By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
By Michele Eve Sandberg
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By New Times Staff
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By Laurie Charles
I wouldn't consider us a throwback, but I also wouldn't say we're reinventing the wheel of rock 'n' roll," says Ronnie Vannucci, drummer for the Killers. "We're taking the best parts of the music we were influenced by, putting them in our songs, and making them our own."
The Killers are hardly the only current band attempting to turn this trick. The latest revolution of the music-business cycle has spun out a slew of groups, from Franz Ferdinand to the Rapture, that draw their inspiration from '80s-era British acts whose style and substance were often indistinguishable from one another. It's no surprise, then, that the press in England got overheated about Hot Fuss, the Killers' debut platter -- and stateside listeners soon followed suit. The band became one of the breakthrough acts of 2004 thanks to MTV's frequent airings of the video for "Somebody Told Me," which couldn't seem more like stuff the network aired two decades ago if it included cameos by Martha Quinn and Nina Blackwood.
Even so, the clip's flashing neon and dancing girls, as well as its desert backdrop, actually connect personally to the Killers. The tunes may sound as if the players -- vocalist/keyboardist Brandon Flowers, guitarist David Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer, and Vannucci -- just stepped off the QE II, but the four-piece actually got its start in that most garishly American of cities, Las Vegas.
"There's a lot about the music that really represents Vegas," Vannucci notes. "It's dark and moody like Vegas is. It's glamorous and superficial and fictional like Vegas is. There are a lot of different comparisons."
As one of three Nevada natives in the combo (odd man out Keuning is an Iowan by birth), Vannucci speaks from experience. With the exception of a couple of years spent in Northern California when he was a kid, he's lived his entire life in the rapidly growing metropolis. "It's turning into quite the little Los Angeles," he says. "I used to live on the outskirts of Vegas, but it's not the outskirts anymore, because the town has blown up."
Part of what he loves about the community is its inherent conflicts. "Of course, you've got your Sin City tribes," Vannucci allows. "It's a 24-hour town, like everybody knows, and everything is completely accessible at any time. But you've also got a large Mormon settlement there, which is just the antithesis of what people think of when they think of Las Vegas. But maybe they're not so different. When you think of Mormons, you think of good, clean fun and polygamy. When you think of Vegas, you think of gaming and prostitution."
His parents' jobs could hardly be more emblematic of his hometown. "My dad's a bartender, and my mom's a cocktail waitress," he says. "I was one of those service-industry kids. I had to be quiet in the mornings, because my mom got home at 4 a.m." The hours they worked made them more understanding when Vannucci got older: "As long as they knew where I was, I never got the hairy eyeball or the third degree for coming home late. A lot of times, they'd be later than I was."
This background thoroughly prepared Vannucci for his own plunge into the world of Vegas employment. While studying percussion at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, for example, he worked as a wedding photographer at Little Chapel of the Flowers. "It wasn't a theme chapel, but you could have theme weddings if you wanted," he says. "It was probably the classiest one on the Strip and the most expensive -- but if you wanted a Tom Jones or a Prince at your wedding, you could get them. Anything's possible in Vegas." Among the memorable ceremonies he captured on film was "this very small, Hispanic wedding that was kind of botched from the get-go. There was a jealous brother involved who was pretty well drunk, and he objected to the wedding -- but they didn't stop it. He was crying and clenching his fists all through the vows, and he kept coming up to me. I was afraid I was going to get hit."
Music turned out to be a safer career option. Thanks to his father, whom he describes as "a pretty weird dude, although he's calmed down some," Vannucci was exposed to a wide range of tunes during his youth. He recalls hearing everything from the Beatles to Michael Franks, a jazz-oriented singer-songwriter whose irritatingly vapid musings wound up leaving no discernible mark on the Killers' material, to Vannucci's vast relief. "I blocked that out," he says. In contrast, he absorbed every note of The Head on the Door by the Cure (the first tape he bought), and other platters of its ilk, which made him the perfect foil for Flowers, Keuning, and Stoermer, all of whom had similar tendencies.
