TO DESCRIBE Brandon Flowers as “your run-of-the-mill rock star” would not be entirely truthful. Sitting across from The Killers frontman and his wild-haired bandmate Dave Keunig, it’s impossible to suss what Flowers is really thinking. It seems clear that he’s not a fan of interviews; he constantly glances towards the dressing room door (plotting an escape route, perhaps?), answers most questions curtly and seems generally guarded and somewhat reserved. He looks younger than his 31 years, his voice retaining the twang of his Nevada upbringing, his laugh more of a nervous, high-pitched titter. While the leaders of most rock bands naturally ooze charisma, Flowers’ cagey private persona seems at odds with the man who, an hour later, takes to the stage at Electric Picnic to deliver a supremely selfassured headline set.
Yet while the lean, tanned singer with the dazzling pearly whites may have changed from the eyeliner-wearing 20-year-old who responded to Keunig’s “musicians wanted” newspaper ad a decade ago, his band’s music has not. Well, not that much, anyway. The Killers are back after an 18-month hiatus that was self-prescribed after the toll that six years of touring and three albums had taken on the quartet. Battle Born sees them slip back into their role as purveyors of stadium-filling anthems, with songs such as Flesh and Bone and Deadlines and Commitments picking up where 2008’s Day Age left off. After such a long break – during which Flowers, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci all released solo albums – was it difficult to get back in the mindset of writing as a band?
“No,” sniffs Flowers. “Well, I mean, it’s the same guys, same agenda . . . everybody’s got the same job.”
“I didn’t think so,” adds the slightly more forthcoming Keunig. “I think the other guys thought it was weirder because they played with other people, but at the end of the day, you’re just hunting for a good melody, a good chord arrangement or whatever, y’know? We said we’d take x amount of time and start writing together at the end of May , and that’s what we did. It seemed like we’d had enough time. Sometimes it was hard, but sometimes it felt easy, too.”
One element that does set Battle Born apart from its predecessors is the fact that some of rock’s biggest producers got involved this time around. Brendan O’Brien, Daniel Lanois (who both oversaw Flowers’ solo album Flamingo) and Steve Lillywhite are amongst the set of big names attached to these songs.
“Ideally, it would have better to work with just one guy,” says Keunig of the revolving producer’s chair, but everyone had such different schedules. On some level we wanted to work with all of them, one album at a time – but this way, we got to do it on one album and give each a little bit of it. We’d worked with Stuart [Price] already before, but not the others, really. So that was a good part of the whole process. Now I know what its like to work with Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite and Damian Taylor.”
Working with such individual producers might explain why Battle Born often seems like two different albums. While they’ve got their anthemic bases covered with a clutch of bombastic tunes, there are songs here that hark back to the heartland rock of Sams Town, such as Rising Tide and the harmony-infused From Here On Out. Was balancing both elements a conscious decision?
“No, no, no,” chuckles Flowers. “The idea isn’t to throw a curveball. It’s just to write good songs.”
“I think that’s just who we are,” Keunig adds. “When people have asked us what we’re trying to do with this record, we’ve said that we’re just trying to come up with the best quality songs that we can. We did make a little bit of an effort to include some rock songs, I guess . . . not all of them are rock songs, clearly, but there are some on there. Other than that, it’s just what came out of us. It is very diverse, and I am very proud of that. It goes all over the place.”
Flowers has come under fire in the past for his occasionally abstract lyrics (try “Are we human, or are we dancer?” out for size), but Battle Born contains some of the most personal songs he’s written to date. Recurring references to the neon lights of Las Vegas and the fact that the album is named after The Killers’ studio in Nevada (which is itself named after the words written on the Nevada state flag) suggests an enduring connection with their home. Did that connection become more important as the band became one of the world’s biggest?
“It’s maybe more so for some of us than others,” Flowers giggles, after an awkward pause. “I still like it there. For me, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’ve been everywhere, and there are beautiful places, but I just feel like I belong there.”
Other songs, such as Heart of a Girl and Miss Atomic Bomb sound like the singer has inhabited a character to tell a story, while the refrain of Be Still (“Don’t break character, you’ve got a lot of heart / Rise up like the sun, labour till the work is done”) sounds like it could be the words of a parent to a child (Flowers is the father of three sons). But how much of that sentiment came from personal experience?
“I think we’re all getting more comfortable in our own skin, and feeling like we’re at a point now where you can impart some knowledge a little bit – and some of that comes out in a song like Be Still,” he nods. “There’s a little bit of reality in everything, but it’s [about] doing my best to make observations. You only have four minutes in a song to get the job done, and I’m proud of what I was able to do on this album. I think it’s the most cohesive, fully realised record that we’ve ever done. Lyrically, as well. I just wanted to do better and not fudge it at all.”
The importance of not fudging it seems like a priority to Flowers, who describes his role in the band as frontman and lyricist as his “job”, and has gone on record in the past wilfully declaring that the band is a “business”. When I ask whether he sees The Killers eventually inheriting the “stadium rock god” mantle of a band such as U2, he laughs manically, claiming that Coldplay have already beaten them to it.
Yet just over 10 years after forming, with 15 million albums sold worldwide and a solid fourth record set to add to that tally, there must be something that keeps The Killers hungry and in the game?
“We haven’t beat The Joshua Tree yet,” says Flowers, finally warming up, just as the band’s tour manager taps her watch to indicate that time is up. “I saw a great article – a sad article, actually – but it said that since that record, every band lives in its shadow. And I literally live in the fucking shadow of joshua trees. I see them every day, and I’m reminded every day that I’m not that good,” he says with another of those high-pitched titters. “And I don’t know if it makes me better, or if it’s just gonna make me feel unfulfilled for the rest of my life. But you wanna make those kind of records. It gives you something to aim for, I guess.”