Prowling Las Vegas with the Killers
Come along for the wicked ride as the Killers try to commit the Seven Deadly Sins in—where else?—Sin City
The Killers never received the Bono Talk, that rite-of-passage sit-down in which rock’s king of sunglasses sincerity imparts his hard-won wisdom to young bands in the dizzying flush of first success. Over the years Nirvana, Hole, Radiohead, and the Strokes have been offered the Bono Talk, but when the Killers met the U2 frontman backstage after their sold-out show at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre last November, Bono was too lit to lead. “He was pretty drunk,” singer Brandon Flowers says. Adds drummer Ronnie Vannucci. “He did drape his arm around me and say, ‘Spare us the interesting second record.'”
Since Spin named them one of 2004’s Next Big Things, the Killers have actually gotten very big (this does not always happen). Their debut album, Hot Fuss, has at press time sold more than 600,000, and in December the band scored three Grammy nominations, including one for Best Rock Album. In less than a year and a half, the Killers have gone from working-class kids who dress up like Duran Duran and play clubs on the weekends to internationally touring rock stars who dress up like Duran Duran every night. But without the perspective of a big brother who’s navigated the showbiz underworld and survived, they probably would’ve found themselves vulnerable to countless career-derailing turns.
Happily, they recently received the Eric Roberts Talk.
Roberts, the estranged bad-boy brother of Julia who has made a career out of playing lowlifes in moves like Star 80 and The Pope of Greenwich Village, appears as a chiseled, sweaty bordello owner in the Moulin Rouge-inspired video for Hot Fuss’ second single, “Mr. Brightside.” “We were doing this scene,” Flowers says. “It’s like my first acting ever, and between the takes I’m talking to him about fame. I told him we went to Graceland. And he says, ‘It’s almost grand, isn’t it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And then he smiles and says, ‘But it’s so fucking white trash.’ About Graceland! Who says that? He’s evil! He’s the devil.”
We’re sitting in Trattoria del Lupo, a swank restaurant in the Mandalay Bay, the tropical-themed hotel and casino on the Vegas Strip. A few years ago, Flowers was waiting tables in a place just like this, serving chicken or fish to the likes of Celine Dion and Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin. He also did time as a bellhop, arranging helicopter tours and lugging Samsonite at the Gold Coast. “Eric was telling me that I will change,” he says, a hint of worry in his flat, boyish tone. “But I don’t think I’m going to. My dad’s still a bellman. I drive a Hyundai with a dent in it. The window’s taped up.”
None of this is meant to suggest that the Killers are green. As we walk back into the casino, a cosmetic-surgery disaster wrapped in a rainbow feather boa rudely pushes her way past us, toward the nickel slots. Vannucci stares at her lovingly. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s good to be home.”
This band knows Vegas like Joey Bishop knows Vegas. The good, the bad, the legal, and highly illegal. Two of the guys have agreed to devote tomorrow, one of their four days of respite from a relentless touring schedule, to showing much of it to me. In return, I am going to test their post-stardom moral fortitude by enabling them to commit, if they so desire, all Seven Deadly Sins in a span of 24 hours. For those who haven’t been to church or rented Se7en in a while, those sins are: gluttony, envy, wrath, vanity, avarice, lust, and sloth.
I’m committed, even if I end up on my hotel-room floor at six the next morning, wearing my own vomit, watching footage of the Mandalay Bay’s shark reef on TV, and bargaining with God by kissing his ass for inventing coral. But then, I’m unmarried and more or less agnostic. For the Killers (I won’t meet bassist Mark Stoermer, 27, and guitarist David Keuning, 27, until a few days latter in Manhattan), cooperation is riskier. Vannucci, 28, is married. Flowers, 23, is engaged. He is also a member of the Mormon church, which espouses chaste living and has been known to excommunicate backsliders.
Much has already been made of Flowers’ Mormonism in the music press. Not since Donny Osmond in the early ’70s has there been a heartthrob down with the Tabernacle Choir. But Flowers shrugs off the notion that he’s at all socially or creatively hampered by his faith.
