“Sometimes you close your eyes and see the place where you used to live,” Brandon Flowers sang on 2006’s ‘When You Were Young’, The Killers’ mammoth slab of desert rock, showcasing the Vegas band’s knack for matching chest-thumping bravado with heart and a sense of place. Flowers’ mind is often centred on the home. Like the rest of us over the last 18 months, that’s pretty much all he’s known.
“I’m not going to lie to everybody – it’s been beautiful for me,” he tells NME from the kitchen of his Utah family home. Donning comfy-looking sportswear, the frontman beams when talking about all the home-schooling and the domesticity with his wife and kids that he’s enjoyed since the pandemic took hold. “I’ve always had that in me,” he admits. “I was the youngest of six kids; I have like 19 nieces and nephews. It’s just always been part of the equation and I’ve just settled right into it.”
Can Flowers cope with losing the sweatpants and remembering those rockstar moves to become that stadium-ready sequined Elvis when he’s back onstage? “That’s a danger, because I need to get into my fighting shape again,” he laughs. “I think once I hear the crowd and the lights go down, the magic will come back!”
The band’s new, seventh album ‘Pressure Machine’ is their second in as many years – following hot off the heels of the acclaimed ‘Imploding The Mirage’ – and one born of urgency. When The Killers graced the digital cover of NME last year, Flowers told us of how recently leaving Vegas for his home state of Utah had reminded him of “the power that [music] used to hold over me”, as well as revealing that the band had more new songs and were already back in the studio with the hope to release another record in 10 months.
“The original intent was to roll those over into another record,” drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. tells us today on a separate Zoom call, looking a little more rockstar than Flowers in his shades as he drives down the Californian highway. “But the sky was falling and we were hit with this emotion – especially Brandon. We wanted to do something following that feeling. I remember him saying, ‘Follow me down this road’. We put those songs to the side and embarked on something new and fresh. That’s what became ‘Pressure Machine’.”
That muse they were chasing came after the isolation of lockdown took Flowers back to how adrift he felt as a kid in his old hometown of Nephi, a small, sleepy, Mormon-founded city just over an hour’s drive from his current home. That would also become the spiritual birthplace of the album.
“Mentally, I started to go to this place where I grew up and write songs about it,” says Flowers. “It was as if there was a chamber of memories somewhere that was just waiting for me to unlock it. It was incredible. Once I finally opened that door, the songs that came out and the memories were pretty vivid and emotional. It became pretty obvious to me what this record was going to be.”
The two band mainstays of Flowers and Vannucci hooked up with guitarist Dave Keuning, who sat out the sessions for ‘Imploding The Mirage’ to enjoy some time at home in San Diego. It’s not a full house, sadly, as the pandemic kept bassist Mark Stoermer was kept at bay this time around; the rest of the band rushed through recording so as not to “overthink” it, as Vannucci puts it, as they got to work between Sound City Studios in LA and their own Battle Born HQ in Vegas.
Flowers, who is now 40, lived in Nephi from the ages of eight to 18 before moving to Vegas and forming The Killers, but still regularly visits to see one of his sisters and show his kids around his old haunts. Over the last year that became more like “homework for this record”, with the town still holding a lot of ghosts for Brandon – and a lot of grief.
“I have a lot of nice and tender memories of Nephi,” says Flowers. “It’s no secret that I didn’t have a lot of struggle in my upbringing. My parents stayed together; they loved me and nurtured me. What I found was that the memories attached to sorrow, sadness and shock were really emotional for me. I was still walking around with them.”
Inspired by books like The Pastures Of Heaven by John Steinbeck and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Flowers took to making an album that was more of a selection of short stories about normal people in an American town. Armed with his keyboard, his past and images taken by his friend and acclaimed photographer and cinematographer Wes Johnson, he penned lyrics to immortalise characters from the darker corners of his youth. One of the most triggering memories comes in the opening lines of the aching country heartbreaker of ‘Quiet Town’ when Flowers pines: “A couple of kids got hit by a Union Pacific train / Carrying sheet metal and household appliances through the pouring rain”.
“Here, 25 years later, I was still really affected by this train accident from when I was in the eighth grade,” Flowers admits. “Two seniors from the high school were killed. I had seen one of them that morning. They had a baby. I didn’t go to grief counselling, they weren’t my best friends – but I was just shocked at how emotional I was when I started to write this verse.”
“Mentally, I started to go to this place where I grew up, and wrote songs about it” – Brandon Flowers
Death returns later in the track, highlighting an epidemic that’s taken too many too young. “When we first heard opioid stories they were always in whispering tones,” sings Flowers, “now banners of sorrow mark the front steps of childhood homes.” On ‘West Hills’, too, we meet a man arrested for “possession of them hillbilly heroin pills – enough to kill the horses that run”. From the opioid-related passing of rappers Lil Peep and Juice WRLD to the record 93,331 drug overdose deaths in the US last year, it’s an all-too-familiar scene.
