Top of the Heap

Spin Magazine December 2006

 

The more closely you are able to examine something-a person,a place,a phenomenon-the more difficult it becomes to judge it's size accurately.By the time you're standing near enough to touch it,what once seemed massive can end up looking very small indeed.
Take,for example,the performance space in NBC's Manhattan headquarters known as studio 8H,even better known as the home of saturday night live.The two-story suite where Christopher Walken demanded more cowbell and Wayne and Garth once partied on is roomier than any apartment I might ever live in,yet much more cramped in reality than it appears on TV: just a couple of modular sets flanking two permanent stages built to look like terminals at Grand Central station.One of these miniscule stages is where each week's host performs the opening monolouge;the other,equally claustrophobic,is for the musical guests,where Brandon Flowers and his band the Killers are practicing one afternoon on the last day of September.

Awash in red light,the las vegas quartet are performing their single "when you were young" the first of two songs from their new album,Sam's Town,that the killers will play on SNL season premiere.After midnight,Flowers will reappear on that tiny platform in a flannel shirt,jeans,and a superfluous pair of  glasses,to dance maladroitly and sing about a flesh-and-blood savior who doesn't look a thing like jesus.But at rehearsal,the 25year old frontman sticks closely behind his keyboard,never wading into the sea of tangled christmas lights decorating the stage.With tall,lanky guitarist Dave Keuning,30,and taller,lankier bassist Mark Stoermer,29,standing equidistant from Flowers,and drummer Ronnie Vannucci,29,confined to a kit directly behind him,the group do not look much like messiahs of rock,either.They are four guys who know where they are suposed to stand and can't move from those places.

The rehearsal has drawn a handful of onlookers,who've come to hear what the killers sound like now.The last time the band played the show,in January 2005,they appeared to be the slickest ensemble to emerge from sin city since the cast of the Ocean's Eleven remake: Their 2004 debut album,Hot Fuss,was well on its way to selling five million copies worldwide,and each new single-unabashedly Anglophili chart-toppers like "somebody told me" and "mr brightside"-seemed destined for inclusion on a VH1 I love the '00s compilation.They were a few months away from wrapping nearly two years of touring and had just gotten two grammy nominations,including one for Best Rock album.

Life was different,too,for Tana Munblowsky Flowers,a pixieish young woman wandering backstage.Back then,she was simply Brandon's girlfriend,not his wife of more than a year,and what she remembers most about her first trip to New york is not lavish hotel accommodations,nor a visit to some landmark,but how brutally old the city was that month.Given everything that her husband's group has aomplished since their last appearance,I ask her,is SNL treating them wiht any more dignity on this trip? "Dignity?" she answers,sarcastially."I don't know what dignity is.As long as i get my free lunch,I'm good."

Actually,it's a free dinner in the NBC commissary that follows the warm-up session.The band gathers for chimichurris and baked potatoes,casual discussion of how many copies Sam's Town will sell when it arrives in stores the following Tuesday(between 350,000 and 400,000 copies is the consensus),and a conspicuous prediction from an Island Records A&R representative that album could debut at No.1.Mabey these are the kinds of conversations that invariably occur when the killers sit down for supper,but I hope the optimistic forecasts will come true.From what i;ve already seen of them,they don't seem like a band particularly well equipped to handle the small time.

Brandon Flowers is like no other Mormon i've encountered.When he and I meet up three nights earlier at the lobby bar of the Hotel on Rivington on Manhattan's lower east side,he is smoking(Marlboro lights),drinking(vodka and red bull),and occasionally cursing.He looks more mature than the baby-faced lothario of Hot Fuss,his features filled out by a Freddie Mercury mustache,but from the moment I turn on my tape recorder,he makes it clear he isn't expecting much from the encounter,"I'll tell you right now,"he says."you think you'll write some shit about us,and then you won't see us again."I haven't even raised the subject of Sam's town,which is a week away from release,and Flowers has already concluded that i've misunderstood the album,insisting that "you can't judge it by hearing it in somebodys offiice,one time,and waiting for the next person to run in and listen to it after you.We've been living withit for months and months,so we knwo what it is."