“It’s okay to say, ‘I’m an atheist and I’m this artist,” he told me in a crowded bar the night before. “But it does make people kind of raise an eyebrow when they hear ‘Mormon,’ [because] I smoke and drink.” He points this out as if to assure me he’s not worried our next day together will send him to Heck, or that it will cause any internal conflict that the cigarettes and beer haven’t already wrought. So let him have his occasional vice. “I don’t get a chance to go to church all the time, but your average Joe isn’t going to come across the things that we’re gonna come across.”
“This feels a bit like Bon Jovi revisiting the old neighborhood in New Jersey,” Vannucci quips. It’s early afternoon. We have convened in the Mandalay Bay lobby in front of the caged macaws wheezing from secondhand smoke, and are piling into the back of a black limo. Out good-natured driver is used to point out interesting sights to his passengers, but today the Killers will trump him.
“The Hilton sign is the city’s biggest free-standing sign. One day it fell down. That’s the motel where they traced Mohammed Atta’s credit card,” Vannucci says as we cruise downtown. “They’d been staying there, planning 9/11. That’s where the guy from Suddenly Susan hung himself. That’s where we played a gig once. A guy got shot there.”
“That strip club has men and women,” Flowers chimes in. Then he points to a tattoo parlor. “I got my ear pierced there. It wasn’t called Precious Slut then.”
It’s chilling how innocuous this all looks; even Precious Slut could be a strip-mall donut shop. It’s a nifty metaphor for the city’s duality: pure darkness in a family-friendly package. The Killers’ lyrics crawl with similar dualities, featuring more murderers, jealous obsessives, and diseased celebs—Eric Roberts could have portrayed each one—than perhaps any band since the Velvet Underground. But unlike V.U. songs, Killers narratives are coated with radio-ready production gloss, designed for maximum housewife hummability.
The Vegas music scene has given the world Slaughter and the Crystal Method. Rock stars (most famously Elvis, most recently Elton) often head to the city at the end of their careers to cash out. Flowers, who was born here, resisted the too-simple strategy of the short move to Los Angeles and was determined to weather his hometown’s cultural divides. “I can’t tell you how many times I got called a ‘faggot’ for liking the Smiths,” he says.
Before forming, all four Killers worked in the Aladdin Resort at the same time. They remember eyeballing each other but never spoke. For years, Flowers had nobody who shared his fervor for British bands. “There are three weekly papers here,” he says. “I would get all three and go to the ads for musicians. And it was always ads for people looking for people who like Tool and Sevendust. Always Tool and Sevendust!” One week, though, he noticed Keunig’s ad. “Dave’s just stood out because he had Oasis in there.”
“I’d been into stuff like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana,” Keunig tells me later. “When I met Brandon, he was into the Smiths and Depeche Mode. I got to like that very fast.”
Vannucci and Stoermer, who had been a medical courier (at six-five, with long, crypt-worthy features, he still looks the part), joined next. Vannucci studied classical percussion, and Stoermer schooled himself while transporting plasma and pee. “First of all, it’s not as gross as it sounds,” he later assures me. “Most of the time it’s in bags. The best thing about it was I had a lot of free time. So I’d buy all the Rolling Stones’ albums and listen to them in the car. Study them because I was so bored.”
The band broke into the music room at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for late-night rehearsals. “If you pull on the doors hard enough, they just open,” Vannucci confesses. “The make this big crack.” The songs came quickly; “Mr. Brightside” was one of the first. Each song felt bigger than the garage and justified a focused ambition that bordered on arrogance. “I think fear of success, that mentality, has hurt rock music,” Keuning says. “Pop and R&B and rap have flourished because rock has been divided and afraid to be a little too pop. In some ways, we’re bringing that back.”
