Nostalgia was in the air on a night in Brooklyn last week. The Killers had just finished a brisk but exhilarating hourlong set in promotion of their new album Wonderful Wonderful, and singer Brandon Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci were milling about backstage at a new venue called Brooklyn Steel. In the cramped dressing room with the pair—who are the only original Killers still touring—were about a dozen friends, circling around untouched finger foods and some drinks. Albert Hammond Jr. and Nikolai Fraiture of the Strokes said a quick hello before slinking away, and early backer and ex-SPIN writer Sarah “Ultragrrrl” Lewitinn was chatting in the hallway nearby.
The show was truncated compared to what the band would normally play, a product of it being coordinated with and streamed live by Sirius XM. Still, they managed to squeeze in five songs off their instant classic debut Hot Fuss, and it would be a lie to say that the crowd—mostly contest winners and industry folks—wasn’t most excited to hear the classics. Flowers, though, didn’t seem to mind in the least, as he played showman during songs like “Mr. Brightside” and “All the Things I’ve Done,” standing on top of the speakers at the lip of the stage, basking in his words being sung back to him for the something-thousandth time.
It is getting to be the point where the consciously cool rock resurgence of the early 2000s is winding its way back into our lives as something to be mined for fond memories. Interpol, who helped usher in that era’s consciously cool rock, are on tour to celebrate the 15th anniversary of their breakthrough album Turn on the Bright Lights. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are teasing something around their debut album Fever to Tell. This all comes on the heels of the publication of Meet Me in the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s exhaustive and entertaining oral history of what some people consider to be the last gasp of rock and roll—when bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Vines, well… weren’t taking over the world, but seemed like they might.
The Killers emerge 400 pages into the book as the band ready to deliver on that promise. “These Guys Are Going To Be Bigger Than Everybody” is how the short chapter devoted to the Vegas outsiders is titled (it’s a Har Mar Superstar quote), and it presents them as the ones perfectly positioned to seize on the opportunity not quite taken by the bands that came before them. Their music was catchier and more commercial than those other groups, observers explain in the book, and the public had already been exposed to this reemergence of effete rock, setting the stage for some band somewhere to become superstars. Beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, the Killers also had the ambition and desire to be big, something that their peers lacked. “The band that wanted it, and were fucking ready for it,” says the late writer Marc Spitz, who wrote SPIN’s 2005 cover story on the band, “were the Killers.”
The band themselves, though, aren’t ready to join the rest of us in reminiscing about the good old days.
“It just feels too soon,” Flowers tells me the next day. “I don’t feel that far removed from it. It was an exciting time, and I think it’s impressive, the output from the few short years. But give it 20 years. Give us a little space. Jeez.”
Still, they are not immune to it entirely. Flowers conceded after the show that he wished Hammond and Fraiture had seen his band at Madison Square Garden, where they will play in January, instead of this converted warehouse tucked away on a corner in Brooklyn.
The Killers, of all these bands, are just about the last ones still standing. When we meet the afternoon after their show, it’s a few days before the release of Wonderful Wonderful, their fifth album and first in five years. Flowers and Vannucci are lounging across from each other on leather couches eating lunch—Vannucci a sandwich with fries and a salad, which Flowers picks at after turning down a more substantial meal because, he announces (or jokes, it’s hard to tell), he is juicing today. Nearly 15 years into their careers, both are beginning to showing their age. Vannucci, still a noticeably physical presence behind his drum kit, has thinning hair and an intense cranium that is softened by a natural and easy sense of humor. His personality is a good foil for the stoic Flowers, who speaks with a noticeable drawl, kind of like an old movie character, while looking you straight in the eyes. His face is still essentially perfect.
The pair are taking a break during a packed performance week which also included an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, a sold out album release show, and a headlining appearance at Global Citizens Festival in Central Park, where they appeared alongside Stevie Wonder, Green Day, and the Chainsmokers. While the acts they were ushered in with are pulling at the threads of past glory or doing other things entirely, the Killers are still driven by that ambition. “We’re not settling into it,” Flowers says of a career they could easily rest on. They are proud of their forward momentum, and it’s been that way since the beginning.
