The Killers On The Virtues Of Being Uncool And The Struggles Behind Battle Born
Last week, the Killers’ fourth album, Battle Born, was released. By now everyone that is interested in the Killers has had a chance to listen to the record and weigh in on whether it holds up alongside the band’s already arena-sized canon. (It does). At the time that I spoke to frontman Brandon Flowers and guitarist Dave Keuning, Battle Born was still a couple of months away from release and the band was still mired in what was apparently a pretty grueling process of mixing and second-guessing. It is a testament to the band’s songwriting prowess and strength of vision that Battle Born — a record that involved the work of no less than five mega-producers (Brendan O’Brien, Steve Lillywhite, Daniel Lanois, Stuart Price, and Damien Taylor) — still has a cohesive (albeit openly Springsteen-ian) sense of focus. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by how honest Flowers and Keuning were about the difficulties of making the record and their own oversized ambitions. You can argue that there are moments on Battle Born — like all Killers records — when the band’s reach exceeds their grasp, but that’s always been part of their charm. Brandon Flowers can’t help it. He really wants to write the kind of big, sprawling rock songs that will become embedded in the cultural consciousness (and classic rock radio, if it still existed) from now until forever. And who are we to fault him for trying?
Stereogum: Since Day & Age came out in 2008, each of you has had time to go away, make solo albums, work on other projects, etc. I was curious how those experiences — plus having a little time off from the Killers — played into the making of Battle Born.
Flowers: We still have the same goals when we get together, and the same aspirations. We just want to do our best. That’s really it. We don’t sit and think about how much time we had off or what anyone else might have been doing. When we’re back together, the goal is always the same.
Keuning: The only difference really is that there might have been an album in between Hot Fuss and Battle Born that’s not there now, just because we were doing other things.
Stereogum: Has the way that you work as a band changed radically since you first started?
Flowers: No. (laughs)
Keuning: We’re lucky, because we don’t have one specific way. Sometimes we will bring an idea with a well laid-out plan, other times it will just happen by accident. But we’ll also try to create the accidents. We are open to both.
Stereogum: Is that how it usually works? You get together and bring what you’ve got and then you go from there?
Keuning: Yeah, or we just jam around and see what happens.
Stereogum: What was the process for this record? Did you record at home?
Flowers: Yeah, for part of it. We also recorded in Nashville and LA for a short time. We worked with some different producers, so we were sort of all over the place. [There was] a little bit of collaborating, which we hadn’t really done before, with Daniel Lanois.
Stereogum: How was Lanois?
Flowers: It was good. He has kind of a spiritual approach. It’s nice to approach something so familiar to us but do so in a different way.
Stereogum: He’s amazing. He was one my favorite interviews because he had just a million amazing stories about working with different people. How was it working with so many different producers for one album? Was that a conscious decision from the outset?
Flowers: No. No offense to any of the producers (laughs), but the idea was to pick one, and by the time we got to the point where we wanted to get a producer, we had our list of guys and we started asking people and they inevitably all had shit that they were doing. So we would take one for a couple weeks here, one for a month here. We stuck Steve Lilywhite and Damian Taylor together while we worked with them.
Stereogum: How was that? Were they into it?
Flowers: (laughs) Not really.
Stereogum: I am always really fascinated by the producer’s roles with bands. It can be such an amorphous job, depending on the producer and depending on the band. They can either be a cheerleader or a drill sergeant, depending on your needs, so I can imagine putting two of them together could be interesting.
Keuning: It was an experiment for us is what I think. We thought of it as an experiment.
Flowers: I like the idea of a team, but you have to get the right team and the right dynamic happening. And we are still working on it.
Stereogum: How did it differ from producer to producer? Did you go in and let them direct?
Flowers: These five guys were all so different.
Keuning: They really are. It was so interesting.
