Musikexpress-Thanks to Brandita for the translation

What remains are only the melodies

Self-doubt, language barriers, strenuous rehearsals, and, eventually, a triumphal concert: ME accompanied The Killers on their Japan tour through all ups and downs.

It’s a nearly spooky sight: Although the Zepp, a high concert hall at Tokyo’s harbor, is pretty crowded with more than 2,000 people, it is nearly completely silent. No music, no bawling, no whistling, not only one loud word can be heard – until the show begins, most of the young people are just standing there, silent. No wonder the stage crew members look through the hall suspiciously over and over during the preparations – if they wouldn’t know this silent, raven-haired crowd spent a lot of money for tickets, they would wonder whether they came for the best.

Backstage, in the bare, neon-illuminated wardrobe of The Killers, nobody is interested in getting an idea of the situation. The reports from outside don’t seem to surprise the band. “Just wait until you see how these people act between the songs – no noise at all”, Brandon Flowers says while taking some probably not Japanese food from a buffet. In March 2005, The Killers have been to this country before, and their memories are mostly no afterglows. “The absolute low was Hiroshima”, guitarist Dave Keuning says. “We played in front of 80 people there – they were all American GIs.”

With the 2nd album, Sam’s Town, some things have changed for The Killers, not only in Japan. After so-so debut Hot Fuss, some people expected them to disappear again with the trend they were carried by as an anglophile Neo New Wave band – but the 4 ambitionous musicians from Las Vegas decided to flee forward: With a bombastic production by U2-experienced team Alan Moulder and Flood, a Joshua Tree-like CD booklet by Anton Corbijn and a new musical style – “Stars and Stripes stadium rock” – they just reinvented themselves. Driven by ambition, they modeled themselves on their major role models, U2, to play in sold-out halls all over the world one day. You may love or hate The Killers, but you can’t ignore them anymore.

In Japan, the booked halls are already visibly bigger than while their last tour. But although the Zepp is full (and there aren’t many American GIs), no trace of anticipation is appearing backstage half an hour before the entrance. A mixture of tiredness and nervousness seems to paralyze all 4 band members. Brandon looks exhausted – because The Killers hadn’t played for a few weeks, they met that midday to rehearse for nearly 4 hours without a single break. This tour wasn’t meant to be a pleasure trip anyway: The band started shooting their new video for “Read My Mind” already the day after their arrival in Tokyo – it took nearly 40 hours non-stop. “We did it that way because there are no labor unions here, apparently”, Brandon says, shaking his head. “As long as you pay the camera crew, you can use them until they collapse.” Only as the tour manager knocks on the door, the band is pulled out of their lethargy. Through a narrow passage they go to the stage door, where all 4 musicians form a small circle. “Let’s touch”, Brandon says and reaches for his bandmates’ hands. Dave, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci each push one foot forward until all toe caps touch each other. What follows are no loud battle calls, only a short moment of common backpedaling. When the intro music in the hall starts, and, at nearly the same time, an impressingly powerful cheering can be heard, Brandon immediately interrupts the circle. There is now adrenaline running through the veins of all band members, and each one copes with that in his own way: Ronnie is drumming hectically on a flightcase, Mark hops nervously from one foot to the other, and Dave, who loves the great rock behavior of the 70s on only onstage, lays his head onto his nape and closes his eyes. The biggest change can be watched on Brandon: A manic energy starts running through the singer’s veins that shortly before the show. Over and over again, he jumps up and down with his arms held straight, and screams out loud “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”. Somebody is passing him Red Bull, but he gives it back after taking only one draught. The tour manager counts down from 5, and, eventually, gives the command “We’re walking!”. When Brandon goes outside across doorstep after the others, his determinedly eyes filled also with mad fears, a choked “FUCK!” is escaping him.

Tokyo gives The Killers a warm welcome. The fans, who have been that reserved and silent until the show began, are now totally ecstatic. Thousands of arms elongate, and when Brandon, after the opening song “Sam’s Town”, starts playing the kitschy “Enterlude” on his keyboard, the whole crowd sings along, surprisingly fluent. His worries were rightless – although neither he nor his bandmates can give up a certain stiffness this evening, the cheerings also don’t stop completely between the songs. The crowd celebrates the new singles “Bones” and “When You Were Young” with the same enthusiasm as the old hits “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me”. When, after nearly 75 minutes, the show finishes with “Exitlude” , the fans go home with happy faces. The Killers are the only ones who are not completely satisfied with the show. “We’ve had lots of minor technical problems”, Dave murmurs, and he and his bandmates immediately go on the van which takes them to their hotel in the stylish district Shibuya.

