The Killers come from Las Vegas, but their new album is a hymn to their singer's Mormon faith. Nick Kent meets the world's hottest young band
Friday October 20, 2006
Over the course of 50 years, we have borne witness to the on-going development of popular music, and many diverse faiths and cultures from all over the world have been cordially invited to merge into the creative melting pot. 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 odious Osmonds, of course, but few 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 downward spiral. He even dressed like Brigham Young, who led the Mormons to Utah in the 1840s, when he joined the other surviving members of his old group for an onstage reunion in London two years ago.
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. It is spending its second week at No 1.
Actually, the group's leader and main songwriter, Brandon Flowers, is more comfortable with the phrase "spiritual autobiography" when talking about the new record. 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," argues 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. Even on the first album, Hot Fuss, it informed songs like All These Things That I've Done. 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. He can come in other human forms.
"Mormonism is a Christian religion, but the biggest thing is we believe we know where we're going when we die. It's not just about heaven and hell. The Bible says we're all made in God's image but we believe that literally - that God is a man. Other religions have always shied away from embracing that particular concept, but we don't: we really think God's a dude." Flowers laughs. "I've always been a believer. It's always been a big part of my life even when I was young. There's always been that push-and-pull of living in Sin City and believing in God. And now it's become absolutely incredible, after all that's happened to us."
While Flowers - looking tired but still trim in black denim and a Rolling Stones T-shirt - discusses matters of a spiritual nature in a room situated above a cavernous Parisian TV studio, 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 and have just been talked into filming a final segment that will find them grouped decoratively around a large neon-splashed sculpture constructed specifically to represent the current Channel 4 logo.
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 the process of selling records in the new millennium tends to work, though Flowers is worried that the time devoted to promotion and gargantuan 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. We've just got to adjust to it.
"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. Right now, they reckon Sam's Town has four potential hit singles and they want to milk it for all it's worth. And we feel we can accommodate them. 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 forthcoming 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 many 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 songcraft and musicianship and the sheer, boundless scope of their ambition.
Flowers, in particular, seemed gripped by the all-consuming desire not simply to emulate the career of, say, New Order (the band took their name from the fictional group in New Order's Crystal video), but to go the whole hog and become the biggest group in the world. And lo, it began to come to pass. One minute they were the toast of the London live circuit, the next they were playing in gargantuan 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 bassist Stoermer. "And you never have much to say to each other." For his part, Flowers - who positively idolises Morrissey and supported him in concert two years ago - reckons he got closer to his hero when he was serving him as a busboy in a Las Vegas restaurant back in 2002.
Flowers' greatest dream-come-true to date, then, has not been achieving stardom, but the Killers' early conquest of the UK. "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. But this time around I wanted my singing voice to sound like the way I actually talk. I didn't do that on the first album; 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 finally introduced himself to the music of Bruce Springsteen and was deeply marked by the experience. He spends half of our interview lavishing praise on Springsteen. "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 I believe what he says. 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."
But for Flowers, a naturally shy 25-year-old, summoning up the kind of heroic self-confidence needed to front a world-beating rock ensemble - the kind of self-confidence Springsteen displays - has not been easy, particularly when confronting a live audience.
"It's something that's developed with time. Our first shows were probably very boring. Yet I wanted to do it so desperately. My brother would constantly be watching old rock concert movies like Gimme Shelter and I'd get so excited seeing them as a kid. It was something I had to try for myself. At first, though, I was just concentrating on not throwing up! So it was hard. And 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."
To escape from these and other temptations, Flowers flies back to Las Vegas as often as possible to reconnect with his wife and family. But he still has mixed feelings about the place. "Las Vegas goes through phases. Some years ago, [newsreader] Dan Rather called it a living hell on earth on US TV and the powers that be decided to clean the strip up and make it more family-oriented. Suddenly, it was all theme parks, pyramids and lions, and that was popular for a while. But now it's all gone back to sex again. The strip clubs are multiplying. Treasure Island's now called TI, and the pirates are all half-naked women who fight with each other."
The Killers, meanwhile, are about to embark on an extensive world tour, and Flowers knows exactly what he needs to deliver to make his most ambitious dream come true.
"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."