“I just saw an interview with someone saying that they don’t want to be in a big band because they can’t fake it,” The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers tells NME via Facetime in the early days of lockdown back in March. “It made me think about myself because I’m in a big band and I don’t feel like I’m faking it. I think that’s maybe what separates us.”
The Killers have always walked the tightrope between earnest honesty and flamboyant showmanship. With 2003’s bright-eyed debut ‘Hot Fuss’, they traded in glamorous indie rock’n’roll, but carried it with a certain sense of innocence. That remained even when they turned the bravado up on world-beating follow-up ‘Sam’s Town’. Their sixth album ‘Imploding The Mirage’, out today, is a career-high record that soars skywards in its sonic pomp and ambition, but is rooted in a very homely kind of love.
The band have always presented themselves as being impervious to the vice associated with their hometown Las Vegas, yet their immaculate brand was dented just weeks before the release of ‘Imploding The Mirage’, when our interview was originally intended to run.
Allegations emerged, at the end of July, against the band’s touring crew. A sound engineer wrote in a blog that while working as a temporary member of the crew at a gig in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during their 2009 US tour for third album ‘Day & Age’, she thought that another woman had been abused.
The allegations centred around a girl said to be “passed out and drunk” in a dressing room, and a front of house engineer who was overheard radioing other crew to tell them to “put their name on a list” to be told when it was “their turn” with her. When the story broke, the band issued a statement on their social media detailing their “shock and horror”, before promising a thorough internal investigation.
The following week, the band’s legal team said that their investigation had found “no corroboration” of an assault, having spoken to the accuser, the alleged victim, the band, venue staff and other associates. It was found that the alleged victim “did not experience, witness or hear about a sexual assault” and the “problematic” front of house engineer who made “a series of sexist remarks and rude comments”, which “caused the female crew member on the audio team great distress”, was fired from the team back in 2013.
Days after their lawyers’ statement, Flowers agrees to a separate interview with NME to discuss the allegations and their implications.
“I feel relieved that we were actually able to get to the bottom of it, actually find this woman and make sure that she was OK,” Flowers tells NME. “The most important thing is that there was no assault. That’s just nothing but relief. From what we see backstage, the people we hire and the people in the band, we’ve never witnessed anything like that happen. If something like that did happen, we would want to know.”
While none of the band were implicated in the alleged assault, the blog did seek to tie The Killers to a culture of misogyny in big name stadium rock – amplified more by those wishing to cancel them on Twitter.
“It sucks because as soon as you are brought into that conversation, some people are just going to believe that is you and paint you with that brush forever,” says Flowers. “If I could sit down with everybody or let them be a fly on the wall – let them see what your life is like and how you behave and show them that that’s not you… There’s not much we can do about that. I guess I could do that – try and track down all the naysayers and let them follow me around? I don’t know what you do.”
Of the band’s core crew, Flowers says that “a lot of them are still with us to this day, some of them are like family” and that he “definitely doesn’t recognise this misogynistic culture or anything dangerous about them”. Still, the band announced that they “plan to take immediate action for future tours”, including setting up an “an easy way to report a situation that is concerning to anyone on the road with them”. Flowers says he hopes that other bands will pick up on this and follow suit.
“That could be the more positive thing that’s come from it – to actually put our heads together and figure out something we can do so that if anyone ever does feel uncomfortable, female or male, there’s a number they can call so they don’t have to let it fester and carry it with them for so long like this woman on the crew did,” says Flowers. “Whether it was true or not, she carried it with her. That can just be a horrible thing to carry around.
“Our music is honest and comes from a true place” – Ronnie Vannucci
“Times are changing a lot. If you see anything that’s just supposed to be a joke, you should be able to call it out. Don’t let anything inappropriate slide in any way. We want our female fans to know and our female crew to know that there’s no tolerance for this. We have a lot of female fans and we’re indebted to them. We don’t want anyone to feel unsafe.”
Around the time of The Killers’ previous record, 2017’s ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, Flowers was very vocal about supporting his wife Tana through her battles with Complex PTSD and depression. The idea that he would ever knowingly let such shady behaviour happen on the road does not sit well with him.
“I have four sisters, I have nieces, I have female cousins, I have a mom, I have a wife. I know about what bad men can do to women,” he says. “I would never turn a blind eye to that. My heart goes out to anyone who’s a victim.”
It’s because of Tana’s PTSD that the Flowers family moved away from Vegas after ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, relocating to a quiet corner of Utah. This is where ‘Imploding The Mirage’ was born. Back in March, when Flowers Facetimed NME from his new home, he explained that the emotional impact of their relocation lit the fuse for their sixth record.
“We got out. Las Vegas is haunted for my wife,” Flowers admits. “Some places are like that for some people. We put her on a mountain that is clean and untouched by people in her past. It’s literally a clean slate for us and we’re reaping the benefits.”
