It’s getting too dark to see on a spookily windy evening in Hollywood. Brandon Flowers’ hotel key is somewhere in his bag. “Shine me a light in here, shine a light” he sings as he rummages around, to the tune of Elton John’s ‘Philadelphia Freedom’. Then he stops, suddenly. “Wait! Do you know my Morrissey story? I’ve never gotten to show anyone this.” Hurrying back over the bridge across the courtyard of The Sunset Marquis hotel, he points to where his eyeline was when, in 2010, he spotted an unmistakable, quiff-topped figure looming across the lobby lounge. “We couldn’t see each others’ faces because it was so dark, but you just know it’s him. My heart was racing. He’s my hero…” Brandon recounts how he rushed to his room, brushed his teeth, then returned to wait at a safe distance, thinking about what to say. But Morrissey appeared from the other direction and caught Brandon off-guard. “I’m in a band!” Brandon spluttered. “We opened for you!” He told Morrissey he was in LA promoting his solo debut. “And I could hear him whisper in the darkness, ‘Flamingoooooooo’.” A Milky Bar Kid smile spreads across his face. “He knew! Morrissey knew the name of my solo record!”
The Sunset Marquis may be a favoured haunt of the rock ‘n’ roll elite, but Brandon’s room tonight displays all the trappings of a responsible breadwinner on a business trip. It’s impeccably neat and tidy, and the complimentary wine is untouched by human hand. “You want a water?” he asks. “There’s heroin in mine…” Downstairs, Flowers’ band and crew are celebrating. At least one of them, drummer Darren Beckett, formerly of forgotten ’00s indie band Ambulance Ltd, remembers the days when Brandon would have got stuck in with them. “We toured with The Killers 10 years ago and we’d have debauched nights in London,” he says. “I remember this little guy wearing eyeliner. He had that star vibe.”
Earlier that night, Brandon and his new band – which also includes Joel Stein from Howling Bells, two female backing singers, two brass players and a bassist who’s a dead ringer for The Killers’ Dave Keuning – previewed material from his second solo album, ‘The Desired Effect’, to 200 fans at West Hollywood venue The Troubadour. Beckett reckons Flowers has rehearsed the band to a “supremely high level of musicianship”, and it showed. During a 90-minute set, Brandon high-fived punters, punched the air and jostled like a lightweight champion through a selection of ‘Flamingo’ cuts. He belted out a cover of INXS’ ‘Don’t Change’, which he likes because it comes from an age when “bands weren’t afraid to tell you who they were”, and new tracks including ‘Lonely Town’ and ‘Untangled Love’ were debuted to a roaring reception. The set’s surprising closer was The Killers’ ‘Mr Brightside’ – and there seemed to be some poignancy to the way he delivered the line, “just let me goooooooooo”.
“That was fun,” Brandon chirped backstage, pinching a pizza slice. He gestured to the band: “There’s something to be said for these guys’ attitudes. They’re the best. They’re my friends. Their dispositions work well with mine.”
The dispositions of bandmates is something Flowers knows plenty about. On June 22, 2013, Brandon’s band The Killers celebrated 10 years and four albums together with a huge greatest hits show at the UK’s ultimate mega-venue: Wembley Stadium. It was the highpoint of what, for Brandon, was the band’s best ever run of shows. “That last tour surpassed all my expectations,” he says. “We were strong. We were accepted.”
Afterwards, Brandon found himself at a crossroads. He wanted to restart the cycle of recording and touring; his bandmates didn’t agree, and couldn’t be cajoled back into the studio. Drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr went off to do another album with his side project, Big Talk, bassist Mark Stoermer toured with Smashing Pumpkins and guitarist Dave Keuning went back to “living in San Diego”, according to Flowers’ vague summary. Brandon, meanwhile, ploughed back into the solo career he began with ‘Flamingo’.
Unlike the too-many-cooks broth of the last Killers’ record, 2012’s ‘Battle Born’ (which five producers worked on), ‘The Desired Effect’ is a collaboration with just one in-demand producer, Ariel Rechthshaid (Vampire Weekend, Haim, Sky Ferreira). A kindred musical geek, Ariel matched Brandon’s love of ’80s pop, rock and indie. “My buddy Benji [Lysaght, also of Ambulance LTD, and in his solo band’s line-up] recommended him,” recalls Brandon. “I phoned him, we talked for 30 minutes and referenced everything from Dire Straits to Depeche Mode.” Ariel paid multiple visits to Brandon’s Las Vegas studios over the course of several months, and they conceived a 10-track record of could-be standalone hits. The idea was to be accessible but sophisticated, gunning full-throttle for drivetime airplay. “We worked together on ideas around a piano,” says Ariel, over a phone call. “I helped tap into a different side. We pushed each other outside our comfort zones.”
