Mormon Rock Stars
The Killers Inside
Rolling in Vegas with Brandon Flowers, the biggest, most insecure Mormon rock star ever
rOLLING sTONE MAGAZINE
Posted Dec 25, 2008 8:30 AM
Brandon Flowers is having trouble explaining himself. Maybe it's because nothing about him adds up: a couture-wearing synth-pop fanatic who wants to be Bruce Springsteen; a devout Mormon who sings in a decadent Las Vegas rock band. Maybe it's because when Flowers talks, he tends to get in trouble — like when he bragged that Sam's Town, the previous album from his band, the Killers, was "one of the best albums in the last 20 years" before anyone heard it. Or maybe it's because, as the Killers prepare to release their third album, Day & Age, he's still not sure what kind of band they are. "Every day, I change," says Flowers. "One day I want to be dead serious, and the next I just want to write great pop songs and have fun. I don't have any kind of clear direction. I don't know if I'd want to." He sighs. "I don't even know why people want to talk to me."
Flowers is sitting at the empty bar of a steakhouse tucked inside the Four Queens Hotel and Casino, a low-rolling Vegas spot across the street from the Killers' rehearsal space. He's brought two beverages with him: a Crystal Geyser water and the remains of a Coke Slurpee. Every aspect of his appearance is arranged with OCD perfection: The sleeves of his red plaid shirt are rolled with military precision; his two-day stubble roughens his baby face just so; his mussed brown hair looks like he has it cut and styled twice a day.
But he's talking in the halting cadences of a nervous teenager, batting away too-tough queries with an incongruous, childlike giggle. He struggles to answer a simple question: What does he mean by the line that provides his album title, "I want the new day and age," in the song "Neon Tiger"? "It means, I want a new day and age — I think that things could be better," Flowers says, then pauses for nearly 10 seconds, looking down at the table. "I don't feel like I'm allowed to say some of the things that I feel." Why? "I'm too handsome."
Day & Age, produced by Madonna collaborator Stuart Price, is a lot more fun than the Springsteen-meets-Queen bombast of Sam's Town. As bassist Mark Stoermer puts it, "It's all over the place" — but in a good way, from the quirky synth-and-horns pop of "Losing Touch" to the Disintegration-era Cure-style album closer, "Good Night, Travel Well." "This album isn't trying to be anything," Flowers says. "We have so many influences, and we don't want to be tied down or branded."
Flowers grew up on New Wave and synth-pop bands — Duran Duran, the Cure, Depeche Mode, the Smiths — but as an adult, he's become more passionate about American roots rock, particularly Springsteen, Tom Petty and Tom Waits. "Hot Fuss [the band's 2004 debut] was synthetic," says Flowers, 27. "Even if it was heartfelt, it had a sheen on it, and I think it's kind of a mask that we put on — it's like how the Strokes were dirty rock & rollers coming from more well-to-do places. We came from the opposite end and put on suits. But when I hear Tom Waits or I hear 'Thunder Road,' you know, it makes me want to put boots on, play piano and drive a '57 Chevy."
In New York a week later, Flowers is less tongue-tied. Last time, he was agitated about rehearsals for their tour, but now they've successfully completed their first couple of shows. Flowers has spent the past few hours in his hotel room watching the 1984 Jeff Bridges flick Starman, which he deems "real touching." He brightens further when discussing his wife, Tana, and his 18-month-old son, Ammon. "I don't want to go more than a couple of weeks, maybe three weeks, without seein' 'em," he says. "Ammon's starting to get a personality now. It's hard. I cried like a baby when I left the airport yesterday."
Sitting in a Japanese restaurant, Flowers makes a case for the neglected genius of Oingo Boingo. "They're so underrated — it borders on insanity," he says, gesturing furiously. "People just don't understand. They only know 'Weird Science,' or maybe Dead Man's Party. They ride this line of, like, ska and punk and everything, but it's not ska and it's not punk. And it's crazy. Get Best of Boingo. I'm serious."
Flowers' mother is a housewife and his father worked in a grocery store; they raised him outside Las Vegas, and later in Nephi, Utah (he moved back to Vegas when he was 16). Flowers shares a hardscrabble background with Springsteen — his father was an alcoholic until he converted to Mormonism when Flowers was five. "My parents are my connection to, you know, my romantic America," says Flowers, who on the new song "A Dustland Fairytale" describes his father as "some kind of slick chrome American prince." "My dad always had old cars, and he taught me all about them." But unlike Bruce, or basically any rock star ever, Flowers is a practicing Mormon. He goes to church, and his wife, a schoolteacher and former manager of a Vegas Urban Outfitters, converted to the faith before they wed in 2005. They named Ammon after a missionary in the Book of Mormon.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints frowns on drugs, alcohol and premarital sex, but for a while, Flowers was drinking and partying hard on the road. Two years ago, around the time of the release of Sam's Town, he stopped. "I think I probably feel less guilt, and I'm also healthier than I've ever been," says Flowers. He's hazy on what led to his change, except to say, "My wife being pregnant and all that really put things into perspective. But there is an element of fun that I miss out on," Flowers says, with some wistfulness.