Flowers: Well, Brendan O’Brien is a gifted dude, he hears it — the song — and you watch him take it in and then he just gets it right away. I don’t always know what he’s looking for, but he just gets something and then we go there. It happens really fast. Steve Lillywhite is a little bit more free and youthful — unbelievably youthful — and that is fun in the studio. Lanois is more of a wizard and he brings this mysterious mojo that I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen anyone as devoted to music; he’s like a gypsy, you know? He goes from one thing to another and it’s based around music. Also, there are no TVs in that man’s house. And Stuart Price and Damien Taylor we thought would be pretty similar in style, but they were very different too. It was a really fascinating mix of people to have involved, all working toward this same mysterious goal.
Keuning: Lanois just jammed without click tracks. I think we did four demos that didn’t have click tracks. I didn’t know what I was playing half the time. I was just following wherever it was going. But yeah, he was probably the most different, process-wise, for us. Stuart and Damien are good at adding things.
Flowers: They are new-school. They mix in the box and they are into the computers. I didn’t know what the hell they were doing half the time — they are always typing into the computer and stuff. That frustrates me and they both know it. The old-school guys that are on the boards I can understand; it’s a physical thing and you are watching it happen. You can feel it and see it. You can see their fingers moving the levels around. But this new way — they are so fast, and you are looking at all these images on a screen — it just feels very different. So basically we have worked in every way possible on this record. We’ve gone down every possible avenue.
Stereogum: One might imagine that involving so many producers would result in an album with a very schizophrenic quality to it. But this album feels very cohesive, very Killers-like. Was it hard to maintain this overall guiding vision for the album with so many different people involved?
Flowers: It’s been a difficult time for us.
Stereogum: Even under the most ideal circumstances, making a record is hard. Being able to record and mix something that sounds exactly the way you imagined it is a nearly impossible task for even the most focused band. Compared to your experiences making the first three albums, would you say that this one has been the most difficult?
Flowers: For me it is easily.
Keuning: Yeah, it is. In regard to how much time it has taken us and how many songs we’ve just thrown away or changed completely, it’s definitely the hardest.
Stereogum: I understand that desire to make the album as perfect as it can be. You can always change the way you play the songs live if you want, but the album is this fixed document that exists out in the world forever.
Keuning: I remember asking Flood about a song on Depeche Mode’s Violator, which he engineered. He told me he couldn’t really listen to that record because there was a sound on it — a certain way a cymbal sounded or something — and it ruined it for him. When he listens to it now all he can hear is that sound. I think we just want to avoid that as much as we can. I want to be able to listen to our records and not feel that kind of regret that we didn’t do something differently.
Flowers: We just want everyone to be relatively happy with the final product.
Stereogum: Are you looking forward to being on the road again?
Flowers: Yeah. We have such great fans, and we have these great songs and I don’t think people realize it yet. I feel like it’s just starting to be acknowledged that we are survivors and that we are actually accomplished. And more than that, we have these songs that I feel so strongly about. I feel like I’m singing karaoke sometimes — like, I’m up there singing and will suddenly have this feeling like, wow, these are great songs and they are my songs, our songs. So, its really fun -– you know, we play 18 songs and 13 of them are, for me, just a blast to sing, and the other ones are usually new ones that I’m still getting familiar with. It is starting to hit me now that this is a great position to be in, and it’s just been really fun.
Keuning: Not that I don’t like getting the song on record and in its raw form but I think the step after that is playing it live. That’s probably my favorite part of being in a band — showing it to an audience — because that is the immediate gratification. You get to see the audience enjoying it, and in the studio you don’t get that.
Stereogum: You’ve clearly not abandoned your love of crafting these epic mini-narratives. “Runaways” really holds to that tradition of telling this personal story in a widescreen, panoramic way.
Flowers: Some people don’t like it — they want it to be vague. But, yeah that one in particular is pretty straightforward. There’s not too much room for interpretation with that song. But I still get people asking me what’s it’s about, and I’m like, are you kidding me? I don’t mean to be that much up my own ass, but it’s kind of like, did you listen to it? It’s pretty obvious.
