The Killers On Their New Album Pressure Machine, Collaborating With Phoebe Bridgers And Bruce Springsteen, And Their Next Album
Just under a year ago, the Killers released a new album called Imploding The Mirage. It was one of their best, perfecting a marriage of Americana-tinged arena rock and synth anthems that the band has moved between throughout their career. You could only imagine how big some of those songs would’ve sounded on the attendant tour, but, of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Killers made another album.
It might not be quite accurate to call Pressure Machine a quarantine album, but it wouldn’t have happened so quickly if not for lockdown. During that time, Brandon Flowers found himself going back through the years — recently relocated back to Utah, showing his kids scenes from the part of his youth spent in the small town of Nephi. Suddenly, ideas for a new and very different kind of Killers album started coming to him.
The band has been teasing that a successor to Imploding The Mirage was on the horizon since Imploding The Mirage itself came out. They’ve dropped hints about it along the way, remarking that it’s full of quieter Killers songs than might’ve made the cut on an album during normal times. The stillness of quarantine allowed the Killers to dig in and branch out. Pressure Machine isn’t without a handful of swelling, dramatic tracks or gliding pop songs, but generally it is a far more somber and reflective collection of music than the Killers have ever assembled. You’d have to imagine that Flowers, as a Springsteen devotee, was taking notes from albums like Nebraska. Pressure Machine goes back to one of his own origin stories, piecing through scenes from his upbringing — and as a result, these are dusty, worn songs mulling on the lives of people in unknown places out in the middle of the country. On a few occasions, the band even gets surprisingly dark, in both themes and aesthetic.
While the band’s been open about Pressure Machine‘s existence, there’s otherwise little known about it. Thus far there have been no singles, with the band only sharing the tracklist a few days ago. They officially announced it just two weeks ago, and it arrives next week. Pressure Machine is a concept record of sorts, and perhaps it’ll make sense for fans to hear it all as one entity when the time soon comes. In the meantime, we caught up with Flowers and Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. to get a preview of what’s in store.
Usually when there is a quick followup or perhaps a sister album, the trope is that it’s leftover songs or a “Part Two” type situation. Pressure Machine is a lot different than Imploding The Mirage sonically and thematically. Were these songs coming to you around the same time?
RONNIE VANNUCCI, JR.: There was nothing about it that had an umbilicus to the other songs, except many of the same players. I think the kernel of the idea was just… like everybody, we were going through an unprecedented weird time. We were coming off of just being in the studio. When the lockdown came, we were still mixing Imploding The Mirage. We were definitely in a mode. But then the days got darker. Things got a little more weird. Brandon was in a zone, we were in a zone. He said, “Hey, let’s make a record about this kind of feeling I’m having about this town.” I’m like, “Let’s do this.” That’s the genesis of it.
Brandon, this is old origin story stuff for you to go back and exhume. What was it about the lockdown era that made you want to go back to these teenage years?
BRANDON FLOWERS: I recently moved back to Utah. I’m about an hour and 20 minutes north of the town I grew up in. It’s definitely on my radar, I still have a sister there and nieces and nephews and things like that. I found myself making excuses to go show my kids where I lived or take them to the burger joint that I used to go to with my dad. I started having these memories. I didn’t think it was going to be an album or I would pursue it like that. There started to be so many, and I started to see a thread, and I just ran with it.
Were you already aware you were trying to go for this kind of sprawling concept arc, but also a quieter album?
FLOWERS: Speaking for me, we’ve always wondered if we were capable of a record like this. Since we came out, everyone talks about the bombast, and the glitz and the glamour, and the overreaching, and all that stuff. That wasn’t something we had even considered about our band when we were in the studio and writing records, because we just do what we do. Then you start to wonder, “Well, is it because we’re not capable of doing these other things?” [Laughs]
VANNUCCI: The time gave us an excuse to reach down to a place we had always been interested in exploring. We have a bunch of old shit, really old stuff, that we just never put out because it didn’t seem like a congruent line to whatever we were working on at the time. Orphans, if you will. But we were in the zone. The sky was falling. [Turning to Brandon] Something I remember you saying that sort of tied everything into it was: When you were growing up in Utah, you didn’t have much besides music and it put you in this universe that was an autonomous sort of feeling. He pulled me in with him. We got to this place where we were exploring this feeling, and it became Pressure Machine.