As his bandmates join us one by one at the table,they explain,without quite acknowledging their grouchiness,that they've been working on it relentlessly:They spent the previous day at MTV(just to do a four minute TRL soot,sandwiched between Ludacris and Billy Bob Thornton),preceded by a secret show at Webster Hall,preceded by a month of advance promotion in the UK following their SNL appearance,they will do European shows,more US dates,and then head to  Australia and New Zealand in January.Needless to say,they are starting to feel the strain.

"There was pressure from the first album,"stoermer says, slowly and methodically,like a bear walking up from hibernation,"but it was different.The pressure was:you might not have a careerWe might go back to our day jobs in two weeks."This time around,says Flowers,"we've got to prove to all of you that it's for real,that it wasn't a flash in the pan,that we can do it again.It's a scary thought,that you've got to prove what you do is viable."Then there is the additional anxiety of knowing that the rok icons whom the killers won over with Hot Fuss(David Bowie,who paid them a surprise backstage visit:Bono,who invited them to a U2 soundheck:and Elton John who invited them to his Las Vegas home and thanked them in the liner notes of his new album)will be listening to Sam's Town even more attentively.But that pressure,flowers claims,isn't only on the killers-it's also on their musical heroes."It's gone from wanting them to hear it and like it,"he says,"to wanting them to hear it and make them think,'shit,we gotta do better."

By now,it's hardly surprising to hear Flowers speak so boastfully about his new record;in numerous interviews before this one,he's already declared Sam's Town the best album in the last 20 years.And he's gone out of his way to talk trash about ascendant acts like Panic!At the Disco and Fall out boy,whose music he has said stirs up "a creature inside me and that wants to beat all those bands to death."Tonight Flowers is cirumspect enough not to wish murder on any rival band.But he isn't shy about sharing stories from the groups formative days back when he was still trying to recruit likeminded usicians through classified ads in local newspapers,about the would be recruits who openly mocked him for his outsize ambitions.There was one prospective guitarist who,beforespeeding away from a meeting at Flowers house,turned to him and sneered "good luck with your Duran Duran thing."During a stroll through the hotel on the las vegas strip a few months ago,Flowers says,"I saw him working at a kiosk in the Aladdin,and i just thought 'It worked out all right."

What is remarkable,however,is how Flowers'exuberance has infected the other members of the group,who speak candidly about how easily they're able to generate great songs,the eagerness with which they expected Sam's Town to be received by their record label,and their own place in the firmament of rock history.As Vannucci puts it,"There's emo,and then there's metal,and then there's great."care to guess which category thekillers think they belong in?Then again,given the circumstances that led to the creation on Hot Fuss maybe they have every right to believe in their own infallibility.Produced in a small studio in Berkeley,California,over a matter of days,the album saw its most memorable tracks,including "somebody told me"and "Jenny was a friend of mine",recorded in just a few takes,before the killers had time to figure out who they were or what they were trying to say.After a final mix by producer Alan Moulder(whose credits include Smashing pumpkins siamese dream and Nine inch nails the fragile),the debut enjoyed the kind of astronomical success that meant no one would be able to say no to the killers again-at least,not for a very long time."We have control that other bands don't,"says Flowers,"but the record label has a faith in us,because they know that we want to do what we're doing.We want to be big,and they're not sitting there,biting their nails and thinking,'Are they gonna make some freak show?"It's also possible to see Hot Fuss as the kind of record that only a goup of newcomers could have made."They did'nt know what those songs were going to be-nobody knew,"says Rob Stevenson,the A&R executive who signed the killers on the strength of their demos."and the problem is,when you're going in to write your second record,you know,"Though the killers may still be young,they are hardly novices anymore,"Being naive is a gift,"Stevenson says,"because you're going into a situation where your not really aware of what you're doing.when you become aware,it's impossible to shed that knowledge."

