Ultragrrrl with the Killers, 2004

In 2003, I was sitting at my desk in the offices of SPIN when I got a call from my friend (and later manager, then business partner) Rob Stevenson, an A&R for Island Def Jam. Ron and I first met in 2002, when I was the manager for My Chemical Romance. Geoff Rickly, singer of the New Jersey-based emo-hardcore-punk band Thursday, had produced a couple of demos for My Chem during the time his band was poised to become the next Nirvana (and Rickly the next Kurt Cobain). Thursday opened the floodgates for the emo scene, and Rickly’s stamp of approval for My Chemical Romance got my phone ringing off the hook with people wanting to sign them, sometimes without even hearing any music. This emo thing was huge and I had the dumb luck of managing one of the best bands in the genre.

Despite my being from Tenafly, New Jersey, the NJ emo scene was foreign to me. At that point I lived in NYC on my brother Albert’s couch, and all I cared about were the bands that were creeping up from the Lower East Side — groups like Interpol, the Walkmen, and the Strokes. I was also managing LES rockers stellastarr*, and back then it seemed like they were the band that was going to blow up, not My Chem, even though people were flying in to see the emos play. Anyway, I was fired by MCR for pushing their career forward too quickly. I was fired by stellastarr* for not pushing their career enough. It was 2002 and I was having slight PTSD from 9/11 and I started drinking a lot, so I didn’t really care.

What does this have to do with the Killers? I’m setting the mood.

By late 2002, the Strokes were the big thing, doing for the NYC music scene what Thursday did for the kids from NJ. I began a sobriety blog so my family and close friends could keep track of my drinking habits (or lack thereof), and I accidentally started real-time documenting the music scene with my updates about the eye-opening experience of seeing bands sober. Sobriety lasted two months. I was an assistant editor for SPIN, living on the Lower East Side and getting on the guest list for every show I wanted to see. People found out about the blog and were reading it to hear about the next big band from NYC before magazines could write about them. This attention led to me getting a scouting gig for the aforementioned Rob Stevenson at Island Def Jam.

I remember this day better than I remember any other day of my life:

Rob was on the phone asking me if I’d ever heard of a band: “I think they’re called the Kills?” I had, and urged him not to bother. I didn’t think the Kills would do well on a major label. “No wait, I think they’re called the Killers? Something like that? Every label has passed on them but my friend in England [Martin Heath of Lizard King Records] says they’re great. I need to know why nobody wants them. I need you to find their music and let me know what you think.” Imagine googling “the Killers” in the pre-MySpace era of 2003. It was nearly impossible to weed through the links about suicide bombers, but being boy-crazy I’d already honed my internet-stalking skills, and I found them. Their site was stark, with a couple photos of a group of four OK-looking guys standing around the old Vegas strip, dressed like they studied photos of the Strokes and Interpol to figure out how to look cool — how to look like they were from New York City. It wasn’t inauthentic; it was just the way bands dressed back then if they weren’t emo.

I remember two songs being available for download: “Jenny” and “Mr. Brightside.” I was in an awful mood that day. I had been listening to “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners and said to myself, “This song better be as good.”

I clicked play on “Jenny” and listened curiously. The guitars popped up after 14 seconds, jangly like they’d been ripped from the mind of Johnny Marr. Twenty-one seconds in, the Interpol-influenced bass started ripping through, joined by drums pulled right off a Gang Of Four album. I started dialing Rob. I hung up when the 39th second hit and a desperate, Ian Curtis-esque voice started coming through my speakers. My chest started hurting while I held my breath in disbelief. When the chorus came up after a minute and thirteen seconds, I got teary eyed — it was like someone had created this band just for me. Before the song was even over, I had called Rob and told him to sign this band immediately. “Really? But everyone passed. What could be wrong with [the Killers]?”

“They’ll be the biggest band you ever sign,” I replied. “Seriously. I’m not kidding you.” He told me not to send their music to anyone; he didn’t want industry people interested again. Naturally, I sent the songs to every single person on my Buddy List. I got a hold of their manager, who sent me more songs, so I sent those along as well.

