The Big Read – The Killers: The Road To Glastonbury Redemption

In 2007, The Killers' first Glastonbury headline set was a bit of a disaster. Over a decade later, the band returns to right a few wrongs with a Saturday night headline slot. Mark Beaumont speaks to Brandon Flowers and Ronnie Vanucci Jr. about how their 2017 surprise show and new album sessions have them raring to go.

The crowd stretches away up the hill to the farmhouse, roaring like a jet plane and teeming with flags and passion. The lights come up on your stage full of exotic flowers and Vegas illuminations; you slick down your moustache, pull on your most sparkling showman blazer and step out to play the biggest gig of your life.

“Glastonbury, we’re all yours!” you declare with a florid bow and, with a flick of the wrist, fireworks explode into the Somerset skies to the opening synth fanfares of ‘Sam’s Town’. And Glastonbury gladly presents itself to you in return.

But as you hit your first keyboard chords, a glance of confusion into the wings. Something’s not quite right. For all the jubilation down front, it’s not hitting you in the gut like it should.

“I can tell,” Brandon says today, recalling the distinct lack of volume bouncing back at him from the hillside of Worthy Farm, June 2007. “I can tell when I’m onstage. I’m one of the few people that are still using monitors, I don’t use in-ear, so I can tell, I can feel it physically and I can tell when it’s not the volume it should be, because I really thrive on it.”

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Unbeknownst to The Killers, their first Glastonbury headline set – the career landmark that acts as a coronation party to rock’s top league – was in the process of being marred by red tape. Fresh restrictions on sound levels at the festival’s perimeter had a massive fight with The Killers maximalist sizzle rock. The Killers lost.

No matter how much energy, emotion and pizzazz Brandon Flowers and his band of Vegas heroes pumped out of the stage, beyond the first few hundred yards they could do nothing but underwhelm. The Killers’ triumphant moment of arrival instead went down in history as a great missed opportunity, like Blur at Hyde Park or The Strokes at All Points East.

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“I remember there was some kind of restriction on the sound and the dB levels, things like that,” Brandon says. “And there were problems with the PA. I remember being frustrated to get to that point and have these unforeseen things put a cloud over the experience. We thought we were pretty good, I’m sure there were some good moments.”

“I don’t know what it was like out front,” adds Ronnie Vannucci Jr, powerhouse drummer of legend and arguably the Norse god of facial hair. “That festival does such a good thing for charity, but they can end up falling short in a lot of the practical areas and fundamental festival set-up and production. Shit like that happens though.”

Has it niggled you over the years?

“It was just a ‘you can’t win ‘em all’ sort of feeling,” Brandon admits. “I’ve always wanted to go back. We’ve played probably 600 shows since then and we’re feeling really strong, I feel like we’re ready.”

“We always feel like we can do better,” says Ronnie. “It sucks, we can’t really enjoy anything because we’re always thinking about redeeming ourselves for one little fuck up that’s stayed with us.”

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Tomorrow night, The Killers storm Worthy Farm once more, on a mission to set history right. Though only half of the band from 2007 will make it – bassist Mark Stoermer and guitarist Dave Kuening having at least semi-retired from touring with the band – there’s a confidence and determination to this righteous return, a battle-born band back on the road to Glastonbury redemption.

“I think about it a lot,” Brandon says. “We weren’t sure about doing it between album cycles, but as soon as you commit to something like that, you carry it with you, until it’s finished. It feels like the right time. Glastonbury is part of the fabric in the UK, we’re aware of it. It’s like Christmas. We take it seriously but not too seriously. We’re gonna bring our best selves.”

The Killers deserve their Glastonbury glory; for all their feather-shouldered sophistication, they’ve always been welcomed here like mud cousins from across the water. When they first arrived here in 2004, this writer escorted Brandon and Mark, in wellies for the first time in their lives and aghast at the extent of the swill, to what was then the Lost Vagueness area (now Shangri-La). A vast crowd – easily the size of the supporter rallies Trump imagined he saw in the UK – descended on the John Peel tent for their mid-afternoon slot, hyped on ‘Mr Brightside’ and hungry for Vegas dazzle.

“Glastonbury’s not as much a part of the fabric in America as it is in the UK but I was aware of it,” Brandon says. “I remember seeing pictures of an aerial view of Glastonbury and hearing about the mythology of it all. It was on my radar and it was exciting to be part of it.”

“Of course we’d heard the folklore on our side in the States about how great this place was,” agrees Ronnie, “and it was totally exciting and crazy, a real notch, a real moment.”

“When we first went, a switch had been flipped recently with the band,” he continues. “We’d come over and supported British Sea Power and started paying our due, but we hadn’t felt it yet. When we played our first Glastonbury we felt like something’s happening, something had changed. There was a real momentum. It was everything you wanted it to be. People were on shoulders, people are sweaty and muddy and soaked and singing along. I don’t think I was prepared for it.”

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After playing cramped, low-ceilinged venues, the sheer scale of the festival – not to mention the chaos that comes with it – was disorientating. “It was weird for us, so different from anything we’d ever seen before,” Ronnie says. “We were just coming off of playing bars! It was a strange venue but people coming to enjoy music and be out in nature, it’s a great vibe. We went and saw some bands that night, if I remember correctly. I didn’t sleep in a tent or anything, but I was out there!”

Asked to headline the festival in 2006, The Killers turned rock’s top slot down – “we didn’t feel like we were ready,” Brandon explains – and instead played ahead of The White Stripes in 2005. “I remember feeling in awe of Jack White,” Brandon says, “it was exciting to watch The White Stripes at the height of their powers.”

