The Killers: Brandon Flowers Fights Back From The Brink

The Killers: Brandon Flowers Fights Back From The Brink
Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

This article originally appeared in issue Q377, October 2017.

Brandon Flowers has the perfect rock singer life. His band The Killers are stadium-sized. He lives in a Las Vegas mansion with his childhood sweetheart and their three sons. He has the lot. And yet behind the façade, everything started to unravel: his group, his music, his wife. Simon Goddard finds him at the dawn of another Killers album, but also at a crossroads, with band members bailing and his family leaving Las Vegas… are The Killers facing the final curtain? 

For those who want to know and appreciate such things, Brandon Flowers looks good in his underpants. They’re dark navy, a snug fit, and Flowers has plenty to snuggle. He’s not normally so immodest but since there’s nowhere else to change his trousers in the backstage Portakabin, everyone present, including his sister, gets a quick eyeful of Flowers’s cotton-clad bouquet. 

In any case, he’s too happy to care. The Killers have just played a short set on the Las Vegas Strip outside Caesars Palace, the iconic casino hotel where drummer Ronnie Vannucci’s mum worked for 40 years as a cocktail waitress and where the 18-year-old Flowers waited tables at Spago’s Italian restaurant. It was here, at Caesars, that Morrissey once popped into Spago’s for a pot of tea and a mushroom pizza and where Flowers, the most quivering Smiths apostle in the Northern hemisphere, kept the Holy Grail his idol sipped from. “The Teacup” is still one of his most treasured possessions.

But tonight it’s Flowers who is the venerated pop saint, playing to a few thousand fans and as many more as can cram onto surrounding hotel balconies, while televised to over 2.5 million viewers of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!. The Killers are here to promote imminent fifth album, the blockbusting Wonderful Wonderful, opening with its satirical hip-thrust channelling plastic soul Bowie, The Man. Yet the location kicks a visibly overwhelmed Flowers down a nostalgic rabbit hole, soon sharing stories with the crowd about the band’s origins. About the scummy apartment “just behind those casinos on Koval Lane” where guitarist Dave Keuning lived, so poor that he’d subsist on white rice or ramen noodles with ketchup. And how, in a pre-mobile age, Flowers would leave song ideas on Keuning’s answering machine between shifts as a busboy at the nearby Gold Coast, among them a deadpan Lou Reed pastiche – “you gotta help me out, yeeeeeah, yeeeeeah” – the spark of All These Things That I’ve Done from 2004’s multi-million-selling debut Hot Fuss. Then they play the song and for all of its moon-lassoing five minutes and 49 seconds it feels the biggest, brightest thing on the whole neon skyscrapered Strip. 

Which is why, in the cramped Portakabin, trousers changed, Flowers is all aglow. “That feeling you get onstage,” he says with his Tom Cruise smile, “it’s like being plugged into the universe.” Keuning, too, sits looking strangely serene, though it’s harder to fathom where his head is orbiting. Because five hours earlier he took Q aside and dropped the bombshell that this could be one of his last gigs with The Killers.

Bassist Mark Stoermer has already announced he’ll no longer be touring with the band, swapping the road for the refectory as he begins a BA in art history at New York University this September. Stoermer was due to play tonight, Vegas included, but excused himself due to a recurring back injury.

Keuning, similarly, is quitting the road to stay at home with his son in San Diego. What all of this means for the future of The Killers is anyone’s guess. But the timing, certainly, seems odd: just as they’re about to release the most emotionally intense album of their career, one in which their singer and chief songwriter bares a great deal more than his underpants. “Things that I’ve guarded, protected and tried to keep private for years,” Flowers tells Q. “I felt it was finally time to sing about them. To share with the world what’s been happening in my life.”

Keuning’s Koval Lane apartment of pauper cuisine infamy is no longer there. Nor is the original location of thrift store Buffalo Exchange where Flowers and Keuning went clothes shopping for The Killers’ first gig. There, between the vintage rails, they bumped into 20-year-old fellow Joy Division fan Tana Mundkowsky who gave Flowers her phone number. “Oh, I was never the type to give anyone my number,” he flusters. “And from what I gather, she swears she isn’t like that either. But she had the guts that day.” Just as well. Flowers and Mundkowsky married in 2005 and have three sons: Ammon (10), Gunnar (eight) and Henry (six).