The Killers took their name from the fake band in the video for the 2001 New Order single “Crystal.” “It’s so good that we thought for sure somebody, some little band somewhere, somebody’s gonna have it.” Flowers says. Nobody did. Their luck continued: An EP deal with U.K. indie Lizard King and the attendant British-press buzz led to an American deal with Island. They toured the U.S. and Europe and before long, Hot Fuss’ lead single, “Somebody Told Me,” was all over the place. Like Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out,” it managed to be both a cool rock-radio song and a mainstream dance hit. Morrissey became a fan and had them open some arena shows. They appeared in the December 2 episode of The OC, in which Seth Cohen called them “awesome.” They were living an equilibrium-disturbing fantasy, almost daily. If you were Bono, you’d be forgiven for assuming that they were in need of a talk.
“This place has the best salad dressing ever,” says Flowers. “I don’t know what they put in it.” We’re at Metro Pizza on East Tropicana Avenue. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra hits play on the P.A., as they do everywhere in this town. I had suggested we attempt gluttony at one of these cheap all-you-can-eat buffets that the casinos offer. Somewhere like Circus Circus. Plastic rolls. Frozen butter. Surf and turf in amber. “That means we’d have to, like, eat that stuff,” Flowers had protested.
“Try these nuclear fries,” he demanded. “Nuclear” fries, by the way, are irradiated with the same spicy red pepper that covers the chicken fingers, which comes next. Then there are individual pizzas, chicken parmigiana, bread, pasta. We may have hit the carb jackpot, but it doesn’t feel particularly sinful.
“Do you think we should bring this pizza to the driver?” Vannucci asks, clearly uninterested in sticking it in his mouth. We get some doggie bags, pay the check, and load back into the limo. I’m feeling a bit dejected. Sensing my concern, Flowers suggests dessert: “Dude, we should get custard!”
“Custard,” Vannucci seconds.
“Do you like custard?” Flowers asks me.
“I’ve never had it.”
“Oh, man. He’s never had custard, for hell’s sake! We gotta go to Luv Its. It’s the best frozen custard in Vegas.”
Our driver navigates down East Oakey Boulevard toward a wood-paneled shack almost hidden from the main drag. “I’m so happy! I can’t believe we’re here,” Flowers says, smiling. So we’re eating custard, eggy and rich, in a limo none of us is paying for. On top of the nuclear fries, it’s beginning to feel a little sinful.
“I guess I’m somewhat showy,” Flowers says with a shrug. We are discussing Liberace, the late camp icon who was a major Vegas attraction in the ’70s. Famous for his absurd flamboyance, Liberace started out as a serious classical pianist from working-class Wisconsin but grew up to prize showmanship (and ostrich feathers) above everything else. I should probably mention that we’re staring at our fragmented reflections in Liberace’s mirror-covered 1962 Phantom Five Rolls-Royce while pondering envy.
We’ve visited the Liberace Museum on Tropicana to see if there’s anything to covet. There is much. “He was the first. Before Elton John. Before Björk,” Flowers says. “I first came here when I was five.” We pass the “Lasagna Suit,” a red-and-gold ensemble in which the maestro used to cook. “I need to see the grand piano,” Flowers announces.
If you’ve seen the Killers live, you already know that Flowers’ keyboard is very pretty. “We sent away for these rhinestones and I superglued them on,” he says. “I didn’t think of Liberace. I just wanted to put things on my keyboard.” We find the Baldwin grand mounted on a riser in the middle of the main floor. Seven feet long and covered with Austrian rhinestones, it’s the centerpiece of the entire exhibit.
“Are you feeling envious?” I prod. Flowers nods and laughs. There are signs that politely ask visitors to refrain from touching anything, even though almost everything here, especially the keys on the famous instrument, beckons to be tinkled. “I took piano lessons for six years,” Flowers says. “My mom and sisters all watched The Young and the Restless religiously. In the beginning they have the ‘ding…ding, ding, ding, ding’ piano part. And I figured it out on my own when I was six. My mom heard me get it and she was amazed.”
