GQ UK November 2006
Las Vegan Anglophiles with a corporate mindset and a fully
paid-up Mormon frontman - the multiplatinum-selling Killers are
hardly your archetypal American rock group. But they are the best.
The girls are shrieking. There's a Killer in the pool. Not just one,
but three Killers, all variously pickled after a full night on the
There's Ronnie Vannucci, the drummer, who got the shrieking started
by stripping down to his undies. The singer, Brandon Flowers, chose
to keep his kit on - he's the bony one with the dodgy 'tache. Then
there's Dave Keuning who went in topless. Keuning's the guitarist.
You can tell by his tight pants and frizzy hair.
It was around midnight when all three of them took a running jump
into the water. You should have heard the cheer go up around the
bar. Quick as you like, a couple of random girls joined them, and
now they're all splashing it up for the cameras, giggling
hysterically in the confetti of applause, disco lights and
flashbulbs. There isn't a party in the world that can't be improved
by chucking a few rock stars in a pool, and this is no exception.
The edge of the pool has been monopolised by people pointing mobile
phone cameras into the water.
But the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel has its own rules about jumping in
pools - like "don't" and "especially not if you're stuffed full of
mojitos and those little shrimpt things that come around on trays."
So the fun is short-lived. The way the squad of security no-necks
come charging into the party you'd have thought it was a
life-or-death situation involving a small child and not a bunch of
soggy rockers having a giggle.
"Pool's closed, people. You guys, you gotta get out. Now!"
This isn't on the schedule, this bit. At no point on the agenda does
it say anything about meat heads and swimming pools. All Island
Records had in mind was an official "listening party" for the
Killers' second album, Sam's Town - a civilised affair where
a few hundred friends, indie chinstrokers and industry backslappers
could hang out with the lads on the hotel roofe and enjoy the new
record over a few hors d'oeuvres. And it started off promisingly
enough. The place was packed well before the band showed up, and
just crackling with anticipation. Not only were we about to see the
hottest band around, whose 2004 debut album when triple platinum,
and who fans include U2, Elton John, Morrissey and Pet Shop Boys. We
were also about to hear their second album, a record that Flowers,
their cocky Mormon lead singer - four words you don't hear very
often - insists is "one of the best albums of the past 20 years. I'm
serious. Nothing touches this album."
Flowers' endorsement is probably the highest praise the album has
received to date. There was a more subdued listening event in New
York a couple of weeks earlier where journalists reported hearing
the same enunciated lyrics of Brandon Flowers, the same attempt at
anthemic indie rock. Some writers heard shades of Bowie and Peter
Gabriel, other Bruce Springsteen. It's always a name from at least
20 years ago with the Killers - their first album, Hot Fuss,
reminded us of the Cure, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode. Maybe that's why
I quite like them. The young like them for their natty style, their
big hooks and sensitve lyrics, and the rest of us like the
I'd love to tell you what the record sounds like myself, but to be
honest, I haven't heard it. I've heard the single, "When You Were
Young" - a belter, actually - but that's about it. The band, the
management and the label all refused to send me a copy, on account
of piracy paranoia gone wild. But when I offered to visit the
label's offices in LA and listen to it there, it turned out to be
"too difficult to organise". I'm beginning to think it's all the
label's clever strategy to promote the thing - keep it conspicuously
hush, treat it like the Holy Grail, and build the appetite.
In any case, this listening party was my only shot at hearing the
recrod. And I couldn't make it out. There wasn't a lot of listening
going on at this listening party. And no one particularly cared. The
bar was free and serving mango mojitos. There were girls all over
the place just giddy to be partying with rock stars. And inevitably,
we got a bit rowdy, so the no-necks arrived to move us down to the
pool area because we were "disturbing hotel guests" and "this is a
family hotel". And now look.
"All right, last warning. You - out! Now! And you. Out!" The grunts
are swarming the rim. They're breathing so hard, it sounds like
Flowers, Vannucci and the random girls sensibly paddle to the side
and dredge themselves out. But not Keuning. He's lying on his back
in the middle of the pool with a serene smile, doing a kind of
gentle rolling backstroke. If it weren't for his rock frizz
straggled across his face like seaweed, he'd look almost balletic,
windmilling his arms in long languid strokes and fluttering his
Suddenly a hacky sack lands in the pool next to his head. The spell
is broken. Keuning slashes his way upright, standing chest-deep in
"Who the fuck threw this?" Keuning yells.
"I did," says the largest of the meatheads - a buzzcut giant about
300lbs. "Now get out of the damn pool!"