“Since I’ve left Nephi, like much of America, opioids have left their ugly mark on the town, our friends and acquaintances,” says Flowers. “While a lot of these songs took place in the ’90s, we saw more overdose deaths in 2020 during the pandemic than any other year in recorded history. It hasn’t given – not even a little bit. It’s affected my family and other people in the band’s families. It’s just a huge tragedy that America is facing.”
Declaring her love of The Killers earlier this year, Billie Eilish said that “their music just makes you feel heard”. That’s perhaps never been more true than on ‘Pressure Machine’. Flowers may be dealing in real-life tales of a midwest town in the ’90s, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t speak to teenage life in the US – or everywhere – right now.
On the track ‘Terrible Thing’ we meet a teen living “in this barbed wire town of barbed wire dreams,” sitting “in my bedroom on the verge of a terrible thing”. It’s one of the most starkly beautiful songs on a very sobering album. Vannucci explains: “[It’s about] a kid struggling with his homosexuality and not knowing what to do in this small town. He’s thinking about taking his own life. There are a lot of young people unsure of their place in this world – if they’re gay or just realising that adolescence is tough. The beauty of this album is that it’s about Nephi in Utah, but it could be about any town anywhere.”
Elsewhere, there’s a trilogy that leads us down the path of young star-crossed lovers who soon find themselves lost. ‘Runaway Horses’ introduces an ambitious “small town girl” who loves Radiohead and is “crazy about ‘The Bends’”; soon, though, she “puts her dreams on ice” for love, “trading school for weddings and rent”. ‘In The Car Outside’ seems to show us life from the young husband’s side, as he fights the urge not to drive away and cheat with an old flame. ‘In Another Life’ depicts the flame burning out: “I passed a couple of kids holding hands in the street tonight / They reminded me of us in another life”.
‘Pressure Machine’ is a bittersweet record, for sure, a collection of small portraits adding up to a bigger picture. Nephi was 90 per cent Mormon when Flowers lived there, and questions of faith flow throughout ‘Pressure Machine’. On ‘Cody’ we meet “a different kind of kid” who gets into trouble for “talking with his fists” and believes “religion’s just a trick to keep hard-working folks in line”, while ‘The Getting By’ sows further seeds of doubt among those beaten down by the idea that “this whole town is tied to the torso of God’s mysterious ways”.
“This album is about Nephi in Utah, but it could be about any town anywhere” – Ronnie Vannucci Jr.
“I believe that we’re all born with a light,” says Flowers. “The more that we toil and persevere, the more we’re able to harness and reflect it. I was more drawn to the characters who were more laissez-faire about their light – or had just flat-out stamped it out. The characters that kicked against it stood out to me. When I was a kid, I just saw them as dangerous or bad. Now, of course, I’m 40 years old; I’ve lived a little and I have a lot more empathy for the decisions that those people made. I wanted to explore the outcome of those decisions.”
Flowers explains how the chorus of ‘Cody’ essentially asks: “Who’s going to carry us away then if we don’t have a saviour? What do you have to offer me, Cody – other than complaining?”
These big questions lead the frontman to reminisce on a pretty surreal row he had with evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins on Swedish TV back in 2012. The writer called the Book Of Mormon (the religious text, not the blockbusting satirical musical) “an obvious fake”, prompting Flowers to take offence and implore him to “do your research”. Ulrika Johnson and Björn off of ABBA looked on. It was nuts.
“He’s definitely a more seasoned debater than I am!” Flowers laughs today. “I wasn’t planning on debating him and I wouldn’t pretend to try to convince him that there is a God or a saviour! That was a wild half-hour of my life, for sure…”
The Killers have never been an inherently outspoken band, but Flowers admits to feeling “less anxious every day about what you’re going to read in the news” since Joe Biden became a President “more about doing the job as opposed to keeping his followers frothing”. Yet he feels the Trump hangover will take a while to shake off. “There was a moment where we felt so divided that we were all really anxious and wondering what it meant to not be a gun owner,” he remembers. “People were buying guns and some places in Utah were running out of bullets. What are these people preparing for?”
He notes how even the pandemic became polarising: “It became a political statement if you wore a mask, and I was laughed at in gas stations for that. It was just a crazy time. That’s calmed down a little bit, but it’s still scary to know how quickly we can be torn apart.”
‘Pressure Machine’’s documentary-style dissection of the real America is enhanced by voiceovers of current residents of Nephi, inspired and gathered by the creators of the US’s National Public Radio’s essay podcast This American Life. They pored over hours of material to make their final selection for segways into the songs before being left with something that Vannucci tells us felt “almost too real”.