From my blog — October 3, 2003:

I really love this band called the Killers. I can’t stop listening to them and especially the song “Jenny” (which is on the page i’ve linked). I don’t know how to describe their sound… they’re sort of dark, rocking, dancey and the singer’s voice is super unique — one moment it sounds like the guy from the mars volta and the next it’s a bit like Robert Smith. I once rode my bike home listening to “Jenny” about 10 times.

This sort of make me thinks about how hard monthly magazines have it. We write our content three or more months before it actually hits the stands or lands in someone’s mailbox. We need to predict what will be popular and who our readers will want to read about, and with the internet being the absolute best tool to find about new bands, i worry that people will think that we’re so behind the times. Magazines really didnt have to compete with the web 5 years ago.

By the time the band came to NYC for CMJ later that month, my friends were obsessed.

From my blog — October 22, 2003:

I’m seeing the Killers tonight! Last night my friend [Rob Stevenson] took me to meet them and this evening i’ll be getting dinner with them. I’m really looking forward to seeing them play. I sort of got into a fight with the singer because he doesn’t exactly feel the same way i do about the greatest band in the world, Interpol, and I’m just about Interpol’s #1 fan. Speaking of Interpol, i saw them last night in concert and their new songs made my heart beat in my pants. Holy fucking shit.

My DJ partner/bestie Karen joined me for my dinner with the Killers. She got their demo while working at booking agency the Agency Group and was as big a fan as I was. Drummer Ronnie Vannucci was instantly charming, but we had beyond-awkward conversations with the rest of the band: Guitarist Dave Keuning introduced himself by his stage name, Tavian Go; Mark Stoermer, the insanely tall bassist, could only reply to questions in a defensive tone; Brandon Flowers, the sheepish singer who just wanted to know about all the rock stars I’d met, betrothed me to his best friend, Wyatt Boswell.

When the Killers played their showcase at Don Hill’s later that night, the blasé industry dudes that I accidentally blabbed to were pushed to the back by excited bloggers wanting to get as close to the stage as possible. The bloggers ended up singing every word louder than Brandon Flowers himself. Nobody expected that, least of all the band.

Rob Stevenson signed them two days later.

I let Rob know I couldn’t scout for him anymore. I needed to make sure my attempts at helping the Killers attain editorial coverage remained authentic and without question. I walked away from 25% of my income so I could be a super fan.

Shortly after signing the band, Rob invited me into his office to listen to mixes of songs that would later appear on Hot Fuss. He played me “Mr. Brightside.” I winced. “Why did they change it?! [Producer] Mark Needham’s original version was fine the way it was.” We listened again to both songs, side by side. The version originally posted on their site — the version everyone passed on — was in fact perfect, and became the recording that ended up on Hot Fuss. The same goes for “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine.” If it ain’t broke…

I got to write about the Killers for the February 2004 “Next Big Thing” issue of SPIN. The cover featured the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Interpol’s Paul Banks, Thursday’s Geoff Rickly, and the Darkness’ Justin Hawkins.

Next Big Thing: The Killers

Brandon called me when the issue came out, upset that I referred to him as an ex-Mormon, and said he couldn’t show the article to his mom. I apologized and said I wish I could fix it. His response: “It’s OK, I’ll just show her the next article in SPIN about us.” Twelve months later they appeared on the cover.

From my blog — March 4, 2004:

I just got the new Killers album in the mail yesterday. Oh, not only did i get the whole mother fucking album, but i also got the music video for “Somebody Told Me” and have literally watched it several times in the first half hour of receiving it. They’re on a desert — but they’re so hot already. God loves the Killers. I know it. Once you get your hands on this album you’re gonna be blowing loads all over your keyboard while writing me emails saying “dear sarah, thanks for telling me about the killers.” The last track sounds like the song Bowie never wrote.

Later that day, I wrote that the band had just been announced to play the SPIN SXSW showcase. I invited all my blogger friends to come over to my apartment to listen to the album.

