It’s two days before the release of The Killers fifth studio album, Wonderful Wonderful. Vocalist Brandon Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. are relaxed, despite being away from the limelight since their last full-length, 2012’s Battle Born. It’s cool, they’re veterans of the release-day frenzy at this point. “We’ve never had this much runway,” Flowers explains. “Usually we finish a record on some dire time crunch.” He’s not kidding. After the touring cycle for 2008’s Day & Age wrapped up its 18-month trek, the band announced an extended hiatus. That break only lasted until mid-2012, after which Battle Born was released and touring resumed. “We got to the point where we needed to go on tour, ‘Runaways’ was the obvious single, and we were ready to go.” This Las Vegas quartet has always written songs for the stage, anchored by Flowers’ engaging charisma. It’s been five years since the last set were written. What, or who, are The Killers writing for now?
When Vannucci, Jr. joins our conversation, Flowers is in mid-sentence about the drums on “Rut.” They’re cavernous and hefty, more exclamatory than the track’s choral section. And for a band that’s been built on weighted statements, that’s something of note. It’s a performance that the singer really sees as proof of the band’s enhanced dynamic. “We show restraint on this record more than ever before, and our strengths are showing through.” When Vannucci Jr. joins in, Flowers punctuates the statement. “I know it’s weird to say this because he’s on the phone with me now, but he’s playing some stuff on here that’s really good.”
Perhaps it’s the additional purpose Vannucci, Jr. brings to the track—a meaty underscore to Flowers’ ballad—that explains Flowers’ endorsement. It’s the second of two moments on the record to chronicle Flowers’ wife’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, and both of them feature choruses built with careful execution. That’s not to say either song skips over an emotional peak for something more subdued. The other offering, “Wonderful Wonderful,” opens the record with a darker, cautious rumble before exploding into the band’s trademark cinematics on the refrain. This is still a Killers record, after all, but the storytelling here is more organic. “I just have had so many more experiences and have been introduced to so much more,” Flowers says. It’s from this title track where the album gets its most striking image—keeping an ear to a shell—and its most telling theme. The Killers are writing for themselves on Wonderful Wonderful, listening for inspiration wherever they can. They’re doing so without announcing their presence; this is the first release to not feature their glitzy wordmark. This isn’t a new band, but they’re willing to acknowledge they’re not the same one you know by name.
The Killers never needed to show vulnerability. Even their most invented selves boasted relatability that’s remained a cultural touchstone. It’s been nearly 15 years since the band’s debut LP, Hot Fuss, was released and its flagship single, “Mr. Brightside,” still charts across the pond. The band’s early career set a course for rock music’s major resurgence, cementing smugness and smirking interpersonal drama as middle-brow art. And while the band’s contemporaries have coasted along on the strength of anniversary tours, The Killers have remained afloat with more than just their back catalog. Battle Born scanned U.S. sales in the top five in its first week and netted a handful of gold and platinum certifications across the globe. Nevertheless, it took a birthday celebration of their own to appreciate their advanced age.
2006’s Sam’s Town, unlike the blaring neon of its predecessor, has its marquee lights blasted with dust. Veering left into building an atmosphere instead of stacking anthem after anthem, it left critics confused upon release. But as Vannucci, Jr. remembers, the experimentation was a love letter to the world that stayed behind while the band was on tour. “We toured for Hot Fuss for two years straight, and we weren’t home. Sam’s Town was a record that helped us realize where we were from.” Last year, The Killers held a residency at the LP’s namesake casino, surrounded by that album cycle’s character and scope. “We brought out the stage and all the stuff we used to load around: the festoons and the wood. There was something theatrical about it that reminded us how cohesive that record was,” Flowers adds.
Being home is a theme threaded through other discs in the Killers’ catalog. Battle Born took shape in, and its name from, the band’s Las Vegas studio, which, in turn, borrowed Nevada’s nickname. Yet, Flowers remembers that record more disjointed than their latest. “You go in to make a record, and some people may have the big idea or the target in mind before they start. A lot of the time, we’re waiting for it to emerge, and that can be difficult. I think there are a lot of great moments on Battle Born. I don’t mean to trash it—but we weren’t unified. This album has more of a true north.”
