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The SPIN Interview: Brandon Flowers

Brandon Flowers / Photo by Ture Lillegraven

All that fine, feathered Killers singer Brandon Flowers wants is to be a larger-than-life rock star, given to grandiose statements and office-unfriendly outfits. But he may have been born at the wrong time. “Maybe the idea is outdated,” he says. “I hope not.”

Brandon flowers is on the couch. Both literally — the dressed-down Killers lead singer is fidgeting on an oxblood leather love seat in the lobby of Hollywood’s historic Roosevelt Hotel — as well as figuratively — dude can’t help but dig deep. “I know I say things that other people don’t,” confesses Flowers, 27. “I process what I’m thinking and say it anyway. I won’t wear a muzzle.” And why should he? The Sin City Mormon’s proclamations of his band’s greatness have made him one of the most recognizable, polarizing, and eminently quotable rock stars of his generation.

And one of the most talented, too, equally at ease with dance-floor fillers (“Somebody Told Me,” from the Killers’ glossy, Britpop-tinged debut, Hot Fuss), Dustbowl epics (“When You Were Young,” off the more ambitious and more divisive Sam’s Town), and Pop Art philosophy (“Human,” the blockbuster, if lyrically befuddling, lead single from their latest, Day & Age). Yet despite the success, beautiful wife, and year-and-a-half-old son — Ammon, named after a prince from the Book of Mormon — Flowers is restless.

“You can’t save the world with music,” he says, clutching a pillow to his chest. “But I can try. I have the same job as Bruce Springsteen. I have to go as far as I can with it.”

How annoying was it that Chinese Democracy came out the same week as Day & Age?

Axl waited 15 years to put his album out the same week as us! I haven’t heard Chinese Democracy, but people tell me it sounds like Korn. Axl is all right, though. We hung out with him a few times. We have a Chinese guy playing with us on tour — Ray Suen. He’s been giving me lessons about actual Chinese democracy.

Kanye and Ludacris debuted that week, too. That’s some heavy competition.

You can’t compete with hip-hop. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be as big as a rap star. I do — I’m always competitive. But there’s this weird perception of me as someone who’s sitting around plotting like a devil. It’s not like that. My music lights a fire under me. When I hear other people, I want to be better than them. I won’t apologize for it. It’s nothing dirty.

Are you happy with the critical reaction to Day & Age?

It’s definitely been more positive than it was for Sam’s Town. It will always be difficult to digest the fact that someone’s going to hear the album one or two times and then say it’s amazing or it’s not as good as Hot Fuss. Nobody is ever going to know the album the way I do. People will love it for different reasons.

Seriously, though, how can we humans be “dancer”?

I never thought that line would get so much attention! It just makes such sense to me. It’s hard to explain. There was something bionic about it, something extraterrestrial. I knew it wasn’t perfect grammar. Worldwide, “Human” is our biggest song ever. I guess somebody gets it.

What’s worse: people harping on your grammar or saying you were ripping off Springsteen on Sam’s Town?

The reaction to Sam’s Town took me to a bad place. But a good thing came from it — all the anger I had toward what people were saying about the album made me want to prove how good the music was. We would play those songs live with so much fire. In a way, the critics helped make the Killers a great live band.

Do you pay too much attention to what people write?

Yeah. I think too much about it. I’m doing better. I’m thinking less. That’s why Day & Age is a fun record. We let our hair down. I wasn’t worried about what critics might say or about trying to follow in U2’s footsteps.

I don’t understand the lack of ambition out there. U2 are like f–king Liberace compared with what’s coming out now.

You sold six million albums your first time out. It took U2 a few years to do that. Would you have preferred more gradual success?

The career paths of so many of the people I look up to are absolutely the opposite of ours. Depeche Mode is another band I think about. It wasn’t until Music for the Masses or Violator that they got huge. Other bands that had really big first albums, like Guns N’ Roses, didn’t have staying power. I hope we do.

When Hot Fuss came out, were you bothered by people saying the Killers were —

Style over substance! [The Pet Shop Boys’] Neil Tennant said I only grew a beard to prove that I was more than pop. Every time I shave, I put the hair in a bag. I’m waiting for the opportune time to give it to him.

You’re joking.

I’m serious. It’s a big bag, too. But I don’t understand how anyone could say Hot Fuss was disposable. “Mr. Brightside” isn’t disposable. Is “All These Things That I’ve Done” disposable? Calling that song disposable is beyond me. It’s a very special part of this generation.

But weren’t you reaching for something on Sam’s Town that you weren’t reaching for on Hot Fuss?

Hot Fuss was all based on fantasy. The English influences, the makeup — they were what I imagined rock was. I’m a dreamer, you know? So I dug into that dream and made Hot Fuss. But hearing people call us the best British band from America made me wonder about my family and who I was. That’s what Sam’s Town is really about. I was trying to find out who I was.

Did you?

