Like many artists in the smartphone era, Dave Keuning has “hundreds” of guitar riffs and musical fragments stockpiled in his voice memos.
Some of these inevitably wither in digital purgatory. Some wind up on his solo LPs, including his upcoming second project, A Mild Case of Everything. Others are cherry-picked and presented to his bandmates in the Killers — a process that’s often trickier than fans may think.
“I’ve shown quite a few things, and sometimes they just don’t stick,” he tells SPIN from San Diego, where he’s spent much of the pandemic “fishing around for ideas” at his home studio. “Being in a band can be awkward. I can’t make other people like my stuff. I’m way past the point of fighting about it. If they don’t like something, I’ll just try something else and save it for a rainy day. Obviously [my solo work] isn’t anywhere close to as big as the Killers, but it gives me the satisfaction of finishing an idea I really like.”
With Everything, Keuning finished 16 such ideas — from the punchy synth-rock track “Time and Fury” (which you can hear below) to the nine-minute power-pop odyssey “Don’t Poke the Bear,” which satisfies his longtime goal of writing an “epic.” Like on its 2019 predecessor, Prismism, Keuning sang and played everything (minus some drum parts) — allowing him a level of creative freedom he understandably can’t experience in the Killers.
(Keuning, who co-founded the band with frontman Brandon Flowers in 2001, stepped away from the touring lineup following 2017’s Wonderful Wonderful, though he never officially left the group. He didn’t participate in the sessions for last year’s Imploding the Mirage, but he did contribute to their next, as-yet-unannounced LP.)
“People are under the impression, since I’m recording with the Killers again now, that I waltz in and I’m like, ‘We’re going to play these six songs,'” he says. “We work on stuff together, and I throw my ideas out there. It’s flattering that anyone would think I have that kind of control, but I don’t. It’s a process. … I always worry about people reading into what I’m saying, but it’s just different doing it yourself. No one’s around to say ‘no’ if I want to try something that has a lot more guitar on it or something — or it doesn’t fit on an album. ‘The Fountain’ has a long guitar solo on it, which no one does anymore. But I don’t care about that stuff.”
Keuning spoke to SPIN about recording A Mild Case of Everything, balancing solo work with the Killers and what to expect next from his longtime band.
SPIN: Now that you’ve had this time off the road, making this record and processing where you are creatively, do you crave that live experience more, or is it like, “No, this is exactly the kind of setup I wanted”?
Keuning: I’m bad with big decisions, but I really miss playing shows with the Killers and my solo thing, though those are much different. I don’t miss the touring as much. That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to do some touring. I just wish I could play the shows and then go home afterward. But you’ve gotta sacrifice some travel time away from home in order to tour. We’ll see what I do soon enough.
Your press bio notes that you haven’t been able to explore electronics and keyboards as much as you’d like in the Killers. Was that part of your disconnect in the band several years ago?
It’s not really the reason for the disconnect, but when I’m in the Killers I’m pretty much just on guitar. We’ve got Brandon playing keyboards and sometimes another producer, so [I’d be like] an outfielder who wants to pitch for a little bit. When I’m at home, I just feel more free to do whatever I want, and I’m not trying to get a keyboard credit on a record or something stupid. I’m just having fun. I almost never play keyboards around those guys. I wouldn’t mind playing bass too, which I do on my solo thing. But I have high regard for Mark [Stoermer]’s bass playing, so I never try to pick up the bass with the Killers either.
“Don’t Poke the Bear” has this power-pop/new wave vibe, but it also sprawls out to a proggy nine minutes. I know you put that one together in the middle of the night. Did you wake up with the seed of that idea?
I had the verse guitar part for four or five years. And I had a couple other versions, but the rest of the song just wasn’t that good. I forced myself to finish it. Sometimes I get in these moods where I’m really creative and obsessive, and I’ll do something for hours. I was home alone, so I stayed up until like 5:30 in the morning adding parts. I felt like I could do no wrong all of the sudden, and I had all these chord ideas coming out of me. I’ve been listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, and they have a lot of long songs that are just blues jams with slow intros. But I tried to make this one be pretty interesting all the way through and be an epic song, which I’ve always wanted to do. Hopefully, I’ll do it again someday, but it was hard to pull this off.
You recently told Rolling Stone that you had a couple of ideas to make the next Killers album. Would you feel satisfied with that level of contribution moving forward?
I’ll get as many as I can. I don’t want it to become about me getting my ideas out — I just offer ideas and chord changes. We had some time [together], and we used a couple of my chord changes that turned into songs. I was happy about that and happy to have some good songs on the record. There were some songs already ready to go for this seventh album, which will come out at some point this year. For the next one, the eighth one, pretty much all the Killers will be vaccinated, and it will be a much easier situation, I think. I’m kinda stockpiling ideas for that one already.
Is the seventh album already finished?
It’s one of those things: Until it’s done, it’s not really done. You could be mixing or mastering and then be like, “Let’s redo one thing” or “Let’s redo the whole thing” or someone has a new song idea. It’s been in the final tweaks/”almost done” phase for a few months.
How much did you play on it?
Quite a bit. I would offer ideas or try to add guitar to songs the best I could. And a couple of the ideas made it to the record. I feel like that’s my role in the band.
Now that you’ve had time to record these solo albums, where you’re making all the creative choices, has it felt uncomfortable moving back into a band situation, where compromise is kind of baked into the process?
I don’t know if it makes it easier — it doesn’t make it more difficult. I think it’s the same sort of dynamic in the band, and you still have to hope other people like your ideas. But I’ve learned a lot — just about recording and playing all these other parts, playing drums and singing. I’ve been able to see all the different sides of it and write songs from a different viewpoint. It’s helped me out, and hopefully I can bring some of those tricks to the Killers and use them.