And you would, if you saw this guy. You'd get out of the pool.
Sharpish. But Keuning's just standing there, his eyes blazing. "How
about you get in the pool?" he yells. "Let's dance
Laughter breaks out throughout the bar. The funniest part about it
is Keuning's not kidding - the soft-bellied pasty rocker with the
girly hair wants to fight the Fridge. And what's more, he nearly
does. When he eventually gets out of the pool he gives the feller a
shove, triggering the typical meat-head overkill response. They jump
him, prone him out and yank him out of the hotel in a full nelson,
leaving soggy footprints as he goes. And all the way, Keuning is
snarling at them: "You fucking bitches! You feel good about yourself
now? Fucking bitches!"
"Ha ha!" Vannucci's standing there in his black Y-fronts, rubbing
his hands like it's Christmas. "This one is for the book!"
The next afternoon, I find Brandon Flowers on a sun lounger in a
Hollywood mansion, waiting to get his picture taken. He seems
"No one listened to the record," he says. "At the one in New York
people sat and listened, but this one we were background music.
That's not... We're not really..."
He shrugs. It's a slow day. Soporific. The clouds are swollen, the
air is close. The only sounds to be heard are the caw of birds, a
faraway helicopter, the lulling vhut-vhut of sprinklers. And the
faint mumbling of a band nursing a hangover. When the make-up girl
tries to liven things up with some music, she couldn't have picked a
better tune - Dr Dre's "Keep Their Heads Ringing'".
"Don't get the wrong idea," says Flowers, as a wardrobe woman paws
at him with a lint roller. "Last night isn't typical. We don't get
in trouble every time we go out. That's just Dave. Seriously, if he
has a fuse at all, it's about that big.'
Still, it must make for good tour stories.
"That was probably the best one, last night. Touring gets pretty
repetitive. We did 300 shows in a year once and you become like
robots. I would be doing shows and not missing a word, but I'd be
thinking about conversations I had and what I did that day."
No trashed hotel rooms, no hurling TVs out of windows?
"No... I mean, that stuff - it used to be if you threw a TV out of a
window, there had to be some cosmic reason behind it, some
mythology. In the Sixties, it was probably exciting and new. But
now, when I hear about people doing that, I just think they're
What about the sex and drugs?
"None of us have a live-fast, die-young thing. I love the earth, I
think it's beautiful and I want to stick around. It's the same with
our career. We could leave now, and there's gonna be people that
will remember us in 30 years. But we want to stick around."
Don't you at least want to try the sex and drugs thing? Know what
"Well, I still have those tugs of wanting to do things that I think
I'm supposed to do because I'm in a rock'n'roll band. And it sounds
fun when you read about it - people hanging out in hotel rooms for
three days together. But David Gilmour said he wished he hadn't done
any of that stuff. And that's David Gilmour."
So what are you saying - does the rock star myth need updating?
"Well, bands are businesses. The Killers is a business. And we have
to be happy with what our company's producing. We approve every
picture, every article, if there's ever going to be anything in
movies or... A lot of bands leave it up to their manager or their
label but we don't. We want to look back on our career and be
Maybe it's not so surprising that a band from Las Vegas, American's
Gomorrah, should be so disciplined and driven. The children of
drinkers often turn out soberer than the rest of us - they've seen
it all before, they're not impressed.
But in Flowers' case, there's more to it. He's a Mormon - not a
lapsed or lip-service Mormon, but a genuine believer in the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He even goes to temple.
"I think it helps my outlook," says Flowers, sheepishly. "I told you
about those tugs I get... so you know, it helps." Certainly it was
the Mormon in him that married his sweetheart last year, at just the
point when women everywhere would start hurling themselves at him.
It might be a stretch to say that he's applying to rock stardom the
traditional Mormon virtues of hard work and simplicity. But it's a
stretch that a Mormon should be a rock star at all. Few institutions
are less "rock" than the Mormon church - it's one of the most
conservative and stentorian institutions in America. "I think Bob
Dylan said you can't be a Mormon and cool," grins Flowers. "But I
don't know. I feel pretty cool, sometimes."
Another mystery about Brandon Flowers is the source of his endless
confidence. No question, he's a talented singer and songwriter, but
it he really as good as he thinks he is? Is anyone as good as he
thinks he is? Maybe his cockiness is just self-doubt in reverse. But
it doesn't come across like that. Flowers won't get in your face
like Liam Gallagher. He's more assured. He just knows.
