After leaving Las Vegas, Brandon Flowers and the Killers broaden their horizons
Decades later, Brandon Flowers can see that it was unusual: At an age when many of his adolescent friends were doing anything they could to rebel against their parents, the future Killers frontman was spending an increasing amount of time playing golf with his father.
“Some of my most precious memories with him are on the course,” he recalled the other day, sounding a little wistful over the phone from his home in Park City, Utah.
Flowers, 39, has been thinking about his dad as he’s started to play golf with his own sons — he and his wife, Tana, have three, ages 13, 11 and 9 — while the typically hard-touring Killers take an unexpected break from the road thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m making up for lost time with them,” he said. “I feel guilty because I haven’t hated quarantine.”
In a way, though, Flowers has never not had his elders in mind. Since forming in Las Vegas in 2001, the Killers — whose sixth studio album, “Imploding the Mirage,” is due Friday — have openly emulated pioneering big-tent rock acts like U2 and Bruce Springsteen with music that combines roaring guitars (remember those?) with driving tempos and sky-high melodies. And they’ve collaborated with veterans including Mark Knopfler and Lou Reed.
Now, in an era dominated by hip-hop, they’re one of the few current bands still capable of filling arenas and stadiums: Had their tour not been put off to 2021, the Killers would have hit Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park next week behind “Imploding the Mirage,” which features a guest spot by no less a dad-rock legend than Lindsey Buckingham.
Tim and Fred Williams have gone viral with their reaction video to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” And no, they never listened to the song beforehand.
“My kids love them, and my wife loves them,” said the former Fleetwood Mac singer-guitarist, who contributes a searing, “Big Love”-style solo to the LP’s thrumming lead single, “Caution.” “They’ve created something that’s fresh, that speaks to the young — or the young-ish,” he added. “But there’s such a strong center to what they’re doing. Their material is so well crafted that it cuts across a lot of generational lines.”
The group’s most satisfying record since 2008’s “Day & Age,” “Imploding the Mirage” reaches for the same go-for-broke quality — and the same iconographic lyrical splendor — that power Killers classics like “When You Were Young” and “Human.” In “Caution,” a No. 1 hit at alternative rock radio, Flowers demonstrates exactly none as he howls about a “featherweight queen” with “Hollywood eyes” who “can go straight from zero to the Fourth of July.”
Yet the album reveals new wrinkles too, including a rhythmic flexibility and a welcome feminine presence in the form of appearances by k.d. lang and Weyes Blood.
Asked if he surprised himself by making something so vivid 16 years after the band’s debut album, Flowers said, “I can list the people who’ve made great records this far into their career — there aren’t that many. But there are some, and that’s enough for me to pursue it.” The singer cited Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty and Peter Gabriel, calling them “People that just kept producing the goods.”
He also said he’s found inspiration in a quote attributed to the South African golfer Gary Player. “He said, ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get,’” Flowers said. Then he laughed in a gently snorting way that called to mind George McFly from “Back to the Future.” “I’ve always got a sports analogy.”
The Killers put in the hours on the course this time. Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. — the band’s two remaining permanent members after guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer both stepped away in recent years from full-time membership — initially got to work with producer Jacknife Lee, who’d produced 2017’s so-so “Wonderful Wonderful.”
The music started coming as always, but it felt “too much like familiar territory,” Vannucci said, “which wasn’t what we needed.” Keuning’s departure made them want to rejigger their approach, while Flowers’ move from Las Vegas to Utah had him pondering ideas of legacy and tradition, not to mention his conception of himself as a rock star.
“It was kind of a crisis for me,” the frontman said of leaving his hometown. “I felt like the mountains and the lights defined me, and so I felt like I was doing something dirty by leaving it.” Beyond the severing of a certain hyper-American aesthetic tie, he fretted over no longer being able to take his sons to the restaurants he grew up eating in; he hated to think that future Flowerses wouldn’t learn to ride their bikes in the park where he taught his kids (and where his dad taught him).
