Music News
1:54 pm
Wed December 26, 2012

The Killers Return, Guitar-Rock Holdouts In A Pop World

Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 11:39 am

The Killers, who won an international following with their 2004 debut Hot Fuss, have been called the last American-born stadium rock band. This year the quartet released its fourth album — and it wasn't easy. Battle Born came just five months after Tommy Marth, a friend and frequent collaborator of the band, committed suicide in April.

"He was just a close, close friend of ours who played on saxophone on our songs," says Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci. "Some of us grew up with him. ... Whenever we wanted to put some horns in a song, we'd call upon Tommy to help us out with that. He made us sound good."

The Killers were in the middle of making Battle Born when Marth died; it was their first time in a studio in years. The band had taken a break from its relentless tour schedule after the release of 2008's Day & Age. Then, two years ago, lead singer Brandon Flowers' mother died of cancer.

"You know, I am fortunate to have had the time that I had with my mom," Flowers says. "Some people lose their parents when they're young. I already had two sons and a family of my own started."

Flowers and his bandmates had a lot of time to think, and the singer says they found themselves drifting back in time.

"Most of us grew up on a healthy diet of British rock and British pop music. Then as we got older, these influences started making their way in — things that our dads listened to," Flowers says. "And now you've got this mix of The Cure and New Order and The Beatles and this British stuff, and Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen, all these people that started getting introduced."

August Brown, a music critic at the Los Angeles Times, says The Killers' unique mix of influences makes the band unique — and that's not necessarily a good thing.

"Quite frankly, to look around and see where the pop scenes and where underground is going; it is not in that direction, and I don't know what the future of that kind of songwriting is," Brown says. "I love it, I enjoy it — and I have long defended The Killers to some hipper-than-thou friends as really classic songwriters playing great rock music. But I don't know who their peers are coming up right now."

Vannucci says he's been paying attention to pop radio and does not disagree with Brown.

"You don't hear guitars on the radio like you used to," he says. "You listen to all this perfect music: great songs, but they're so perfectly in tune and perfectly tailored, and they sound artificial in a way. It's so weird to be on the radio and have our songs ... next to songs like that."

The four members of The Killers are all originally from Las Vegas and got their start playing in typical Las Vegas venues.

"We have a buddy [who] would get together indie nights and open mic nights at cafes wherever he could — that was when we were first starting," Flowers says. "He found this hole-in-the-wall transvestite bar — it was called Tramps when we played it. One Sunday per month, Tramps became an indie dance club. We played for record labels in Tramps, our parents would come to Tramps, and there would be stray trannies walking around. It was a strange time."

Flowers says Las Vegas and its surroundings still provide him with inspiration. The Battle Born song "Miss Atomic Bomb" gets its name from a beauty pageant held during the 1950s nuclear tests in the Nevada desert.

"It is a strange thing to celebrate," Flowers says. "There are some great, iconic pictures of the first Miss Atomic Bomb, and I realized, 'This is a fantastic title.' And I instantly saw a partnership that it had with 'Mr. Brightside,' one of our previous songs."

Brown says Battle Born is not his favorite Killers album, but the band still knows how to make explosive rock.

"I think they really just believe in the power of rock music to move people in a way that they believe no other genre can," Brown says. "I think they really have a belief in the power of the three-minute rock song to stick with you from your teenage-dom through the end of your adulthood, and they want to write those songs for you."

That's what the members of the band were hoping to hear. Vannucci says the important thing about The Killers in 2012 is that the four members are still making music that means something to them.

"It's not so much about the record," Vannucci says. "Although we kind of joke about it living up to its name because of how long we took with it."

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Finally this hour, some rock music for our series The Ones That Got Away. We're reporting this week on arts and entertainment that we missed earlier in the year. Today, The Killers, they've been called the last American-born stadium rock band. Their debut, including this song, won them an international following.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. BRIGHTSIDE")

THE KILLERS: (Singing) I'm coming out of my cage, and I've been doing just fine. Got to, got to be down because I want it all. It started out with a kiss. How did it end up like this? It was only a kiss. It was only a kiss. Now, I'm falling asleep, and she's calling a cab while he's having a smoke, and she's taking a drag. Now, they're going to bed, and my stomach is sick.

SIEGEL: This year, The Killers released their first album in four years, and making it was not easy. The lead singer, Brandon Flowers, lost his mother, and in April, a frequent collaborator of the band's committed suicide. Nate Plutzik picks up the story from there.

NATE PLUTZIK, BYLINE: Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci says losing their friend Tommy Marth was an especially tough blow.

