Rolling Stone October 2006
The Boys are back in town
The Killers sin city's most famous band,return to their roots for a follow-up album and show us thier vegas-the city beyond the strip
It's a wednesday night in late august with the las vegas heat pushing 100 degrees and we're backstage at celebrity, a mid size club miles from the strip.Brandon Flowers,the killers baby fac lead singer,is nervous.The killers are about to play their first show since February,and they'll be debuting songs from their forthcoming album,sam's town,which they just spent six months recording at the studio in the palms casino.Flowers looks like the groom at a texas wedding:in his black suit wiht bolo tie and black and white snakeskin boots,he paces back and forth."I hope,"he says"that people did'nt come out just so they can go home and say the new album isn't as good as the first one."Flowers worries are understandable,since the killers are trying to follow up a phenomenon.Their 2004 debut,hot fuss,managed to be both a dance record and hip rocker record-mixing glitzy synths,edgy guitars and huge hooks,it sold more than 5 million copies worldwide.As hot fuss blew up,the killers toured the earth,made new wave cool again and spent quality time with bono and bill gates.sam's town is enough of a departure-less flashy and more arena rock friendly,it's more springsteen and U2 than duran duran and the smiths-that the world may not receive the songs quite so openly.
Tonight,vegas does:The new stuff sounds gripping and surprisingly tight,and the crowd of 200 or so locals cheer roundly throughout the show.Afterward,some of flowers extended family-nearly a dozen people,almost all of them wearing Killers T shirts stop backstage.Flowers hugs his parents,chats up some cousins and looks more like a kid at a family gathering than a bona fide rock star.
It's fitting that vegas has love for the killers tonite,because the killers love vegas,except for guitarist Dave Keuning,who's from Iowa,all of the band flowers,bassist mark stoermer and drummer ronnie vannucci grew up in working or middle class vegas families.all four still live here,and they don't plan on moving away.
Sam's town is,in part,a tribute to their hometown.named for a huge,working class casino on the outskirts of town,it's a vegas record the way that born to run is a jersey record:There are references to flowers great grandma Dixie and an uncle jonny who did cocaine:a song-"Bling"-named after a sign outside a vegas church,and lyrics about average kids with big dreams and nostalgia for the place you grew up in.In a weird way,all of their success,fame and touring over the past few years have brought the killers closer to their roots."our records represent where we came from,"stoermer says."hot fuss represents the glitz,and sams town represents the working class people who actually live there."
The Killers represent the vegas you knew existed but no one ever talks about:not exactly blue-collar vegas,but a vegas where young people can live and enjoy themselves without losing their minds or their life savings.Beneath the eyeliner,the killers are actually nice,well adjusted guys who generally eschew sin city's wildest pleasures:gambling,strippers,drugs and big nightclubs.they love the areas wild natural scenery mountains,endless deserts,even the mind numbing heat.They love the unnatural scenery too,especially the city's lesser known bars and twenty four hour diners,the places with more than a touch of old vegas.
Before the next hometown gig on saturday,the killers show me some of their vegas.it becomes clear that their affection for the city's is'nt unequivocal they complain about the tourist crap.the lack of a sense of history and the crowds.but their vegas is surprisingly low key and they like it that way."people don't realize how unique this city is,because it's all about the srip,"Flowers says."but there's such a small town feel all the out of the way resterants and bars and people playing bingo.The sunset is wonderful,the people are nice and it doesn't get cold.I love the lighting too.It's the most beautiful city at night.I love it here."
On Saturday afternoon,Flowers and Keuning head for lunch at the peppermill,an all night restaurant on the strip.It opened in the seventies,and it's just the kind of place the killers dig a bit weird and seemingly immune from vacationing midwesterners."We hate big crowds,"keuning says."you can always just pop in and get a bite here.It's a cool place."
It is indeed:It's got the comfort and ambience of a local diner with a touch of throwback vegas glamour.there's a lounge that looks straight out of scarface all pink and purple neon lights and cushy sofas and whirlpools that shoot fire.there's also a superfriendly wait staff and better than average american grub in huge portions.
Eating their salads and runny egg specials,keuning and flowers stick out among the peppermill patrons,most of whom are dressed in tees and tank tops.Flowers wears a cream colored,fake alligator skin jacket he got in london:keuning is in a shiny grayvest and dior aviators.but no one bothers them or even seens to recognize them,and you sense that's one reason they like places like the peppermill.especially flowers.
As a rock star,he's a strange case a crushworthy frontman and a bit of a peacock,he's given to showy,flamboyant stage performances.but in person,he's shy and sweet,a married,practicing mormon who enjoys the occasional beer or cigarette.when he talks about vegas,he constantly ends up talking about his roots."vegas is my hometown,and it's turned into a place that's really sentimental to me,"he says."i think a lot of people can identify with that."
