When he was young
early years of Brandon Flowers, The Killers' enigmatic frontman
Las Vegas Weekly
From the convex
windows on the ninth and top story of Sam's Town, you can see the
place where he used to live. Right on the opposite side of Boulder
Highway, a restless street with its bus stops running over, its
mothers walking with children in one hand and grocery bags in the
other, its men meandering apparition-like across the busy street. So
close that he, just a teenager 16, 17, 18 years old and without a
car back then, in the late '90s, could visit the hotel and gambling
hall at a whim.
Just as three handsome little boys are doing today, no older than 10
and left to their own devices, approaching the dusty casino with the
miraculous joy of discovering one's own city.
It's a large multiplex, Sam's Town is, built six miles east of the
Strip in the fashion of old western saloons. Inside there are slot
lights and slot sounds and the gamers who sit and drink and smoke
next to them, and there is a $7.99 buffet and a bowling alley, and
outside there is an RV park. Las Vegas tycoon Sam Boyd erected it in
1979, back when a new wave of popular music that ignited in London
was about to crash over America, and two years before Brandon
Flowers was born in the southeast end of the Las Vegas Valley.
After graduating from Chaparral High School without grief or glory,
and no longer with any pretensions of becoming a professional golf
player, an aspiration to which he had dedicated himself during his
two years at Chaparral, Flowers left that home near Sam's Town and
moved to Henderson, to live with his sister, his only immediate
family member residing in the Las Vegas Valley. It was the region in
which most of Flowers' extended clan abounded, and the place he
The new millennium had dawned and no particular light was shining on
Flowers. "He was just a typical Vegas kid," says Travis Price, a
longtime acquaintance who booked The Killers' gig at Celebrity last
summer, to foreshadow the release of the band's sophomore album,
anticipated throughout the world. "When I first met him, I was
Just a small guy—comely, taciturn, and a bit coy—Flowers joined
after high school the faceless current that makes this city rush on,
taking up various jobs: one as a restaurant runner on the Strip,
another as a bellman at the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino.
"He was just another young kid," says Kelly Edwards, hotel director
at the Gold Coast. "If I remember anything in specific, it was that
he was always very pleasant—pleasant to me, to his co-workers, to
the customers. Very nice kid. Oh, and his hair. He had his mop-top
coming over his ears like this," Edwards says, cuffing his own, "and
my boss used to get on me, saying he needed to cut his hair, and I
would tell him: ‘What am I to do? He thinks he's a rock star!'"
But he wasn't. By his own admission to friends, he harbored feelings
of detachment—Should I just get along with myself/I never did get
along with everybody else—outcast on account of his particular
interests, like golf and new wave music. He attracted not just girly
attention but also the propositions of several visiting women at his
jobs in hotels, but friends say he was too diffident to be a
big-game hunter, even in this wide-open, bountiful region. "No, no,
no, no, no—he was by no means the ladies' man," says Corlene Byrd, a
local songwriter who was friends with The Killers from the start and
has had vocal and recording credits on each of their two platinum
albums. "A lot of my friends thought he was cute, but they were too
intimidated to approach him. When you're on the receiving end of
that, you think there's something wrong with you."
And further: "Brandon has friends, but he, the band, myself—we
weren't the most social bunch."
Flowers, at The Killers' birth, was possessed not just by music, but
by very certain artists, most of whom excelled in the '80s, and many
of whom employed the elements of new wave and Britpop to achieve
their success: The Smiths, David Bowie, The Cure—all with their glam
rock, synth-pop and effeminate romance.
And thus it had been Flowers' good fortune that he did not enter the
local music scene five years earlier than he did, in 2002; his sound
would not have been viable. Nirvana's grunge had shattered the synth
and glam of the '80s, and the superfluous aggression of Korn and
Limp Bizkit buried the new wave. Las Vegas' own music scene followed
"Whatever's popular—whatever's on the radio—is what's being played
in the local scene," says Nicole Sligar, a Las Vegas native who
promotes local musicians under her company Shoestring Promotions.
"When I heard The Killers in 2002, they were so different than
everybody else, there was nobody like them. My problem was that I
didn't know what to do with them."
But by that time nostalgia for the '80s had begun to fertilize
throughout the country, and Flowers picked up the fragments of the
decade in which he was born and raised, and with his three bandmates
he pieced together what would become The Killers' definitive sound.
Which, in essence, got them nowhere in Las Vegas, says Sligar.
"They wore eyeliner, had a soft, kind of poppy sound, and a lot of
older guys I knew didn't want to hear that kind of stuff," says
Charles Earland, a friend of Flowers and one of The Killers'
original fans, now a singer himself. "I remember hanging out with my
buddies at bars and clubs, trying to get them to go see The Killers.
