The Killers interview
The American foursome talk songwriting, Mormonism and Mitt Romney
This October The Killers bring their epic Americana to London. Will they be ready to rock? Or will conjunctivitis, normal-sized cans of Coke and militant atheists derail them? Jonny Ensall goes backstage at their Glasgow gig to find out.
There are some problems backstage at The Killers’ gig in Glasgow. For a start, all the Coke is in normal-sized cans and not the miniature can-ettes you get on aeroplanes. ‘Fun size… fun size!’ the assistant tour manager is barking at a caterer. Also, the padding that has been bought to protect the band’s ping-pong table in transit isn’t thick enough. Singer Brandon Flowers is holed up in his dressing room, drummer Ronnie Vannucci claims he has a nasty case of conjunctivitis (‘it’s the new STD’, he quips) and guitarist Dave Keuning is, well… just a bit down in the dumps. Glasgow is so ‘cold and grey’, he points out, pretty accurately.
You wouldn’t expect things to run entirely smoothly on the first date of a world tour but, on this drab night in late October, there’s a lot at stake. One of the defining rock bands of the last decade are back after a year-long hiatus, in which Flowers, Vannucci and bassist Mark Stoermer all pursued solo projects. Their comeback to the UK stage is at Glasgow’s warehouse-like SECC – but in a few weeks the Las Vegas four-piece will be appearing in London, their home-from-home, the city they’re in love with and that first made them famous. They’d better bloody well be ready.
Everything hinges on Flowers and, when I meet him in his dressing room, he looks like the most he’s up for is a quiet night in front of the telly. His tracksuit is two sizes too big. His hair is fluffy; his eyes puppyishly sad. I wonder whether his recurring shoulder injury is causing him any bother? ‘It’s the same,’ he deadpans. A trickle of doubt is starting to creep in. Is this man really prepared to bring a crowd to its knees in under two hours?
On The Killers’ multi-platinum 2004 debut, ‘Hot Fuss’, the band borrowed from the angularity of British post-punk and the androgyny of Bowie, but on latest album ‘Battle Born’ Flowers takes a trip deep into Springsteen territory via the novels of John Steinbeck. His songs suggest the American Dream is crumbling, and that only young love can save it. Flowers has been married since 2005, so where do all the girl-meets-boy stories come from?
‘You just do your best,’ he says, drily. ‘Even when I was young the songs had specific stories, and you just try to get better at it. You absorb what’s happening and make observations, and do your best to capture something. And you’ve got four minutes.’ He fixes me with a heartbreaking smile. ‘So it’s kind of hard sometimes.’
He still lives close to the seediness of the Vegas strip. There must be a part of him that despairs at the state of America? ‘I don’t think it’s just America, I think it’s everywhere! But I have no…’ He hesitates, seeming to check himself. ‘I’m not here to preach,’ he says, stopping things dead.
Flowers is a practising Mormon, which (along with great hair) is something he shares with Mitt Romney. Unlike Romney, however, he’s at pains not to make his celebrity a platform for his beliefs. ‘I think Mormonism is still very unusual to people,’ he admits. ‘And so having someone be in the spotlight as much as Mitt Romney’s been, there’s been a little bit of a buzz about it.'
‘One of the things about my church is we’re very family-oriented, so I grew up with that and right now I’m applying that to my family. Most churches are like that but I guess we have a certain emphasis on it.’ Does he think the idea of the family is in crisis? ‘I think it’s been proven that unless people are sitting around having dinner with their families…’ Again he pauses, not wanting to seem judgmental. ‘I think that’s happening less and less. It seems to be, I don’t know… I don’t know how to finish it.’
Flowers’s uncle Johnny was a cocaine user who tried (unsuccessfully) to shoot off his own testicles in a bathtub. This, I imagine, is the sort of family drama the singer thinks is avoidable. He claims not to drink or take drugs, though he does gulp down a Red Bull before gigs. ‘The Red Bull comes about ten minutes before I go on. It’s the beginning of a transformation. I’ve been doing it for so long now my body knows that’s the cue.’
But there was no Red Bull required to get fired up for a recent gig on Swedish TV. Flowers and The Killers were guests on a chat show along with Björn from Abba, Ulrika Jonsson and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins claimed on air that the Book of Mormon was ‘a work of charlatanry’.
‘I see both sides of it,’ Flowers says, with astonishing objectivity. ‘He sees [religion] as a dangerous thing [with] people that are fanatical, you know… I’m not going to be the one who persuades Richard Dawkins that there’s a god, and I knew that. But I tried to at least answer a couple of questions and speak a little bit more. But yeah, he wasn’t nice. He wasn’t very Christ-like. Which makes sense.’
Is Flowers just a nice guy? Or is it that he’s afraid of hypocrisy, not wanting to judge others lest he be judged for the sleazy glamour of The Killers’ stage show? Either way, he’s got until the band’s 8.45pm stage time to find his voice.
The band are milling about backstage wearing the bored expressions of car-boot browsers. Vannucci decides to change his underwear – he hates to sweat through his good pants. I win a halfhearted game of table tennis against Keuning. Flowers emerges, dressed in leathers. There’s something in his eyes now, narked and nervous.
Everything changes. By the time Flowers bounds on stage he’s electrified. ‘It’s been too long, Glasgow,’ he roars into the mic. Behind the stage, the ‘Battle Born’ backdrop shows a desert highway, a more exciting-looking route than the road to Aberdeen which the band will be taking for their next gig. Suddenly, the venue doesn’t feel like a DIY superstore any more. If The Killers are bored to tears, and thinking about their backhands, it doesn’t show in their performance. They’re on fire, and the American Dream is alive again.