It’s only 3pm, but already the crowd outside Brixton Academy is swelling. They’re here not just to grab a spot at the front of the queue for tonight’s gig, but to hopefully meet their heroes as well. People congregate around the stage door, on the corner of Astoria Walk, and three black people carriers with tinted windows pull up. Two speed away (to the other side of the building) without dropping anyone off, and a few people shuffle out of the third. They are not The Killers. Eventually a burly security guard emerges to announce that the band are in the building, and will not be coming out to sign autographs. With a collective drooping of the shoulders, everyone shuffles off back to the queue, disappointment etched on almost every face.
Such scenes are a testament to the band’s enduring appeal and their status as one of the world’s biggest bands. It’s been five years since they last had any new material of note yet tonight’s show, taking place nearly two weeks before the release of Wonderful Wonderful, sold out in minutes. It’s also only a warm-up, one of a few concerts and guest appearances scheduled around the world to ease into the new material ahead of a full UK arena tour later this year – also sold out – and 18 months of globetrotting. Not many bands kick off an album campaign by playing a hit-laden hour-and-a-half complete with confetti cannons and pyrotechnics to 5,000 people, but then not many bands are The Killers.
Brandon Flowers nearly didn’t make it though. He’s nursing a bruised and grazed shoulder, the result of a bike accident just a few days previous. “So I was out cycling with my kids, and my six-year-old is all cautious. I kept telling him: ‘C’mon, stop it, stop hitting your brakes. This is freedom for a kid!’ Giving him the whole pep talk, you know? So I went to catch up to my ten-year-old, and I was going as fast as I could, and he stopped right in the middle of the road. To avoid hitting him I panicked, hit the wrong brake, and went right over [the handlesbars]. The six-year-old caught up to us, and I’m lying on the ground, and he goes: ‘See?’” The punchline is delivered with impeccable comic timing, sending himself and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. into a fit of giggles.
It’s a sweet moment between two friends clearly elated to be back on the road together again. The pair are an interesting study in contrasts. Vannucci strides into the dressing room in boots and double denim, all wild hair and scruffy beard, looking every inch the rock and roll drummer. Flowers follows, radiating Hollywood good looks and health, hair immaculately sculpted. Their portrayal in the press has long followed a standard script; Vannucci is the mischievous, self-deprecating goofball to Flowers’ serious, teetotal Mormon and dedicated family man. In person though, both are warm and engaging, Flowers in particular possessed of an “aw shucks” sensibility and infallible politeness. They bat answers back and forth and ask each other rhetorical questions, their excitement at The Killers finally cranking back into gear palpable.
Wonderful Wonderful lands at an interesting juncture in the band’s career. Five years is a long break, and while Flowers and Vannucci busied themselves with side projects, both have expressed frustration at the increasing length of downtime between Killers albums. “We need to fucking figure out a way to be better,” Vannucci told me two years ago. “There’s a lot of ground to be covered.” There was also a sense that the band had started to drift; both Day And Age and Battle Born lacked the cohesion and focus that made their early work so compelling, the latter in particular a somewhat weary album that Flowers recently admitted was “a little aimless”. Their greatest hits collection Direct Hits, released in 2013 as a contractual obligation, seemed like a convenient way to sate fans while they worked out precisely what to do next.
It’s also their fifth album, the point at which bands should be at the peak of their powers and cementing their legacy. Bowie’s fifth was Ziggy Stardust, U2’s was The Joshua Tree, while The Smiths, musical heroes of Flowers in particular, didn’t even make it that far. Did such notions weight on their mind when they finally reconvened in Las Vegas in early 2016? “We don’t ever think like that, but we did have some self-imposed pressure,” says Vannucci. “You just kind of feel it, like: ‘Shit, we’ve got to do something, and it’s got to be good.’”
“Every band has a different arc,” adds Flowers. “If you look at Springsteen then you’d want to look at his third album. With Depeche Mode, how many in was Violator? Six or seven? None of those bands had an album as massive, or as pivotal, as our first album was, so we’re on some weird and different trajectory right away and I’m proud of how we’ve handled it. There have only been a few bands that have come out of the gates with a record like that, whether they meant to or not. We didn’t become casualties of it, we persevered, and we’ve done our best to grow over the years. I think we are in a good spot.”
Ah yes. Hot Fuss. The album of demos they refused to re-record that became a sensation, shifting over seven million copies worldwide. To date, first single ‘Mr Brightside’ has never been outside the UK Top 100 Singles Chart, a quite staggering statistic, and remains a staple of indie discos and 1am house party sing-alongs. Its continued popularity, alongside the equally anthemic totems ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’, ‘Somebody Told Me’, and ‘Smile Like You Mean It’ explains both the hordes of autograph-hunting fans and their dismissal in certain circles as camp poseurs representative of the mid-aughts taste for style over substance.
