“Get in here!” Ronnie Vannucci Jr is shouting through the blacked-out window of a Ford pick-up truck, the sort of vehicle reserved for serial killers and rock gods. Ronnie’s picking me up from Sonoma Country Airport in northern California. This is sophisticated wine country, but as the airport is named after American cartoonist Charles M Schulz, it’s also decorated with life-size Snoopy figurines. The contrast suits The Killers’ drummer well. You can’t miss him around the rural town he calls home and likens to Hill Valley, the fictional setting of Back To The Future. His monstrous vehicle has the words POWER STROKE emblazoned on the side, and blue headlights. “Laser beams!” he jests.
As he revs through serene vineyardswhile listening to classic Chicago rock band Styx and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’, sipping on a jasmine green tea and wearing a psychedelic Hunter S Thompson cabana shirt, Ronnie is well aware of his own rocker ridiculousness. “I find myself in this superficial universe now that parallels with my own weird everyday life,” he says. “A Venn diagram of make-believe rock’n’roll balanced out with having an actual existence in smalltown, USA.”
He knows everyone around this town, but has never courted fame. He says The Killers quit doing red carpets on ‘Sam’s Town’ in 2006. The only sign of his involvement in one of the world’s biggest rock bands to be found in his house – formerly a women-only retirement home – is a framed number 2 from the video set of early hit ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’. “It doesn’t fit with my personality to have gold discs up everywhere saying, ‘Oh I’m so great! What would that lead to? Me wearing a fucking cape indoors?’”
Aside from one recent Killers gig in Delaware, Ronnie has set aside his sticks for a while and is back on guitar/vocal duties. His side-project Big Talk is what he does when BrandonFlowers wants to go off and make a solo record, which is why every Brandon album is rapidly followed by a Big Talk one. The band is Ronnie’s big, silly outlet for the element of his personality that constantly wants to turn it up to eleven. “I’ve made a band with three members of Tenacious D as the entire rhythm section, and me and my friend Taylor [Milne] have turned ourselves into Jack [Black] and Kyle [Gass].” He’s actually called the forthcoming second album ‘Straight In, No Kissin”. Really. Soundwise, it’s inspired by The Replacements and whatever other punk juices flowed out of his system during live takes in his basement studio at 3am, aided by wine and whiskey. It opens with the lyrics, “Vannucci better hold that line”. “Who opens an album with their own name? What an asshole!”
Last time we spoke he said Big Talk’s self-titled first album was “horseshit”. “Did I say that?” he asks, high-pitched, pulling into his drive. “I retract that. Change that to ‘half horseshit’.” Ronnie is self-deprecating about his role as a singer/guitarist, despite having over three dozen guitars in his basement. “I know, he’s the worst,” chips in John Spiker from the back seat. John is Big Talk’s bassist; Ronnie met him met a year ago, then invited him to live in his house.
“If you see my dad by the pool naked, please ignore him,” says Ronnie. “We had a pizza party here last night. It got out of hand.” Around the kitchen table, Ronnie’s wife of 20 years makes granola while his mum and dad play with Archie, the dog. We go downstairs to the “dojo”/studio adorned with “everything you need to make a record”, including the brand of rye favoured by Al Capone. Ronnie pours out three neat ones. It is noon, after all, and we’ve already enjoyed his own pear cider, bottled and sold at a local barn. A wine tasting session replaces afternoon tea and there’s a promise of a margarita for dinner. “You’re gonna shit your pants, it’s so good,” he smiles. “The plan is to take you back to the airport in a wheelchair.”
The opening track ‘Hold That Line’ is about being the good guy of rock. What do you want to teach others?
Ronnie: “First of all, me being a good guy? That is subjective. It’s about not letting your own bar go too low. I’m not hellbent on trying to change the world.”
You sound pretty political on the song ‘La Rue D’Awakening’…
Ronnie: “Well, I’d buy a newspaper every day and base songs on whatever was on the first three pages. There was a lot of shit going on. It made me angry. I love people. But I can’t believe how stupid they are. The psychology of Man baffles me.”
What’s been upsetting you specifically?
Ronnie: “People shooting people! Schools should teach more science. People should be kinder. I’m not all hung up on peace though.”
What do you make of the legalisation of gay marriage?
Ronnie: “I’m stoked. Of course! But there are assholes refuting it. People need to put down the phone and pick up a book. Five minutes per day and you’d be surprised how much you learn.”
So what are you reading at the moment?
Ronnie: “Says the guy who’s bitching… Well, I just finished ‘Zealot’ [by Reza Aslan], a historical take on this guy Jesus Christ. Theology fascinates me. People like to burn other people in cages because of gods. Wow! We really haven’t come a long way. I like audiobooks. People think when I’m onstage with The Killers, my in-ear monitors are playing back my drums. No. I’m listening to Stephen King. And Stephen Haw-king. Just getting my learn on.”
Have you ever been tempted to go into TV or film?
Ronnie: “I already tried out for movies. Obviously I didn’t get them. Whether or not you get the part has a lot to do with how you look.”
What was wrong with your appearance?
Ronnie: “That’s what I’ve been asking myself!”
Did they want you to get rid of your beard? Would that be a deal-breaker?