The Café Espresso Roma where Flowers and Keuning played that first gig in February 2002 is also gone. They performed three songs as an acoustic duo at an open-mic night including a cover of Side by Travis, though their memories differ on the two originals. Flowers is sure they played their defining anthem, Mr Brightside, the first song he and Keuning wrote together, and future B-side Under The Gun. Keuning thinks it was “a song about being dumped” called Replaceable and another called Newsman. But both agree it was the most nervous they’d ever been in their lives. 

“I’ve never been so terrified,” says Flowers, reminiscing the evening before the Caesars show at their rehearsal space a few blocks west of the Strip. “The whole time I was looking for a spot to throw up on the ground as I didn’t want to hit anyone. I can still remember looking down thinking, ‘If it happens, then I’m going to the left.’ After that I started to drink before we played.”

 

Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

To the 60,000 fans present at this July’s Hyde Park gig, Prince Harry included, the thought of Flowers as a vomiting wreck sits at ludicrous odds with the master showman who sprang onstage amidst a shower of fuchsia confetti in a pink leather jacket lip-curling, “I got news for you, baby, you’re looking at The Man.” Live, Flowers is a first-class honours pop scholar, reaping the benefits of intense study of a heroes syllabus of Elvis, Bowie, Bono, Springsteen, Neil Tennant, Dave Gahan and, his tea-swilling holiness, Morrissey. He is a mercurial Frankenstein’s monster of them all yet, musically, uniquely his own monster, one with the bone structure of a 1940s Hollywood leading man, the kind of silly good-looking that makes women (and men) topple into furniture when he enters the room. In visage, voice and posture, Brandon Flowers is as fabulous a pop star as you’ll find on Planet Earth in 2017. It just didn’t come naturally.   

“Brandon was a reluctant frontman,” says Vannucci, whose Vegas garage doubled as the embryonic Killers’ rehearsal HQ. “He was very uneasy about the whole thing. He used to just scream into the mic, out of nerves. He always had something but he couldn’t quite spell it out. It was definitely cultivated and fostered.”

“It took a long time,” Flowers concurs. “Because I had such reverence for singers. I idolised Morrissey. I know everybody says that but I really, really did. So I felt what right do I have to grab a microphone? If you’ve seen [1991 concert video] Morrissey Live In Dallas, why would you even attempt to be on a stage? You’re not gonna look that good, you’re not gonna have that admiration from a bunch of people. So it took me a long time to get over things like that. Even today, we just saw Depeche Mode in Bilbao, Spain and I saw things they did and walked out of the gig with my tail between my legs.”

You don’t normally get this sort of humility from people who’ve packed out Wembley Stadium, as The Killers did in 2013. But then Flowers’s ego has always benefited from the heavy ballast of a besotted fan. A clue to his personality is offered by the portrait of Elvis Presley that hangs in his home. Not ’50s Elvis, or even Flowers’ favourite 1968 Comeback Elvis, but Elvis as a blond-haired four-year-old boy. “I love pictures of people before they were famous,” he says. “When they were young and innocent. I don’t know why.”

Even at the age of 36, there’s something strangely innocent about Flowers: not quite Peter Pan or Forrest Gump, but markedly devoid of cynicism. Like The King, he’s “gee shucks, m’am” polite and, though not lacking confidence, in conversation the ghost of that stage-frightened shyness he’s otherwise managed to overcome still lingers. He also has a habit of punctuating his sentences with an endearing nervous laugh, a high-pitched helium “hehehe” something like the sound of an elderly spinster toe-testing a cold bath. Anyone who still hasn’t twigged The Man is Flowers’s playful poke at alpha machismo, not the braggadocio swagger it may first appear, really ought to hear The Laugh.