The rocket ride it sent them on bonded the four as a tight-knit band of brothers while exposing them to the dangers of hype and rock and roll excess. “We were smart enough to know that drugs will kill you; literally!” jokes Vannucci. Lizzy Goodman’s new book, Meet Me In The Bathroom, revealed The Strokes’ jealousy of the Las Vegans’ success, and how they thought their songs were better. But while Julian Casablancas and co. never managed to escape the cultural weight of Is This It?, spending fifteen years tying themselves up in knots trying, The Killers were saved by heading for the desert and leaving the neon and makeup behind.
But as Flowers tells it, not making Hotter Fuss was a happy accident. “It was not intentional at the time, but the 180 of Sam’s Town was really smart. We talk about it now, but we genuinely didn’t think or recognise how different it was. We looked like a different band, and the songs and subject matter changed. I think we owe a lot of our longevity to what we did with Sam’s Town; people wondered what the hell was going on, and it gave us room to go to new places.”
Vannucci agrees. “I don’t think we realised how brave we were being, and how having realised you can be brave, how you can do stuff that people aren’t expecting. We’ve done that to an extent on every record, so we’ve maybe had a little more license than the next band to mess with things a little.”
Unsurprisingly for a band so established as arena-slaying behemoths, they lack some of their peers’ sniffy attitude to the hits that got them started. Anything to keep the juggernaut on the road, right? “You have to realise that people are taking time out of their lives to come to this event; it costs them money, people are finding babysitters, and for some people, it's their first gig,” says Flowers. “It would be silly not to offer them what they want; it’s arrogant, and it’s rude. If I go see Tom Petty, I want to hear ‘American Girl’, I want to hear ‘Freefall’. If it’s Radiohead I want to hear ‘Karma Police’and ‘Creep’. You do need to satisfy yourself, and there are things we want to do, but you have to be aware.”
And so to the album they hope will restore some sheen to their reputation and put them back on top of the pile. The hip-thrusting, Bowie-esque swagger of lead single ‘The Man’ was a bold return, but the rest of Wonderful Wonderful represents The Killers most personal, heartfelt music yet. Lyrically inspired by “what was going on in my life, and at home with my wife Tana”, it’s Flowers attempt to take stock, and to process Tana’s struggles with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. An arch, accomplished storyteller, Flowers found writing autobiographically a struggle, a slump that added to his feelings of helplessness. Salvation arrived in the unlikely form of a conversation with Bono; detailing his songwriting woes, Flowers asked: “Have all the songs been written?” “That’s a hell of a title,” Bono replied, the spark eventually leading to the album’s closing ballad.
There’s plenty of heavy symbolism too, something they’ve shied away from in the past. Take the album cover, a seashell held aloft in a desert. It mirrors the opening blasts of the title track, which sound remarkably like a conch being blown. “Serendipitous,” claims Flowers when I ask about this. “But it feels sort of primal. Also the idea of hearing the ocean, when you put your ear to the conch… it’s a symbol of faith and hope, in a time of drought.” Then there’s ‘Tyson vs Douglas’, an exploration of fallen heroes and coming to terms with a world that’s far crueler than you’ve been led to believe that was inspired by watching the famous fight as a child alongside his father.
The sombre mood extends to the music. Gone are the shimmering neon anthems, indie-goes-samba forays, and wild sax solos. Flowers has also dialed back what Pitchfork called his BruceSpringsteen_ebooks moments, and while the odd clunky phrase still rears up occasionally – “You’ve got the soul of a truck / On a long distance haul” – he does a pretty good job of navigating the choppy waters between endearing and schmaltz. The first song he wrote for his wife, ‘Some Kind Of Love’, is also the heaviest; getting his kids to sing “Can’t do this alone / We need you at home” over the coda is both achingly beautiful and heart-wrenchingly sad.
Old habits die hard though, and this being The Killers, there are still a few dramatic flourishes. Mark Knopfler pours his Strat all over ‘Have All The Things Been Written?’ while Woody Harrelson – now a close friend of Flowers – turns up to recite the Gospel of Matthew on ‘The Calling’. When it comes to musical inspiration and deciding on the tone, Flowers says there “wasn’t a band roundtable discussion that we were all in or anything like that. There wasn’t a touchstone [musically], we just wanted to grow.” So there are no band discussions about this stuff at all?
“We’ve always had a startup time of getting in a room together and figuring out how it’s going to go, but we don’t sit down and talk about how we are going to do it,” says Vannucci. He admits that such an approach can be time-consuming, which goes some way to explain the long gaps between records. “It took a while to get to the good part; it was probably the better part of a year before we started to feel comfortable about what we were coming up with.”