They'd resist, they'd rather stay at the bar or club, or they'd want
to listen to something a little more mature, I guess. Now, of
course, they all have The Killers downloaded in their iPods, but
back then I had to drag them along."
Edwards recalls with a chuckle: "He used to sing around here, and
he'd tell everyone about his band. I used to give him a hard time.
He would ask me if I wanted to go see their show at whatever little
bar around town they were playing at, and I'd tell him, ‘I'm not
gonna watch a band that wears makeup! C'mon!' We used to have a good
A thriving local music scene is not easy to cultivate in this town,
says Ozzie Sanchez, a local promoter. "It's an over-21 town," he
says. "The problem has always been, how do we get the kids to come
For Flowers that absence of support would keep burning the fire in
his belly to make it out of the Vegas scene.
Sanchez had heard about Flowers and his passion through Sanchez's
brother, who worked with Flowers at Josef's Brasserie in the Desert
Passage. Sanchez booked them a slot at the Ritual, a weekly fusion
party at Tinoco's Bistro on Jones Boulevard and Harmon Avenue, and
he invited CityLife music journalist Mike Prevatt to attend.
"I walked in, and I was standing there, and a young guy walks up to
me," says Prevatt, now arts and entertainment editor at CityLife.
"He's about my height, a little nervous, and he says, ‘Hi, my name
is Brandon Flowers, and I hope you watch my band because I think
we're really good.'
"The next time I saw them was at Coachella [in 2004], and they were
about to become the world's biggest band."
The genesis of Flowers' tale is now common knowledge—the day he
walked through the Hard Rock in 2001, scored some Oasis tickets, saw
the Britpop band play "Don't Look Back in Anger," with its massive
sound, something altogether more lurid and beautiful than the music
Flowers had made with his first band, Blush Response, a keyboard
group that split with Flowers because Flowers loved Las Vegas and
did not believe in going to LA like the others. And the way he then
began stopping people in their cars down Maryland Parkway and asking
if they played the same kind of music as the bands on their bumper
stickers, desperate and determined to start an earthshaking band—so
desperate, in fact, that he would pick up the Las Vegas Weekly and
find a guitar player named Dave Keuning seeking musicians, "for all
original band. Influences: Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, Bowie,
Radiohead." And how when he showed up at Keuning's apartment, shy,
quiet but above all hungry to make great rock 'n' roll music, as
Oasis did in his mind, he was greeted with enthusiasm, because
Flowers was the first sane person to answer Keuning's long-running
"I lived with Dave in these apartments behind the Strip, next to
Imperial Palace," says Dell Star, the original bass player for The
Killers, who continues to play in the local scene without
bitterness. "Brandon came over. He was a cool kid, young, but a
really good writer for his age."
They started making music. The first song was "Mr. Brightside."
"Those first demos were awful," says Travis Price. "But I could tell
right away that Brandon had a good voice, and he was a very good
Over the next year, Flowers, 21 years old, began to write songs that
were flat-out sexy, racing with boyish charm and innuendo. "He was
so young back then, in age and in innocence," says Earland, who
worked with Flowers at Josef's Brasserie during that time. "It was
like he had never been exposed to Las Vegas. I found out later that
he'd lived in some place like Utah."
That's right. When Brandon was 9, his family left their home near
Horizon Ridge and College Drives for Nephi, Utah, where the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints multiplied and was fruitful and
where Brandon was never kissed; and he didn't return here until he
was 16, when he convinced his parents I can make it/As long as
somebody takes me home, and they permitted that he move in with his
aunt across the street from Sam's Town.
As any artist here knows, Las Vegas is an unexcavated mine of raw
material, with its man-made stimulation in juxtaposition to
God-given splendor—the heartstopping Mojave sunrises and the lights
of the Strip at night—Well have you ever seen the lights/Have you
ever seen the lights?
There are tragic little girls raised under escort billboards waiting
on some beautiful boy to, to save you from your old ways; there are
countless Uncle Jonnys walking down Boulder Highway. There are the
women who cheat and the Mr. Brightsides who catch them and can do
nothing about it, and there are characters like the musician and
professional poker man Michael Valentine to draw from.
"Ronnie [Vannucci, The Killers' drummer] told Brandon about Michael
Valentine," says Valentine, whose real name is Rod Pardey. "He
brought him to meet me at Cappozolli's on Maryland Parkway. Brandon
walks in and he's 20 years old or so—real young, real shy. We hit it
off right away because we both like Morrissey in the same kind of
way. You know, later, I'd be at a club and break out a dance move
from a Morrissey video, and Brandon would be the only one who caught
it. We liked Morrissey like that. Which is rare—very rare in this
"The difference between us is—and I think this is very telling of
Brandon and what he's trying to do now with his band—he only likes
Morrissey's hits. He has told several of my friends: ‘Just give me
the greatest-hits album.'"
Flowers' first hit would come in 2004, with "Somebody Told Me," a
song dug up from Vegas' club scene.