“In the early days, you would see a lot of people being interviewed and just be self-deprecating and have this false modesty, and I hate seeing it,” Flowers adds. “It frustrates me that people don’t pick up on it, and they believe it. And so we were being a little bit more honest and forthright about it. Like, ‘We made this record, and we wanna put it out there, and we actually believe it’s good.’ Like, it’s so weird that you believe that these other people aren’t sure about it, you know what I mean? Because they are, or else they wouldn’t put it out there, they wouldn’t get on the stage. And it’s never gonna go away. That’s endearing to people for whatever reason, but it’s bull. It’s baloney.”
During our conversation, Flowers reminds me that the Killers have never had a No. 1 album (true in America), been on the cover of Rolling Stone (ditto), or won a Grammy (they’ve been nominated at least five times). Despite being one of the most successful and beloved bands of an era, they still see themselves as outsiders, if not underdogs. They also, though they don’t admit it, may be motivated by a certain fear. There is a song on Wonderful Wonderful called “Tyson vs. Douglas,” in which Flowers sings of the shock of seeing heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, a generation’s larger than life figure, rendered mortal: “When I saw him go down, felt like somebody lied,” goes the chorus. Regardless of why, the Killers don’t want merely to stick around. They want more.
“It’s not to say we’re not proud of what we’ve done,” Vannucci adds. “But I don’t think we’d be happy with what’s on the epitaph now if it all ended. And we’re still alive, so. We wanna keep doing better.”
Whether they are better is a topic that’s up for debate. But the Killers are certainly not a band that is stagnating. Wonderful Wonderful welcomes new sonic and emotional textures to their discography. The rippling ballad “Rut” shares its DNA with Flowers’ 2015 album The Desired Effect, which imagined him as a sort of Steve Winwood-esque pop singer. The album’s best song, another misty ballad called “Some Kind of Love,” sports a Brian Eno sample, and is about Flowers’ wife’s depression. Unhurried and silken, it might be the most purely beautiful thing they’ve ever written. Then there is “The Man,” the album’s cocky lead single, which is built around a funky bassline and is accented with vocoders. It’s reminiscent of the Arcade Fire’s recent output, but without being extremely embarrassing. It’s also the Killers’ biggest rock radio hit since “When You Were Young,” proving that although rock music has fallen out of the zeitgeist, the band are both still relevant and innovating slightly, even if in a certain bubble.
Still, it’s easy to imagine this all having gone completely differently. Coldplay, their brothers-in-arms as fellow U2 idolizing arena bands for aging millennials, leaned hard into EDM, working with Avicii and the Chainsmokers. In their hometown, the Killers are inundated with images of the faces of the DJs who have sieged Las Vegas: Calvin Harris, Diplo, Afrojack, etc. Flowers tried that kind of thing, writing a song with Avicii called “The Days.” He originally sang on the song, too, but told me he “couldn’t do it,” and the song was eventually released with vocals from Robbie Williams. (Flowers’ reference track ended up leaking—he sounds great.) The band tried working with Steve Angello, member of the since-dissolved Swedish House Mafia, who was recommended by Stuart Price, the electronic musician who produced the Killers’ third album Day & Age, but that didn’t take either. The band compared these sessions to trying on ostentatious clothes just to be sure they don’t look right on you.
Instead, the Killers have curated an idiosyncratic group of collaborators. Several songs on Wonderful Wonderful were co-written with Alex Cameron, an Australian oddball with an Ariel Pink vibe. “The Man,” meanwhile, was made in conjunction with a dance producer, though one who doesn’t show up in the credits of any pop songs—Erol Alkan, who got mountains of work back in the day remixing bands like Interpol and Franz Ferdinand. The Killers would have been easily justified in chasing crossover relevance with big names du jour, but, they want you to know, think it would have been kind of wack.