Ronnie: “Oh no! Tell me to shave it and I’ll go upstairs right now. My skin gets sensitive, OK? I actually was asked to do some cheesy shit.”
A Ryan Reynolds-style romcom?
Ronnie: “I wish! I was invited to play a vampire drummer that fucked everything that moved.”
You turned that down?
Ronnie: “Well that’s not really acting, is it? That’s just my life.”
Ronnie gets his sense of humour from his dad. “I have a zeal for happiness. I like to live by the seat of my pants.” I ask when the last time was that he took a joke too far. “We just approved the album art…” Ronnie takes out his phone and shows off a psychedelic illustration of the five members of Big Talk, all scantily clad in drag. His illustratorfriend had haphazardly drawn each member a self-portrait, accompanied by the female version of themselves. It wasn’t intended for the album, but in trueRonnie style, circumstances dictated otherwise.
“Weeks later, Bruce Jenner changes himself to Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair and I’m like, ‘What agreat idea! We should do these female versions of ourselves for our cover!’ All I asked for was big tits and a sunburn. Make me cute.” It looks like Ronnie might be sporting a thong. “Is that a thong? It’s more of an eye patch, showing a lot of cheek.” Do you enjoy being in touch with your feminine side? “I love my dick. But I make a damn pretty girl.” Ronnie pauses. It’s a text from Brandon. “I just text him the cover! He’s replied from Hawaii, ‘Dude, that’s soooooo cool. I’m a little jelly.’ Haha! I made Brandon jelly.”
Do you and Brandon talk often?
Ronnie: “There’s a mutual admiration going on. Well, at least I admire him!”
So you’re a fan of ‘The Desired Effect’?
Ronnie: “Yeah! It took me a minute to settle into the production but I don’t have a bad thing to say.”
Do you wish Brandon would save all his best songs to The Killers?
Ronnie: “Sure. Some ideas on my album were supposed to be on [fourth Killers LP] ‘Battle Born’ too but whatever. ‘The Desired Effect’ was brought in as demos but they just didn’t fly with the rest of the guys.”
Are you and Brandon the driving force behind The Killers?
Ronnie: “We’re all kindreds on some levels. Just because we’re the ones doing albums outside The Killers doesn’t denote that we’re the driving forces. Dave [Keuning, guitarist] and Mark [Stoermer, bassist] have a driving force. If they didn’t we’d just form another band.”
Do tempers flare?
Ronnie: “Of course! [Ronnie roleplays a little scenario by standing up and screaming] ‘Come on! This is the best fucking job in the world! What are you doing sitting on your ass! Get the fuck up! Let’s rule!’”
How do Mark and Dave react?
Ronnie: “They tell me to chill the fuck out. You have to respect everyone. I don’t want to create a travelling shitshow.”
Have you ever thrown a cymbal across the room?
Ronnie: “Hahaha. No. I let it stew inside and wreck my brains instead. There hasn’t been any broken skin. Just bruised instruments.”
Brandon fluctuates between telling the press that The Killers are the greatest band in the world and that they’re not good enough. Which is it?
Ronnie: “It’s not that the band isn’t good enough. I agree with him. We’ve done a lot, but we haven’t done it yet. We haven’t done anything important.”
Do you still feel like a young band?
Ronnie: “For the type of band we wanna be, yes.”
What’s it like when you come together in a room again?
Ronnie: “I just wanna hug the dudes, ‘Hey! It’s been too fucking long! Get your bass on!’”
What do your and Brandon’s solo albums mean for the future of The Killers?
Ronnie: “We’re going to make another record. I’d like them to come here because I’m lazy and have a perfectly suited studio. The idea has been tossed around. Look, I gotta piss like a horse. You feel like doing some tasting?”
Over some commendably fine wines and that promised margarita, Ronnie wants to get one final thing off his chest. It’s the week after Glastonbury, and he was particularly perturbed to see Kanye West declaring himself the greatest “rock star” on the planet. “I watched him perform ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, saw a frog fall from the sky and decided it was time to prepare for the end of the world.” Ronnie doesn’t think Kanye is a “rock star”. “My neighbour has a six-year-old in Little League and according to him he’s ‘a little rock star’. So maybe Kanye is a rock star in the same way as a six-year-old T-ball player.” The Ronnie Vannucci Jr definition of a ‘rock star’ is someone who “fills a stadium night after night anywhere in the world, writes their own songs, falls off that stage, breaks his leg and then plays two-and-a-half hours afterwards.” So he doesn’t think it was foolhardy of Dave Grohl to play on a broken leg? “No! It happens all the time. I tell you, it’s a good thing I sit down on my instrument…”
Ronnie recognises that his idea of rock’n’roll may seem “antiquated” to others. “I don’t like pissing contests. The Killers are a band born in my fucking garage in Vegas who played eight hours a day,wrote songs and went out to do gigs on the weekend.”
Despite living the good life in Sonoma, Ronnie is unlikely to forget where he came from. Too drunk to drive, Ronnie has to ask his mum to take us back to the airport. Jumping in her car, a notification flashes up on the dashboard: “The Killers are playing on Channel 10”. “Yeah, mom has alarms set for that,” he laughs.