the basic demands of a huge band; they don't even think to make them."

Perhaps that's because admitted people-pleaser Vannucci says the Killers still feel like they have something to prove.

''I mean, there's a lot of naysaying people, naysayers they're called," Vannucci says, ''who are just wanting to be impressed, and I want to impress them still."