The Killers Instinct
OVER THE COURSE of 50 years, many diverse faiths and cultures have been cordially invited to merge into the creative melting pot of popular music. Yet Mormonism - the religious sect that was founded in the backwaters of America more than 170 years ago - has never really been one of them. In the early 1970s, there were the Osmonds, of course, but who can look back on their spate of hits with anything but mild embarrassment? More recently, Arthur "Killer" Kane, the New York Dolls' bass player, converted to the faith after many years lost in an alcoholic haze.
But now a new musical emissary has arisen to spread the Mormon message to the rock-consuming masses. Sam's Town, the second album by the Killers, from Las Vegas, is an alluring collection of ambitious anthem-rock originals pitched in a style mid-way between Bowiesque arch theatricality and Springsteen-style heart-on-sleeve sincerity, which also handily doubles as the world's first Mormon rock concept album.
Actually, the group's leader and main songwriter, Brandon Flowers, is more comfortable with the phrase "spiritual autobiography" when talking about the new album. That is partly in deference to the three other members of his group, none of whom share his religious upbringing and all of whom look distinctly uncomfortable whenever the subject is mentioned. "We're all very different personalities," says bassist Mark Stoermer. "Brandon's the only Mormon among us, but he keeps it personal. It's an influence on his life so it comes through in his lyrics sometimes, but not in an overt or preachy way."
But Flowers is quick to attest to his faith: "I can't ever escape my Mormon roots ... On the single When You Were Young, there's a line I sing, 'He doesn't look a thing like Jesus.' That's about growing up in a religion where Jesus is considered a saviour and also realising people can be saviours, too, whether they're your wife, your best friend or your next-door neighbour."
While Flowers - looking tired but trim in black denim and a Rolling Stones T-shirt - discusses matters of a spiritual nature in a room above a cavernous TV studio in Paris, matters of strict commerce once again dominate his group's work schedule. They are at the tail-end of an exhausting European promo slog for Sam's Town before heading to Australia to tour this month.
The other members - Stoermer, drummer Ronnie Vannucci and guitarist Dave Keuning - are already lurking around the arty set, instruments in hand. Everyone is friendly and professional. The Killers, after all, are deeply ambitious and media-savvy enough to know how to sell records in the new millennium, though Flowers is worried that the time devoted to promotion and touring schedules means there's little chance he'll ever be as prolific as his heroes once were. "The Smiths released two albums a years, plus singles and fresh B-sides - that's just incredible to me," he laments.
"Look at the volume of product Bowie released just between 1970 and 1975: I don't know if we'll ever make that many records! Nowadays, it seems impossible to have a successful career without these long gaps between releases. Sam's Town is being released two years and four months after our first one because of all these other commitments, and I truly believe this kind of schedule is holding us back creatively.
"At the same time, I understand the record company's viewpoint. They're a huge conglomerate, they don't want to lose money and they don't know for sure if we've ever going to write a hit again ... and they want to milk it for all it's worth.
"Out of all the new bands that have gotten big lately, there hasn't been one that can be sophisticated and fun and catchy, rock, pop and oddball, and still make it into the big leagues. And that's what we're trying to achieve. Still, it's really hard because record companies aren't used to dealing with smart bands wanting to be successful on their own terms."
Success came quickly to the Killers, particularly in Britain, where Sam's Town went straight to No. 1 and their tour sold out almost immediately. They formed in 2002 as a fervently Anglophile concept, gauchely aping English accents when they sang and merrily channelling the musical lessons learned from 1970s and '80s British pop deities into their own early compositions, which comprised their breakthrough debut album, 2004's Hot Fuss.
But what quickly marked them out from the rest of the young contenders was the brazen confidence backing up their songwriting and musicianship and their boundless ambition.
Flowers, in particular, seemed gripped by the all-consuming desire not simply to emulate the career of, say, New Order (the band took its name from the fictional group in New Order's Crystal video), but to become the biggest group in the world. And lo, it began to come to pass. One minute the Killers were the toast of the London live circuit, the next they were playing in huge stadiums opening for - and on occasion even duetting with - Bono and U2. But all those celebrity meetings can be rather meaningless. "They're always so brief," grumbles Stoermer. "And you never have much to say to each other." For his part, Flowers - who idolises Morrissey and supported him in concert two years ago - reckons he got closer to his hero when he was serving him in a Las Vegas restaurant back in 2002.
Flowers's greatest dream-come-true to date, then, has not been achieving stardom, but the Killers' early conquest of Britain. "Our first trip to England was so great. The magic soon wore off a little bit but it was still unforgettable: playing the same clubs in London as Oasis when they started, going around Manchester visiting all the Smiths sites.
"When I was growing up in Las Vegas, England just seemed so far away, a genuine fantasy land. There was something untouchable about the music - larger than life. It was so different from what the Americans were growing up with. And it became irresistible to try to emulate, even down to adopting an English accent when you sang ... I was so used to singing along with Morrissey records in the car, I couldn't stop myself from adopting an English way of expressing my lyrics, even though I'd never even been to Manchester back then. This time I wanted to sound more like someone who comes from the Mojave Desert, which is where I'm actually from."