Once advances of their album were circulating, the Killers started to get flack from bands in the NYC music scene. The Killers were seen as impostors. The bands that slaved away playing show after show at venues all over the Lower East Side wanted nothing to do with them. The only band that welcomed them was stellastarr*, who took them on tour, became close friends, and eventually lost their stage crew to the Vegas kids.

From my blog — April 2, 2004:

Wednesday I went to see the Killers, Ambulance LTD., and stellastarr* at Irving Plaza with Karen. I seriously can’t get enough of the Killers. I want to take a month off work and follow them around like a fucking deadhead smelly hippy or something. If the Franz Ferdinand show was a homoerotic experience (it was), then the Killers show was the straight equivalent. I just danced around with the biggest stupidest grin on my face for the rest of the night and felt like I had just given birth to a gorgeous baby of rock that i quickly disposed of in a dumpster so could continue my night. I want to stick the members of the Killers (and their roadie and their manager) in a box and keep them there so i could poke them every hour or so and be like “give me love,” and they’d promptly start singing and playing their instruments and I’d dance around and scream “you guys are awesome!” until i had to get back to work.

My work day included writing my monthly column “Making Out With Ultragrrrl” for SPIN. Here’s a bit from that column that came out a few months later:

The Killers: Making Out With Ultragrrrl

Meanwhile, almost immediately following that show, Brandon Flowers’ dreams came true.

From my blog — April 20, 2004:

I just found out that the Killers will be opening up for Morrissey in LA this Thursday and next Tuesday. All I can think is that Killer Brandon must be having a non-stop boner party of one. I have a rumor from a very good source that Morrissey heard “Somebody Told Me” on KROQ and called his manager and said he wanted whoever wrote that song to open for him.

By May 2004 they were on Carson Daly’s show and an MTV “You Hear It First” segment. On June 15, 2004, Hot Fuss was finally released in the States. Slowly but surely, the album began receiving critical acclaim. Upon finding out that David Bowie was on the guestlist for their October 2004 show at Irving Plaza, Brandon (with help from Wyatt) spent the whole day bedazzling his keyboard in order to impress the Thin White Duke. Brandon spent the entire performance staring at him.

“Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” quickly went from alternative radio staples to being played between P!nk and Britney Spears on Z100. They became the breakthrough artist that people thought the Strokes were going to be. They brought fey guitar-based music to the masses. And yet they often wondered if their songs were as good as those of the New York bands.

Comments (38)
  1. why does this band irk me so much? i honestly dont know. theres tons worse crap out there which i just ignore, yet i feel a need to actively dislike this band. maybe cuz when they came out i thought, ugh they just want to be the strokes….? thats not very accurate i know. but no, its not cuz ‘i secretly like them’. i dont. i dont secretly like any band. i openly like hootie and the blowfish and barenaked ladies. maybe its cuz they had more mainstream success than the strokes and i was jealous on behalf of the strokes. i like the strokes. A LOT.

  2. “Thursday, had produced a couple of demos for My Chem during the time his band was poised to become the next Nirvana (and Rickly the next Kurt Cobain).”


    • Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

      • actually… that’s exactly how the record labels were treating Thursday. if you weren’t working for one, you wouldn’t know. So please don’t call me clueless without knowing your shit

        • sorry i didn’t mean to disrespect you personally and i know a bit of your history and that you’re not clueless. i just find the whole thing strange. you start off talking about the rock revolution, which needed a Nirvana to lead it, and the majors’ thought was Thursday? What?

          Then you say the Kills, who actually do have a bit of Nirvana energy, should be ignored by the majors (can’t really argue with that one, for the sake of the Kills’ continued existence as a great band, obviously unlike the Killers.)

          Then you celebrate the kinds of bands who killed the rock revolution (the Killers, Stellastar, you coulda thrown the Bravery in too, and Interpol, who I remember everyone in the LES in 2002 calling “the beginning of the end.”) Strange.