Brandon Richard Flowers was born in the Vegas overspill of Henderson on 21 June, 1981 as America swayed to the croaky chart-topping tones of Kim Carnes’s Bette Davis Eyes. Inheriting the Anglophile alternative music tastes of his brother Shane, 12 years older, he insists he was never the wimpy kid of indie cliché. “I wanted to be good at sports. I wanted to listen to The Smiths and be quarterback of the football team.”
Were you?
“No! [The Laugh] And I never even played football. But I had it in me that
I wanted to be good at those things. Maybe it was something to do with wanting to please my dad.”

Flowers’s fondest childhood memories of his father Terry, a grocer who converted to Mormonism when Brandon was six, are watching the weekly boxing show Tuesday Night Fights. “They were some of the best times in my life. Sitting down and bonding with my dad, staying up waiting for the heavyweights at the end. Anything that he got excited about, I wanted in.” 

He was eight years old when he and his dad watched Mike Tyson’s shock title defeat to Buster Douglas in 1990 on pay-per-view at a friend’s house across the street. The memory of the hitherto invincible Tyson hitting the canvas has haunted Flowers ever since, one which he decided to “dig into and explore” on the new Killers song Tyson Vs Douglas. In its lament for a fallen fighter laden with sampled ringside commentary, I tell him it’s not unlike Morrissey’s 1995 single Boxers. Ever the apostle, he impulsively bursts into the latter’s opening line in priceless Moz-mimicry. “[sings] ‘Losing in front of your home crowd…’
[The Laugh] Yeah, I suppose. But the song’s really about me and my family, and the way I’m perceived by my kids. I don’t want them to see me go down like Tyson.”

Today, Flowers is dauntingly muscular due to a daily exercise regime: like Robbie Williams, he is of the firm belief that no one likes a fat pop star. But as a kid he struggled to defend himself, as he found out after his family upped sticks to Nephi, Utah when he was nine. “I took a beating a couple of times by some of the country kids,” he laughs. “They’re tougher than city kids. That’s just a fact. I mean, you should see their hands! These kids grew up on farms, getting up with their dads, handling rope and animals. So I was at the mercy of them a couple of times. Just for being different. I learned that I was either gonna stay away from it, or learn to fight. [The Laugh] So I just stayed out of it.”

Flowers returned to Vegas to finish high school, living with his aunt opposite the Sam’s Town casino that christened The Killers’ second album. After a false start with two film students in a synth-pop trio, Blush Response, then baptised by the live fire of Oasis at the Hard Rock Hotel in May 2001, he finally found his destiny in the classified ads of a local newspaper. 

Dave Keuning, nearly five years Flowers’s senior, had relocated from Iowa hoping to start a band as it was cheaper living in Vegas than New York or Los Angeles. He was on the brink of giving up and leaving when Flowers answered his Musicians Wanted listing. “We immediately hit it off,” says Keuning. “So I gave him a tape with a couple of songs. The very next practice he came back with lyrics. One of them was Mr Brightside. I was like, ‘Wow! This is fun. This is good.’”

“Brandon and Dave were as crazy for it as I was,” says Vannucci. “It was a shared attitude. We’d play some local sports bar, we’d get dressed up and we’d perform like we were headlining Knebworth. We all revved each other up. Then we got Mark in on bass and that’s when we really started happening.” 

None could have foreseen the astonishing nought to 60 success The Killers reaped with the release of 2004’s Hot Fuss. “The rocket ride” as Vannucci calls it. “It was so fast,” says the drummer. “I love that it happened but we weren’t prepared for it and, as a band, we didn’t really know each other. We met, we spent a year making songs and then you’re suddenly tied to this rocket with three other guys and you learn about each other quick. It’s dreadful. It’s fucked up. I still think we’re normalising a little bit from that.”

Flowers managed as he’d been managing ever since the stage fright of that first coffee shop gig. With booze. “In the early days it’d have been Coors Light. [The Laugh] That’s what I started with. But it developed from there. Oh, hell…”

One of his earliest childhood memories is of being in his mother’s car driving up and down aisles of a casino car park. With adult hindsight he realises they were searching for his dad. Though sober since his conversion, Terry Flowers was an alcoholic, as was his dad and his dad’s dad. I ask Flowers if, as the child of that alcoholic lineage, he was scared that history was repeating itself. His answer is unexpected. “No,” he says calmly. “I think I used it as permission. Instead of being afraid of it, it almost justified it for me. Which is what scares me about my own kids.”