That’s what’s so frustrating. Sam’s Town wasn’t some love letter to America or overreaching mythic thing. It was about me. I sang about Grandma Dixie and my brother being born on the Fourth of July. Guess what? My grandma’s name is fucking Dixie, and my brother was born on the fucking Fourth of July, 1969. The album is very real. I was being honest on Sam’s Town, and it bit me in the butt.

Was it a mistake to be honest and say you hated emo or were offended by Green Day?

I regret it. I’ve since apologized to most of the people I said anything negative about. Getting interviewed is so unnatural. I guess I’m too trusting. I’ll talk to somebody for five minutes and feel comfortable. Maybe I deserve credit for saying what other people just think.

Are you bothered by the fact that more of your contemporaries aren’t angling for stardom? Even Chris Martin seems embarrassed to be famous.

I don’t understand the lack of ambition out there. There’s no fantasy. U2 are like fucking Liberace compared with what’s coming out now. I’ve never been shy about wanting to be heard. I’m not hiding behind being cool. Unless you’re so pure that you only play in the street, you have something driving you. Yeah, everyone knows it’s a difficult time to sell records. Not enough people are taking that as a challenge.

But a really successful rock record nowadays sells a million copies. Isn’t it a fool’s game to try to be a larger-than-life rock star under those conditions?

First things first: We write songs that we love. But like you say, maybe the idea of huge rock stardom is outdated. I hope it isn’t. People think we want to be big for big’s sake. That’s not the case. The bottom line is that we love music and we’re very thankful to be here. I’m on top of the world right now.

It seems like every article about the band makes a connection between the music’s epic, glamorous qualities and the fact that you guys are from Las Vegas.

Is that warranted? Las Vegas isn’t glamorous anymore. When I drive down some of the city’s streets, I imagine the days of Elvis and Sinatra. That period still exists in my mind. Now it’s all very sex-oriented. But I had an epiphany the other day: We could not have existed if we were from New York or L.A. We would’ve been so self-conscious. People in New York wallow in their artistry. Las Vegas doesn’t have that indieness. We were able to do what we wanted without worrying about being cool.

Your first band was called Blush Response — that’s a terrible name. Did you come up with it?

[Laughs] I still kinda like it! It’s a Blade Runner reference. It’s futuristic. That was our attempt at something along the lines of Duran Duran.

Was Blush Response the beginning of the Killers?

No. I used to scour the band classifieds in Las Vegas Weekly and City Life. I’d answer ads and go to people’s houses and play with them. After four or five false starts, I met Dave [Keuning, Killers guitarist] and we started to play together. Mark [Stoermer, bassist] was in a band called the Negative Ponies. He used to come see me and Dave — that just blew my mind. We weren’t used to people showing respect to us in Las Vegas. But Mark and Dave became friends, and eventually he started to play with us. The same thing happened with Ronnie [Vannucci, the band’s drummer].

Did the fact that you were bandmates before you were friends mean you guys approached the music more like a career and less like a hobby?

Yeah. Sometimes I feel sad that I didn’t have that experience of playing with my friends. A lot of people assume that because we’re in a band together, we’re best buds, but we’re still getting to know each other. I’m younger than the other guys. Hopefully, learning more about each other will help keep things exciting.

Have you had to learn how to play live? You look pretty nervous on stage sometimes.

I have nights where I’m King Kong and nights where I don’t feel like I belong up there. I’m working to get over the barrier I have about really believing that people are at the shows because they like us. Everyone hated us in Las Vegas when we started out. That feeling will never leave me. The more gigs we sell out, the more King Kong nights I have, but I constantly feel like I have to prove myself.

You got a record deal fairly quickly, though, right?

It took about a year. We got turned down by a lot of labels. It sounds ridiculous now, but we’d play “Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me,” and “Smile Like You Mean It” for label heads and they’d turn us down. It shows you how ignorant some of these people are. It should be a no-brainer to sign a band that plays those songs. I was optimistic, though. My favorite line from Alphaville’s “Forever Young” is “Hoping for the best but expecting the worst.” I was hopeful but ready to take some blows.

The theme of persecution shows up in a lot of your songs. So do the ideas of revelation, divine visions, spiritual transformation. Those same ideas are all over the Book of Mormon…

I don’t know why I’m coming to terms with this right now, but in the last few months…I get asked about it a lot. If I were Catholic, no one would bat an eye.

Bono gets asked about religion all the time.

Okay, but people look at me like I’m an alien when they ask about Mormonism. It’s there in my music. It’s always been there. It’s obviously, it’s, um, it’s unavoidable.

Is there a similarity between your religious feelings and your feelings about music?

It’s possible. I think of talent as being God-given. I know that contradicts what a lot of people believe, but that’s how I see it. I think the Beatles were meant to be, you know? So when I listen to Paul McCartney, I think, here’s the person that God gave the gift of allowing him to write “Let It Be.”

Were you put here to be a rock star?

I don’t know. I have my days. Why did God give you your gifts? It’s something I think about: whether or not God put me here to be a rock star. I try not to wonder about why he picked me and not somebody else. That’s why it’s so frustrating to me when people criticize us for trying to be important — to me, music is incredibly important. That’s why I want to make big, bold statements. Whether I pull it off is up to you. Everybody’s going to say I didn’t. But come to a concert. The music is coming across to somebody.

