Ten Years Later, The Killers' 'Sam's Town' Has Aged Better Than America Itself
We join the band in Vegas to celebrate, reflect, and party on. Plus we find out what's up with their forthcoming LP.
As my toothless cab driver battles the winds along Flamingo Road, she tells me she first visited Las Vegas in 1968. "I'm an old broad," she cackles. Time is not your friend in Las Vegas. That might be why it's so difficult to know the time here, the casinos are famously—and intentionally—lacking in clocks or windows. The passing of time is not something Vegas chooses to encourage. Nobody is supposed to age, nobody is supposed to remember. There is no trip down memory lane because what happens in Vegas… you know how that one goes. The sun is either up or it's down, and if you're inside Caesars Palace staring at the ceiling, the sky is always cloudy with a light chance of rain.
The Killers' second album Sam's Town, named after Sam's Town Casino & Gambling Hall, focused on themes from faded glamour, the perils of ageing, and learning to face life's consequences. "Whaddya wanna go all the way to Sam's Town for?" says the cab driver through her smoker's cough, driving nearly a dozen miles off the Strip towards swampland. When Sam's Town was released 10 years ago today on October 3, 2006, it was named after the place frontman Brandon Flowers used to live across the street from. The album wasn't recorded there, it was recorded in the studio at the bottom of the sexy Palm's hotel, closer to the Strip (yes, there's a studio in the hotel's bowels). Sam's Town is not sexy: It's country & western style, with swinging saloon bars, an old bowling alley, and a big bust of a man called Sam Boyd in the lobby. In the atrium is a forest of foliage and a show that plays on the hour, featuring a waterfall, an animatronic bear, and a bald-headed eagle. Upstairs the slots are exclusively pre-occupied by the blue rinse brigade. It does an excellent New England Clam Chowder, according to the cab driver. "Oh The Killers! The Killers!" she says. "Yeah they're actually a Vegas band, you know that?"
All photos by Rob Loud.
The notion of being an internationally lauded band is at odds with Vegas. Mainly because anything remotely entertainment-driven is chained to the Strip. Vegas is no cushion for those who want to export themselves. For one weekend only, the sign as you come into Sam's Town Casino is dedicated to The Killers, who Brandon will later recall were then touted as the "The best British band to ever come from America." On an old-school flashing bulb billboard are the words "HAPPY ANNIVERSARY! WELCOME THE KILLERS. DECENNIAL EXTRAVAGANZA!" The idea of a band is so antithetic to Vegas because bands are about investment, not luck. They can be about luck for a few singles, and then it becomes harder. The Killers didn't half make a rod for their own back when they released their debut Hot Fuss in 2004, announcing themselves as new wave-loving Anglophiles via a record that plays like most bands' Greatest Hits.
Back then Brandon was 24, the youngest and sveltest of four indie disco-saving musketeers, made up of Ronnie Vannucci Jr. (drums), Mark Stoermer (bass), and Dave Keuning (guitar). People wondered if they could rival The Strokes. Now they wonder if they can match U2. Sam's Town is perhaps the reason for that. It revealed a surprisingly shackles-free ambition, a reclamation of Yankee Doodle Dandy identity. Hot Fuss Mk II would have been an easier sell, particularly for the critics (Rolling Stone famously gave it two stars). And yet, the quartet made Sam's Town, a big ol' American rock record. They changed their outfits, were photographed by Anton Corbijn, then toured a modern day American classic all over the world during the Bush administration. "We were going to different countries every week, we loved it. But it made me want to take a look at myself," says Brandon later tonight. "I discovered my roots were deeper than I'd expected."
The sign for Sam's Town may as well be completely altered to read The Killers Hotel this weekend. On Friday September 30 and Saturday October 1, the place commemorates four hometown boys. The cinema shows films hand-picked by them (Pretty In Pink and Shawshank Redemption included). The casinos blare their hits. There's a Killers merch shop, with a ram set-up under a neon The Killers sign. The ram is on loan from the Nevada State Museum. Killers cocktails are on offer, named Bling, Read My Mind, and Uncle Jonny. Despite the cocaine-fueled antics documented in that last track, it's strictly bourbon and OJ.
In the hallways are hoards of Killers fans, here to enjoy VIP packages between bouts on the slot machines. The top tier includes a daytime bus tour of The Killers' Vegas, a signed re-released copy of Sam's Town, a pool-side acoustic set around dinner time, then tickets to the live show proper: Sam's Town played in the main hall front-to-back for the first time ever. All profits are going to two local charities for homelessness and addiction recovery. Backstage in the dressing room Ronnie describes it as "a hometown high five."