RONNIE VANNUCCI: Some of us grew up with him. And, you know, whenever we wanted to put some horns in a song, we'd call upon Tommy to help us out with that. He made it sound good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOSING TOUCH")

THE KILLERS: (Singing) Console me in my darkest hour. Convince me that the truth is always gray. Caress me in your velvet chair. Conceal me from the ghosts you cast away.

PLUTZIK: The band was already in the studio working on its new album. It had taken a break from a relentless tour schedule after the release of 2008's "Day & Age." Then two years ago, lead singer Brandon Flowers' mother died of cancer.

BRANDON FLOWERS: I feel fortunate to have had the time that I had with my mom. You know, some people lose their parents or their mother when they're young. I mean, I already had two sons and a family of my own started, and I'm just grateful for the time that I did have.

PLUTZIK: Flowers and his bandmates had a lot of time to think, and the singer says they found themselves drifting back in time.

FLOWERS: Most of us grew up on a healthy diet of British rock and British pop music. And then as we got older, these other influences started making their way in - things that our dads listened to. And now, you've got this mix of The Cure and New Order and The Beatles and all this British stuff, and Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen, all these people that started kind of getting introduced.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JENNY WAS A FRIEND OF MINE")

THE KILLERS: (Singing) We took a walk that night, but it wasn't the same. We had a fight on the promenade out in the rain. She said she loved me, but she had somewhere to go. She couldn't scream while I held her close. I swore I'd never let her go.

PLUTZIK: The Killers' mix of influences makes them kind of unique, says August Brown, a music critic for the Los Angeles Times, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

AUGUST BROWN: Quite frankly, to look around and see where the pop scenes and where the underground is going, it's not in that direction, and I don't know what the future of that kind of songwriting is. I love it. I enjoy it. And I have long defended The Killers to some more hipper-than-thou friends as actually really classic songwriters playing great rock music, but I don't know who their peers are coming up right now.

PLUTZIK: Drummer Ronnie Vannucci does not disagree.

VANNUCCI: You don't hear guitars on the radio like you used to. You listen to all this perfect music - great songs - but they're so perfectly in tune and perfectly tailored, and they sound artificial in a way. But it's so weird to be on the radio and have our songs - we have a guitar player in the band, you know - next to songs like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUNAWAYS")

THE KILLERS: (Singing) You got to know that this is real. Baby, why you want to fight it? It's the one thing you can choose. Let's take a chance, baby. We can't lose. Ain't we all just runaways? I knew it when I met you. I'm not going to let you run away.

PLUTZIK: The four members of The Killers are all originally from Las Vegas and got their start playing in typically Las Vegas venues.

FLOWERS: We have a buddy named Ryan Joseph Pardey, and he would get together indie nights and open mic nights at cafes wherever he could or whenever he could, and that was when we were first starting. And of all the places in Las Vegas, he found this hole-in-the-wall transvestite bar.

PLUTZIK: Brandon Flowers.

FLOWERS: It was called Tramps when we played it. And one Sunday per month, Tramps became an indie dance club, and we played for record labels in Tramps. Our parents would come to Tramps, and there would be, like, stray trannies walking around, and it was a strange, strange time.

PLUTZIK: And Las Vegas and its surroundings still provide inspiration.

FLOWERS: It's a strange thing to celebrate, this - Miss Atomic Bomb. They used to have pageants in the '50s in Las Vegas, and there are some great iconic pictures of the first Miss Atomic Bomb, and I realized this is a fantastic title. And I instantly saw a partnership that it had with "Mr. Brightside," one of our previous songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISS ATOMIC BOMB")

THE KILLERS: (Singing) Miss Atomic Bomb, making out, we've got the radio on. You're going to miss me when I'm gone. You're going to miss me when I'm gone. Racing shadows in the moonlight, through the desert on a hot night, and for a second there, we'd won. Yeah, we were innocent and young.

PLUTZIK: Critic August Brown says this is not his favorite Killers album, but the band still knows how to make explosive rock.

BROWN: I think they really just believe in the power of rock music to move people in a way that they believe no other genre really can. I think they really have a faith in the power of the three-and-a-half-minute rock song to stick with you from your teenage-dom through the end of your adulthood, and they want to write those songs for you, and I think they really just care in a way that trend chasers today maybe aren't trying to write for history.

PLUTZIK: That's what the members of The Killers were hoping to hear. Drummer Ronnie Vannucci says the important thing is that The Killers are still making music that means something to them.

VANNUCCI: It's not so much about the record, although we did kind of joke about having it living up to its name because of, you know, how long we took with it.

PLUTZIK: It's called "Battle Born." For NPR News, I'm Nate Plutzik.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATTLE BORN")

THE KILLERS: (Singing) When they break your heart, when they cause your soul to mourn, remember what I said. Boy, you was battle born. No, you can't stop now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.