Flowers voted for Obama, but his politics have often seemed to lean right: He has expressed sympathy for George W. Bush in the past, and he criticized Green Day for singing "American Idiot" overseas. And he worries out loud that America is turning away from religion. "In England, the press treat [religious believers] like you believe in Santa Claus, and it's turning that way in America," he says, with obvious disapproval.
Flowers' faith in his band is equally fervent: He recently suggested the Killers could become bigger than U2, and he thinks his best songwriting is still to come. "I feel like I've got to constantly write songs," he says. "I could go up to my hotel room right now and — y'know, I still want to write an 'Imagine.' It's not impossible to me, as much as everyone would like to say it is."
Despite the six years they've been together, there's something odd about the Killers' offstage chemistry — they don't have much of it. They look and act like they're in four different bands, and their interaction is more like that of colleagues than pals. "We're becoming friends," says Flowers. "We're still learning about each other. We've only known each other for about as long as this band's been around."
But as different as they may be, these guys are united by their oversize ambition: The band, which started with guitarist Dave Keuning's and Flowers' jam sessions in 2002, established goals from the beginning. "I remember asking Brandon, 'So you want to be big, right?' And he's like, 'Yeah,' " says Keuning. (According to Day & Age producer Price, Flowers and Madonna have more than a little in common: "There's a drive and determination that those two have," he says, "where it's kind of 'succeed by any means necessary.' ")
Drummer Ronnie Vannucci studied percussion in college, and he has the session-dude chops to nail the pulsing dance beat of the new album's lead single, "Human." Keuning is the designated oddball — he's so spacey that he's actually saving money to book a trip on Virgin's first commercial space flights. His eyes sometimes appear to be moving in opposite directions, and he insists the band's "Born to Run" homage, "When You Were Young," sounds nothing like Springsteen. ("He's so weird, but he's so good," says Vannucci.) With his Brian May curls, Keuning also has the most old-school-rock look of the four — he keeps his hair long because he wasn't allowed to in his various pre-Killers day jobs. "Every day, I'm just thankful I don't have to get up and go to Banana Republic at six in the morning and open boxes of clothes," he says.
The combination of Flowers' brashness with the group's tendency to overreach somehow makes his band all the more fascinating. His most famous lyric — "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier," from the Hot Fuss song "All These Things That I've Done" — is unforgettably catchy, but also a baffling non sequitur. The ungrammatical chorus of "Human" ("Are we human, or are we dancer") is just as impenetrable. Flowers is irritated that people don't quite seem to get the lyric, and that fans were unhappy with the song's dance beat. "It's supposed to be a dance song, it goes with the chorus," he says. "If you can't put that together, you're an idiot. I just don't get why there's a confusion about it."
Flowers knows he's inviting more mockery with a key song on the new album, the Bowie-esque "Neon Tiger," which reads like a self-aggrandizing fable. "Took to the spotlight like a diamond ring. . . ./Don't you let them tame you/You're far too pure and bold," Flowers sings, with maximum drama. But recently Flowers got some reassurance from one of his heroes: He talked with Bruce Springsteen backstage at an L.A. arena. "I was scared to death, with all the dust that was kicked up about Sam's Town," Flowers says. "And he just eased my mind and gave me such a boost of confidence. And he was — he's perfect. He's unbelievable, you know? He was way nicer than he needed to be. He talked about how undeniable the first record was. And I brought up my concerns about it all, and, you know, he said he dealt with the same thing with Bob Dylan."
In New York, the Killers walk onstage at Hammerstein Ballroom in front of thousands of superpsyched fans, from 10-year-old kids to boogieing housewives. Toward the end of the show, Flowers stands on the monitor speakers and spreads his arms in a messianic, Bono-esque pose, as the crowd shouts along with the coda from "All These Things That I've Done": "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier." Flowers lifts his microphone stand with his right hand and pumps it in the air to Vannucci's beat. He repeats his line, again and again, with as much passion as he's got: "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier." It sounds great. And for a moment, you could almost believe it means something.
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