As production began on the follow-up album earlier this year,the band took no chances:For nearly six months,they holed up in a new recording studio at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas.Though their short list of potential producers included nearly every major player in the industry (glam-rock godfather Tony Visconti was just one candidate who didn't make the cut),they opted for Moulder,as well as his frequent partner flood(who engineered U2's the joshua tree before producing Depeche modes songs of faith and devotion and U2's pop).Then the killers told their British producers that they inteded to make an American record."That's pretty odd,isn't it?"Moulder says." thought the same thing:'why the fuck are we doing it?Wheres Rick Rubin?' If Moulder and Flood were slightly shaky on the concept of Americana,the killers themselves had a clear vision of what they wanted Sam's town to be:a reflection of the maturation they had undergone during their first two years as a touring band,and a tribute to the distinct character they saw fading form the Amerian cities like las vegas with each passing day."Vegas used to be,and in a lot of respects still is,a small town,"says Vannucci."Everybody knows us,and you can't go into a bar without seeing somebody who you played in a band with when you were 15.But where it used to be this place where people would go to be entertained,it's turning into this place of girls gone wild."

In that spirit,they named the record after Sam's Town casino,a slightly run down vegas haunt where Stoermer spent a lot of his youth-hanging out at its bowling alleys,eating at its diner-though the band would prefer to think of the title as a metaphor for just about anything in this country that is'nt as good as it used to be:automobiles,movie stars,even rock music itself."on the album,says Flowers,"you have the sense of hope sometimes,that it could be that good again.And then there are the other times where it feels like you're just saying,'so long,bon voyage."

Wheras Hot fuss was an unbashed homage to seminal British acts like the Smiths and the cure,Sams town would take its cues from the blue-collar bands of the US of A:Bruce Springsteen,of course,but also Tom Waits and,particularly Tom Petty."There was something about his songs,"says Flowers,"that it seemed no matter how bad it got,there was nothing that a cigarette and a saturday night couldn't fix.We're trying to hold on to that idea and rip it back."Of the dozens of fully written songs,fragments,and riffs the killers brought with them into the studio,some,like the anthemic"sams town"and "Bones" a romantic ode to the joys of bumping skeletons with your signigicant other,would survive intact:others,including such live mainstays as "All the pretty faces" and "stereo of lies,"would end up as B-sides or get shelved altogether."We Just feel it out,"says Keuning."We don't trust the audience as much as we trust ourselves."

Just ask Moulder."Believe me,the killers have always got an opinion,"he says."they're not the easiest to please-which is good.It pushes you.'To complete the exercise in mythmaking,the killers reunited with photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijin for Sam's Town portrait session in the desert outside Las Vegas.though Corbijin originally planned, and then rejected,a shoot that would have deliberatly biblical overtones(complete with a burning bush),there was another kind of symbolism at work that he couldnt completely dismiss."There is a danger,I think,of people comparing four guys in a desert to stuff I did 20 years ago,"says Corbijin,referencing the now legendary photograph he shot for the cover of U2's the joshua tree.But he was pleased to see that the killers had retained the facial hair he had encouraged them to cultivate in 2005,when he directed their video for "all these things that ive done" "It's more intelligent look and also quite corageous look,"corbijin says,"it's not the look of a necessarily successful band."

It seems fair to say that the road to sams town won't be paved with the same critical accolades that hot fuss received.Upon the sophmore albums release in October.the new york times wrote that the groups"new bombast is a classic case of a young band,overreaching to assert it's significance.""entertainment weekly channeled the indignation that many publications felt about Flowers name-checking of bruce Springsteen,declaring that "if the killers aren't joking-well,let's just say 'when you were young'isnt quite "Born to run"And even NME,one of the band's earliest booster,seemed to be hedging its bets when,in a largely positive write-up,it noted,"For all their smart new ways the killers are still as flashy,unintentionally funny,and flagrantly affected as ever."