The subject of Flowers’ hedonistic past – as he’ll broadly specify “for the first couple of albums” – still makes him deeply uncomfortable. The Laugh becomes increasingly jittery until he subconsciously places a hand over his lips like an open lid poised to shut his mouth mid-speech should he need to. 
Presumably, you must have moved on from Coors Light to spirits?
“Probably. And then by the time we’re making Sam’s Town it was different things.”
Drugs?
“[The Laugh 12-inch remix.]”
You don’t like talking about it, do you?
“I’ve never talked about… [panicky smile] I’ve just never… [guilt-inducing puppy eyes] I… I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Did you feel like you were trying to pretend to be somebody you weren’t?
“I felt like I had to do it, yeah,” he says, relaxing a little. “Almost to be seen as relevant, y’know? Around the same time it was The Libertines and The Strokes and the way that they were perceived, so if you weren’t going into that area then you must not be ‘The Real Thing’. It’s been glorified. There’s no other word for it. Even though we know what it leads to and how many casualties there are, we STILL do it. It’s STILL done. So I gave it a shot and I wasn’t very good at it. It’s not for me.”

Flowers has been clean and sober since becoming a father 10 years ago. To the outside world, he and his wife Tana appear to have the perfect family, living happily ever after with their three boys in a $4 million Spanish Colonial-style mansion with its outdoor pool, “Belgian staircase” and the grand piano given to him by his pal Elton John. But for the last five years, as Flowers has toured and recorded, both with The Killers and solo, he’s been putting a brave public face on a very private domestic nightmare. “It’s been… wild,” he says, searching for the right adjective. “It’s been horrible.”

In 2013, Flowers’s wife Tana gave an interview to the website Mormon Women in which she alluded to an abusive family upbringing and her issues with anxiety and depression. “It’s medical and I have the symptoms,” she admitted. Flowers says he always suspected there was “something lurking” in his wife. “But it didn’t manifest itself completely till she was around 30.” Tana was eventually diagnosed with an extreme form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), known as Complex PTSD. “What separates Complex PTSD from other forms is that it involves multiple traumatic events,” he elaborates. “It’s not just one thing that triggers it. There are so many things that have happened to her. I didn’t understand it before. And no way would we have made it without her getting help.”

Tana’s condition finally became critical in August 2015, the month Flowers was touring his second solo album, The Desired Effect, when he suddenly cancelled the last six American dates. The official explanation was “due to unforeseen circumstances.” “I cancelled that tour,” he now reveals, “because she got to a point – this is really hard for me to even say the words – but she was having suicidal thoughts. That was as bad as it got.”

As he tried to cope with the severity of his wife’s mental illness, simultaneously trying to raise three young children, his creative muse understandably went AWOL. “I was really struggling,” he says of his first efforts to start work on the next Killers album in October 2015. “It had been three years since [2012 fourth album] Battle Born. I knew it was time to write a new record but when I sat down to see what happened, nothing was coming. I started to doubt myself.” 

He still ritually forced himself to sit at Sir Elton’s piano every single day. “I never gave up on it but they were terrible songs,” he says, rolling his eyes. “And so many of them. There were nights when I’d listen back and just feel so defeated.”
I ask if, as a praying man, Flowers ever turned to God to relight his fire?  
“I feel like it’s weird to ask for that when I should be praying for my family and their safety and things like that. But I do feel like I’ve gotten to the point sometimes when it’s, [looks upward] ‘Aw, c’mon, just throw me a bone!’ [The Laugh] But it’s rare that I do that.”

Luckily, Flowers didn’t need God as he had the next best thing: Bono. It was Father’s Day 2016 when he visited the U2 singer in his Malibu home. “I made a pilgrimage,” he jokes. “I was telling him I was having a writing slump and asking him with there being so many great songs already, what do I have to offer? And at one point I asked him, ‘Have all the songs been written?’ Bono said, ‘That’s a hell of a song title.’ So I used it.”