While 2017’s Killers hold a better compass, their coordinates came into focus while members found themselves in different directions. “People live in different states now, especially when compared to the first two records, but everyone still got to come in and get their hands dirty.”
With writing, Jacknife Lee, Wonderful’s sole producer, unearthed an honest energy that Flowers felt the band lost during their last sessions. “He’s just very excited about music. As most people get older, that starts to wane a little bit, especially if they work around it all the time. But he has this exuberance about him. That was nice to have that injected into the record making process.”
“We had five producers on the last record and we worked incrementally, but we climbed the mountain with one guy this time and saw it through to the end. It was a bit old-fashioned, but it felt authentic.” Letting Lee completely take the reins served as a link between the band’s past and allowed them to be more present. Lee’s credits include records for Bloc Party and The Hives, groups riding The Killers’ ascent to alt-rock royalty, but also Taylor Swift’s Red and Michelle Branch’s return to pop rock. “He’s very aware of what’s happening in music right now and what people are doing and of what we’ve done before. He helped create the perfect climate for this record.”
Lee’s advising added more heat to the Killers’ white-hot personality. It just served less as a reinforcement, and more as a challenge to the band’s hallmarks. The best example of Lee’s guidance is “The Man,” a track that comes early in the running order and came as the first single. Rather than match the adrenaline of past album teasers, it simmers differently. The track boasts runway swagger with Mark Stoermer’s nodding bass rhythm and backing vocals drizzled in R&B. Unlike the band’s past singles—weaving through breakups or the limitlessness of space—this cocky narrator finds Flowers echoing his younger persona to reconcile the mistakes that came with his journey. Like the guy built into the band’s biggest hits, this man is gassed up, maxxed out and sleek. But it’s all written with less intent. It’s not satire—Flowers is too earnest for that—but a sharp self-criticism. “I’ve done my best to note where I could’ve done better…I really wanted to inhabit my 36 years and try my best to represent what I have to offer.”
With Lee’s singular guidance, what’s offered is ultimately, maximum Killers. A lean 10 tracks toe the line between dance-floor bombast and shimmering ballads, and perhaps that’s because it’s the group’s strong suit. It’s what happens amidst the familiar that shows nuanced insight. “Run for Cover” could’ve ended up on the first Killers record, with a mountainous hook and jagged guitars. (The song was, in fact, begun during the sessions for Day & Age.) Beneath its classic sheen, it also extends a hand to victims of domestic abuse. It’s this song that could be the Killers at their most political, especially in today’s media landscape. But despite Flowers calling out a famous dirtbag and fake news, the song wasn’t written with a doomsday bunker in mind. “I was aware of the line that I was walking and I think it can be done, and has been done, well. If it’s really coming from the right place, it should be embraced. It just wasn’t something I set out to do on this record. I had such an obvious path that I wanted to take on this record, and it had nothing to do with Donald Trump.”
The path took five years, a journey both Flowers and Vannucci, Jr. agree was too long. Vannucci adds that such a pause was necessary. “Part of the reason why we waited so long between records was to give enough time for everyone to rest and recharge.” Flowers and Vannucci, Jr. used this break to work on solo material and side projects. “We wouldn’t have made solo records, but we would’ve rather made Killers records,” Vannucci, Jr. admits. “I’m glad we did. There’s a lot of personal excavation and treasures found, but I think Brandon and I would’ve rather kept at the chopping block.” (Solo outings weren’t without their benefits to The Killers, however. Vannucci, Jr.’s work with his Big Talk project found him stepping out from behind the kit to sing and play nearly every instrument in the studio. Although 2015’s Straight in No Kissin’ is the group’s sophomore release, it still allowed him “to totally appreciate my dudes and what they do a lot more.”)
Even with the extended time away, the thought of leaving home still lingered. Last year, Stoermer decided to depart the touring lineup, while guitarist Dave Keuring would reach the same conclusion soon after. “I can imagine it’s uncomfortable to say that you hate touring when it’s your job. We’re four macho dudes and we didn’t really communicate the way we needed to. There were a lot of wedges being formed,” Vannucci, Jr. explains.
To avoid these wedges transforming into broken bonds, the band held meetings during Wonderful’s writing process to discuss the next steps. “We’ve come to some resolution within the band,” Flowers says. Both Stoermer and Keuring contributed to the writing of the LP, with Stoermer conceptualizing many of the tracks with Flowers, as they’re the only two Killers left in Vegas. “If it all works out, it won’t be another five years before you get another record.”