Two years ago, Flowers introduced himself to the music of Bruce Springsteen and was deeply marked by the experience. "I just fell in love with his music and it's been a real blessing. It was like I was 12 years old again listening to the Cars for the first time. See, Bruce always wears his heart on his sleeve, whereas the groups I grew up with, like New Order, were more about being cool and emotionally detached. What struck me most forcefully about him is that ... the guy is so incredibly sincere, whatever he sings. And it just hit me - that's what I want to achieve, too. I wanted to create an album that captured chronologically everything important that got me to where I am today."
For Flowers, a naturally shy 25-year-old, summoning up the kind of heroic self-confidence needed to front a touring rock ensemble has not been easy, particularly when confronting a live audience. "It's something that's developed with time ... I'm so self-conscious that it's always a struggle to let the bad thoughts fly out of the window and let the music live through me. When that happens, though, it's the best feeling in the world. It happened for me the first time we played Glastonbury. A light switched on. Suddenly, there was this reaction of love and adoration that we'd never ever experienced before and I became totally swept up in it all."
When bands do get "swept up in it all", drugs can become a problem. Not, apparently, for the Killers. Although coy on the subject in another recent interview, Flowers tells me he abstains. "It goes back to my religion and the way I was raised. It's difficult, though. I mean, I grew up reading all these stories about David Bowie getting loaded in the 1970s, and it all sounded so great. Now I'm confronted with it almost every day. At one point in each day, there's going to be some dude in a new town who's going to approach me and offer me something illegal, telling me how great it is. It can get hard to deal with."
Flowers believes he knows what's required to become the biggest band in the world. "People want that human connection. As much as they want you to be 'larger-than-life' or 'untouchable', they also want to relate to you as a human being. That's what I love about U2 and Springsteen. It's such a powerful tool to weave words and melody together like that. It's an incredible gift, but also a big pressure to follow in those kind of footsteps. But I'm getting wiser and I think we're capable of carrying that weight."
Killers play the Big Day Out in Sydney on January
'People are lazy, and that goes for making music, too'
WHEN IT COMES to contradiction, the slender, dapper Brandon Flowers is a bundle all of his own, making him one pop's most fascinating frontmen. Hesitant, soft-spoken and physically awkward, he is a shy man with big ambitions. "Anybody that ever picked up a guitar and says they didn't imagine playing a song in front of thousands of screaming people is a liar. Nobody just sat down and said, 'I've gotta bare my soul and be an artist.' I'm not afraid to admit what I want."
The 25-year-old resembles an unlikely mix of two of his musical heroes, the introverted Morrissey and extroverted Bono, both of whom he names in a homily to the "prime era for music" - the much-maligned 1980s.
"My brother ... graduated from high school in 1987 and he was the coolest of cool: it was Smiths posters and Rattle and Hum. Things went downhill after that."
The band's exciting blend of hook-laden synth-pop and anthemic rock with a dense sonic punch and indie guitar attitude took its 2004 debut album to 5 million sales worldwide. Last year's follow-up, Sam's Town, has also been a chart-topper. Yet Flowers, who married his long-time girlfriend in 2005, speculates about sacrificing ambition for family. "I believe the love of a kid is better than a number-one album. I hope so."
It is all a part of what he describes as the "push and pull" between his faith and his vocation. "That tension is in the world," he says. "It's in everybody, which is why I don't feel strange singing about it."
His lyrics are littered with references to "Jesus" and "Father", unusual subject matter for alternative rock. "That tension was something I grew accustomed to, living in Las Vegas. If any place is gonna prepare you for rock and roll, it's that town."
Flowers is the product of two geographically adjacent yet culturally conflicting locations: Las Vegas, America's Sin City, where his family lived until he was eight, and Nephi, Utah, where they moved when Flowers's father gave up alcohol and committed himself to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Aged 16, Flowers persuaded his parents to let him return to Vegas, ostensibly to study. "I don't know how I got out," he laughs. "I think they still regret it."
The Killers formed in Vegas, and Sam's Town is named after a hotel on the city outskirts. "We used to drive down Boulder Highway and when you saw Sam's Town, you knew you were getting into Vegas. It's a modern-day gold-rush town. People go west, out to the desert, to try to get something for nothing. It usually ends bad.
"It's all turned to sex now. Vegas goes through phases. Ten years ago they tried to make it a family thing, you'd gamble but you'd take your kids to a theme park, too. Now it's 'come and cheat on your wife'."
Flowers has a reputation for criticising musical contemporaries, blaming his "old-fashioned" values. "I think people are lazy, and that goes for making music, too," he says. "My dad's generation were tougher, maybe because they had to survive. If he does something, he's gonna do it right. Whether it was putting up sheet rock or rewiring places or working on cars with him, I learned about getting things done. And I think that's why people like our songs."