Have All The Songs Been Written? began an alchemical catharsis, purging his pain and self-doubt in words and music. “I realised that me sitting down making up a story wasn’t what I was meant to do right now,” he says. “I knew on this album I finally had to look at myself, who I was, and everything going on in my life. So a lot of the songs I’m singing about my wife.”

Flowers says it was only through writing about Tana’s situation that he came to fully appreciate the complex nature of mental illness. “It helped me understand what she was going through because I could put words to it, wrap my head around it and really navigate it. A lot of relationships fall apart when these things happen. As a songwriter, I had to dissect it.”
You must have had to ask her permission to sing about and discuss all this in public?
“I did, and I’ve never had to do that before. She was reluctant at first. But then some songs became so beautiful that it became a bonding thing. Me sitting down running lyrics by her, and playing these songs for her at the piano.
It ended up bringing us closer together.
It feels very powerful now. She’s totally embraced it.”

The first song he wrote for Tana was Some Kind Of Love, based upon the tune of Brian Eno’s instrumental An Ending (Ascent). “That’s how bad my writer’s block was,” he half laughs. “I was struggling to write so much that I ended up writing over Brian Eno songs.” The finished recording is all the more heart-wrenching for its angelic choir of Flowers’s three children sweetly singing, “Can’t do this alone/We need you at home.”

“Oh, it’s heavy,” he agrees. “It’s sad. I’d be driving them to school and teach them the part and we’d sing it every school run so we wouldn’t waste time in the studio. They got it right away. It was nice, but it’s also hard. The kids don’t quite understand why they’re singing what they’re singing yet. But it’s very emotional.”

Tana is also the “motherless child” of Wonderful Wonderful’s dramatic title track. “Her mother pretty much abandoned her,” he clarifies, “so that’s the first trauma in her life.” Another song, Rut, was so transparent a lyric of pain and salvation that Flowers took the uncharacteristic step of explaining the words to the rest of the band. “Which is something I never do. The only other time was with Human [its much grammatically-debated “Are we human or are we dancer?”]. Before that lyric was ever controversial to the world, it was controversial for Ronnie and Mark. So with Rut I had to explain why the song meant so much to me. Because we’re not normally communicators like that. [The Laugh] It was a very strange process.”

Exactly how strange a process only becomes clear the next day when Q talks to Keuning during Q’s photoshoot in Caesars’ swanky Nobu Villa penthouse; $35,000-a-night of Japanese furnishings, “Zen garden” patio and a purple baize pool table as hired out by the likes of Justin Bieber and J.Lo. Asked about the making of Wonderful Wonderful, the guitarist doesn’t exactly bubble with enthusiasm. “It is what it is,” he says non-committally, going on to mourn the fact that, for whatever reason, he wasn’t very involved towards the end of the recording “which is when most of the stuff got done.” He adds that his favourite track is Run For Cover “because it’s nine years old.” I ask about much of the LP being about Flowers’s wife and how he took the news when, as Flowers says, he explained the lyrics of Rut to the band. Stoermer had earlier confirmed to Q that, indeed, Flowers did. But Keuning seems genuinely confused by the question. “Which songs are about Brandon’s wife? I didn’t know that.”

The conversation suddenly feels very awkward. It’s when I then ask about Stoermer’s decision not to tour that Keuning’s cat comes skulking out of its bag. “I’m not supposed to say anything,” he says cautiously, “but I’m not touring either.” He adds there should be an official statement made by the time this issue of Q goes to print. The catalyst, he says, is the upcoming “crazy tour schedule” and his unwillingness to spend time away from home. Like Stoermer he still, in theory, hopes to continue recording with The Killers. “All I know is I’m not touring,” he says. “I honestly don’t know what happens after that.”

Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

A week later Keuning emails Q to expand upon his motives. He begins by saying he, too, found the Vegas Caesars gig highly sentimental: he still has the old answering machine Flowers mentioned onstage in the back of his closet. He states that he and Flowers “are still close… like brothers”, though adds, “It’s fair to say we are not always on the same page and have different lives with different agendas.” Nevertheless, Keuning’s hopes chime with Stoermer’s that they’ll yet play select Killers gigs in the future. “I love the music, and the fans,” he concludes. “This was not an easy decision to make. That’s for sure.”

Back in 2010, when a 29-year-old father of two, Flowers told Q he suffered from a “fear of missing out on my family.” That fear has only intensified. “I still feel guilty when I’m away,” he says, echoing what sounds uncannily like the same conundrum as Keuning’s.  “My wife and my kids are the centre of my universe. So when I’m home I’m totally devoted to them.”

It’s seven years since Flowers lost his mum, Jean, to brain cancer, aged just 64. His dad, Terry, is still “doing great” and turns 73 this September. Lately, Flowers has started to accept what some of us possibly dread as we grow older. “You can try as hard as you want to kick against it but I see myself doing things, and hear things coming out of my mouth and it’s like my dad just entered,” he laughs. “There’s grammatically incorrect things I say which he says. I do it even though I know it’s wrong. Like, he’ll say, ‘You’re not going anywheres’. He’ll throw an ‘s’ on there. I’ve noticed myself doing that every now and then.”

Flowers hardly watches TV any more but does, time permitting, binge on the occasional boxset. “Better Call Saul,” he enthuses, “it’s just as good as Breaking Bad.” He’s not much use in the kitchen though he is trying to learn his dad’s legendary spaghetti recipe (just the sauce – the prospect of making fresh pasta is greeted by a thigh-slapping, “Hell, no!”). But even on days off he never fully stops working. The Killers’ studio, Battle Born, is only six minutes from Flowers’s house. “It’s a rare day for me not go in.”

But all this is about to change. Flowers is leaving Las Vegas. Not because he wants to but because, for the love of his wife, he has to. “The whole town is tainted for her,” he explains. “I’ve got these streets and areas that I’m nostalgic about. But to her it might remind her of something different that triggers [her illness]. So I’m leaving my town because it’s going to be better for her.”

Their new home is in Utah, America’s Mormon heartland where Flowers spent his later childhood. “It’s bittersweet,” he says. “But I also have great memories of being a kid in Utah. There’s a little bit more freedom there, so I’m excited. I’m looking forward to the snow with my kids, and bringing home our first Christmas tree.”
So you’re actually going to entrust “The Teacup” to removal men?
“It’ll be alright. [The Laugh] It’s in a weird little box. It’ll make it safely to Utah.”

When Flowers began sorting through his things ready for the move he found his old collection of mementos from when he and Tana first dated. She, too, discovered her own box of keepsakes. In Flowers’s, he still had the torn scrap of paper with her phone number on that she’d given him close to 16 years ago in Buffalo Exchange. In Tana’s, she found the original sheet it was torn from. “It’s so cool,” Flowers smiles. “Because you can put them back together. And they fit perfectly.”

Reflecting on his wife’s ongoing recovery and their marital survival, Flowers attributes their resilience to a shared “faith”. As a Christian and a Mormon he clearly means it in the religious sense. “One of my favourite quotes is from Johnny Cash,” he adds, “About how, ‘Being a Christian isn’t for sissies. It takes a strong man to live for Jesus. It’s a lot harder than living for the devil.’ Heh!” 

Yet a different sort of faith, in the secular sense of blind optimism, seems just as evident in Flowers’s steadfast commitment to his band: whatever, or whoever, might constitute their as-yet uncertain future. “My identity is as the singer of The Killers,” he states proudly. “That’s who I am.”

The heart and ambition of Wonderful Wonderful doesn’t sound like The End. But those who fear it might be should perhaps take comfort in Flowers’s uniquely Vegas-centric group philosophy. “Growing up in Vegas, it was totally normal for places that we used to know and love to just get blown up,” he says. “And then they built something bigger and better in its place. I think that’s totally part of our DNA as a band.” Something bigger and better. As Flowers’s dad might say, The Killers aren’t going anywheres.