Stereogum: I think it’s actually a pretty ballsy move to write these very bold, very straightforward narratives — it’s not hiding behind any kind of ambiguity. Though there is something to be said for creating something that is ambiguous enough that people can sort of project whatever they want to onto it, but there is a tradition of storytelling in songwriting that you guys very much adhere to. I like that.
Flowers: When it’s vague, and if you use the right language, it can come off a lot cooler. So I think it’s definitely a place where a lot of people tend to go. It’s safer. You are somehow a little removed from it when things are really ambiguous. You are definitely putting yourself out there if you do something really literal — which I do a few times on this record. I gave it a shot.
Stereogum: What is it that draws you to that kind of songwriting?
Flowers: We all grew up listening to a lot of British stuff, but as we got older, we started listening to American stuff, and I think that’s where that influence sort of crept in. It’s all just an experiment, really. You throw all of these different influences into the pot and then try to make the most of it.
Stereogum: Obviously your records are loved by a lot of people and you are very successful band. Still, I get the feeling that you guys have taken a lot of flack for trying to write these big, sweeping pop songs at a moment when that sort of thing was considered uncool to do.
Keuning: I think that right away that was something we weren’t afraid of trying to do. We were always kind of like, why wouldn’t we be ambitious and write the best and the biggest songs we could?
Flowers: We didn’t know there was anything wrong with it until we read the articles. Somewhere along the way things changed. I don’t think it’s always been not acceptable to try to write big, ambitious songs.
Keuning: I mean somebody had to try it, right? We can’t all just be super-cool bands that stare at their shoes.
Flowers: I think a big part of it has to do with where we are from, and not being in LA or in New York. We don’t have that pressure. If you are a band [in NYC], I would be scared to death to play a song like “Runaways” in a bar. We didn’t have those kinds of cool audiences in Las Vegas. We had people who wished they were those people, but not too many.
Stereogum: I can understand that. Living in Kansas I had so many friends that were in bands — many of whom became successful — and they were able to really find their sound in an organic, safe way. It was cheap to live there, so you could really exist by working part time and then play tons of shows. I don’t think it’s really fair to generalize all NYC or LA bands, but I do imagine that bands trying to make it here in the city have to contend with different kinds of pressures. If you are working a serious Springsteen, classic-rock vibe, it might not be as easy to book a show at Glasslands with the weird bedroom electronica bands.
Keuning: Here in NYC, I think if you are making a normal good rock song it has to be something special or people are going to be like: “Ordinary; that’s been done.” I think in New York or Brooklyn you have to be weird or you aren’t cool enough. But in the Midwest you aren’t competing with as many other bands and you are just happy to be making songs and it building it from there. You work on your songcraft and get better at it years later, as opposed to just trying to be completely weird. Not that there’s anything wrong with being weird, it’s just not what we do.
Stereogum: Well, there is definitely a craft involved with writing hooky, melodic pop songs that sound like they were made to be played on the radio or sung along with in the car. You guys do that really well.
Flowers: We have just been really lucky and we just have to keep working at it. You can’t pay too much attention to the negativity.
Stereogum: As a band becomes more successful you suddenly find yourself presented with all these new options — people who want to work with you, etc. — but you also have to deal with the growing pains of becoming this larger entity that suddenly employs all of these people. Success often includes certain growing pains that can be hard to manage. Has that been a struggle for you guys?
Flowers: I think we are pretty much the same. When we are writing the songs, I do think we now do so with the live show in mind. I think there are a lot of great “live show” moments on this record, which will make the songs really fun to play on the road. That is one of the things that we weren’t thinking about so much at the beginning.
Stereogum: It sounds like it’s been a struggle, but it’s also really exciting.
Flowers: We’re excited. It’s just been really crazy this time.
The Killers’ Battle Born is out now on Island.