"Right now, we are the best band," he says, quietly. "We raised the
bar with this album."
Anyone else worth a mention?
"The Strokes are good," he says. "The Kooks are good." Shrug. "But
they don't have this album. We're waiting for it to explode."
A little cockiness never hurt in a rock band. Flowers loves being up
front. Even though the 25-year-old came to the role late, he says,
"I feel I've been preparing for this all my life."
Neither his mother nor father were entertainers. Like the rest of
the band his background is working class - none of the band came
from momey. His father works as a bellman at a casino, a job he
tried himself for a while before getting a job at a golf club, aged
19, parking cars and polishing clubs. There was no plan back then,
no sign that he's become this engine of rock ambition. He started a
band with a friend from the golf club, with the awful name of Blush
Response, and when that broke up, he found an ad in the paper placed
by Dave "Let's dance, motherfucker" Keuning. "We just hit it off,"
he says. "We liked all the same bands - everything from Sinatra to
New Order. You know, all the major English bands of the Eighties
like the Smiths, the Cure, Duran Duran. That's a pretty rare find in
In a matter of days, the two of them wrote the band's biggest
American hit to date - "Mr Brightside", the story of a man who
imagines his girlfriend is cheating on him. In a few months, they
would ditch their old bass player and drummer for Mark Stoermer and
Ronnie Vannucci, their present line-up. And they got themselves a
decent name. Or rather, they stole it from a fictional band in the
New Order video of "Crystal". The Killers was up against Genius Sex
Poets for a while, but that didn't last. Besides, it turns out that
Flowers might have actually killed a man, he's not sure.
"I hit him pretty fast," he says. "I was going about 50. He was
drunk. He just walked out into my lane on the freeway and I was
honking and hitting the brakes but I couldn't stop in time. I hit
him. It was terrible. Pretty traumatic. He hit my windshield,
smashed it up. They never told me what happened to him." He looks
shaken at the memory. "His shoes fell off. Their shoes fall off, did
you know that? I don't know why."
We're on our way, the Killers and I, to a sushi place in Hollywood.
The radio promotion guy from Island is driving us in an A-Team style
van which just reeks of weed. But it's not the Killers stinking the
place out. The previous tenant was their Island label mate, the Def
Jam hip-hop heavyweight Rick Ross. "We don't have any weed on us,"
Then Flowers asks me, out of nowhere: "Do you think music can save
Definitely - do you?
"Yeah, it's like prayer. Doctors say people who have religion are
more likely to outlast diseases. Like if a Catholic and an atheist
have cancer, then the Catholic's got a better chance. it's the
optimism, the faith. Music is like that - it gives elation and a
belief in something that's good. When you pay your $25 to go see a
band, and it's like a religious experience, you can beat cancer."
Tell me about a gig that was like a religious experience.
"There's so many. Like when I was 15, seeing Morrissey for the first
time in Salt Lake City. It was for Maladjusted - totally
underrated album. Every bit as good as You Are The Quarry."
What was religious about it?
"The anticipation for something that is better than you are. And it
absolutely was. That was the best moment in my life. Oh, I was also
Morrissey's busboy at one point."
"When I was 18. I was at Spago at Caesars Palace. He ordered the
Typically, Flowers is quick to add that he also had a religous
experience listening to the Killers' track "Jenny Was A Friend Of
Mine" in the studio. "It felt really powerful," he says. But I want
to ask them about the Eighties and about England. All over the first
album there are shades of Duran Duran, the Cure and New order.
Flowers is a fan of mascara and glitter on his keyboard. There's a
New Wave revival thing going on.
"No, everyone says that, but it's not fair," says Stoermer, the
bassist. He's the 6'5", Norse-looking one with the imperious
expression. He doesn't talk often, but when he does, he will be
heard. "People say the Eighties because we use keyboards. But Pink
Floyd used keyboards, the Smashing Pumpkins used keyboards. It's not
just an Eighties thing."
What about the make-up, the lurid pink jackets, the poppy hooks?
"You're onto something with the hooks. We're a rock band that sees
the art in a pop song. And the last time a lot of rock bands were
writing pop singles was in the Eighties."
And they were mostly from England. The bands you grew up listening
to are the ones people recognise in your music.
"But that's bound to happen. We live in the postmodernism of rock
now, so that's what rock music is about - it's about putting things
in a different way."
Where better for a postmodernist New Wave band to emerge than the
mish-mash Babylon of Las Vegas? Nowehere else quite regards the past
in the same way - as so much raw material to be shamelessly
repackaged and resold with shinier suits and brighter lights. Few
other cities better epitomise the showy materialism of the Eighties.