Ariel encouraged Brandon to use samples for the first time – the disco-like ‘I Can Change’ borrows from Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’, and employs subtle spoken word cameos from Pet Shop Boys frontman Neil Tennant. Elsewhere, they courted ‘80s AOR man Bruce ‘The Way It Is’ Hornsby to play keys on ballad ‘Between Me And You’. “Why Hornsby? Why not?!” smiles Brandon. “He was so cool.” More than anything, the record feels like a natural successor to The Killers’ 2004 debut ‘Hot Fuss’ – it’s more Duran Duran than Springsteen. Brandon insists that wasn’t the sole intention. “[The sound is] not completely my doing,” he says. “Ariel had a more calculated vision, he brushed off all the more Americana-sounding demos we came up with.”
Some of the lyrics on ‘The Desired Effect’ back up the long-held idea that Brandon is an observer, not a doer. He shares his truths via characters, as in the honky-tonk ‘Digging Up The Heart’, about a down-and-out prisoner, Tony, whose mother forgives him because he’s only human. “My parents taught me that if people did something wrong they were bad. I’m less narrow-minded now,” he explains. He’s also turning the lens on himself. The album opens with the clarion call of ‘Dreams Come True’ – a romantic vision of how Flowers saw America from inside a limousine in his 20s, “just a loser on two tender feet” chasing success. “Dreams come true/Yes they do/Dreams come true,” it goes. His “best lyrics ever”, he reckons, are on ‘The Way It’s Always Been’, which is reminiscent of The Band’s ‘The Weight’. “That line, Everyone’s sitting about waiting for the sun to come again…, I use plain English to share the experiences of my sisters, whose husbands gave up on them,” he says. ‘Between Me And You’, meanwhile, is about the pressures of being the man of the house – something Flowers acknowledges is a fairly old fashioned concern. “Being the man and the provider is something nobody touches on. I’m really proud of it though.”
Despite the blossoming bromance between artist and producer, Brandon almost fired Ariel “four times” during the process, frustrated that the Los Angelean wouldn’t up sticks to Vegas to help complete the record. Brandon laughs nervously when asked about it. “I’m possessive. I think we should lock ourselves up and do it till it’s done. He takes his time and will live till he’s 150 years old.”
To talk to Brandon Flowers in person is to weather a persistent charm offensive. There are boyish smiles, goofy laughs, and an ever-present facial expression that seems to say, ‘Who? Me?’. It’s a neat way of preventing anyone getting under his skin. What makes him angry? Nothing. Where does his fiery passion on stage come from? Nada. He only gets really fired up when we talk about the ‘Blurred Lines’ court case. He “agrees 150 per cent” that it was right for Pharrell and Robin Thicke to hand over royalties to Marvin Gaye’s family, and says there “are so many bands who should get sued. I’m so sick of hearing people steal. I hate it. I hear it all the time but I’m not gonna tell you which bands. I won’t, because I don’t wanna start a whole thing.” That’s the only thing he can think of, right now, that makes him mad. “I’m happy,” he says. “Maybe it’s all pent up inside of me and I’m going to have a meltdown…”
A track on the album, ‘Still Want You’, sees him referencing climate change and debt, which seems like a good excuse to talk about some big issues of the day. Where does he stand on the environment? “We should all take care of the Earth”. What about Hillary Clinton’s election bid, the Tidal launch, the aftermath of Ferguson? “I know what’s happening a little bit. I stru… I’m not…” he pauses. “It’s frustrating because nothing ever changes no matter who’s President.” The thing Brandon is most vexed about, he says, is the treatment of US veterans. His great grandfather fought in World War II. His father avoided the draft for Vietnam. His biggest bugbear is that he never finished a half-written song about post-traumatic stress called ‘Look Alive’. Patriotism has dogged him since The Killers’ early experiences in Europe. “There was a shame in being American at that time. I’d go over there and they’d treat me [differently] because of my accent. It put a real chip on my shoulder. When George Bush was President it was overwhelming how much I felt it. It was such a shameful thing,” he says. “There’s a song called ‘The House I Live In’ from 1945 that Sinatra did on ‘The Main Event’ (1974 live album), one of my favourite records. He introduces it by talking about how America is the greatest nation on Earth. And it is. America is a fantastic, amazing idea. I’m not afraid to say I’m patriotic. We’re all different. We shouldn’t all be the same. It’s great that we’re all different.”
Outside of music, Brandon is a man of individual pursuits, a gym enthusiast and a hiker. “My wife knows when it’s time for Brandon to go into the wilderness,” he says, employing the third person. His outdoor pursuits inspire him. “You hear this new age mumbo jumbo about nature but there’s truth in it. It’s crazy.” Records by Jim Croce, The Smiths, Elvis and more noodle around his brain as he roams. “I think about great records, then I can hear them,” he says. A dedicated Mormon, he prays daily. “I see the harmony in my religious beliefs and everything else the more I travel,” he says. Other than that, his focus outside of work is concentrated on being a good husband and dad to his three sons in a house which, he says, has few status symbols belying the fact that an international rock star resides there. Drummer Darren divulges only that Brandon makes a mean homemade dip for crisps and is nifty with a BBQ.