The son of parents who hooked up in a vegas trailer park when they were fifteen,flowers move from vegas to nephi,utah,at age eight when his bellman dad go tired of the city.Flowers still extremely close to his father."he quit school when he was sixteen,flowers says,he just worked hard,raised six kids on twenty five grand a year.growing up,I had the values of a dad born in1944,and i still do,in some ways."
At sixteen,flowers moved back to vegas and lived with his aunt,partly because he was drawn to the seemingly endless possiblities of the city."The same type of ideal i had for manchester because the smiths,I had for las vegas because of elvis and frank sinatra,flowers says,as a band we probably ger our showmanship from las vegas.It's in our blood."
After we finish at the peppermill,i meet up with vannucci at binion's horse shoe,a casino in fremont square,near old vegas.it's an unpretentious,middle class joint with loads of button down,seedy charm.built in the forties and greatly expanded since,it's one of the oldest remaining casinos in vegas,a stark contrast to posh mega dens like the bellagio.the decor is all about floral print carpet, cowboy memorablilia and pictures of famous poker players like red winn,puggy pearson and wild bill hickok.
Vannucci grabs lunch at the snack bar,which serves specialties like hobo stew an ugly meat and potatoes mishmash to patrons seated at a long oak counter."I like this place because it's real old school,"vannucci says."my parents have been coming here forever.I just had a grilled cheese and corn bread for $3.75.that's a reasonable price,man."
Growing up,vannucci was a binion's regular with his dad-a friends family used to own the place vannucci navigates like a tour guide."here i'll show you the really old part of this place,"he says,walking toward the original,unalterd portion of the hotel."not many people know about this."we climb up a hidden staircase in what's now the binion's east end,sparsely outfitted with rustic oak furnishing and tiny hallways.After passing through a couple of unmarked doors we're back downstairs,in front of the poker tables."for true poker players,thisis still the place,vannucci says "i have pictures of me as akid next to the million dollars in cash meant for tournament winners.but it's funny I don't even knwo how to play."
In fact,none of the other killers gamble,either,and all maintain relatively tame social lives:vannucci like flowers is married,stoermer has a longtime girlfriend and keuning has a son.none of them like strip clubs,and none spend inordinate amounts of time chasing women."i don't think you need to fuck models and get fucked up and let everyone knwo about it to be in rock & roll."vannucci says.even when they were recording sams town at the palms,the strips hottest casino,they didn't indulge much in night life."We really didnt do much in the way of partying after the sessions,"stoermer says mabey once or twice."
still,the killers aren't completely averse to the occaional hot spot like L'Atelier,where keuning takes me just before saturday nights gig.It's a pricey french resturant inside the MGM Grand with crushed velvet chairs and candlelit tables.Keuning discovered the place while milling around before a rolling stones show at the MGM.he keeps coming back because it has,he says,"the worlds best mojitos."we order raspberry versions and kick back.we talk about the early days of the band keuning posted in a local paper looking for musicians,and the blurb which mentioned oasis rather than the usual shitty funk rock and metal bands you saw in ads-caught teh eye of flowers,who was working at the time as a bellboy at the gold coast hotel.the two got together and quickly began writing songs,including one of hot fuss biggest hits.
Eventually,they hooked up with vannucci and stoermer,and began playing live-though it wasnt always easy to find gigs in a city with few good bands and even fewer good venues."it's traditionally been a tough town for rock,stoermer says."in other cities,you can bring in 200 people to see a band and make good money.but in vegas you can make more if just ten people are at your place playing video poker.yet,with the ascension of the killers and those other local stars,panic at the disco-as well as newer,hipper venues the veagas music scene has come a long way since flowers and his mates started in 2002.the killers soon got the attention of british indie label lizard king,which broke them in england.from there,tehy scored a deal with island records in the us fame,hit singles and cocktails with bono followed.
One place we won't be visiting tonight at least not together is sams town.the killers have a post show party at beauty bar and want to steal a few precious moments at home.but more that that,they're wary of making too much on a connection between their album and the casino they want to make clear that their record is not some kind of concept album as some yahoo radio djs have already assumed.
Once I show up at the casino alone,it's easy to see why they named their record after it.its out in the middle of nowhere a good fifteen minute drive from the strip.it's appealingly low rent,sprawling and kitschy,with lots of wood paneling,pictures of smiling folks who made thousands playing slots and a giant atrium with waterfalls,fake rams and otters perched on rocks.theres also a bowling alley,a movie theater and rv park and even though it's three in the morning a soul band playing one of the lounges.the place is vast but strangely intimate,shabby but somehow hopeful and glamouous.
Sam's town is the epitome of las vegas,the real vegas,flowers says later.that's our vegas.even if sams town doesn't succeed like hot fuss,you sense the killers wont take it too hard.when i was a kid,we'd drive down the freeway and you'd see sams town from miles away.you'd get closer and closer and it'd get bigger and bigger.it was a beacon,our center.I still feel that way.we're in a good place."