The Killers on the Dublin restaurant that stays open late for them
Brandon Flowers and Ronnie Vannucci Jr on their early ambitions and working with Irish producer Jacknife Lee for their new album
The Killers: Ronnie Vannucci Jr, Brandon Flowers and Mark Stoermer. Photograph: Anton Corbijn
The Killers’ drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr walks into the quiet hotel bar first. He’s a formidable presence, a beefy man with a confusing beard, wearing a worn white T-shirt, frayed blue jeans, affable runners.
He displays a visible no-nonsense demeanor as he sits himself down at a small, square table. Seconds later, the band’s lead singer, Brandon Flowers, takes a place beside him.
Flowers is the physical polar opposite of his bandmate – slim, smartly, slickly attired (black jacket, black shirt dotted with tiny horseshoes, black jeans, black pointy cowboy boots, black hair). He has the manner of someone who is breathing fresh air after months in a bunker.
With work completed on their new album, Wonderful Wonderful, there’s a sense that a new phase in the band’s life is about to take place. Previous album, 2013’s Battle Born (the title comes from the name of the band’s recording studio in Nevada; the words also appear on the Nevada state flag), was a million-plus seller, so was by no means as successful as their 2004 debut Hot Fuss (over seven million) and 2006 follow-up, Sam’s Town (almost five million). The comparative lack of commercial success was in part attributed, says Flowers, to insufficient focus.
Perhaps tellingly, the album suffered from the too-many-cooks condition of having five producers, each of them singularly experienced in their own right: Steve Lillywhite, Brendan O’Brien, Daniel Lanois, Damian Taylor and Stuart Price. For the new album, they dialed it down.
“It was important to get just one person this time,” says Flowers. “I’m not opposed to a team, but the last album was a couple of tracks with this guy and a couple with that guy. It was good to get someone on board that was ready to do the whole record.”
The someone was acclaimed Dublin producer Jacknife Lee, who, remarks Vannucci, succeeded in getting the band’s songs “to the top of the mountain”.
What did they see when they got there? “A sense of pride when we heard the full record,” says Vannucci. “A good view, but not with a lot of oxygen,” says Flowers, somewhat abstractly.
Much has changed for the band since they formed in Nevada in 2002. In 2001, when he attended an Oasis concert in his hometown, Flowers’s Anglophile tendencies were focused, his resolve to be a rock star galvanised. In true Magnificent Seven style, he gathered his band members around him. The first song he and guitarist Dave Keuning wrote together was Mr Brightside, but it was some time before things really started to click.
“The precise ambition was to be a big band,” remembers Flowers, “but I don’t think we realised it was going to happen so slowly, or how incrementally. And also how much work it was going to take. You just think about this goal you want to attain, or you look at certain bands and know you want to be like them, without quite realising what went into getting there. We had a few surprises on the way up, as everyone does.”
“Having no idea as to how much we’d have to tour. And making music videos! When we were a naive band trying to make it out of Nevada, we weren’t even thinking about music videos. That really wasn’t going to be our favourite thing in the world to do. I don’t talk much on stage, as in banter with the audience, but that was another thing I wasn’t thinking about when we started – an engagement with an audience that just has to be done. Red carpets? We’re terrible at them, but you don’t know about things like that until you get out there.”
“When you’re a kid, playing air guitar in your underwear, in front of the mirror,” says Vannucci, the supplier of an image that is now firmly lodged in the head, “being on the red carpet is not something you generally think about. Where we are now, and have been for some time, is so much more dynamic than what it used to be.”
The route from Nevada bars to world stages didn’t come without struggle, says Flowers, yet hardships and hard work transformed the band. “Success isn’t going to come totally naturally to you. It was never going to, which is something you don’t realise about all of the great bands out there – they had to fight for it, too.”
Vannucci describes the unforeseen self-promotional add-ons that come with commercial success as “little intricacies”, yet he says with some conviction that from the very start, The Killers “always played as if we were performing in front of thousands. It may have been 13 people at a sports bar in a residential neighbourhood in Vegas, but we’d just pretend – always pretend – as if we were playing in an arena. That’s one of the things that allowed us to be noticed. At the time, it was very fashionable to walk on stage, look like you just mowed the lawn, and put a guitar on. It was as if it was cool not to care. But we did care. Constantly.”
It is true, Vannucci confirms, that initially no US label wanted to know about The Killers. A lesson in music industry business tactics was quickly learned.
“That was so weird,” he recalls. “It all happened within three months in or around 2002 – we’d showcase our music to many US labels, we’d travel to Los Angeles or New York, play about six songs. Sometimes, they’d call you back, but most times they didn’t. We’d been doing that for about two months in the US, but then we went to the UK, played five gigs, got reviewed, and, pretty much instantly, got signed. When we came back home, all of the labels that had previously not wanted us were on their knees.”
Did that life lesson harden the band’s resolve or – as it does in some cases – undermine confidence? “Oh, that really smartened us up,” affirms Vannucci. “It didn’t slow us down at all, but it made us question some people we were dealing with, and whether they really had it in their hearts to work with us and for us. I suppose we quickly became a little cynical and guarded.”
It so happens that the day The Ticket meets up with Vannucci and Flowers their two Irish dates are announced. Flowers notes, without prompting, that Ireland was “one of the first places where we were accepted for ourselves, so we have some kind of brilliant understanding, a mutual respect, I think, and we’ve always had good shows there.
“There have been places and countries where it has been hit and miss, but it has always been a hit in Dublin, always fun. And we always go to the same restaurant – the place where a lot of actors go to.”
He looks over to Vannucci for help in recalling which one, but his bandmate shrugs his shoulders. “You know the one,” Flowers looks in my direction. “They have loads of photos of actors on the walls. It’s really close to Grafton Street.”
It has to be the Trocadero, I say. “That’s it! We go there after every gig we play in Dublin. They stay open a little bit later for us, and it’s always great – it’s a tradition for us.”
The Killers on the loose in Dublin city? Make your reservations now.
- The Killers’ new album, Wonderful Wonderful, is released September 22nd. They play a sold-out show at Dublin’s 3Arena on Thursday November 16th, and also play Belfast’s SSE Arena on Friday November 17th.
The Killers and Jacknife Lee – the Irish Connection
Ronnie Vannucci Jr: “Lee’s attitude and demeanour were very exciting – he was a mixture of enabler, cheerleader and Navy Seal. He’s a very smart, positive ball of energy, and quite creative. He’s opinionated, too, and you need that with a band. Also, as a producer, you try not to ruffle any feathers, but rather we’re putting a guy at the helm and he’s saying certain things about certain songs. It was good to have someone that had something to say on each song and who was familiar with our previous work. He’s also very encouraging, and his belief that anything is possible in the studio was crucial. Did we disagree with anything he had to say? Sometimes, but in doing so that created a give-and-take dynamic, and what that does – irrespective of who is right and who is wrong – is that it opens up a conversation. That’s a good indication that you will arrive at the right place.”
The Killers on Dave Keuning and Mark Stoermer
In August, Killers guitarist Dave Keuning announced he was taking a break from touring, becoming the second member of the band, following bassist Mark Stoermer, to bow out of touring duties. The pair’s roles are expected to be filled by touring members Ted Sablay and Jake Blanton. The Killers were quick to reassure their fans:
“Despite conjecture, the Killers are the same four weirdos we’ve always been. And worry not, we will not be performing as a two-piece. As our fans have seen, the live line-up has grown over the years. Both Ted & Jake have been in the mix for a very long time.”