Great news. But what about the live set? Vannucci, Jr. recognizes the shift in dynamics a retooled lineup can bring. “We’re asking a tall order for these guys to try and replicate Mark and Dave. Everybody plays a little different—even an eighth note chug on a guitar. We’re trying to stay true to the character of the songs, and it’s not an easy thing to do.” As he and Flowers are the only original members live on stage, he also understands the show must go on. It’s like Woody Harrelson’s narration on “The Calling” late in the running order. He won’t be delivering his rendition of a Bible verse every night. “It’s hellish to tour with people who don’t want to tour,” he says. “I’m not throwing anyone under the bus, but it’s the reason they’re not here. We want them to be happy because they’re our bros, but we don’t want to be inconvenienced, and this was the solution. It’s not without its painstaking measures, but we’re able to do the job we’re here to do.”
The Killers have done their jobs well, enough to outlast the 2000’s reenchantment with rock music and comment on this decade’s changing tastes. But Flowers isn’t bitter or confused, even if “Mr. Brightside” is a drunken ode to bitter confusion. In fact, he’s as confident as ever, now that the roadblocks are out of the way. “It’s great to have something that’s you,” he says. “I think that we have things about us that are inherently us, and that are impenetrable. I think my favorite bands have always had that—David Bowie definitely did, so did U2 and The Beatles. We’re just trying to move forward.”
But, with producer Lee behind the boards, Flowers isn’t ready to suspend The Killers’ hold over other listeners. “I wanna be on the radio. I’m not shy about that, but I have to do that on my own terms.” The Killers’ first three LPs philosophized about lonely nights over gargantuan hooks, so their foundation on rock radio was guaranteed, and it was human. (Even “Human,” the band’s cryptic lead single off Day & Age, pondered existence with a signature dance break.)
This time around, Flowers and Co. pause to pay homage to their decades-spanning collage of influences. (This began early. The band took its name from a fictitious group starring in a New Order music video. They’d show their respects in the video for their mega-hit “Somebody Told Me.”) Lee was tapped after a recommendation from Bono, as he’s also working with Lee on their next release. The album interpolates elements from Kool & The Gang— “The Man” owes its thick bass swell to 1975’s “Spirit of the Boogie” –and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” As Flowers affirms, The Killers are “not the Ramones. We just have always had different ambitions.” Even “Out of My Mind” plays around with these references, as Flowers name drops everyone from Springsteen to Paul McCartney over a slice of power pop that would make both icons blush. The track serves as a time capsule of Flowers’ career—both while fronting the Killers and his solo efforts—calling to mind times when his idols joined him on stage.
One of the other samplings on Wonderful Wonderful gave “Some Kind of Love” its start and its smolder, again from a personal source. The track is the album’s first real breathing room late in the track listing. It’s foggy and layered, so using Eno as a base is natural. “I was having trouble. Going into the studio every day felt really redundant, so I tried to give writing over one of Eno’s instrumentals a shot,” Flowers recalls. “He was very happy with the finished product.” (It was rumored that Brian Eno declined an offer to produce Sam’s Town after the band had requested him. It was revealed later that The Killers’ label never asked.) As the band’s fifth record, it serves as a summary of the group’s career shaped by, and continually shaping, the evolving boundaries of rock music.
But even The Killers, despite both Flowers and Vannucci, Jr. confirming there may be a sixth LP rather sooner than later, question their own longevity. On “Have All the Songs Been Written?,” the man Flowers wrote of earlier has had his gas siphoned, the gold swiped from his account. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so the band brings in Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler. The guest appearance adds soul to the arrangement, and the track’s sweeping conclusion confirms the answer to that posed question is no. “Through digging in the dirt a little bit, we were able to fix what needed to be fixed,” Vannucci, Jr. says.
The Killers are worn, but not without their wisdom. Wonderful Wonderful has found a band rejuvenated and refocused, even if the stage show packs different punches than in previous iterations. “We have this amazing opportunity and these talents that we’ve acquired and harvested. It’d be silly to not keep going.” Sounds wonderful.
*A version of this interview first ran in the current print issue of Substream Magazine, on stands now and available through our online store!