"Watching Brandon write songs is insane," Byrd says. She says that
when Flowers puts on a CD he's not just listening to the music: He's
going to school. He dissects the components that make the song work
and applies them to the melodies stowed in his head. "He'll take
something that moves him in a Morrissey song and use it in his own
song, so that it might move somebody the way Morrissey moved him,"
In fact, Flowers' praise is his songwriting. Sonorous, catchy and a
bit enigmatic, his lyrics are what Byrd says had attracted her to
Flowers and his band, and they have caught the ears of songwriters
like Bono, Elton John and Chris Martin just the same.
And yet, back then, during those years when Creed, Nickelback and
Linkin Park reigned supreme on the pop charts, and the predictable
hipsters in Las Vegas' music scene followed suit—2001, 2002,
2003—The Killers, in Flowers' eyes, couldn't shine.
Flowers had become disconcerted with the local scene, what he
considered torpid crowds and a nonresponsive press. According to
remarks he would later make, while The Killers were burning down the
skyline on a hurricane of success, he had felt slighted back home:
"We got no love in Las Vegas," he said.
The truth is, however, that his band had a significant following,
solid and faithful, and they received more press exposure than most
bands in this city's sterile music scene. The Killers had believers,
like Travis Price, Ozzie Sanchez and Ryan Pardey (Michael
Valentine's brother), who booked them shows at all the local venues,
the Bostons and Sashas and Tramps and Polopos and Junkyards and
Cooler Lounges and Crown & Anchors and Café Romas. The uncooperative
sound systems and irascible bar owners they encountered were no
different from what other amateur bands had to deal with.
And they were indeed amateur back then. Especially Flowers, who by
most accounts was out of tune more often than not, always
self-conscious onstage and awkward in all those matters pertaining
to a rock star. Limitations that would persist even into the band's
The Killers were nonetheless interviewed in the Las Vegas Weekly in
2002, less than a year after they formed, and given a write-up by
Billboard magazine, and Mike Prevatt of CityLife even betrayed his
publication's rules and printed a review of the band's original
demo, calling "Mr. Brightside" "one of the best local tracks in a
Four years later, time would show that Las Vegas never could have in
actuality given The Killers "love" commensurate to Flowers'
conception of the band, for he believed it to be not merely the best
in Las Vegas or even all of America, but the best of his entire
Flowers' cousin, Craig Barlow, 10 years his senior and a golfer on
the PGA tour, encountered the same challenge growing up in
Henderson. For golf, the Las Vegas Valley had been a barren
landscape, both in a literal and figurative sense. Barlow
nevertheless molded himself out of the region's dirt into a
professional golfer; and in large part, he and his stellar coevals
(and the fact that Las Vegas has continued to expand as a
world-class destination) have turned the Valley into a place lush
for cultivating first-rate golfers. From up close and afar, Flowers
"Everything today sucks," Flowers told his friends in Las Vegas,
lamenting the way performers like Britney Spears, John Mayer and No
Doubt, whom he found uninspiring, had displaced Bowie's pyramidal
work, U2's huge uplifting efforts, the type of songs that shine on
in the hearts of man. And so, finding not only his place but also
his time intolerable, he evolved. A young man more intelligent than
some and more sensitive than most, he molded himself into a musician
despite having no particular vocation for either singing or playing
the piano, and created the type of songs that he had been yearning
to hear. He made Hot Fuss, and it pleased him; and then he made
Sam's Town and told MTV News:
"This album is one of the best albums in the past 20 years. There's
nothing that touches this album."
"Brandon was quiet—really quiet—when he first came to Dave's
apartment," Dell Star says. "It seemed like he was always thinking.
Then we started writing songs. Then we said, ‘We're gonna be the
band that takes over the world.'"
Byrd says she and Brandon had met and bonded on account of their
affinities in music, and because it was a treasurable thing in this
town for them to be able to talk about artists like Duran Duran, The
Cure and Depeche Mode.
"We all hung out and we talked music and we weren't interested in
being social," she says. "Rather, we were working."
Byrd, who playfully says she was The Killers' first groupie, served
as the band's historian, "only missing like three of their 100 shows
out here," and capturing most of them on video.
"After a show we used to go back and analyze those videos for
everything: sound, stage performance, image—right down to our
clothes," says Star, who now plays bass for a promising local band
called Lips Like Morphine. "We had a lot of fun back then, but our
fun was getting something accomplished."
Flowers, the last of six children born to industrious, middle-class
parents, kept himself too busy to succumb to the local scene's
notorious quagmire, which Star says has swallowed several bands
"One thing Brandon had going for him was that he wasn't worried
about other musicians in town," says Rod Pardey. "He was always in a
fight with Bowie, Bono, Morrissey—which were the ones he felt he was
Star explains it this way: "With the Strip so close to us—Rome,
Paris, the pyramid and all that—we could dream big. Real big."
