June 22, 2007

Going down a storm in Glastonbury

Kicking off our Glasto special, the Killers tell our correspondent how a Venice tornado prepared them for Worthy Farm


In Joan Didion’s recent book about her husband’s sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking, she repeatedly states: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” It’s a refrain that nags at the mind when I go to meet the Killers in Italy and a delightful day in the sunshine suddenly turns into a scene from a horror film. I am here to watch them perform at a rock festival near Venice, with the American band’s summer tour gearing up for their headline slot tomorrow at Glastonbury.

At two o’clock in the afternoon they are sunning themselves beside the pool at their five-star hotel, a converted monastery located on its own lush island in the Venice lagoon. The band are comparing notes on their haunted hotel rooms, in which TV sets randomly turn themselves off and clocks run backwards. They joke about contracting scurvy from going on so many luxurious boat trips. Brandon Flowers, the lead singer, confesses that he recently dreamt about feeding dolphins to pigs.

Yet at six o’clock the Las Vegas rock group are running for cover from a freak tornado, huddled together in a shaking Portakabin with their friends from the band My Chemical Romance as the festival site where both groups are about to play is ripped apart. The sound of screaming teenagers running from falling metal towers and flying pieces of stage is soon replaced by the wail of ambulances and rescue helicopters after the blizzard of hailstones and the howling winds stop. Incredibly, it transpires that nobody was killed by the whirlwind, though about 25 injured fans are taken to hospital.

The band are safe, but their instruments, the gig and their state of mind are ruined. The emergency services need space so they can’t even leave the site of the cancelled festival as roads must be left clear for ambulances. It’s a horrible mess. They stand around, worried about their fans, not knowing what to do. The muddy puddles of Glastonbury have got nothing on this scene of devastation.

Earlier, I had asked Flowers, who fronts and founded the band, how he felt about headlining on Saturday night at the world’s most renowned music festival, Glastonbury. It’s a chance the band were first given two years ago, after Kylie pulled out, suffering from cancer, but they said that with only one album under their belt they would rather play lower down the bill.

Now, having sold about eight million copies of their two albums, Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town, they have agreed to take the top slot, although Flowers is awkwardly modest about the whole thing. “Are two albums enough, even? I don’t know. Our set packs a punch and we’re lucky enough to be able to write songs that go down well with large groups of people that know them,” he explains.

It’s hard not to know Killers songs, with their big bombastic tunes and brain-invading lyrics. It is easier to get a cat out of a tree than a Killers chorus out of your head: “I got soul but I’m not a soldier”; “Smile like you mean it”; “Well somebody told me/ You had a boyfriend/ Who looked like a girl-friend/ That I had in February of last year”; “Don’t you wanna come with me?/ Don’t you wanna feel my bones/ On your bones?” Yet Flowers turns slightly defensive when I point out that his songs seem engineered for the festival audience.

“I’m from Las Vegas so I’ve never even been to a music festival, not before being in this band,” he says. “I’ve never camped at one. We just go in and out to play our set. The songs are like that because that’s just what we do. There’s nothing contrived about it.”

Yet later the drummer Ronnie Vannucci says that the band have ploughed all the profit from this tour into making their Glastonbury show as spectacular as possible.

The Killers formed in the early Noughties, after Flowers was blown away by an Oasis gig. People wrongly assume that, being brought up a Mormon (a faith he still follows), Flowers must have had an austere childhood, but in fact there was pop music aplenty, as well as the usual teenage high jinks. He and his friends would sneak into the Las Vegas casinos and get kicked out for being underage and having no money. Indeed, only last night he and some of the crew carried on those teenage traditions by sneaking into the hotel pool at 3am with a bottle of whisky. It seems that he is more God-thanking than God-fearing.

One of his earliest memories is of standing outside his big brother’s bedroom at the age of 5, listening to the sound of the Cure’s Just Like Heaven through the door. “They say kids know hits, and I knew that was a hit.” Yet it would take him until about the age of 20 to realise just what a rock band could be. “It never struck me how powerful a band was until I saw Oasis. I was heavily into New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, but because I was attracted to the electronics and the drum machines. I knew about the Gallagher brothers and all of that but I had no direct fascination until the night I saw them play in Las Vegas. And I let it affect me. The camaraderie? No, I mean the noise! How loud it was! And the crowd. When they played Don’t Look Back in Anger, well there had never been anything like that at a Morrissey concert.”

Flowers recruited the other band members through small ads and social connections, and, in keeping with his Anglophile tastes, it was the UK indie label Lizard King that initially signed the band, going on to release their debut album in 2004. Their heroes have now become their friends, as the Killers have gone on to be remixed by the Pet Shop Boys and to support Morrissey on tour.

Their image has also evolved. Early photos show the band standing around looking like a bunch of ordinary guys, but they now work with the arthouse photographer and director Anton Corbijn (his CV includes videos for Depeche Mode and Nirvana), while the fashion designer Marc Jacobs works personally on Flowers’s clothes.

Flowers, who is still only 26, seems guarded about his ambition. “People have this fascination with us wanting to be the biggest,” he says. “And we don’t. We want to be the best. There’s a difference.” When asked if he still believes that bands such as the Bravery are riding on the coat-tails of the Killers’ success, he says that he was “just being a brat” when he made such claims. He shrugs. “I always seem to have a chip on my shoulder.”

The other members of the band seem cut from looser cloth, but Flowers seems physically built for success, with the looks of a boyish model and the tight demeanour of somebody who has been shrink-wrapped for efficency (though he claims he was a chubby child). Yet he can disarm you with his sweet, high-pitched giggle, as if he were being tickled with a feather.

He is also nervous about impending fatherhood. His schoolteacher wife is about to have a son (she has been advised to drink lots of water to keep the baby cosy until Flowers can get home for the due date in July). Flowers is dwelling on the father-to-son legacy. He remembers his own feelings as a child, when he visited his father at work in the grocery store and the other staff would say how much the young Brandon looked like his daddy. “I felt a strong sense of pride early on about being my father’s son. It’s always stuck with me.”

He agrees that the pressure is now on, as that lineage continues, though he reckons there would be even more pressure with a daughter. “I have four sisters – that scared me enough not to want to have girls,” he laughs. Their child will be brought up in Las Vegas, a city that Flowers has no intention of leaving. Was he never attracted by the bright lights of LA or New York? “The lights are brighter in Las Vegas! And more beautiful!” Indeed, when Vannucci’s wife Lisa, accompanying the band on tour, is asked if she and her husband had been on a gondola ride, she says: “We thought about it but then realised we can do that in Las Vegas.”

Flowers describes their home town thus: “The gambling is all on the Strip in the middle, it’s the pulse of the desert. And around it are the houses, and then it’s just a big valley. So mountains on the outside, houses farther in, and then,” he points to the centre, “sin”. A wry smile.

I catch up with the band again in London, where they have been going out drinking with the Smashing Pumpkins as they prepare for Glastonbury. Vannucci can’t believe that their idols are now their drinking buddies and neither can Flowers. “We were on stage before them in Madrid last week,” he recalls, “and I just remember being in high school and looking at Billy Corgan on TV. He was his own thing, he was kind of an entity, you know. And I was thinking that we resemble that somewhat. It was a good little moment – then I had to get back to the show.”

And now he has to get on with the biggest show they have ever played. Did the nightmare of Venice put them off at all? Vannucci explains: “The kit was ruined, all the instruments, so it’s a disaster but we’re coping with it. We are hopping back on the bikes, popping a couple of wheelies.” He flashes a sexy grin: “We’re ready to show people exactly what we can do.”