When The Killers and their crew get on the high speed train which takes them from the Tokyo main railway station to Nagoya the next morning, the atmosphere is still not relaxed. “We didn’t really make it in Japan yet”, Brandon says after sitting down on a seat next to the window. “We’ve sold only 20,000 of Hot Fuss here, I think.” Worldwide, they’ve sold impressing 5 million of the debut so far. Sam’s Town also started well – in the US it already received platinum – but there is room for improvement. The album polarizes: Where there is an effusive review there is also a crushing scorcher. Mojo called it a “blockbuster full of action”, ME assessed the CD with 4 stars – although it is very controversial in the editorial department. NME awarded, after all, 8 out of 10 points for the “grizzly-man-rock”, but they also referred to The Killers as a “horribly affected” and “unintentionally funny” band in the same review. PopMatters and The New York Times excoriated the album, but the American Rolling Stone wrote it in the toughest way: “Sam’s Town sounds like they are trying to makea big statement. The trouble with this is, they don’t have anything to say.”

Brandon thinks he simply challenged tough criticism by his excessively self-confident behavior. That he dubbed Sam’s Town “one of the best albums of the last 20 years” before it was released, he now regrets very much. “I remember exactly where and when I said this sentence. I had no idea which consequences that would have”, he says seriously. He looks out of the window, where the densely populated landscape of southern Tokyo goes by, but he is preoccupied – 9,000 kilometers from here. “I was in Las Vegas, at the entrance to my house – it must have been April. I was smoking a cigarette and giving a telephone interview. We’ve just recorded ‘When You Were Young’. What I’ve said felt like the truth to me at this time. Now I sometimes don’t find it that great anymore.” When Sam’s Town was released in fall, there were barely any articles without mocking mentions of Brandon’s big-mouthed statement. During interviews, he first of all still defended his word choice bravely, but now he knows he neither did himself nor his label a favor. “I’ve never been in a band which was that much in the limelight”, he says, suddenly trying to make eye contact. “And then I’m telephoning with some stupid guy in New York, and suddenly – because of one sentence – everyone goes with a fine-tooth comb through this nice album. How weird is that?! We’ve worked so hard for it, the songs mean everything to me. And then, so much is in ruins – because of 2 seconds on the telephone. But I learn from that. I won’t say anything like that about the 3rd album.”

What Brandon Flowers will say or not in the future, he was thinking about that very often during the last weeks. “I’m simply too honest – if you ask me, I will tell you my opinion”, he says, trying to explain why no other band in the world badmouthed more colleagues within the last 2 years. (Note: I’m not sure whether this sentence is translated correctly. I don’t own the magazine – so I can’t check it – and I had to translate the article very quickly. So I, er, “shortened” this sentence, and now, of course, I don’t really remember it anymore. Sorry!) The Bravery, Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy, The Stills, The Secret Machines, even Thom Yorke has been slapped by Brandon in interviews. “I’m now mainly known for my negative utterances. That’s shitty – actually I’m not like that at all”, he says and shakes his head. “I like food, books, movies,… I love life, I’m an ordinary person.” When he realizes what he is saying, he laughs in a strange, chuckling way – a laugh which is that quiet that he breathes in more air than he breathes out. (Note: What a strange way to describe his laugh! But I’m sure that sentence would sound strange in each language, so please don’t blame me.) “I think this (the badmouthing of othe bands) is a defense mechanism”, he continues while nodding understanding like he wants to convice the leader of a self-help group. “Exactly, that’s it: I’m insecure because of my vocabulary, my language style and my education. And if I’m forced to speak, it appears that way – I pick on others.”

That Brandon is now known to be “difficult” – which is not exactly wrongful – is apparently caused by his low self-esteem. “Image means a lot to me”, he confesses, and so he is constantly afraid of making mistakes. Our photographer, Olaf Heine, mustn’t take photographs of the singer without his permission – each motive has to be checked with him by the management in advance. The suspicion against all the world and his brother which lets the 25-year-old sometimes appear bashful and hostile during interviews, is actually probably only meant for himself. “I’m not that clever”, he says, “and I don’t think my answers are good enough. I browbeat myself: I’m a major fan of Morissey and Bowie – they are intellectuals with brilliant quotes. I don’t have much to say. That’s also the reason why I criticize that often – if you want to know my opinion on emo, it’s easy for me to answer, you know? I don’t like interviews. I just want to write songs and get paid for it – that would be the perfect world to me.”

Some time later, there is another perfect world outside the window – and we are remembered in a pleasant way that we are in Japan: After a long bend the majestic Mt. Fuji appears at the horizon, and murmurs can be heard in the whole railroad car. The natives also cannot resist to take a look at the famous hilltop covored with snow. Brandon gets up and joins the others. Dave and Mark are entertrained by Ronnie: The drummer has discovered a sleeping passenger with a breathing mask and wants to get photographed while sitting next to him. Actually he manages to lay down softly the passenger’s baggage on another seat. Less careful the band treats their merchandizing commissioner: As the bearded man starts snoring, they immediately shake him up. “He gets attacks while he sleeps, that one, and then he starts screaming”, Brandon explains, grinning. “He’s always dreaming he’s laying in a casket.”