The re-creation of Liberace’s prayer room is preserved behind glass in the hallway that leads to the master bedroom. It’s gilded but somehow less ostentations than the rest of the collection. A Bible is permanently open to Proverbs. Flowers leans in and reads, “Better is the poor man walking in his simplicity than in his rich and crooked ways.” He shakes his head. “Liberace had his lover surgically altered to look like him.” He’ll repeat this three times as we move toward the café and gift shop. “That’s bad, when you wanna have sex with yourself.” There’s little envy for the extremity of Liberace’s conflicted psyche: the piety versus the screaming ego. Safe from such choices for now, Flowers browses the gift shop. He tries on a sequined vest, making a Zoolander face, but decides not to purchase it.
I approach Vannucci, who is munching on a Strawberry Shortcake bar. “Did you envy any of that?” He looks up at me, confused. “I’m still working on gluttony, dude.”
“I once shot a goth wedding,” Vannucci recalls. “Everyone had black latex underneath their normal wedding clothes. And when they started to exchange rings, the groom pulled out a pair of handcuffs and the minister said, ‘You are now sentenced to life. With each other.'” The limo pulls into the crowded parking lot of the Little Chapel of the Flowers. There are two wedding parties mingling beneath the shadow of the Stratosphere Tower. Lots of flashbulbs and giggling. Before becoming a highly paid rock’n’roll drummer, Vannucci worked here as a photographer. Quickie weddings are big business in a town where bars never close, and the Little Chapel has a large and hard-driven staff. The pressure led to a rift with Vannucci’s boss, chapel owner Dave Foote. Or maybe it was just the hair.
“He was my archenemy. He was a really bad dude,” Vannucci says. “We were locked in a power struggle of cool. He though he had much cooler hair, but he just had cooler hair.” Vannucci is back for a little wrath. A little flaunting. A little “I’ve been to Japan and met Bowie and you still run a wedding chapel.” Problem is, Dave Foote isn’t here. “He’s gone up to Salt Lake City for Thanksgiving,” one of the supervisors informs Vannucci. “You’re the one that’s the drummer, right?” she asks. He smiles and nods. “We had our P.R. person here the last time you guys were in town, and she said she knew you, and these girls who were in Dave’s office just about fainted.” Vannucci’s smile widens. This is wrath by proxy. Vannucci encounters a middle-age chauffeur on his way out. “Nice suit,” the drummer says.
“I know it’s a nice suit—I bought it,” the prickly driver replies, before grinning and holding out his hand. “You’re doing good for yourself,” the driver cheers. Vannucci shakes his hand warmly.
“Me and him had a thing,” he whispers to me as the man walks toward his white stretch job. “He told me I owed him 15 dollars once and I told him to fuck off.” You’d never know it now. Success has a way of making people forget the bad blood. Even Dave Foote might have wished Vannucci well.
Vanity will be very easy. Although Vannucci is a casual male, and Stoermer and Keuning are wearing T-shirts and jeans when I meet them in New York, Flowers is something of a peacock. Musically, the Killers are a unit, but Flowers is their unmistakable face—and the one who knows his way around an eyeliner pencil. It’s decided that Flowers and Vannucci will commit vanity by getting haircuts at the Mandalay Bay’s posh salon. I’m a little surprised when I make the reservation and the receptionist says, “Oh, Brandon. He’s been here before.”
“Can we get you some water with lemon?” a manager inquires as we enter. “A glass of wine, perhaps?” It’s one of those places. White hair dryers dangle artfully from the ceiling like an announcer’s mic at a prize fight. Flowers eases into a chair and immediately begins directing his stylist.
Vannucci is a bit more awkward. He needs to be led. “I really feel like a man’s man when I go into places like this,” he’ll crack post-cut as he shakes off the dampness and politely declines an array of fine hair-care products. “It makes me wanna do the brakes on a truck. Play football or something.”
Flowers spends twice as long in his chair. “I can’t help it,” he apologizes as we head into the adjoining mall. “I have four sisters.” He fuses with his hair as we walk. Vanity accomplished.
