A near-death experience and a move from their beloved Vegas hasn’t stopped The Killers delivering a classic in ‘Wonderful Wonderful’. Mark Beaumont meets a band still glowing
Presented with Jeffrey Dahmer’s glasses, and the chance to see through the eyes of a real serial murderer, The Killers’ true natures leap out. Brandon Flowers hovers back, intrigued but wary, as though the frames themselves are oozing evil. “One of the guys who escaped, his surname was Flowers,” says the frontman in dread tones.
Guitarist Dave Keuning peers over shoulders at the stained, gold-rimmed spectacles, brought along to the Milwaukee Rave Club by a friend of the band who happened to have been Dahmer’s defence lawyer, nodding coolly but not getting too involved. But drummer Ronnie Vannucci dives straight in, whips them onto his face and gets a picture taken. “Is this too cheeseballs?” he asks.
The Rave’s backstage area might have been turned into a Bedouin tent of hanging patterned drapes – “we didn’t request this,” says a slightly embarrassed Brandon – but it masks a deadly history. A patch of gravel across the street is all that remains of the building where Dahmer killed and dismembered several of his 17 victims, and the broad ballroom of The Rave itself is reputedly haunted.
The voices of dead children are said to echo around the underground swimming pool, an angry voice has told interlopers in the boiler room to “Get out!” and bands have claimed they’ve felt ‘watched’ from the upper balconies during soundchecks. Did you sense any unseen presence, Brandon? “No,” smiles Brandon. “But I always feel watched. I don’t know if it’s to do with being raised a believer, but I do feel like someone is watching me.”
Because they are – in their millions. Flowers’ supernova star quality draws gazes like an eclipse, and never more so than in the run-up to The Killers’ fifth album ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, considering that it’s a record of deep personal revelations made by a battle-worn band seemingly in disarray, with their bassist quitting tours and their gang mentality hanging by a thread. “A lot of eggshells are walked on,” Brandon admits. “We’ve had some counselling sessions.”
Counselling sessions? Like, a full-on Metallica balls-on- the-table deal? “It was basically a communication session,” says Ronnie. “We’re four dudes that don’t want to communicate, don’t know how to communicate, how to lay it out. We needed some lessons. I think it’s healthy. If you don’t clear the air there’s a lot of separation. Cracks start to feel like wedges then canyons, and then paranoia builds up and you misconstrue everything.” Did it improve relations? “Yeah, it cut through the bullshit. On tour you don’t wanna rock the boat too much, and it taught that, instead of letting something go an entire six week tour, if something happens f***ing deal with it right there.”
How The Killers got from the therapist’s couch to a record as inspired, exploratory and plain wonderful as ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ is a story of deep soul-searching, historic abuse, near-death experiences and jam sessions with Prince Harry. And it starts 30,000 feet over Colombia, with a one-way ticket to the afterlife.
The Killers couldn’t understand the pilot’s panicked Spanish crackling over the intercom, but they knew it meant trouble. This wasn’t just your standard turbulence, this was flying-through- the-gates- of-Hell- in-a- hang-glider turbulence, and whatever the pilot was saying it equated to ‘kiss your asses goodbye’.
“It was… ominous,” Brandon says, recalling the worst private plane trip of the already strained tour for 2012’s fourth album ‘Battle Born’. “They were having trouble and we could feel it.” What was going through your mind? “My initial though was ‘I wish I was just a busboy again because I’d rather be alive and grinding day-in- day-out than die like this’.”
For bassist Mark Stoermer it was another straw breaking his tour-ravaged back. From 15 years he’d struggled with vans and tour bus bunks too small to accommodate his 6ft 5in frame. His back issues were making it agonising to carry a bass for an entire gig. What’s more, after a hotchpotch of recording sessions with the five different producers on ‘Battle Born’, Mark felt distanced from the album and increasingly keen to follow studies in art and philosophy. As the final round of Asian dates came in, he told his bandmates he wouldn’t play them, or that many more future shows.
For most bands on the brink, that’s game over. But to Mark’s surprise, The Killers quickly worked out a way for him to remain an in-the- studio member. “Everybody accepted it and, you know, didn’t fire him – which he was totally open for,” Ronnie recalls. “I think he was expecting it. We were just like, ‘Dude, we get it, you need a break, I think we can make this work’. And we did make it work. It’s the best f***ing job in the world for me, but I get that it’s not like that for everybody. It’s frustrating, if somebody doesn’t want to tour and you’re making them tour or they’re begrudgingly going on tour, I don’t want to be around that.”
“We are four different people,” Brandon adds. “We’ve grown over the years, but we didn’t all necessarily become the same man. We didn’t grow together, we all pursued different things, but that’s what being in a band is, the give and the take, the push and the pull. That’s what makes The Killers The Killers.”
“We’ve had the same conversation with Dave, where Dave might wanna take some time off too,” Ronnie says. “He wants to raise his kid and it’s not always conducive for schooling and stuff to bring an 11-year- old out on the road for two years. Whatever keeps everybody in the car. I miss Mark but I’d much rather deal with it like an adult now rather than in 10-20 years hinking, ‘We coulda still been a band’.”