"It started out with, 'We should play the parking lot of Sam's Town!'" laughs Ronnie. "Then the dream exploded into more nonsense." Strutting down the hall with Brandon by his side, Ronnie, the beating joking heart of the band, is doing some vocal exercises. "Chyyyyna! Chiiiiina! Meus-lim, MOOOSLIM. Chi-na!" He's been digging through his old closet for this occasion. I notice the cowboy-y feather in his lapel. "This is the jacket from the 'Bones' video," he smiles, breaking free from the rest of the group. "We were just in there saying, 'Fuuuuuuck. Has it been 10 years?' And Mark came in and went, 'Yeah we're getting fucking old.'" Sam's Town itself is almost as old as Ronnie. "I'm 40 now," he says. "This place has been here forever. It still smells like horseshit. That could just be my upper lip, though."
Sam's Town came during a time when America seemed as ridiculous as the band's newly grown moustaches. It's strange revisiting that album now as America, outwardly, looks pretty cartoonish all over again. The band have spoken before about how alien they felt in Europe at the time. "We felt very away from home, and very American. Hot Fuss wasn't an overnight success," explains Ronnie. "The first year we toured it we were cutting our teeth. I don't think we made more than $110 a gig. And then we got one gig for $15,000 and thought, 'Yes! Now we can pay off our van!'" He agrees that it's a worrying time to be American again. "I don't know if it's just me getting older but everything in the world feels like it's moving so fast. We haven't caught up to ourselves yet. This week I felt like I was watching a ninth grade debate team." He is of course referring to the first debate night between Trump and Clinton last Monday. "We've lost our class, my gosh. I know there's some heavy shit to deal with but let's get some classy people back in, man."
In retrospect, Sam's Town is my favorite Killers album because it's rabid, preposterous in its sequencing and contains their best song, "Read My Mind." "I think it might be ours too," he says. "It was the bravest record we've done. We were stretchin' our musical muscles, playing every day, writing songs at soundcheck." Half of Sam's Town was soundcheck songs, including "This River Is Wild," "Why Do I Keep Counting?" and "When You Were Young." "In our minds we weren't trying to be all beardy and cowboy-y. We were fucking beardy because we were in the studio 14 hours a day writing songs and not coming up for air." After they became international glam superstars, The Killers came off the road and debunked to Vegas. Together with British producers Flood and Alan Moulder they made all the magic happen in the Palms. "We probably had the most fun making that record, yeah," he smirks.
I've heard rumors about those sessions but in the spirit of keeping things classy we can leave it to our imagination. Making a record in a casino in Vegas for three months—three months—would lead to fuzzy memories regardless. "We were like kids in a candy store," says Ronnie. "We'd never used a real recording studio. Flood and Alan—they lived at the hotel, ha! Two floors below us was a soft serve ice cream machine, a fucking buffet, slot machines, and tits and ass everywhere. We had everything at our beckon call. What a mental fucking record."
Despite the never-ending ice cream servings, it's a heavy listen: all forlornness, death, and taxes. "There was crazy shit going on in our lives, I'm telling you. In those two years we grew up fast. Nobody talks about that. As long as you're not high there's a tremendous education to be had from traveling overseas for the first time, dealing with business, learning about the two sides to everybody's faces. If you've got your head about ya, you learn a lot. I learned a shitload. We all did. It stands to reason that it came out in the words."
Suddenly figure busts through the door. "Get out of my dressing room! I need to get dressed," says Brandon, nimble on his feet like a lightweight champion. "How's it going? Doing good? I'm excited." Ronnie gives him a hug. "Fuck yeah, he's excited," says Ronnie. "Hey gurl, do you need any socks or underwear? We got lots o' socks back here…"
As the scorching Nevada daylight turns to dangerous dusk, there's a private party going on at the swimming pool. A meat-headed DJ blasts hard house versions of The Eagles' "Hotel California" spliced with other airhorn migraine music. The crowd are relieved to see their heroes moving towards the stage to perform a two-song acoustic set ("Smile Like You Mean It" and "Change Your Mind" from Hot Fuss). In the crowd is singer-songwriter Felice LaZae, the woman who was photographed as a bikini-clad pageant queen on the cover of Sam's Town. She's here to take the stage later and is feeling sentimental. When The Killers were recording at the Palms she was a newly graduated studio engineer, and wound up spending a lot of time hanging with the band after-hours. "We'd go to shows in Vegas together after sessions: Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. We became friends."
When they were readying the record, the band's product manager called Felice and asked her if she'd like to drive out to the desert with Anton Corbijn to be shot for the artwork. "They asked me if I'd be OK being shot in a bikini, and I trusted them. And then they told me it was the cover a month later!" A lot has happened in her 10 years—the experience led her to kickstart her own musical project. Catching up with Brandon here she said he told her it feels like it's been two years since Sam's Town came out.