Soon, Flowers began to see a thread through new lyrics, coming back to “two people bonding, committing, and overcoming”. As drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr tells NME: “The album has turned out to be a concept record, that’s basically about a couple trying to get to a higher place”.
Away from the maudlin balladry of their last two records, the record is lifted by a life-affirming brightness and sense of release born from Flowers “falling in love with music again”. Indeed, the record recently received the full five-star treatment from NME.
“We’re going to release another album in about 10 months” – Brandon Flowers
Born in Nevada, Flowers and his Mormon family moved to Utah when he was eight-years-old, before hitting the bright lights of Vegas when he was 18. He formed The Killers with guitarist Dave Keuning just two years later. Coming back home reminded him why he did it in the first place.
“I wasn’t getting disenchanted with music, but it was becoming my job and something that I just did,” Flowers admits. “I hadn’t forgotten, but I did need to be reminded of the power that it used to hold over me. It was magic, y’know? When I first turned to music, I was living in a place called Nephi that was almost like being quarantined. It was 2,000 people, no stop lights – a rural country town. Some music almost made it possible for me to dream. It turned this black and white town into colour.
“Just being here, having these mountains around me and the seasons, and hearing a lot of that music again, paired with the smells and sights of Utah, was kind of an awakening for me. It reminded me of being 13 or 14 and wondering what a service it did for me.”
While that young kid ate up sounds from The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, it was the most recent Vampire Weekend album, last year’s ‘Father Of The Bride’, that inspired the 39-year-old. “That really helped to propel us into the right direction and realise that we couldn’t just phone in The Killers’ record,” Flowers admits. “We had to do better. I told Ezra [Koenig, the band’s frontman] that. I’m grateful for people like him.”
So it kicked off a little healthy competition?
“Yeah! It reminded me of how I felt when The Strokes’ ‘Is This It’ came out.”
The MO was to start again and come back stronger, not least because of line-up changes and the band being what Flowers describes as “a little bit fractured right now”. Bassist Mark Stoermer quit touring with the band ahead of the release of last record ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, before burn-out also led guitarist Dave Keuning to take time away from the road from 2017. Stoermer made some contributions to ‘Imploding The Mirage’; Keuning did not.
“Mark’s awesome in so many ways,” drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr tells NME. “We’d tell the other guys, ‘This is the schedule, we’re renting a house for six months, come out, whenever you want, we’re there every day’. Mark came out to the house one time and to LA and it was great. It was on his own terms and was very productive. He played bass on some songs, played guitar on some songs, and even though he wasn’t in the room we’d send him mixes and he’d be involved.”
And why wasn’t Dave around?
“I don’t know, to be honest,” Vannucci replies. “It was just kind of decided. When we started working the schedule out we asked him if it worked for him and he was like, ‘Maybe, I don’t know’. Well, we’re going to go ahead and do this because we feel good and we feel creative. Let’s strike. We didn’t really hear from him, except when it came to making a video. He was like, ‘If you guys want me in the video…’ Well, I’m not sure that makes any sense either! Video? How about some guitar?”
Flowers, as ever, is a little more diplomatic. “He’s just happy to be in San Diego and doesn’t really want to venture out of there,” he explains. “If he comes for a week and we don’t tap into the universe, that frustrates him a lot. He’s kind of just spending time with his family and I think he’s content doing that right now.”
“With this album I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen – and I like it’” – Ronnie Vannucci
Still, both Flowers and Vannucci say they’re understanding of Keuning’s situation, there’s no bad blood and “the door is always open” for both members to work with them whenever they can. At the start of the writing process, two remaining full-time Killers kicked up the fire and tried to find a whole new kind of alchemy – despite a slow start, retreading old ground’.
“We did spend some time trying to sound like we thought we should sound,” admits Flowers. “It was futile. I’m happy that we had the awakening that we did.”
Indie super-producer duo Shawn Everrett and Jonathan Rado found themselves behind the desk of ‘Imploding The Mirage’, and their first task was convincing The Killers to forget what people might expect of them. “It kind of felt uncomfortable in a really special way,” admits Vannucci. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen and I like it’.”
With a dynamic that reflected their own (“Rado’s a purist and Shawn is a wildman,” laughs Brandon), the band found a sense of unbridled joy in opening themselves to collaboration like never before. Over a dinner meeting one night, Vannucci joked that they should call up the actual Lindsey Buckingham, former Fleetwood Mac guitarist, to lend a solo to the euphoric and widescreen glam-country banger of lead single ‘Caution’. He obliged, and the results are pretty fucking great. There’s also a guest turn from The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel, as well as writing credits from Aussie indie star Alex Cameron and hit-machine Stuart Price, a regular collaborator.
However, their most profound realisation was that, due to the record’s relationship theme, the album had a “female component” that needed to be fulfilled.