Yet Las Vegas was “basically a haunted place for my wife,” he said, referring obliquely to an unhappy family background. “Getting her out of there has been great for her,” added the singer, who was raised in the Mormon church. “It’s become a huge blessing for my family.”
Flowers wanted to get his arms around all this in the Killers’ music. So he and Vannucci tried starting over with a series of producers in a process the drummer compared to speed-dating. None sparked their imagination until the duo of Jonathan Rado, of the SoCal psych-rock band Foxygen, and Shawn Everett, who’s worked with the War on Drugs and Kacey Musgraves (and who came recommended by Flowers’ pal Ariel Rechtshaid).
“They were just super-spontaneous and up for anything,” Vannucci said, which seemed “slightly dangerous” after years of recording with many of the same folks.
Everett said that because the Killers’ identity is anchored in a feeling more than in a specific sound — he likened it to “the surge of freedom you get at the end of a long journey” — they could tinker liberally with textures and arrangements, as in the funky “Fire In Bone.”
The musicians tracked much of the album at a pair of storied L.A. studios, Vox and Sound City; Flowers took particular pleasure in cutting “Blowback,” which he called “maybe the most Heartbreakers of all our songs,” in the latter room, a regular spot for Petty over the course of his long career. Buckingham got involved after Flowers and Vannucci decided that, minus Keuning, “Caution” needed some “magical guitar juice,” as Vannucci put it.
“I was kind of joking when I suggested him — like, ‘Oh, you know who’d be great on this?’” the drummer recalled. To their surprise, Buckingham “drove down to Vox, and got his hands dirty with us,” Flowers said.
Both members admit they don’t love the situation with Keuning and Stoermer, who’ve described creative frustrations and exhaustion from touring in explaining why they’ve opted out of recording and performing with the Killers. Yet neither member has officially quit the band, and Flowers said he’s unlikely to force the issue.
“I have sort of a little-brother complex because everyone in the band is five years older than me,” he said. “If somebody was taking their stance and they were five years younger than me, would it be the same? I don’t know that it would be.”
Vannucci is a bit more generous. “I want to leave room for them if they want to come back,” he said. “And it’s looking like it’s headed that way, where they’ve had enough of a breather, and they feel refreshed.” He’s hopeful the guitarist and bassist might rejoin the Killers in time for next year’s dates — assuming those dates actually happen, of course.
Calling off their tour this summer took a significant financial toll on a band whose business relies in large part on selling concert tickets. It was also an artistic disappointment: Flowers said that since “Sam’s Town” — the 2006 album pilloried by many reviewers as an overblown mess — he’s often thought of the Killers as a band that’s at its best onstage.
“Because the album got trashed so badly, I wanted a critic to be there every night, and I wanted to show them that these songs were better than what was being written,” he said. “And I think that allowed our band to come to life in a new way.”
Still, “I haven’t thought about winning the race” to get back on the road, said Flowers, who figures real-deal touring won’t resume until a vaccine is widely available. When it does, the band plans to employ a third-party human-resources rep, Vannucci said, to promptly field allegations like the one made recently on social media by a former Killers sound engineer who said other crew members had discussed assaulting a woman backstage in 2009. (This month the band’s legal team said it had investigated the claim and found that the discussion of assault was likely an “attempt at a joke or a ‘hazing’” by a since-dismissed crew member; Chez Cherrie, the engineer, responded by saying that such behavior “reflects the larger issue in this industry — that ‘hazing’ towards the only women on the technical crew was normal, expected, accepted and not questioned by anyone, including myself.”)
Until then, Flowers the proud family man will be at home in Utah doing “typical dad” stuff with his sons, he said, which in addition to golf includes another activity that reminds the singer of his own childhood.
“I remember my dad bringing home a stack of targets during Desert Storm with Saddam Hussein’s face on them, and we’d shoot BB guns,” he said. “The kids, they love that story. Now we shoot Red Bull cans and Perrier bottles.”
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