Flowers couldn't have known about all of these reviews at the time of out interview,but he seemed to be aware of a looming darkness at the edge of sam's town,and he was already returning fire at his detractors."they don't know what to do with us,"he says,slipping into the voice of an imaginary,know-nothing rock critic."it reminds of us things that happened in the '70;s when there were real bands that could play music,so they must be ripping them off.There's no way in hell thay could really be doing that.its unbelievable to them because it hasn't happened in a long time,and we're here to say.It's happening.we're cut from the same cloth.God forgive us.It's not our fault."

In this case,"It" does not simply refer to a band like the killers putting out a record as good as Flowers believes sam's town to be:"it' is a band like the killers proclaiming unambiguously that they want to be every bit as successful as any band that came before.And when the killers look at the monolighic rock acts that inspired them-the beatles,led zeppelin,queen,U2-they see artists who achieved what they did because they wanted it even more."They werent afraid to be big,"says Stoermer."they took every opportunity they could to get their music out there.But now it's thought there could never be another one of those anymore.And it's shutting out our generation."

What's holding back the killers and their contemporaries,the group claim,isn't the critics per se,but an institutionalized attitude of seld-defeatism within rock itself,one that has convinced their peers that it's no longer acceptable to strive for lasting significance."The Strokes and the white stripes and the yeah yeah yeahs,these bands are making really great music,"says stoermer."They should be even more known,but for whatever reason,they don't want to go for it."so does that mean that these groups aren't succeding on their own terms? "that's not to say they havent made it-they have,"he says."but if it was a perfect world,I would say those bands should be bigger than they are.Maybe they don't want to be."

You might assume that every aspiring rock musician who's ever strummed an air guitar automatically wants to play on the largest stage he can imagine,but the producers of sams town argue that's not the case."ive woked with bands that have had the opposite attitude,of pretending they don't want to  be big,"says moulder.(he didnt name any names,but look at the list of artists he's woked with previously-smashing pumpkins-and draw your own conclusions)"the killers" way of doing it is a lot healthier,because there's nothing more frustrating than stumbling on something that you thinks going to be great and having somebody try to kill it because they're afraid of it."

If people call them cocky because they wear their ambitions on their ruffled sleeves,the killers can ive with that."they can call us whatever we want,"says keuning."whether we sell only gold or ten-times platinum,we're just trying to be the biggest band in the world that we can be."(for the record,sams town debuted at No.2 it's first week,with 315,000 copies sold.)what they can't understand is why anyone would want to take them down for simply calling attention to how good they are,over and over and over again."the guy that builds your house,you don't want him to build it almost perfect-almost as good as he could,"says Flowers."you want it done right."

After leaving the hotel,the killers (minus keuning,who excuses himself to go to bed) head over to the Mercury lounge,a nearby rock club that does'nt only appear to be small but is,in actuality,small.On a previous after-hours spree,vannucci had been at a bar where the members of Mohair,a british qurtet asked him to attend their set.Now the killers have come to accept the invitation-possibly to pass on some good karma,possibly to bask in the adulation of some unsuspecting fans with a reporter in tow.But at just past midnight on this particular evening,they could be the rolling stones and they would'nt be stopped by a single autograph seeker,because the place is nearly empty.

Mohair are not yet the biggest band in the world that they can be-they dress like the small faces circa ogdens nut gone flake,wear their hair like the who circa Quadrophenia,and sound like the black crowes circa chris robinson's marriage to Kate Hudson.But even if there are no more than 30 people in the room,they play like they were performing to 30,000,strutting and kicking their way through every familiar chord-change and lyrics like"you've fot life written all over your face."Mohair's carreer to this point may disprove the notion that simply wanting to be enormous is enough to rescue you from arduous years spent traveling in a van and lugging your own amps,but then agian,for at least one night they've weilded enough influence to get the killers to their gig.

That's when i go home for the night.But had i stuck around until the bitter end,I could've accompanied Flowers and a few other members of Mohair to yet another bar,where they took the stage with the killers guitar tech and played Elton john,david bowie,and velvet underground covers-an event so epochal that precisely one blog reported it.so mabey there is room for some smallenss in flowers life after all-just because you can't observe interactions between subatomic particles with your naked eye doesnt mean they don't occur,either.

 

 

http://www.thekillersfansite.com