Musical diversity, and the range of styles they’ve employed over the years – country, polished pop, dusty desert rock, new wave calypso – are another of their calling cards. Take the first three songs released from Wonderful Wonderful, ‘The Man’, ‘Run For Cover’, and the title track; remove Flowers’ voice, and you might not think they were all the work of the same band. Flowers thinks this gives the band their strength, and besides, it’s just what he knows.
“There is just so much good music. To commit to one thing, that’s admirable for some people but it just isn’t our bag. I heard my dad listen to what he called ‘Country and Western’ and then I fell in love with my brother's alternative music from the eighties and bands from Manchester. Then you hear Tom Waits at 19 years old, and you need to reconcile all these things. I never thought: ‘Oh, I just need to choose one.’ We all have different influences and different talents, you hear it being brought to these songs, and we just chase it instead of deciding we are this or that.”
It would have been fascinating to ask bassist Mark Stoermer and guitarist Dave Keuning about all this, but the elephant in the room is that neither is here. Nor will they be for the foreseeable future. While Stoermer has long since limited his touring duties, dropping out of the Asian leg of the Battle Born world tour and not doing much around Direct Hits, news of Keuning’s withdrawal came as something of a shock, to the rest of the band as much as fans. Controversially, the announcement came after they’d sold hundreds of thousands of tickets, a move that some lambasted as clumsy, others as downright cynical.
Officially, both remain “very much part of the band”. Keuning wants to stay at home in San Diego and raise his son. Stoermer is protecting a bad back and going back to school; he begins a BA in Art History at New York University in a few weeks. Privately, I’d been told that Flowers was feeling the strain, and how Keuning’s bombshell was less than ideal preparation for such a pivotal few months, but he’s adamant the press has made it seem a much bigger problem than it actually is. The Killers are resolutely not a duo.
“Mark was not going to tour on this record; we knew that. He’s still all over the record though and his best stuff, for me, since Hot Fuss is on this record. So it doesn’t feel like that.” Vannucci adds that “trying to keep everybody in the car is a hard thing to do,” but that both are sympathetic to their bandmates’ reasoning. Getting old and rock and roll are just hard things to reconcile it seems. “Some of us have graduated into different versions of ourselves, and we have different priorities. People have different needs and wants, comfort levels and shit, and if they don’t have to be bothered with anything, they won’t be bothered with anything. You have to work with that.”
Above all, they’re prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the band rolling forward, even if Flowers concedes that: “I don’t know if anyone has done this exactly. They may have replaced members but…” He looks pensive for a moment. I genuinely can’t think of a similar situation I say. Is it going to work? “Yeah, I guess we’re going to find out.”
Besides, says Vannucci: “At least we’re not bringing in people that we haven’t seen before. Ted [Sabley] has been with us since Sam’s Town - he’s just moving a few feet forward – and Snake [Jake Blanton] has been with us for five years, so it doesn’t feel too weird for us. It’s a challenge getting the intricacies right because we want to basically replicate what people are expecting to hear.”
Live, they certainly don’t skip a beat. The show is as polished as you would expect, Flowers the consummate showman who looks completely at ease in the spotlight. The band seem genuinely energized; Vannucci pummels his drums and Flowers dances across the stage, posing on top of the monitors and teasing the crowd. We get several new songs, and a few treats; their Joy Division cover ‘Shadowplay’ gets an airing, as does ‘Andy You’re A Star’, a song they claim not to have played live “in about 11 years”. The hits resonate hard, boisterously sung back to them by the audience, and it feels like they’ve never been away.
And then there’s a moment that’s pure Killers. Returning for the encore, Vannucci stalks on stage alone and ambles up to the mic. “Please welcome a good friend of ours, the illustrious, praiseworthy Dr Woody Harrelson”. Yes, the film star is here, recreating the intro for ‘The Calling’ and staying to dance around in the background. They close with ‘When You Were Young’, the stage showered in sparks and blinding lights, a fitting end to a rousing show they hope will catapult the band back across the world and into their third age. If tonight is any indication, you wouldn’t bet against their success.
I ask Flowers about one of his most famous – and profound – lyrics; “I’m so much older than I can take”. He wrote that when he was 21. He’s now 36, the superstar, millionaire singer who lives in Andre Agassi’s old house and composes on a piano that was a gift from Sir Elton John. What does that line mean to him now?
“I was already pretty aware of how fast time was going, and I’m even more aware of it now; it just keeps going, and there is no stopping it obviously. I feel a hunger to experience life; there’s so much that we haven’t done and seen yet. Those kind of thoughts were just starting to knock on my door, and it’s almost something that haunts me now. It’s scary how fast it goes, and I don’t want to miss it.”
And with that he’s gone, out the door for more interviews, more shows, the never-ending whirlwind of the life as the singer of “the best band in the last long time!” “I feel strong! I like doing this,” he adds. Seems like Flowers, and The Killers, are just getting started.
Wonderful Wonderful is out now via Virgin EMI. For more information about the band, including upcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Rob Loud