For Avarice, we had planned on finding the most ridiculous thing to wager on. Turtle races. Escort races. There was talk of taking a course in gambling from some Ace Rothstein type. But there’s not much time, what with three sins remaining. We decide to just play nickel slots for a while and see if any frenzy builds. Slot machines are obviously addictive. Pathological optimists sit in front of them all night long. Smoking. Rubbing their arm muscles. Losing. Losing. Losing. Until. Maybe. This time…
Our plans change, however, when actual evidence of potential avarice manifests itself. Flowers’ fiancée, a wholesome-looking blonde named Tana, works at Urban Outfitters in the nearby mall. We duck in to say hello and show off his new $75 do. While browsing, I come across a stack of Killers T-shirts. Simple black tees with the band’s name in white lights. The only other contemporary band shirt available is a chocolate-brown Franz Ferdinand number. “Oh, yeah, we have a shirt here,” Flowers says bashfully.
“Avarice,” I suggest.
“Oh, man. Does this make us whores?” He looks at the shirt. “It’s just us and Franz. We made a deal with Urban Outfitters. What’s the difference between buying it here and buying it at a concert?”
“Well,” I answer, “if you go to the concert, you’re probably into the music, too. If you buy it here, you might just want to seem cool.”
“I wear Rolling Stones and David Bowie shirts from Hot Topic,” he counters, as if to say, “I’ve never seen them in their prime, but I want a piece of them and what’s wrong with that?” I give in. “It’s better than the people who buy brand-new T-shirts that are printed to look like thrift-store tees.” The Killers and I agree that this is way more avaricious. And lame.
Lust is a hard sin. The three of us are in serious relationships. I promised my girlfriend “no strippers,” and I think that covers hookers too. The bus-stop ads for “adult entertainment” are sort of disturbing. Some of the girls look underage. Some look like they have cooties. Some look like a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that I had in February of last year. “There are probably nicer call girls in the hotel,” Vannucci suggests.
“You can find them,” Flowers adds. “They’re always here.”
“How would we know who’s a pro and who just looks like a pro?” I ask.
“You can go up and ask them,” Vannucci says. “Excuse me, are you a hooker?”
We’re all feeling a bit like Tom Cruise at the start of Risky Business. None of us, for a second, entertain the notion of paying to engage in any kind of funky act, but the expense budget is there, and the lust problem remains.
We could hire one and ask her about her favorite records,” I offer.
“That’d be funny,” Flowers says, laughing.
“What would Eric Roberts do?” I wonder.
“He wouldn’t give a shit,” Flowers replies. “He’d just get a hooker.”
We decide to move on to a much easier sin: sloth. We were going to sit by the hotel pool like emperors, order vodka lemonades, and have them brought to us on trays, perhaps by actual sloths, if any are available. But the sun’s gone down, the pool is closed, and the elephant-head fountains have stopped spouting water through their trunks.
We wander instead to the Fleur De Lys lounge, a candlelit bar with velvet curtains and soft couches festooned with the kind of bead-stuffed pillows that rave kids used to fondle. The certainly invite sloth. We stretch out. Smoke. Drink. Lament (at least I do) our inability to coordinate the lust. I worry aloud that it’s symbolic, a metaphor for the impotence at the end of the rainbow or something. Are we reduced to a lifetime of hungering for glamorous indie rock’n’roll (as the Killers do in “Indie Rock & Roll,” a track that appears on the import version of Hot Fuss), but never indulging in it? Are we too chaste? Not chaste enough? Just right? Confused? Or just really buzzed? The Killers, two of them anyway, at the end of a long day of sinning, do not seem concerned. Rather, they appear more grounded than I am. Inundated with wisdom beyond their 20-odd years.
“Oh, that’s another thing Eric Roberts said to me,” Flowers offers as he nurses his second beer. “He said, ‘Have you fucked a showgirl yet?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he goes, ‘You will.'” Flowers smiles serenely. I don’t expect he’s thinking about what it would be like. And I’m right. He raises what will be his last drink before going home to his parents’ house, his future looking seriously bright. His sins? Probably forgivable. “Then Eric said, ‘It’s not as good as you think it is.'”
Really, now, who needs Bono?