FLOWERS: Ronnie wasn’t in Nephi in the ‘90s — but he was a part of the music scene in the ‘90s, same with [Dave] Keuning. It was like, let’s start with that as a touchstone or a launchpad. Think about any kind of music that was happening, whether it was Radiohead or Smashing Pumpkins. Even Nirvana comes up. When I listen to a song like “Cody” on the record, that’s something Ronnie started. It starts off like Nirvana even though it doesn’t end up there. We were really trying to pull from the sentiment of the ‘90s and to go there almost musically in any way we could find.
VANNUCCI: It was scary how natural it was. [Laughs] I listened to a lot of R.E.M. growing up, and it was really easy. It’s funny. You put yourself into these boxes without even knowing that you put yourself in these restraints, almost. Of how you should be or how you should be perceived. It was nice to throw it out the window and hone in and focus on a vibe.
That was something you had said about Imploding The Mirage, too —
VANNUCCI: We never said that ever.
The idea you had been encouraged to go against expectations. Now you have this two-part era where, in very different ways, each album might open up new things for the Killers. Do you guys feel like there’s a broader horizon from here?
VANNUCCI: I think we’re learning how to roll with whatever punches are thrown at us. Whether it’s Mark [Stoermer] can’t be in the studio, or Dave can’t be in the studio, or the sky is falling with coronavirus. We’re learning how to just be resilient and have fun with that and not have to belong to any sort of preconceived idea of what we should be doing. Sort of selfishly, we are doing what we can but also what makes us feel the best.
Brandon, I think you grew up in a place smaller than where I grew up, but I can relate to many of the themes and scenes here. To me, the title Pressure Machine — on an album like this, with the vignettes that introduce the songs — could have a more negative connotation, but at the same time the album feels very empathetic. I’m curious how the phrase works for you, and your relationship to these sorts of places.
FLOWERS: It’s that whole thing of love and hate for the place you are from. But it’s also just… pressure is something we associate with Wall Street. I started, in my life, in this little town… I was trying to think of these people on Main Street and how tricky it is. We start getting analyzed early on with how we handle pressure, and then you get tagged with however you handle it. At maybe too young of an age, prematurely. If you compound that with religious pressure — in Utah in the ‘90s, when I was in Nephi, it would’ve been 90% Mormon. There is no other place in America that has any kind of stats like that. [Laughs] It sort of becomes extreme. When I go back to those memories, the things that stood out to me were the misfits and the people who were not subscribing to the religion. I think those were a lot of the characters that made it onto this record.
Were those people you felt a kinship with growing up as you were making sense of all this, or you didn’t understand until later?
FLOWERS: At a young age, it was black and white. They were good or bad. Of course with more understanding and more empathy as you get older, I see them with different eyes now and I feel a lot more tenderness towards their situations. I really wanted to represent them in these songs.
“West Hills” is my favorite song on the album, it’s such a striking opener. You were talking about ‘90s music, but I’m wondering where a song like this comes from.
FLOWERS: It was the third incarnation of the song. I had lyrics early for this record, I’m usually scrambling at the last minute. There were these alternate versions of these songs floating around. If we didn’t feel like it found its home, we took it down a whole other road. So there’s an uptempo “West Hills,” a rock version.
VANNUCCI: And it was in four, we made it swing and put it in 6/8.
FLOWERS: It was last minute in LA. It’s our first song in 6/8. But yeah, the story is another personal, true thing that happened in Nephi. Everything had to be in Nephi. At first I thought, OK, maybe everything can just feel like that time for me and maybe we can explore that. Then I started to realize there was something special about everything residing there.
