HONGKONGERS ARE A forgiving bunch. It’s been three years since The Killers, one of the biggest rock bands in the world, cancelled their much-anticipated appearance in Hong Kong.
Now, The Killers are making good, with plans to appear at the AsiaWorld-Expo on September 24, and the excitement in the city is palpable. Band members are confident – to the point of nonchalance – that they won’t disappoint this time around. “We’re just going to get up there and do what we do,” says drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jnr over the phone from Los Angeles.
To say that The Killers are big is an understatement. In the past 12 years they have gone from a humble local indie band in Las Vegas to one of the biggest rock’n’roll acts on earth. They routinely pack stadiums and have sold more than 20 million records to date.
Still, they are an unlikely success story. First off, as we mentioned, they are from Las Vegas, a city whose name is as synonymous with cultural wasteland as it is with glitz and gambling.
Vegas is where big stars go to die, not where they are born.
Vannucci takes issue with the idea that Vegas is somehow lacking in culture.
It has lots of culture, he argues, just maybe not the type of culture we, as humans, should be proud of: “People go to Vegas to lose their minds, to wager their mortgage and their marriage. So, we saw a darker version of humanity.
Maybe that influenced our sound.”
It is that sound that is the most unlikely part of The Killers’ success. The group got their name from a fictional band in a New Order music video and their debt to that band is obvious at first listen. But their influences go deeper and embrace an unlikely cohort of American musicians: the dark, low-tempo danceability of New Wave, the shimmering guitars of U2, the structured, straightahead rocking of Bruce Springsteen.
The Killers managed to synthesise these disparate styles – none of which were too popular when their first album, Hot Fuss, dropped in 2004 – into a sound that seems at once dark and safe, hard-edged and easily accessible.
When asked how this bit of musical alchemy took place, Vannucci begs off: “I think we just got lucky in a lot of ways.
We come by it honestly. It’s all just the s*** we grew up listening to. We were just lucky to get four people in a room who liked the same stuff.”
The Killers have been at it for more than 10 years and in that time their music has evolved. Their newest album, 2012’s Battle Born, found the group toying with a new straightforward hard-rocking sound.
“What makes your ears perk up changes from when you’re 20 to when you’re 30,” says Vannucci.
“For me personally, the older I get the more I get into heavier sounds.”
For Vannucci the change in musical styles has as much to do with what is fun to play as it does taste: “I think it has to do with playing live and being a drummer, the physicality of drumming. People can feel if you are tickling the drums or f***ing banging them.”
Even with their often esoteric influences and constantly evolving sound, The Killers have managed to sustain an almost unheard of level of universal appeal. Thirteen-year-old girls and their parents can finally agree on a favourite song and everyone from pop fanatics to diehard rock snobs have tapped their feet to The Killers.
Each new album brings hit singles that dominate the airwaves: the inescapable Mr Brightside, Somebody Told Me, and Smile Like You Mean It from their debut Hot Fuss; When You Were Young from the follow-up Sam’s Town (2006); and Human from Day & Age (2008). Even though the musical landscape has changed radically since they came on the scene, The Killers have managed, somehow, to stay comfortably on top.
At their core The Killers are proudly, defiantly old fashioned. At least Vannucci is: “I feel really good about getting in before the age of MySpace or Facebook, tweeting or YouTube and everything like that. It feels good to be part of a time when you advertised your band with things like flyers.”
The Killers remain a true no-frills rock’n’roll band, an increasingly rare phenomenon in the contemporary music business. Here are four musicians that actually play real instruments, something Vannucci is proud of: “The last thing I want to do is pay money to watch a guy who stands on stage pushing buttons.”
These days, few groups are able to sustain The Killers’ level of popularity for as long as they have. Most bands in their position would have burned out, or sold out long ago. Neither seem in danger of happening to The Killers, though Vannucci does remember a time when the group had to get their priorities straight: “In the early days they’d always try and get us to wear something stupid and we had no idea. We were fresh out the garage and there was Dolce & Gabbana saying to put on this suit.
I’d never had a US$3,000 suit, but then you realise: ‘Hey we’re getting used.’” Now the band has developed a proven technique to stay relevant, true to themselves, and out of trouble: get to work. “What we do is we write songs, we make records and we do shows. We don’t do red carpets and all that s***.”
In light of their famous work ethic, what’s next for The Killers? Vannucci sounds excited if a bit non-committal: “We have a best-of thing coming out soon with a couple new tracks on it, and then we’ll see what happens.”
The band members have been experimenting with other projects – Vannucci’s debut album Big Talk was released in 2011 – since the group took a year and a half hiatus in 2011 following the death of lead singer Brandon Flowers’ mother (hence the cancellation in Hong Kong). Since then it has been harder to get all of the band members in the same room to record.
“Putting out an album takes a few years of commitment,” Vannucci says, “and I know a couple of us are doing some other things.”
Still, for Vannucci slowing down is not an option: “I need movement. I like momentum.”
Just don’t expect to see him on the cover of People Magazine anytime soon.
“We just want to make songs that will be liked and appreciated in 100 years from now. At the end of the day, I’m not concerned with what f***ing kind of shoes I’m wearing.”
Four of a kind
Hot Fuss (2004)
On their acclaimed debut, the Las Vegas foursome arrived with a fresh art rock sound influenced by the 1980s New Wave movement that signalled the arrival of a band to watch. Hot Fuss and its standout single, Mr Brightside, were loaded with an infectious energy that recalled '80s chart-toppers Duran Duran and Depeche Mode.
Sam's Town (2006)
On their second release, they truly hit the big time with this grandiose album that was influenced as much by Bruce Springsteen and U2 as the New Wave bands. Sam's Town was voted by Rolling Stone readers as the most underrated album of the decade, and contains one of their most-loved songs: When You Were Young.
Day & Age (2008)
This time in a more playful mood, the band moved on from the earnest art rock of their first two albums and experimented with everything from dance rock to bossa nova and even disco. Singer Brandon Flowers has said the songs were inspired by Elton John, David Bowie and Lou Reed.
Battle Born (2012)
With their status as stadium-fillers now firmly established, they returned with a more stripped-back album that resulted from a difficult gestation period. The dance rock sound of Day & Age gave way to a greater Springsteen influence, and the album was jam-packed with mini-operas about lost love that reverberated through concert halls around the world.