          • Fair enough – but Interpol were DEFINITELY not considered the beginning of the end. they were considered the beginning of something huge. they were around before the strokes by a few years (99 vs 01). were you in the city at the time of interpol’s launch? cos you’d remember how damn awful the nyc music scene was. SO AWFUL.

            As for the kills… that was basically what i was getting at when i discouraged them going to a major. they wouldn’t succeed at a major label because they’d be forced to change. they were fine as is.

          • This is Kelefa Sanneh in the NYT on 9/6/02:

            “Of course, everyone knew the tide would turn eventually. And this seems like a good time for the backlash to begin in earnest. The initial excitement has died down, the Strokes are still the best band in town and musicians are running out of punk rock icons to impersonate.

            Which band will spark the backlash? A leading contender has emerged: Interpol. When the group played the Bowery Ballroom on Tuesday night, the club was packed with enthusiastic fans, who had no idea they might have been watching the beginning of the end.”

            Yes I was in NYC in those years and you’re right, circa 1999 the music scene was AWFUL. I actually agree with you that both Interpol and the Killers had a lot of good songs, but they also both played an integral role in sending rock and roll back into a coma. Each of these types of bands added a little more fashion and trendiness and pop striving and got further away from real rock energy, which brings you to the point where the 14 year old girl buying rock records decides, “you know what, this Kelly Clarkson Breakaway album is fucking banging – I’m not going to spend any more time seeking out the next YYYs.”

            I remember becoming aware of you in those years. It seemed like one of us cool kids had infiltrated the major label and media system and I had hopes that you would help create a world where the next Nirvana was the YYYs or Le Tigre or something. But alas, the dumb major labels stayed dumb, but I do remember you getting a lot of good DJ gigs out of it and I hope you’re still doing well.

          • i cant reply to your last post but it’s an interesting one. Kalefa is a talented and astute writer, however he was very wrong about this and always has been.

            anyway, thank you so much for the kind words. <3

  3. Finally, a long hard look by blogger with an aka at her memories and personal experiences about an album and band that have already largely passed from the collective consciousness and left little of lasting value in their wake.

  4. Hot Fuss was the first CD I ever actually went out and bought. I just had a feeling about it and now when I hear any of the non-singles it takes me right back.

  5. I remember listening online to BBC6, and them playing the demo version of “Mr. Brightside”. I also remember, much like the author, googling them and downloading the 2 songs from their site and listening to them repeatedly. Those were the days.

  6. My seventh-grade art teacher let me borrow and burn this CD. I think I still hold a torch for her somewhere in the back of my mind as a result.

  7. I was 14 when Hot Fuss came out. I can’t say it was a particularly important or eye-opening album musically speaking. But I did enjoy it, and also enjoyed reading this.

  8. Hey, remember when you were totally confused about why all those young kids liked Third Eye Blind? That was funny.

    • i still don’t get it.

      • I think it was more funny to me because it showcased the early 00′s “hip” crowd now being out of touch with what some of the ACTUAL youth liked. This isn’t a slight to you personally but it’s funny how having hip NYC/SPIN tunnel goggles can make it hard to differentiate between blog chatter about what kids should be listening to vs. what kids are ACTUALLY listening to. In that regard, I’d place Third Eye Blind as more influential to kids age 15-25 these days vs. The Strokes any day.

  9. Today also marks the 10 year anniversary of Beastie Boys’ To the 5 Burroughs, which I find noteworthy because it means it’s been 10 years since Brent DiCrescenzo stopped writing at Pitchfork

    • “The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax.”

      :’) #sobeautiful #neverforget #happydad’sday

  10. Gosh, this takes me back. I still remember obsessively reading Spin every month with Ultragrrrl’s column and her blog. I also remember that awkward photo above, really well.

    Waves of nostalgia! Nice to see you back, Sarah (that is, if you ever left).

  11. I hate that this album has a reputation for being terrible after the first 5 songs. The front half is where all of the hits are, but I LOVE “On Top,” “Change Your Mind,” and “Midnight Show.”