“Phoebe Bridgers has a little bit of Wild West in her” – Brandon Flowers
The album’s sound was inspired, Vannucci explains, by “a bunch of ’90s records that we were into”. He cites R.E.M. “as a big influence”, along with large doses of country and Americana. Indeed, the stripped-back sonics and gritty subject matter of ‘Pressure Machine’ invite comparisons to Bruce Springsteen’s dark 1982 opus ‘Nebraska’. Flowers admits that there’s a “definitely a tip-of-the-hat” on ‘Terrible Things’, which saw the band use the same model of eight-track recorder with which The Boss recorded that album, but he insists that they’re “not ripping it off or stealing the same subject matter”.
The Killers and Springsteen recently released ‘Dustland’, a new collaborative take on ‘A Dustland Fairytale’, a track from Brandon and co.’s 2008 album ‘Day & Age’. Flowers says of his hero: “He just lives up to all the hype with how gracious he is and how he makes time for you.” Yet he describes the song as a one-off to “lift some spirits during quarantine”. There’s no chance of a follow-up, then? “We didn’t really talk about anything else,” Flowers says. “I know he’s got another E-Street record in the can. It would be a treat to do more together, but I don’t want to impose.”
There is, however, one very special guest on ‘Pressure Machine’. Phoebe Bridgers jumped at the chance to add Flowers’ desired “female element” and her alt-folk midas touch to ‘Runaway Horses’.
“I still remember the first time I heard [her 2017 single] ‘Funeral’ on some college public radio station and just thinking, ‘This must be Phoebe Bridgers’,” Flowers says. “I knew it just from the way that people had written about her. There was so much beauty. It seemed so natural. She has a little bit of Wild West in her. She has rodeo people in her bloodline. She brought a sadness to the song that’s integral to it, but also inherent in her. It was the perfect combination.”
As Vanucci and Flowers tell it, The Killers are feeling more collaborative than they have in years. Dave Keuning made it down for a “very productive” days in the studio to stamp his DNA all over the album, sparking the title track and ‘In The Car Outside’ and adding in a few other very ‘Keuning’ touches. “He lends a blistering solo on ‘Cody’,” explains Flowers, “which is probably the loudest guitar moment in Killers history. I love it.”
And it looks like the four-piece – complete with Stoermer – could be fully back together, too. “I’m just supposing here, but I think the whole COVID thing made people realise how good they have it,” Vannucci says. “There have been some really kind remarks that I’ve never heard from the guys before that made saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want to not be on a record any more – so let’s do this’. “We’re very sobered up from the experience of being locked away. I do think that all four of us are going to be on this next record. We’ve already started messing around a bit, so that’s good.”
It wouldn’t be an NME interview with The Killers if the workaholics didn’t promise us another album before the ink was even dry on their latest cover art. Having been tinkering away at Keuning’s San Diego studio on what Vannucci calls “orphan songs” and some “beauties”, the band are currently “figuring out” this record’s follow-up. “It’s a little bit more canyon rock,” Flowers says, “maybe a little bit more traditional Killers, I guess.”
Vannucci is expecting something “a bit heavier and more clench-fisted” than ‘Pressure Machine’, adding: “We were messing around on the stage for a virtual show the other month and it felt like there was this rock n’ roll thing happening. I could see us going in that direction: something a bit more energised.”
“I think that all four of us are going to be on the next record” – Ronnie Vannucci Jr.
For now, though, The Killers are tightening up their ever-evolving plans for a twice-rescheduled world tour (they’ve not played a note of ‘Imploding The Mirage’ to a live audience yet). Having lived with those songs for so long, the band are ultimately relieved that the record still has a place in people’s hearts. “I always knew ‘Imploding The Mirage’ would last,” says Vannucci. “It has marinated in a nice way for me. I think it’s one of our best records. I’m probably more excited to play those songs live now than ever.”
Flowers adds that he hopes that ‘Imploding the Mirage’ “is remembered fondly by our fans as something that was a salve” amid the pandemic, but he could just as easily be talking about ‘Pressure Machine’. One was, as Vannucci described it, “a concept record about a couple trying to get to a higher place”, the other about people just trying to find their own light no matter how alone they feel. The artwork of last year’s album depicted two God-like lovers tearing through the sky, while ‘Pressure Machine’ comes adorned by crucifixes obscured by barbed wire.
“The thought is, ‘Who are we keeping out, who are the weird ones that are staying in, and who are we not allowing forgiveness?’,” Flowers concludes. “There’s something sad but beautiful about it all.”
In taking the rough with the smooth and coming out with hope, the band have crafted music that can make you feel seen, make you feel heard, and make you feel safe. It feels like home, and there’s no place quite like it.
The Killers’ ‘Pressure Machine’ is out now