The last record had a lot of collaborators — Weyes Blood, Adam Granduciel, Lindsey Buckingham, Lucius. This one has Phoebe Bridgers.
FLOWERS: She knocked us out with a couple beautiful covers, “Read My Mind” and “Human.” She’s been on my radar since I first heard “Funeral” years ago, and you just know there’s something special about her. It was nice to know that she was also a fan of ours. It just kind of came together naturally. It was fast. It was during the middle [of the pandemic], everyone was wearing masks. I don’t think we ever really saw her face. She came into the studio, she went into a darkly lit live room. She had already gotten really familiar with the song, did a couple takes, and then that was it. She disappeared into the Los Angeles night. [Laughs]
Were there any other guests on the album?
FLOWERS: The two brothers from Dawes, Taylor and Griffin. They did harmonies on “The Getting By.” Joe Pug plays harmonica.
VANNUCCI: Sara Watkins on the fiddle. We had a lot of people. That’s the great thing about working in LA. “Hey, we need a trumpet, we can call this guy.” It was like that on the last record, too — you have all these resources.
Between the last one and this one, is there a specific thing that makes you think it makes sense to bring someone into the world of the Killers or just like, “Oh, Phoebe’s down the street.”
FLOWERS: We definitely needed a female voice on “Runaway Horses.” She has a history, I think, with not only that type of music but even in her lineage — her grandpa has rodeo ties. It just felt right. But you just want to have a sense of place and to play around with instrumentation. The fiddle and the harmonica and the pedal steel, it just really helped ground it.
This is not on the album, but it’s another big collab you just released — “Dustland” with Bruce Springsteen. Brandon’s already talked about how that happened, receiving this phantom text from him. But how was it actually working on it with him?
FLOWERS: It was during the middle of it all. The idea was for it to maybe be this quarantine thing, lift some spirits. He just had so much going on. We had to wait for all that dust to settle, from Obama podcasts and more announcements about Broadway. We just waited for the right time. We’re really happy with how that turned out. He lives up to every rumor and all the folklore about him. He really does. It’s wild. Every now and then you get a text or a call from him and you think he’s going to ask you for something and he’s literally just checking in on you. He’s just that guy. We were a little reluctant to ask him, we didn’t want to bug him. But he was really gracious. That song was very inspired by him. I feel like he opened the door for me to write about regular people. Before I felt like it had to be something, you know, special, that was bigger than the people that were around me. It really helped me out on my journey.
Are there any dream collaborations you haven’t gotten yet?
FLOWERS: There’s a lot of greats out of there, but I don’t know. We don’t typically think about collaborations.
VANNUCCI: You don’t want to jinx it, you want it to happen naturally. Of course if we say “We want to work with blah blah blah,” it gets out on some kind of digital platform and it becomes this like, dare. It’s not a real organic process. I think getting a phone call or a message saying, “Hey, how you doing, I want to do this song,” and have it grow from there, then it makes more sense. There’s so many great musicians and songwriters out there and it’d be fun to do something. We’re always game, it would just have to be the right sort of thing.
We already talked about how different this is than the last one, and how it’s a different set of songs than the Killers might’ve put out otherwise. Recently, there was already talk about the eighth album, too. Can you tell me anything about how that might relate to six and seven or where you might want to go next?
VANNUCCI: Eight would probably relate more to six. Eight would be not cutting room floor or orphan songs from Imploding The Mirage, but it would be picking up from where that left off. We have some songs that are done and just belong on another album. They didn’t belong on Imploding The Mirage, and they certainly don’t belong on Pressure Machine. But they have a home and we’re starting to see the architecture of number eight form a little bit. We’ve had a couple writing sessions and some recording and some get togethers with Mark and Dave. That’s sort of our next mission, to complete that. We have some songs that we’re really excited about, that are more traditional Killers songs.
FLOWERS: If they cancel any more gigs you’ll get eight in about five months. [Laughs]
Pressure Machine is out 8/13 on Island.