“It’s boring, I guess,” says Brandon, stonewalling questions about his daily life. As a fan, wouldn’t he like to know about Morrissey’s routine? “Yeah but he’s… different.” There’s a distinction between being famous and being a celebrity, he says. “I know a person immediately. I see it in peoples’ faces. The celebrities people worship aren’t nice. They’re fake. Even when I was little, I would have known that. It blows my mind that people don’t know their heroes are bad…” he hesitates as the wind flings his hotel door open roughly. “I’m afraid to say anybody’s name.”
Brandon’s biggest source of insecurity seems to come with the threat of being exposed as a phony, selling a lifestyle he isn’t ‘cool’ enough to lead, searching for grit and heartache that just isn’t there. “You want your rock star to be messed up. I got nothing for ya. Even the greatest storytellers have something. Johnny Cash picked cotton, his brother died, his dad was cruel to him. He was legit. I check none of those boxes.”
Instead, he’s the sort of rock star who considers education to be a lifelong pursuit. He’s currently reading John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle. “I’m still not a big reader. I struggle because I was so young when we started [in The Killers]. I’ll forever be stamped with [‘Somebody Told Me’ lyrics] ‘Somebody told me that you had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that I had in February of last year.’ That’s my own problem.” He’s embarrassed? “No, I just feel like that’s what everyone sees when they see me. Nobody’s really said it to my face. Maybe there was a misconception about me. That’s something we’re able to address as I get older. The idea that I can evolve.” Was he ever conscious of being painted as just a pretty face? “I used to think maybe it was that, but then if you look at some of the best looking dudes they’re also the brightest dudes.” Like, Springsteen? “He does look great…”
Brandon starts talking about a dinner with Bowie’s collaborator, Tony Visconti, who told him you don’t have to be a poet to say something profound. “I said, Thank you! I’m not a poet but that doesn’t mean I can’t pull a great line out every now and then. That makes me feel like my evolution is more of a possibility every time I sit down at a piano now.”
‘The Desired Effect’ gives Flowers a shot at carving a new identity – as the voice of his own storytelling, making “meaningful pop” that chimes with The Killers’ roots but expands Brandon’s growing ideas for visuals, production and performance. Old loyalties, however, run deep. With Killers shows booked in June, he insists the foursome will make another record because the last one “wasn’t good enough” and “we all know it”. He seems shackled to the same goal he’s been chasing ever since the band’s first practices all those years ago: to be U2. “Come on. Everybody wants to be ‘Achtung Baby’ Bono,” he says, convincing only himself. “Everybody.”
Brandon’s relentless search for greatness recently led to him describing the rest of The Killers as “lazy” in the press. He shuffles nervously. “Hahahaha. Did I say lazy? I tell you, recently Dave has really shown a new interest in being the guitar player for The Killers…” So it worked? “I don’t know if he saw it. I hope I didn’t upset him.”
Ronnie Vannucci Jr has his own take on the future of the band. “I don’t fear the end of The Killers – if it’s over, it’s over,” he says, on the phone from a gas station midway through a family holiday in Oregon. “We scratch those itches [with side projects, like his own Big Talk]. I get a good feeling knowing Brandon is out there doing that too. I hope the other two do it. It gets weird sometimes when we start talking about our shit with the other two.” Ronnie’s heard “most of” ‘The Desired Effect’. What does he think? “I… like it…I’m gonna wait till I hear it all.”
Have “the other two” heard the album? “They’ve heard (lead single) ‘Can’t Deny My Love’,” says Brandon.
The Killers can take some comfort in the fact they’re not the only targets for Brandon’s high standards. Everyone in a band and every single solo artist is, too. “I speak for everyone making music right now: we are not as good as people used to be. None of us. It’s baffling.” The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas receives a Get Out Of Jail Free card. “I’m still depressed about how good ‘Is This It’ is,” he exhales. “He’s the best, better than all of us.” Perhaps that’s why Brandon insists he hasn’t outgrown The Killers, because no matter how well ‘The Desired Effect’ does, he needs to return to trounce the greatest frontman of his generation. “Once [The Killers] all get on the same page it’ll work. I need to persuade them to like the same things as I do.” Which is what? “Oh. Hahahaha. I don’t know any more!”
Earlier tonight, after the gig at The Troubadour, in the back of his getaway van, Brandon unwrapped some gifts from fans: a copy of The Smiths’ debut album on cassette and a Spanish issue of Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’; the band featuring his “hero” and the solo artist he yearns to emulate. Leaving Brandon’s room at midnight, walking over the Morrissey bridge, the wind picks up furiously. “Flamingooooooooo”. That’s Brandon Flowers: caught between band and solo career, standing on one leg, not ready to put both feet in either waters just yet.