“It’s very much about two people persevering trying to become eternal,” says Flowers. “I couldn’t do that and speak for my wife or the female component without having actual voices representing her. We felt it was really important to have that manifest itself on the record.” Another bucketlist wish was ticked off when pop-folk icon k.d. lang signed up for guest vocals on the celestial power-ballad ‘Lightning Fields’, crooning that “there’s no end to love, there’s end to truth / There’s no end to me, there’s no end to you”.
Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Brooklyn indie-pop Lucius lend vocals across a number of tracks, while Natalie Merring (aka alt-pop hero Weyes Blood) sings on the stomping Kate Bush-meets-disco track ‘My God’, which she co-wrote. It’s an ode to great couples being more than the sum of their parts: “A weight has been lifted, we finally let go”.
‘My God’ is perhaps the track that best connects to the album’s vivid artwork, a Thomas Blackshear painting of two clouds taking the shape of a man and woman, drifting together across a dusty landscape.
“I know about what bad men can do to women. I would never turn a blind eye to that” – Brandon Flowers
“They just look like gods,” says Flowers. “I just started to see a path open up in what these two people could represent for me. We blew up terrible lo-res versions of them and stuck them up in the studio. I would go to them when I needed help with lyrics and when we needed help with sonics, or [to decide] which songs were making the record. It became a member of the band. There are direct lines that will just take you to the painting.”
It’s there in the Springsteen-in-space rush of opener ‘My Own Soul’s Warning’, and in ‘Running Towards A Place’, a 21st Century update of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ about two lovers “walking as one” in the face of “the hardness of this life”. That same meeting of hearts is the subject of ‘Dying Breed’, which Flowers says features “the prettiest and most romantic lyric” he’s ever written.
“I know it’s old-fashioned,” he says, “but it’s my life,” adding: “My favourite line on the record is ‘I’ll be there when water’s rising / I’ll be your lifeguard’. I feel thankful for that. I want [Tana] to know that no matter what, I’m going to stay by her side and keep the promise.”
Future single ‘Blowback’ is less about a partnership, and more about Flowers’ admiration of Tana’s power to fight back against dark forces. “The more that I write about my wife’s experiences, I’m able to grow closer to her and have more empathy for her,” he says. “I thought that was done with that on ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, but I had more.”
Fans were looking for such clues in ‘Blowback’ when the band performed it from their home studio during lockdown, along with their 2019 one-off single ‘Land Of The Free’, a Trump-baiting ode to immigration, equality and empathy. This time, though, they updated the lyrics to pay tribute to the late George Floyd, whose death inspired the renewed momentum around Black Lives Matter: “How many killings must one man watch in his home? Eight measured minutes and 46 seconds, another boy in the bag / Another stain on the flag”.
Flowers tells NME that updating the lyrics “just felt like the right thing to do”, unable to describe the footage of Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a police officer as anything but “evil”.
“If you have a heart then this has to be changing people,” says Flowers. “It has to be making people more empathetic. We need the understanding of what is still happening in America. Yes, slavery has been over for a long time, but systematic racism has been in place ever since. We need to make changes.”
He describes modern America as “ugly and polarising”, and says that he has his “fingers crossed for Joe Biden” in November’s US elections. Yet his optimism is undermined by the fact that Donald Trump remains “unfathomably popular”. He admits that he exorcised much of his political angst in ‘Land Of Free’ before he reached ‘Imploding The Mirage’, but what’s to say his ire won’t spill onto the next Killers record?
“You know when someone makes a record and they say that they have 50 songs and they’re going to release another record? Well, we really are!” laughs Flowers. “We’re going to release another one in about 10 months. We’ve already gone back into the studio with Rado and Shawn. I’m excited. It might be better than this one.”
Aside from the fact that there’s “no thread” between the new songs and those on ‘Imploding The Mirage’, all Flowers can tell us is that it won’t be “a quarantine album” and it has been more heavily informed by the sounds he associates with his youth in Utah. The band long to retain the emotional openness that drew Brandon to music in the first place.
“If something’s not honest, I don’t want to be a part of it,” says Vannucci. “I can take the cringiness and ultra-personal nature of things. I like it. I think [our music] is poetic, but also honest and from a true place. It’s like good calories vs. bad calories. From the moment we made ‘Somebody Told Me’, we knew that was us in our early ‘20s.”
The ‘Hot Fuss’ era may seem like a whole lifetime ago, but Flowers admits that with time they’re “getting closer and closer” to what he thinks The Killers are supposed to be. “It’s not a secret that I have a belief in myself and us and I believe that we have more to grow into. [Performing] has become a part of my identity. I don’t know if it’s the Las Vegas in me or the need for the attention, but whatever it is, I want to be there.”
‘Imploding The Mirage’ by The Killers is out now