After tightening up during garage sessions and clandestine visits to the UNLV music room, the Killers hit the Vegas club scene, such as it is. The city overflows with venues, but because most of them specialize in spectacles designed to attract well-heeled out-of-towners, working-class locals with an appetite for homegrown rock have a tougher time satisfying their hunger.
"That's how Vegas kind of suffers," Vannucci says. "A club will open up and close just as quickly, because it doesn't have the funding. You've got to remember, places like the House of Blues and the joint at the Hard Rock are funded by the hotel and casino industries, so even when there aren't any shows, they can still stay afloat. It doesn't work that way with other clubs, so a lot of them only last for a few months -- and the bands seem to follow that same trend. Everybody gives it a good six months or so and then quits because nothing's happening for them. It's kind of sad, because I know of some great musicians and good songwriters there. But nothing's really come out of Vegas to put the place on the map."
For the Killers, the lack of a distinct Vegas sound worked to their advantage. "We're obviously not a Strip band or anything like that," Vannucci says. "There's nothing like us in Las Vegas, which is what made us stand out in the first place." At the same time, their approach was far from anarchic. Rather than railing against the sort of old-time entertainment associated with Vegas regulars like Wayne Newton, they modified it for their own use by donning natty jackets and adapting a showy stage persona. As Vannucci half-jokingly puts it, "We're definitely not rebelling against Wayne. We're embracing his greatness."
Overseas tastemakers reacted just as positively toward the Killers. In 2003, Lizard King, a British independent label, inked the band and transported it to England, prompting the requisite drooling. Somebody Told Me, an EP released on Lizard King in March 2004, justified such salivation when its title track and another cut, "Mr. Brightside," both hit the top ten in the United Kingdom. The Hot Fuss full-length, which arrived within months, quickly made a splash there and on this side of the Atlantic too.
Fuss' lack of pretense has a lot to do with its appeal. Whereas some groups on the Killers' wavelength feign innovation so strenuously that their borrowings lose any amusement value, these boys just want to have fun emulating the ditties that entranced them in their youth. "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" kicks off with helicopter effects and a hearty "whooo!" before evolving into a head-bopping groover that's pure Robert Smith, whereas "On Top" declares its allegiance to Duran Duran in its first line: "Remember 'Rio' and get down." Like Simon Lebon before him, Flowers loves to strike lyrical poses -- and the sexier, the better. Take "Midnight Show," in which he interrupts his throes of ecstasy to declare, "You got a real short skirt/I wanna look up, look up, look up, yeah, yeah!" The closing "Everything Will Be Alright," for its part, is a trippy, mid-tempo frolic that gives mindless pop a good name.
This easygoing attitude has made it simpler for Vannucci and company to enjoy their ride on the Hype Express. Some underground musicians heading toward the big time are consumed by guilt, but not the Killers, whose "Indie Rock 'n' Roll," which can be found only on the U.K. version of Hot Fuss, is a celebration, not an excuse for moping.
Still, Vannucci makes it clear that the Killers have standards. "We've had offers of being in video games and movies and beer ads and shit like that," he says, "and we could very well have taken those offers, so that we could blow up and have everybody in Middle America know who we are. But we don't want to do anything to compromise the integrity of the music or the band as a whole." Not that the Killers are unshakably opposed to such offers. According to Vannucci, "If someday we do a commercial or a video game, we want it to be right -- to be something that resembles us somehow or ties into what the Killers are all about. That'd be great, because we don't want to put the brakes on success, and we don't ever want to hide our music from anybody. We're really proud of it, and we want to show the world."
As for those originality questions that keep cropping up, Vannucci claims not to be bothered in the slightest. "We're being compared to some of the best bands that there've ever been, in my opinion," he says. "There's a lot worse things than that."