  12. I always thought ‘Everything will be alright’ was a fantastic song, an if not, at least too overlooked. The space that it creates takes me flying high and as soon as the second part arrives after the chorus I fall back to earth on my stomach, it just fills and empties so fast. I just need someone to tell me it is indeed a underrated song and everything will be alright.

    • I couldn’t agree more. It was always my highlight on the album!

    • it’s definitely one of my favorites. i didn’t mention it in this piece but the song was actually recorded in the closet of a friend of the band’s. beyond demo style. goes to show you that even without all the fancy pomp, brandon flowers is a compelling songwriter.

      • For some reason it makes so much sense it was recorded in a closet, and I agree, Flowers songwriting abilities are top notch on this song.

  13. Hot Fuss is a sort of masterpiece for its time, at least it was for me. I’m a California kid so the whole New York scene was the last thing on my mind when this came out. Plus I was barely ten years old, just starting to branch out from my Led Zeppelin/Rolling Stones upbringing. Hot Fuss was on the first records my brother absolutely loved when it came out and I remember it stayed in his CD player for months. This article was fun to read because I had no idea there was so much context to the record and relation to some of my favorite bands including Interpol (whose first two albums really rival the Strokes imo, not better just on par to me). To read about them like I would now versus a naive 10 year old kid just starting to get obsessed was a strange slice of nostalgia for me.

    The only song i didn’t like was probably their biggest hit, “Somebody Told Me” I never really understood what made that song the stand out since the lyrics have and continue to make me laugh. That being said songs like “Mr. Brightside”, “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”, and “Smile Like You Mean It” are all songs to this day I wouldnt skip if they came on shuffle. And one of my favorite songs of all time is “All These Things That I’ve Done” that song accompanied with the video was big part of the sound I look for in bands these days. I mean the song is perfect, and after revisiting it right now its a shame that they didn’t become anything more than this album. I dislike everything that came after, save for a few hits, and thats just a sad reality of the music industry; some bands make big things out of debuts and others dont.

  14. The Walkmen getting cut off at the bottom of a picture of a Killers hype piece is a weirdly perfect summation of what their career was

    • Same with the brief, passing mention of Ambulance Ltd. What a wonderful band, gone too soon. “Country Gentlemen” is a perfect song.

      Hot Fuss has aged surprisingly well, I think. It’s not particularly deep, but that’s what makes it so damn listenable.

  15. I remember the specific moment I heard All these things that I’ve done. My older brother was playing it in the garage while working on his physics bridge project when I was in sixth grade and I felt this weird sensation. I felt as if I NEEDED to hear more of it and didn’t know why. I had heard music on the radio all te time and never felt any sort of deep reaction to it. I’m ambivalent about The Killers now, but they were without a doubt the first music I ever felt passionate about and that’s something I can never forget.

  16. The Killers are so underestimated in the USA

  17. Thanks so much for this article. So much nostalgia.

    Questions for Sarah, (if she’s still reading comments):

    1. Do you think rock music will ever make a comeback again the way it did in the early 00′s? Is culture too fragmented for their to be a “rock” genre anymore?

    2. What new music do you listen to now? Still mostly rock? Anything you’d recommend?

    Again, thanks so much. I discovered the Killers through your blog, rushed out and bought the album that day, and played the hell out of it for months on end.

  18. i don’t even like the killers and i thought it was a great article.

  19. I like the change of tone for this writeup. More Ultragrrrl!

    Also, The Killers are pretty solid. Not everything they do is awesome, but they have some great songs. They were also one of the first bands to do the indie-Springsteen thing. I saw them live in 2012 because Tegan & Sara were opening, and I was actually super impressed with The Killers’ set. They were great, super entertaining and Brandon can really sing!

  20. Shout out to Ambulance LTD! Classier songwriting, yet always a footnote.

  21. Really enjoyed reading this article, found it very interesting. Looking forward to a sequel focusing on the emo scene (MCR, P!ATD, The Used etc)

  22. I agree with the above. Fun read. I’d like to see Sarah write more on here in the future.

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