"I just don’t want to mess everything up"
Is there a greater control freak in rock than Brandon Flowers of The Killers? As the band gear up for their third album release, Flowers tells James McMahon about balancing stress and creativity
Here’s a puzzler for you: what does Brandon Flowers have in common with Kim Jong-Il, Isaac Asimov, pro-wrestling legend Andre The Giant, and 18.1 per cent of the American population? Answer: all suffer or suffered from pteromechanophobia, a chronic, debilitating fear of flying.
“I've been going to see a doctor,” recounts The Killers' lead singer in his band's Las Vegas rehearsal space, a nondescript unit on the fringes of an industrial estate, around five minutes' taxi ride from the relentless glitz of the strip. “I have this routine now that's taught me how to control my breathing and it's helped me not get so tense when I'm in the air.” He chuckles, nervously. “At my very worst, I turned down a trip with U2 on their Vertigo jet. It was so bad I opted to stay in Poland instead.” He sighs. “I really, really wanted to be on that plane ...”
What scares him so much about it? “The lack of control. The doctor has been teaching me to consider the whole experience as an outsider — like you're detached, almost like you're actually watching yourself. It's been amazing, and it's really been helping me let go of not having any control. That's the worst thing about it. The short breaths come and you've lost control.”
And there's that word again, control; a word — in the time I spend in his company — that is never ten breaths away from Flowers' mouth, via a dusty, pillow-soft accent that nods to his Nevada-via-Utah heritage. “I grew up being a fan of the great rock'n'roll bands,” he says. “Now we know something great is in our grasp, and we want to get it right.”
He smiles, nervously. Flowers is nervous about a lot of things. “I'm obsessive about a lot of aspects of the band — ridiculous stuff, really, like T-shirt designs and other little things. I don't want to mess it all up.”
Yet the absence of control is something Flowers — alongside guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr — is going to have to accept sooner rather than later. Their third album proper, Day and Age, the first Killers release since last November's B-sides and rarities compilation Sawdust, is tentatively scheduled for a November release, despite the fact that Flowers states that the lyrics are only “30% done”. The band is well aware that their latest outing will determine the relevance of the quartet, six years on from their initial inception, in a rapidly accelerated climate where fans grow bored of a band come track eight of their debut album.
In such climes, to make it to a third album is pretty much astonishing. “At the very beginning, we just didn't have the time to even think about how we might be perceived,” says Flowers. “We wrote these songs, and before we knew it we were signed and on the road. We were so busy around the time of the first album [2004's Hot Fuss] that someone just handed us a stack of pictures and we just picked one for the cover. That's not really the right way to go about it ...” Does he regret that? Flowers puffs out his cheeks. “Oh, yeah.”
The signs that the audience they desire for album three still exists are promising; a couple of weekends ago The Killers headlined the Reading and Leeds festivals, one notch above Bloc Party, another band who find themselves looking to affirm their place within the scheme of things third time around.
Yet, where the London band have sought reinvention with their art-electro infused Intimacy — at the fulcrum of the most hard rock-heavy billing the legendary festival has booked in years (two of the three headline slots went to the resurgent Metallica and a reformed Rage Against The Machine) — the Las Vegas band offered no such deviation from the plot. They continue to fluctuate between the showbiz, synth-heavy Anglophile indie of old, and their more recent forages into Springsteen-indebted blue collar rock.
The two make uneasy bedfellows, but in front of an audience evenly comprising both the daytime radio-listening casual, and an impressive brethren of predominantly young hardcore fans (you only have to scan the forum entries of the band's official website to understand the wealth of devotion), their performances at Reading and Leeds offered sporadic clues as to why they've made it this far.
For one thing, the last six years have seen The Killers amass a catalogue that's endearingly hooky (Mr Brightside, When You Were Young, Jenny (Was a Friend of Mine), forthcoming album cut Starman). For another, they're spearheaded by one of the most enduringly fascinating frontmen in recent memory. Staunchly nationalist (Flowers proudly shows me the Nevada flag draped on the wall of the building's kitchen — “something to do with us killing Mexicans, I think ...”), part of a huge community of Mormons who practise their faith in and around his home city (he says the only conflict that arises from his faith is “struggling with what I'm supposed to do and what I'm supposed to be”), and with political beliefs he describes as “in the middle” (he says that he still hasn't decided which way he'll vote in the US presidential election), Flowers is far from your average popstar — and he knows it.
“I think a lot of people in bands [talk about liberal politics] because they're artists and they're supposed to be on the left, but I've spent a lot of time trying to work out who I am and I always come back to the middle. I don't really want to talk about this — I think acknowledging I'm different from people in most bands is enough of a statement in itself ...”
Yet he's kind, too (he opens the fridge and asks me to help myself upon arrival — something I might have done had it been stocked with anything other than around 100 cans of Red Bull). Clearly devoted to his wife, Tana — a long-term relationship which began when she was working as the shop manager of a branch of Urban Outfitters — and his one-year-old son, he is currently plotting the logistics of taking them out on the road with him when the band begin their next tour.
And he couldn't be more different from his band mates — Stoermer arrives on the day of our interview dryly recounting the previous evening he spent in a local strip club; Vannucci bullishly tells me: “I think the less time me and you spend together is for the better”; and Keuning arrives in a frankly ridiculous home-made T-shirt that features the band's busts engraved into the side of Mount Rushmore, and utters little more than five words in my presence. Among such company it's hard to deny that Flowers is likeable: he's funny, self-deprecating, and almost charmingly neurotic about the way he and the band are perceived.
It's hard to envisage the man who bestrode the group's ill-fated 2007 Glastonbury headline slot in a lemon sequinned jumpsuit as one so insecure that the band now refuse to give photo-pit access to magazines, preferring to pump out shots to the media via the group's official photographer. It's all part of maintaining a degree of “control” that Flowers insists is crucial.
“You grow up as a music fan frothing at the mouth at the romance of it all — over Depeche Mode pictures and Bowie album sleeves, and it's hard not being able to control those things. I mean, the magazines won't let you pick the pictures they use. Some magazines won't review us live now because of it, but it's worth it to feel like I have some control.”
During my time with them, the band play me two new songs that will appear on Day and Age. The first, Neon Tiger, could segue comfortably from the giddy, pop-heavy tracklisting of Hot Fuss and features a prophetic middle eight that sees Flowers almost talking in tongues. The second is the aforementioned Starman, which nods to Bowie circa Lodger, and contains flourishes of pomp that reflect the singer's current listening habits. “To be honest,” he says, laughing, “I only really listen to ELO these days.”
In the wake of Reading and Leeds, Flowers also confirmed a handful of song titles — Goodnight, Travel Well, Joyride, I Can't Stay, Losing Touch — while the record sees the band experimenting with loops and drum patterns for the very first time, despite Flowers insisting that he isn't “sure” about them just yet.
“To be honest, every time we make a record, I just hope I can write another When You Were Young [the band's 2006 mega hit]. Does this record do that? That's not for me to say, but there are songs on there I do think are pretty ... special.”
All of which suggests that things bode well for The Killers.
James McMahon is features editor of NME.