As everyone knows, The Killers—Las Vegas locals Dave Keuning
(guitar), Ronnie Vannucci (drums) and Mark Stoermer (bass)—had to
leave Southern Nevada to realize those dreams: This town was meant
for passing through/But it ain't nothing new.
Hot Fuss sold 5 million copies, garnered critical acclaim, made The
Killers one of the world's hottest bands—in all certainty the
brightest to ever emerge from Las Vegas—and elevated Brandon Flowers
to the position he had envisioned himself obtaining but never had
the disposition for: that of a rock star.
It was a British album, for sure. He sung about promenades in the
rain with a British accent, and it is very easy to see why: The
British giants of the '80s were his masters. And when he did sing
about Las Vegas, the invigorating experience of the clubs, he said:
Heaven ain't close in a place like this.
But then, with the second album, there was reinvention, a new
embrace of his native country, his home town. Just like Las Vegas'
mutable identity he changed both face and attitude, indicative to
locals by the album's title: Sam's Town. He threw on the frontier
semblance of the Wild West, sang tunes fit for driving down I-15
into the Las Vegas Valley, welcomed listeners to the new album as if
they had come to listen to The Killers at the hotel Flowers grew up
next to, singing, We hope you enjoy your stay/Outside the sun is
shining, it seems like heaven ain't far away, depicting in "Bling"
what he has come to know as a Las Vegas resident, The sun is beating
down my neck ... I can feel my vision slip in and out of focus/Now
I've got the blowing wind against my face ... Quite strange/I get my
glory from the desert rain.
And furthermore, like the Mirage in 1989, Oscar Goodman all the time
and Vegas' centennial cake, Sam's Town was over the top with
ambition. Flowers and his gang tried to accomplish something grand,
took a gamble, and failed, in splendid fashion. The critics pounced.
Rolling Stone and The New York Times criticized Flowers for his
weaknesses as a vocalist and chided the band for its hasty ambition,
and even the Las Vegas Weekly's Spencer Patterson wrote this without
"So, ultimately, what is Sam's Town, besides a Vegas insider
reference sure to draw dozens of young adult rubberneckers to a
nondescript Boulder Strip casino? Not the collection of salient
parts Hot Fuss was before it, nor the sweeping wall-to-wall
statement Killers devotees have prayed for since."
The public followed, attacking The Killers on message boards and
blogs. They bought only half the number of albums the first record
sold. And the surprise show at the Celebrity right before the album
came out did not incite the mayhem promoter Travis Price had hoped
for. He says the crowd was typical of this city, smug and
judgmental. And I'm sick of all my judges/So scared of what they
find. "From the sound guys to the kids in the local scene, there's a
lot of hometown jealousy," Price says. "Especially with The
With the new album Flowers quit the eyeliner, grew a mustache and
some facial hair, wore sunglasses during interviews and took on an
air of masculinity as counterpoint to his previous boyish,
It's almost as if Flowers was trying to hide the natural timidity
and awkwardness that has proved to be insurmountable to him thus
far, and his non-rock star temperament prior to forming the band.
"[In 2003] a lot of people started talking about how big of rock
stars The Killers were going to be, but I saw them play the
Huntridge and I was not convinced," says Pardey. "Being out of tune
was still a problem for Brandon, and he didn't have any stage
presence. If you notice today, during concerts, and interviews, and
even on the new album, those are still problems."
Sometimes I'm nervous when I talk and shake a little/Sometimes I
hate this line I walk ...
"Brandon always used to be quiet, humble, hard-working and in love
with what he did. I was proud of him then, and I'm proud of him
now," Barlow says. "When I see him now I don't see a rock star; I
see my cousin."
"Brandon has never had street credentials," says Pardey. "The spirit
of the '80s was ‘Screw the record companies, screw the game'—that
was Morrissey's way. Brandon's doesn't have that.
"But we're living in a different time now. We're living in an age
with American Idol and Justin Timberlake. There's no pressure from
the streets anymore."
Cultivated in Las Vegas, and then evolved, Flowers now possesses the
ability to change his environment.
"Are you kidding me?" Sligar says. "Every demo I hear now sounds
like The Killers. Without The Killers there would be no Panic! At
the Disco. But people are finally getting signed here now, and it's
so good to see that."
Charles Earland, who is now pursuing his own musical dreams, singing
in Lips Like Morphine with Dell Star, says:
"Brandon blew up. It's like, one day I was working with him at the
restaurant, and the next day he's a platinum artist. He gives us
hope—inspiration—motivation—you know, that we can do it too."
The three handsome boys who walked into Sam's Town have now
re-emerged, and they are approaching Boulder Highway, and you can
see them from the place Brandon Flowers used to live. The Sunrise
Mountains are pretty in the backdrop.