“He’s cooler,” Vannucci says of Alkan. “And that’s just a taste thing. That’s just me, Ronnie, saying he’s cooler than Avicii or whatever. I’m not hip to DJ culture as much, but I’ve heard some really cool shit. But the majority of it is shit. And it’s bad.”
But they’re not assholes about it, even when they want to be. Vannucci told a story of a time he unexpectedly had a blast at an EDM show.
“We were in Argentina once, Buenos Aires, and we saw Deadmau5,” he says. “And I went in there fully just like, shitty attitude, not ready to enjoy myself. I enjoyed it. It was like a full-on experience. It was awesome. It’s not really my bag, but I was there, my dad was there, we were surrounded by a bunch of South American models. Everything was fine.”
“You need to get the whole story,” Flowers butts in. “It was also Ron’s first time experimenting with MDMA.”
“I loved it,” Vannucci says.
Then Flowers: “He fucking loved it.”
The Killers might be building their own little hermetic existence, out of step with their erstwhile peers and current contemporaries, but the world around them, outside of music, is changing. Another Wonderful Wonderful single, “Run For Cover,” is vaguely about a woman being harmed in some way by a man, and it features a lyric that is, for this band, a little jarring. “He’s got a big smile, he’s fake news,” sings Flowers. “Just run for cover, you’ve got nothing left to lose.” The inclusion of that one phrase—you know the one—is a new development for the Killers, who’ve written plenty of lyrics that stick out like sore thumbs, but have never exactly been political, even obliquely. When asked about it, Flowers retreats a bit, using his cowboy cadence to put an aw-shucks spin on the idea of his band leveling with the world around it.
“You gotta have… you better be packing some heat if you’re gonna step up to that,” he says of writing explicitly political songs. “And you better believe it. And it’s not that we don’t believe or have any strong feelings about it, but I don’t know that I’m informed enough.”
Nonetheless, he has been working on at least one song that addresses a topic critical to Vegas and the areas around it.
“One thing that I do feel probably the most strongly about that we didn’t tackle on this record would be the early talking and some of the conversations about Mexicans,” he says. “That’s one of the things that frustrates me, and I do have a song that addresses it that didn’t make it on [this album]. It’s called ‘The Unknown,’ and it’s beautiful and it’s powerful and it’s coming from my heart. But it just didn’t… we just didn’t finish it, and we didn’t really get into that one for this record.”
Flowers answers questions compactly, like the sort of famous person who has trained himself to say things without saying things. But here his sentences break and trail off, and as he grapples with explaining himself, it feels like the most genuine part of our conversation.
“I started to—the album started to emerge and I started to see what it was, and it just didn’t have anything to do with any of that stuff,” he says. “And so that was where… and so I just had to follow that light that I was seeing. I would like to finish that song. I don’t know if it’s gonna be a Killers song or what it’s gonna be, but…”
For now, though, the Killers will soon be returning to the place where they feel they belong, where Flowers wished the Strokes had been able to see them last week: arenas. In November, they will tour arenas across Europe, and after a month off, they will do the same in America, hitting basketball and hockey venues across a two-month tour, including in New York, before heading to New Zealand and Australia.
At one point during our chat, I mentioned that I saw a band that I love, maybe my favorite band, a few years ago at Manhattan’s Terminal 5, which is the kind of venue an artist might play when they’re on the verge of blowing up. Last year, I saw the same band at Barclays Center, an arena six times the size, and I told Flowers that the band felt too big for one venue and too small for the other. I lamented that there wasn’t a perfectly sized space for this kind of band, with life-affirming, anthemic songs and a devoted fanbase, but which was has arrived at a time when the frontmen of rock bands are no longer the world’s rock stars.
“It doesn’t feel big for us, though,” he said, flashing a grin so pristine and pearly I might have been able to see my reflection.