Your influences are obvious: Springsteen, New Order, U2. Do you worry if you’re bringing enough that’s new to the table?

I don’t think there’s going to be any new type of music. You want to say that grunge was the last big thing, but that was just heavy songs. Maybe the clothes were different and the sentiments were specific to the X Generation, but that sound had been done before. Does that mean we should rehash? No. We should draw on everything from the last 50 years and take it to the future. Day & Age doesn’t sound like anything else out there. We’re moving things forward.

Who are your biggest nonmusical influences?

My older brother was one. His room was like a temple. It was completely covered in posters of the Smiths, Morrissey, the Cure. You couldn’t see a centimeter of paint. I wasn’t allowed to go in there. I would sneak in as soon as he left. It was a whole other world in his room. That’s where I fell in love with music.

What does your family think of your success?

They’re all excited. I have four sisters, too. It’s weird — you don’t want your mom and dad to like the same music as you, but they’d already heard it all from my brother by the time I got into it. It weirded me out when my mom would be doing the dishes and whistling the Smiths. I guess it worked out in the end.

Weren’t you into sports before you were into music?

I’m not afraid to say that I played sports and I enjoyed them. I was at the gym this morning.

Why would you be afraid?

That’s just another thing. It doesn’t come up with a lot of musicians. It’s strange. For the most part, if you’re of the male orientation and grew up in America, there’s probably a picture of you on a soccer team or a basketball team. I did all that and I enjoyed it.

Were you good?

I’m better at music.

When did you start writing songs?

We had a piano in the house. My mom took me for lessons starting when I was six. But I didn’t learn pop songs. Writing songs didn’t even occur to me.

When did it?

It took a wild, eccentric, redheaded man from Washington to open my mind.

Who was he?

His name is Trevor. He worked at a place called Stallion Mountain in Las Vegas. I’d never met anyone like him before. He made music and short films. I was 18 and I’d never even been to a local gig. He liked all the same music that I liked: Frank Sinatra, Britpop, he worshipped Bowie. I was very conservative about making music at first, and he encouraged me to be creative. It had never even crossed my mind that I could make art until I met him.

Are you still in touch?

He disappears. That’s just kind of how he does it. I think he’s in the Pacific Northwest. I know one day he’ll show up on my doorstep and it’ll be like he never left.

You’re 27 now. That’s the age when —

I’m at the age, aren’t I? It’s in my brain that I am at that age when, if I’m as good as Springsteen or Bowie or Morrissey, I should be putting out my best stuff. That’s the problem with history. The facts are there to contend with.

Well, 27 is also the age when rock stars die.

Good thing I got the album out, then. It makes me want to keep going. I feel like the bulb is about to burst.

And then what will happen?

People are so afraid of what I call our “sophisticated bigness.” They think it’s impossible that you can sell a lot of records and have half a brain, but we’re doing it. Something important in music has happened before, and now something important is happening again. Eventually, everyone will have to accept that. But there’s something else I want to elaborate on.

Sure, go ahead.

A lot is made of the fact that I’m a Mormon. That’s uncharted territory for a lot of people. They don’t understand it. When I said that Paul McCartney has a God-given talent…first of all, that’s just a term. But I think everyone has a gift. You asked me if I was put here to…I don’t believe I was put here to be some messiah-type music figure. I’m thankful for the gift I have and I try to use it to the best of my abilities. I don’t want it to come across as thinking I’m this magical thing.

What do you wish more people knew about you?

I wish people would take their preconceptions about jackets I’ve worn or eyeliner I’ve applied and just listen to my words. There are some lyrics I’m proud of that haven’t gotten any attention. I guess it takes time.

Do you sing Killers songs to your son before he goes to bed?

Let’s just say I don’t sing Céline Dion.

Discography: The Killers
A critical guide to Vegas’ Finest

Hot Fuss
Shunning grit for glitz, the Killers strutted from Vegas with a debut loaded with fashionably hip, radio-ready rock. While “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” evinced Brandon Flowers’ gift for pop, the radiance of “All These Things That I’ve Done” suggested goals higher than sales.

Sam’s Town
Southern-gothic sartorial switcheroo aside, this was no radical left turn. Dense production and grandiose lyrics lent a weight it struggled to carry, but ignore the trappings and what’s left are two meek interludes, nine catchy tunes, and, in “When You Were Young,” one genius Springsteen rip.

Flowers’ melodic mastery ensures that this odds-and-sods placeholder goes down easily but little lingers apart from the attractively desperate “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf,” tense Lou Reed collabo “Tranquilize,” and snide “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll.”

Day & Age
It’s called a learning curve. The marriage of album one’s sweeping vision to album two’s decadent élan yielded the band’s most cohesive work. Futuristic blast-offs “Human” and “Spaceman” sizzle like singles should; you’ll smile like you mean it till the music’s over.