He certainly performs like it's been two years. The main show itself is 105 minutes of jubilation, confetti canons, and suited-and-booted Killers panache. "We're here to celebrate," says Brandon, raising the roof via two encores, featuring "Human," "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," "Mr Brightside," and a rarely played "Under the Gun." Sam's Town in full does, as Ronnie told me earlier, move "like a film." From the opening gambit of "We hope you enjoy your stay, it's good to have you with us even if it's just for the day," to the visual lyrics of "I see London! I see Sam's Town!" it's possessed of all the madness and confusion of a band who had bitten off way more than they could chew. In a 2006 interview with Blender, Brandon pre-empted its release: "People think it's pretentious, but I looked at [Born To Run] and I looked at Hunky Dory, and Springsteen and Bowie were 24 when they made them. I was like, 'I've got to up the ante.'"
It's a bombastic aplomb they've since grown into. But backstage afterwards I wonder what Brandon makes of that statement and other similar assertions now. "I also said it was 'one of the best records of the past 20 years' before the thing was even out." He did. "I'll let you in on a little secret," he says. "Every band knows in their little heart of hearts that their record is the greatest sound to grace the earth since God uttered that luminescent phrase 'Let there be light.' I was just dumb enough in 2006 to share that information with music journalists."
Brandon still relates to the lyrics. It's odd to think he wrote "For Reasons Unknown" ("And my lips, they don't kiss / They don't kiss the way they used to") at such a gung-ho age. "I relate to them with a lot more life experience now!" he says. "Some of the songs take on new meaning." His favorite track from tonight is "Read My Mind." "That's probably my favorite Killers track, period. There's an earnestness to it that you don't hear on the radio at the moment. I was at a pivotal moment in my life: 24 years old, stepping up to the 21st Century. You get to pick and choose what lessons you're going to take with you from your upbringing as you enter into adulthood. Getting that struggle on record was a victory for me."
Watching "Why Do I Keep Counting?" back, with its mid-air cry to "Help me get down / I can make it help me get down," I wonder if Brandon still has that fear of flying he used to speak about. "Not so much," he cracks a smile. "With a little therapy anything is possible."
It's always a friends and family affair backstage with The Killers. Ronnie Vannucci's dad—Ronnie Vannucci—is milling around. Alan Moulder is catching up with crew and band. Everything went down a treat, a relief considering they hadn't played half the record for an age. Of course, they've been practicing it in recent weeks, taking a break from regular Killers duties. Listening back to that record has given them some old tricks to meander over while they work on their fifth album, which they've been writing for a year and have mostly penned. Ronnie reassures that the songs still have room to "evolve." He says they've brought a whole bunch of toys into the studio: timpani, marimba, glockenspiels, a Chinese ehru.
"We didn't use a lot of click tracks, or editing or anything back when we were making Sam's Town," says Ronnie. "It was just dudes in a room." Nowadays the four of them can make a record from the four corners of the earth and never cross paths should they choose. "There are lots of ideas and theories from Sam's Town that I can see finding their way back in," he adds. "We're going to subconsciously soak in some of that old way we used to do it. The old vibe." They recently did a week in the studio with producer Jacknife Lee [U2, R.E.M., Bat For Lashes]. "I think I'm giving you the exclusive. He's cool. We're just kinda dating him right now. All four of us. Who's a better kisser, Jacknife? So far so good. I love him."
Even if there were more lurid Vegas tales to divulge here I couldn't tell you them. Time has already forgotten, which is a pretentious way of saying that I had too many beverages, too little of the England Clam Chowder, and puked in the band's dressing room. For reasons unknown, my liver it don't drink the way it used to.
Even when you try your damnedest to defy it, out-manoeuvring Vegas is like running backwards on a moving travelator: Eventually you succumb to its wicked monster. The Killers never did though. Earlier Ronnie said he is averse to quintessential Vegas. "Vegas is this weird dichotomy of suburbia and excess, but on the outskirts it's beautiful. You can get in my car—Truck Norris—and I can drive you 45 minutes out to where I'm building my new little cabin in the woods. You'll feel like you're in the Pacific Northwest or Yosemite or something. I swear I don't even know how to gamble." Funny that. Most people leave this "two horse town" high and dry. The Killers have stuck around, coffers full.
Sam's Town Vinyl Re-Issue and Unreleased Sam's Town Era Demo "Peace of Mind" Available on October 7th
Eve Barlow agrees with Ronnie. We could all definitely use a little more class. Follow her on Twitter.