In the early afternoon, The Killers are already onstage again. In the still empty club in Nagoya, they are working focussed on “Why do I keep counting?”. Although the song sounds brilliant on Sam’s Town, the band is far from being able to play it live well. Especially the vocal harmony which is meant to underline the pompous line “Am I strong enough, will I live to have some children?” causes problems. “’Child-ren’, my voice has to go upwards at the end”, the singer repeated like a mantra, but the band still has got trouble with the part.

When they still fail to play the song just because of this line part, Brandon breaks off, annoyed. For a while, he is just standing there, rubbing his chin; after that, he buries his hands in his hoodie and starts walking up and down, his head bowed. The moment is oppressive, and Dave, Mark, Ronnie, and their tour keyboardist, Ted Sablay, who plays his parts half hidden behind a tower of equipment, let it bear without any reaction. Several minutes go by until Brandon returns to his microphone. He orders the 8 measures have to be rehearsed as an infinite loop. The self-confidence needed for singing he cannot give his intimidated bandmates. So which other choice but working with unconditional discipline, does he have, when he, as a devout Mormon, always demands that from himself anyway? The road is bumpy, but it will lead them to their target: After nearly 15 minutes of continuous repeats, the vocal harmony works flawless. When the next try also turns out well, Brandon permits himself a smile. It is his first smile after more than 60 minutes.

“We get along better today then we did when we recorded Hot Fuss”, Brandon says when permitting himself and the band a break. “Only occasionally, it becomes a bit difficult… When I’ve got an idea I’m convinced in, the others are sometimes not that enthusiastic about it. But we get along with each other.” So maybe The Killers are no bosom friends – but as a partnership of convenience, they work very well. And when Brandon starts playing the new and not yet finished song “Burning up” later this afternoon, suddenly all of them act in concert: Dave and Mark adapt to the chord change in a sensitive way and give their singer the necessary space to develop the vocal line. Ronnie is just listening at first, but then he gives the important impulse. “Play this a bit faster”, he says to Brandon, lays his hamburger aside and starts playing a surprisingly aggressive Soca-esque downbeat. The experiment turns out well: The song turns from a piano ballad á la Springsteen into a very individual, hypnotic Killers song with the potential to become a classic.

After this feeling of success, the atmosphere backstage is comparatively good. “This may be an important song of the 3rd album”, Brandon says satisfied before he faces up the questions of a Japanese radio team. Dave also looks relaxed: For a female photographer who shoots a portrait photograph for a Japanese music magazine he poses in a very foolish Louis XIV way, so barely anyone in the room is able to stay serious. During the little ritual before the show, Brandon looks into the eyes of each of his bandmates – unlike yesterday. “Yesterday everything was a bit difficult”, he says to his colleagues who are average 5 years his senior. “But we don’t let this confuse us, okay? Today everything will work better!”

He is right: The entrance is intoxicating. In front of about 5,000 people who are delighted in happiness and gratitude to see The Killers playing in their city, it is easy for the band to try their best. Apparently additionally encouraged by a prominent guest – Lily Allen looks bored leaning against the barrier of the mixer, but sings along every word of each song of the debut – Dave presents an impressingly versatile “guitar god show”: He is playing a solo while grimacing with pain, plays power-riffs while doing lunges, changes his guitar after each song, throws back his hair and sometimes even lets the guitar dangle around his hips to clap his hands to the beat over his head. Brandon also seems to be thrilled by the euphoric energy of the crowd: Like electrified, he walks from one side of the stage to the other while singing; when they play “Bling”, he is jogging on one position like David Byrne, and when the whole crowd sings the mysterious line “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” at the end, he tries to climb up the boxes of Dave’s guitar amplifier in a rather daring way so that a roadie has to come along and put him on the brakes.

In their hotel, The Killers are already expected by their fans. The girls surround the band members, but immediately line up well-behaved after the first piece of paper is signed. “I’m going crazy here after a few days”, Brandon says later, when the adrenaline is abolished again. “Everything is completely different – that’s difficult for me. For a while, it’s cool, like a trip to Mars. Many people feel the same way when they come to Las Vegas, but for us, this is totally extreme.”

He doesn’t seem to be unhappy that they soon will journey on to Australia. Before, he has to overcome another concert in Osaka. He probably knows that “it was never cool to take yourself serious” – but the thought that his music is loved in Japan because of the wrong reasons bothers him nevertheless. When writing for Sam’s Town he occupied with big topics: Obsolescence, the yearning for “the good old days”, and, also and especially, his own mortality. “I simply can’t imagine that these people understand this, not only rudimentally”, he says seriously. When he thinks about what remains from Sam’s Town when the meanings are left behind, he laughs once again in his chuckling, private way. “Only the refrains remain”, he says and shakes his head. “When everything else is left behind, at least the melodies remain.”

 

 

 

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