And the city's influence on the Killers is plain - they share its
hunger for the mass market, its compulsion to self-promote and hype,
and its taste for showmanship.
"We grew up with the billboards of Sinatra and Engelbert Humperdinck,"
says Flowers. "So we definitely got some of the showmanship. And we
got the optimism. Vegas is an optimistic place - everyone wants to
win a fortune and have a sweet life."
"Yeah, we're happy people."
Vegas also shaped the Killers' sound, in its own particular
hands-off way. While traditional music scenes like Seattle and New
York tend to leave a print on the bands they generate, Vegas does
the opposite - like a bubble, it shields its bands from outside
influence. When the band first came together in 2001, the Strokes
were coming out with Is This It and all eyes were on New
York. "But we weren't part of that," says Stoermer. "We didn't have
to sound a certain way, like in New York where they were afraid of
the word 'pop.'"
In so much as the Vegas scene existed at all, the Killers were it.
They played whenever and wherever they could, eventually turning a
Sunday slot at a gay drag bar into one of their biggest nights. At
their last gig, 300 people showed up. That's a lot of trannies.
"No, no, no, we didn't have a tranny following," says Stoermer,
seriously. "The trannies came on other nights. They just turned the
club over to regular alternative rock night on Sunday."
So where did all the trannies go?
"I don't know. Maybe trannies take Sundays off."
In the early years, they rehearsed in Vannucci's garage, where
temperatures rose to 120°F in the summer - hence the name of the
first album, Hot Fuss. But in that baking, hot box the
Killers were channelling some of the best in rainy, British
miserablism, in the style of the Smiths and the Cure. This winning
collision of Vegas glam and English gloom combined songs of
heartbreak and wounded pride with some of the weirder stories of Sin
City, like androgynous girlfriends and stalkers. Though the band
reject the tag - the best British band to come out of Las vegas -
because it's too simplistic, it sounds fair enough to me.
The Killers put the lie to the Vegas marking board slogan - what
happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. In fact, what happens in Vegas
leaves for England if it knows what's good for it. Like the Strokes
and the White Stripes, the Killers fall into that illustrious
category of bands who were first championed in England before
America realised what it had. While every label in America rejected
the Killers - one of which saw them play live ten times - the small
London indie, Lizard King, signed the band on the strength of a demo
tape. It flew the boys over for a briefs tour where they were fêted
by the NME, and by the time they got back to Vannucci's
garage, Island Records were waiting in the drive, their chequebook
"Hey, I'll admit it, England has much better bands," says Keuning.
"And they listen to music better in Britain," says Flowers. "People
hum along to keyboard parts. That's something that never happened
anywhere else. I think they're just more excited and less... there's
a cool thing out here. There's a camaraderie about the English. When
you see a bunch of dudes in a bar singing 'Don't Look Back In
It's no the first time Oasis have popped up in the Killers story.
Oasis were one of the bands Keuning mentioned in the ad that Flowers
answered. Flowers' arrogance is reminiscent of Liam, and like Liam,
he has been involved in beefs with other bands, notably the Bravery
and Fall Out Boy. But while Liam wants to wade in, fists flying, the
Killers, despite their name, engage in only the meekest and most
bloodless of tiffs. Flowers' arguement with Fall Out Boy is more of
a corporate dispute. He's ticked off that Fall Out Boy share the
same A&R executive - he feels the Killers' interests aren't being
It's a dispute that speaks volumes about the Killers and the torch
they bear for rock music. As Flowers keeps saying, the band is a
business. Indie rock may be the traditional refuge for the rebel,
but the Killers want nothing more than mainstream success - to
abandon the fringes and play stadiums like U2. The robotic touring
schedule, the hands-on attention to every decision in their careers,
the safe new New Wave rock stylings - at every step, they've worked
hard and risked little. They are the antithesis of the Vegas spirit.
And along the way, they have epitomised a nakedness of ambition that
says there's no shame in wanting to be the most popular, to sell the
most records, to make the most money.
But every so often, the veneer cracks and the band will jump in the
pool. So however controlled they like to appear, the road ahead is
full of twists and bumps. Will the Mormon frontman be able to resist
the temptations of the road? Will they learn to stop worrying and
love the bong?
One thing is certain - if the Killers are after immortality, and
they are, they'll need stories to sell, stories that remind us that
rock stars really do write their own rules. And that depends less on
their discipline as their lack of it. Let's dance, motherfucker.