The Killers that reconvened at Battle Born Studios in Las Vegas to start writing their fifth album in October 2015 had undergone more upheavals than a Bey’n’Jay Bake Off special. There’d been group therapy to help heal their unspoken rifts, their bassist had gone part-time, Ronnie, Mark and Brandon had made celebrated offshoot albums, Ronnie had gone through a divorce and lost his father early in the sessions and, like a glittery raven leaving a fake Eiffel Tower, Brandon was planning to move out of Vegas to Utah, leaving Mark as the only Vegas resident. “Is this the beginning of the end for Las Vegas?” Brandon laughs. “It’s all going downhill from here. They’ve legalised pot and The Killers are leaving town.”
Though they pinned down a full-time producer in Jacknife Lee, the band themselves were semi-present for the sessions. Often they’d work individually or in pairs – Mark, rejuvenated in his studio role, forged many of the tracks with Brandon. As with the early ‘Battle Born’ sessions though, The Killers “were lost for a long time” and “circling the drain” for five or six months until a “keystone track” fell into place.
The keystone track for ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ was ‘Rut’, an amorphous soft rocker delving into the dark times engulfing Chez Flowers. “My wife has PTSD,” Brandon explains. “She has a version called Complex PTSD. It’s when a person has had multiple traumatic experiences. Her whole life, she’s been covering it, pretending it isn’t there. For whatever reason, in her 30s, it’s decided to really manifest itself and that’s what I’m going through with my family. Usually I feel protective of her but I decided to take it head on. So ‘Rut’ is about her submitting to it. She got severely depressed and it wasn’t until she sought counselling and got a name for what was going on that it helped. Now she submits to it – that doesn’t mean that she’s gonna let it beat her, but rather that she’s gonna finally acknowledge that it’s there and promise to break this cycle.”
It emerges that Tana’s suicidal thoughts were the cause of Brandon cutting short his tour for ‘The Desired Effect’ and the root of the Flowers family’s move to Utah, since Vegas holds bad memories for her. Tana’s struggle became the driving force of ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ too. The title track, a psych afrofunk adventure that sets an experimental tone for the album, references Tana as a “motherless child” being rescued by God, the couple’s Mormon faith acting as a safety net. Tana’s reservations about having her private issues splashed across the new Killers album evaporated as the songs won her over. “It bonded me and Tana in a way that I never foresaw,” Brandon says, “because it helped me to understand her better and be more compassionate.”
Brandon’s personal doubts also hang heavy. ‘Have All The Songs Been Written’ (featuring a guest solo from Mark Knopfler and a title suggested by Bono) tackles that early-sessions writer’s block that had him questioning the whole point of the band (“Rolling Stone ranked all 73 Smiths songs and I looked at them and I was humbled at how good every f***ing single one of them was – it just made me want to quit”). And album highlight ‘Tyson Vs Douglas’ recalls a boxing match from 1990 that the seemingly unbeatable Iron Mike lost, opening young Brandon’s eyes to the fact that giants can fall. It suggests he’s worried his own kids might one day see him culturally KO’d. “Yeah, it’s me talking about how I don’t want to let my family down. I’m not perfect and I have my temptations – sometimes I do question my strengths.”
He’s been questioning the world around him too. ‘Run For Cover’ – originally written for 2008’s ‘Day & Age’ – contains The Killers’ first overt political references, full of cheating senators and “fake news”. Have things got so bad that you couldn’t stay apolitical anymore? Brandon nods. “My curiosity might be more piqued and I’m checking the news more often. You cannot say you’re not affected by politics, it’s seeped its way through. It seems inconceivable that Trump is gonna accomplish all of it and it’s a bunch of bullshit for lack of a better word. It sounds terrible that this person was elected but I got to believe that he’s either gonna get impeached or in three years he’ll be replaced by someone better. He’s not going to build a wall in three years.” But we could have a war with North Korea in three hours. “I know, and I hope not, but North Korea have been threatening that even since Obama was there, it’s just now we have someone who’s more aggressive than Obama would’ve been.”“On the surface the guy just seems like a crazy person,” says Ronnie, “he seems totally unfit for the job, he’s just going f***ing batshit crazy.”
Despite doubts, drop-outs, depressions and Drumpf, The Killers remain unbowed. A month before the Milwaukee show, NME caught up with Brandon backstage at Bilbao BBK festival, on his customary on-the- road high. He enthused about breaking new territories at festivals in Northern Spain, Greece and across Europe, about ‘hubbing’ out of the Cotswolds and hitting stages with a clutch of new songs he truly believes in rather than “just keeping the machine going” with ‘Battle Born’. From side of stage, The Killers’ murderous magic is in full force, daring to open with ‘Mr Brightside’ like their 22-year- old me-me- me-men were still alive and posing today.
In Milwaukee, with the news looming that Dave will also be sitting out the coming run of ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ shows, Brandon’s just as upbeat, stressing that the new touring arrangements may mean there’ll be a sixth Killers album before a third solo one. As our time wraps up, like the model interviewee handing in way overdue homework, Brandon brings up a question I asked him some years ago: what do The Killers stand for?
“I didn’t have an answer,” he says, “but I thought about it. I think that we’re about belief. Our songs may not always be exclusively about a person but it sure as hell is for the people and that’s what I think resonates with people about this band. That we are genuine and real, and we are not going anywhere anytime soon.” Truly wonderful news.