Hot Fuss Turns 10: Ultragrrrl Looks Backs On The Launch Of The Killers
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.
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:
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.