It’s very much how the lucky few that made it inside the John Peel tent for the band’s secret set in 2017 must have felt when The Killers marched onstage unannounced, to the strains of ‘Teenage Kicks’ before blasting into ‘When You Were Young’. It was a gig that hit Pilton like a meteorite of pure glitter.

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Brandon chuckles at the memory. “Our album was about to come out, and we happened to be in the UK, and the stars aligned. It was a chance to go back to the John Peel tent. That felt like some sort of redemption that day. You’re the secret band and you’re a surprise, and people aren’t always chuffed about their surprises! It was exciting, people were so excited and I kinda thrive on that. We rose to the occasion. It was a victory, a great moment in our career.”

It also felt like a moment that threw back to the early buzz that swarmed around the band in their earliest days. “It felt like that and more,” Brandon nods, “because we’re so much stronger now as a band. It was over in a flash but it’ll last, it’ll stay with us.”

This year, The Killers arrive at Glastonbury feeling superpowered. Despite half of the band being absent from the studio, the sessions for their sixth album have reached a breakthrough point and the only way, according to Ronnie, is up.

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“It’s going really well,” he says. “We’ve found a stride. It always happens this way, at least with the last two or three records. We work a certain pace, get a window that we think is gonna work to record them right and then right at the end of the window we tap into something that we weren’t expecting and we like, and we see this path or symmetry… a roadway, a guiding light. That’s sort of where we’re at with it right now and we’re trying to write and record a little bit simultaneously with that new mindset, that new light we’ve found.”

“It’s tough to describe,” Brandon adds. “It took a lot of grinding and a lot of finding before we really discovered what was happening. We’re just getting a little of it now but it feels exciting and like something new, some kind of a renaissance and I’m excited about it.”

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“We’re starting to see siblings – not so much key tracks but siblings and a general concept,” expands Ronnie. “I wouldn’t call this a concept album, but we’re starting to see the threads of a concept, and we’re having fun with it. I don’t wanna say for sure what the concept is, but I’d say this is more fun, a little bit more up and I love that. I like dark records too. It’s just been Brandon and I… we’ve been having fun with the fact that we don’t have our guitar player, we don’t have our bass player with us, so it sounds different.”

Is it odd recording without Mark and Dave?

“It sucks sometimes because you’re very used to hearing those two elements,” Ronnie argues. “At the same time it’s really liberating and forces us to grow in a different way. I’m sure they’ll get their hands on it at some point when their schedules allow but so far right now the real DNA of these songs they’re not a part of. I’m ambivalent about it.”

Could it get finished without them?

“At this point anything can happen,” the drummer says. “The door is open for them to be involved.”

Ronnie has previously claimed the new record would be more experimental, which looks set to continue. “It’s forcing us to be experimental,” Ronnie claims. “We’re on other instruments… and we have different people coming in playing guitar and bass. I’m also playing a lot more than I thought, which is an experiment in itself. I’m really enjoying the other elements. We’ve got people from bands we really respect and like and producers who are playing on the record. It’s always freeing.”

Alongside super-producers Jacknife Lee and Ariel Rechtshaid, the guest musicians roped in to fill in for Mark and Dave include Jonathan Rado from Foxygen. So are we to expect a sprawling double album of very wonky soft rock?

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Ronnie says. “One of the things we were seeing is how heavy the mark we have in making our own records. It still sounds like us, it’s a different process in getting there. It’s still being made but it’ll be interesting to see where we end up with it.”

Fifth album ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ was very personal to Brandon, detailing the mental health struggles of his wife – whereas The Killers forthcoming album takes a slightly different approach.

“There are messages still but it’s a little bit more fun and grateful sounding,” says Ronnie. “Grateful for where we are. There are tons of bands and musicians in this place and we are very grateful for being a band nearly twenty years in, making records. We’re not taking it for granted and this record sounds like that.”

Is this your thanking-God-at-the-award-ceremony album, then?

“I would not do that at any award ceremony,” Ronnie insists. “I’d just tell people to listen to the fucking record.”

The Killers’ one new track, January’s ‘Land Of The Free’, saw the band leap off the fence to attack US gun laws, prison-for-profit, racism and Trump’s wall. Saying that, the political floodgates have not opened entirely. “That song was a conversation starter,” says Ronnie. “It wasn’t about us telling anyone what to do, or how to do it – because none of us have the answers. But the conversation needs to be had. We were just raising a flag saying ‘over here, let’s talk about it’ – in that respect I think everybody got it that way. I haven’t heard any blowback except from my neighbour’.”

Perhaps it has come to something in America, when the notoriously apolitical Killers have to stand up and say something? “Fortunately – and unfortunately – there’s been so much noise on the topic, so many people speaking out, that I think it maybe didn’t have the impact we were hoping it would have,” Ronnie considers.

“It’s still being played, but as far as making a dent, I don’t think it did that. There’s so many people sounding off. In the age we’re in right now there’s so much noise, because people can make noise. Ten years ago this might have been a huge song, a big statement, because the noise wasn’t on so much. Now there’s so much going on that it was just part of the struggle.”

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Instead, Glastonbury 2019 will be The Killers’ world-rattling statement, their chance to right the technical wrongs of their previous headline turn, and to seal their place in legend. How are they planning to nail it?

“We’ve got a couple of things lined up,” Ronnie confesses. “I want it to be a surprise. I’ll whisper it in your ear when I see you.”

“We got a couple of ideas,” adds Brandon. “We’ll see, when they’re fully realised, how they work out. I may have a special suit that I’ve had made. If we tell all it ruins the element of surprise.”

Best get down the front early to get the shock of the lightning full-force. Maximum volume.