The Killers Aren't Dead Yet
Ahead of 'Wonderful Wonderful,' we talk to Brandon Flowers and Ronnie Vannuci, Jr. about growing up, how there are no good rock bands these days, and, of course, "Mr. Brightside."
Illustration by Meaghan Garvey
The Killers have always been weirder than they've gotten credit for – but even by that measure, their forthcoming fifth studio album Wonderful Wonderful (out 22 September) is pretty fucking weird. The first single from the Jacknife Lee-produced album, "The Man," possesses a glammy and braggadocious swagger only hinted at on the band's third album, 2008's underrated Day & Age; elsewhere, there's sports-footage samples, M83-style synth blowouts, lyrical allusions to "fake news," Toto-esque atmospherics, and a song called "Tyson Vs. Douglas." The album's closing track bears the name "Have All the Songs Been Written?", but it's clear that the Las Vegas pop-rock mainstays are far from out of ideas.
Adding a layer of irony to all of this newness is the second single from Wonderful Wonderful, the pedal-to-the-floor "Run for Cover." It's one of the album's more Killers-y songs, which isn't a surprise when you consider that – unlike the rest of the album, which was written and recorded over the last year and a half – it's almost a decade old. "It needed a different skin," drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. tells me as he and frontman Brandon Flowers guzzle water in a conference room nestled within VICE's Brooklyn office. "Jacknife said, 'It's gotta sound almost like you're a new band – it shouldn't be overcooked, and it can't be too clean.' The other version we had was decorated the wrong way."
A studio vet who's helmed records by a variety of rock luminaries from R.E.M. and U2 to Weezer and the Cars, Lee provided creative behind-the-boards insight for a band who still scoffs at the notion that they're studio nerds. "He wanted to make a rock 'n' roll record, but he also knew we had to do something different to stay relevant," Vannucci claims. "He was big on quality control. We went up to his house to sort of talk turkey with him, and he said a lot of great things that made us believe that he was of a very similar mindset. He also knew that something different had to happen – and so did we."
Noisey: It's been five years since your last album. What took you guys so long?
Brandon Flowers: Our bass player and our guitar player – touring isn't their favourite thing. After we go on tour for a year and a half, they want to take long breaks. That's where the solo albums came in. Then, once we got back together, making a new record ended up taking us longer than anticipated. [Laughs]
Were there any unique struggles you faced as a band while making this record?
Ronnie Vannucci, Jr.: Hm. [Pauses] Yes. [Laughs] There were unique struggles, for sure. It just comes down to taking care of your band, you know? Realising that not everybody operates on the same schedule anymore? We're all older. [Gestures towards Brandon] He's got three kids. People develop their own orbit, priorities change.
Also, there was so much self-imposed pressure of like trying to figure out what skin these songs were going to wear. The demos were good, but we needed to figure out a way for them to sort of become themselves – and that takes a lot of flexing. Sometimes, you get lucky and a song will happen quickly, and sometimes you have to re-do a song five or six times to get it where it should be. You have to get surgical with it.
You guys worked with M83's Anthony Gonzalez previously, and I can hear a little bit of his influence on this album.
Yeah. His music embodies teenage nostalgia. What was the music of your youth?
1987 was a big year for me. It was the first time I really started digging into music. License to Ill came out in 1985, the Smiths were still a band, the Cure had just come out with Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, and my first tape was Head on the Door. I remember watching the claymation video for Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," and Genesis was still going on. There was a lot of great music. My dad always listened to music super loud, so we always had music on – he was always listening to Kiss.
Flowers: I got into music around 1994. I was 12 or 13, and I got a lot of my brother's music handed down to me – the Smiths, New Order, stuff that I just gravitated towards. One of the bands that had a big impact on me that we've never been able to really promote was Oingo Boingo. I loved Oingo Boingo. It was all I listened to. I was thinking about that today – how nobody associates us with them. It's always, like, U2, Psychedelic Furs, Bruce Springsteen – but Oingo Boingo had a big impact on me.
You were one of the last bands in recent memory that gained popularity through increased airplay on MTV and MTV 2. That's not really a possibility anymore.
Vannucci, Jr.: Almost everybody has a phone now, and there's some sort of music or app on their phone. I have a few of them on my phone. Satellite and terrestrial radio are still knockin' around.
Flowers: [ Sighs] I don't know. We play our kids music, my parents played me music, y'know what i mean? That's still going to happen. You still gotta go with the flow a little bit. Of course, we romanticise going to record stores and those kind of things, and it's kinda sad that they're gone, but I think you can still be exposed to it, and if you're a good parent [Laughs] you can teach your kids.Some of my favourite memories in life were going to rent movies with my dad and getting a Coke. It's crazy that that's not gonna exist for me and my kids. It was fun sneakin' a peek at the room that you weren't allowed to go in – the adult section. [Laughs] Remember that?
Vannucci, Jr.: The saloon doors! Ooh, what's in there?
They were a barrier to access that, when it comes to pop culture in general, really doesn't exist anymore.
Vannucci, Jr.: Hopefully will never change is that humans will continue to talk about music – "You hear about the new blah blah blah record? Let me send you a link." You can still make mixtapes. Spotify has the playlist thing. [Gestures towards Brandon] I've sent him a playlist of songs.
Flowers: Love songs. [Laughs]
Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me in the Bathroom highlighted how the Killers were one of the last bands to gain recognition and success through, largely, word-of-mouth. Do you think a band like yours could gain similar traction in the present day?
Flowers: It could happen – but there hasn't been anybody good enough. If there was a band like the Strokes, or Interpol, people would talk. [Points outside to Brooklyn] If there were some kids out there right now playing "Obstacle 1" tonight, I would hear about it, you would hear about it.
But there isn't.
Vannucci, Jr.: People are very quick to blame a changing of the times for a lot of things, when it's really that they're just not good enough yet.
The incubation period for smaller-scale bands, before they get press attention, is a lot shorter now as well.
Flowers: A lot of us in that scene were fully realised on our first record. In the 80s and 90s, people had time to grow, and that is definitely not going to be allowed anymore. Look at us, the Strokes, White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand – even Razorlight, Kaiser Chiefs, all that stuff. Kings of Leon. The songs were strong on those first albums. Usually it takes people three or four records to get there.
How do you feel you've grown as a band?
Vannucci, Jr.: I think we're better listeners. [Laughs]
Flowers: The old analogy is that it's like marriage, and there's a lot of truth to that. We're totally dysfunctional, we have our problems, but we've done something that we're proud of, and we've lasted longer than most bands.
Brandon, you're a father. Ronnie, are you a father?
Vannucci, Jr.: No, not yet. I'm sure I have kids somewhere. [Laughs]
Brandon, how has fatherhood affected you?
Flowers: I see how different my kids' personalities are, and that's made me more compassionate towards my band and people that I meet. I used to be pretty judgmental, but now I realize we're born how we're going to be.
"Mr. Brightside" hasn't really left the UK charts since it came out. Why do you think that song's endured?
Vannucci, Jr.: We lost ownership of the song a long time ago. We're just as baffled as you guys are. It's not us doing that work now, y'know? We did it 15 years ago.
It's almost become public domain, at this point. It has a life of its own.
Vannucci, Jr.: There's "Happy Birthday," and then there's "Mr. Brightside." [Laughs]
Larry Fitzmaurice is a senior culture editor for VICE Digital. Follow him on Twitter.