“Have you ever seen the lights?” asks Brandon Flowers on the title-track of The Killers’ 2006 album ‘Sam’s Town’. As a band born-and-bred in Las Vegas, the illuminated sign of the hotel casino from which the album derived its name was visible to bassist Mark Stoermer from his childhood bedroom, and Brandon had lived just across the street from it, too. Nestled under the Sunrise Mountains and six miles away from The Strip, Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall was synonymous with home. “I see London, I see Sam’s Town” the band chant in the closing moments of the song. After the runaway success of their debut album ‘Hot Fuss’ had expanded their horizons far beyond the Mojave Desert, that vivid Vegas vision had a certain magnetism.
A decade following its release, The Killers’ drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. has been re-learning his parts and reflecting on that time ahead of the nostalgia-inducing, tongue-twisting ‘decennial extravaganza’ taking place in the band’s birthplace at the end of the month. “We spent the greater part of two years being away from Vegas for the first time” he explains, looking back. “No-one in the band had travelled extensively like that, no-one had been overseas before,” he continues, “so we sort of felt detached and missed that place and it came out in the songs.”
The band decided to return to their roots, and become the first band to record in a studio beyond the slot machines and roulette wheels of The Palms Hotel casino. “It was so homey and organic and real,” he remembers, using adjectives not often associated with Vegas. Naturally, an environment of such excess had its thrills, too. “There was a lot of buffet eating,” he says, animatedly. “We’d go downstairs and we’d have the run of the place! So we ate like kings!”
Suitably well-fed, The Killers found further fuel in the production talents of Flood and Alan Moulder. “It was such a great experience, and it had to be for them too,” he ventures, clearly entertained by the unlikeliness of the set-up. “Two British dudes stepping into Vegas, into a casino to make a record. The whole concept was bizarre,” he laughs.
“We were kind of scared about it because we knew it was so different…”
— Ronnie Vannucci Jr.
Whereas debut 'Hot Fuss' had been recorded as an unsigned band - "mainly for the purpose of getting gigs" - over a handful of days in a humble home set-up in Berkeley, this time the novelty of recording in a real studio was palpable in the album's big, bold sound. "I think everybody was like, 'Woah this is a real recording studio! Let's bring in some timpani! Let's have strings on the record! Let's really play the studio!'"
Such feverish excitement manifested itself in an album as dazzling and as brazen as you'd anticipate from one made in a casino on Flamingo Road, and featuring a track entitled 'Bling (Confessions Of A King)'. Its classic American rock spirit drew countless comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. But The Boss was only one of many influences:
"It wasn't just Springsteen," Ronnie says, "I think it was other people in that ilk. It was also Tom Waits, it was also Bob Dylan, it was Leonard Cohen, it was Rufus Wainwright, it was ELO." For 'Enterlude' and 'Exitlude', Ronnie recalls, "the whole genesis of that seemed very Tom Waits-y to me... it was on the back of a box of matches: 'We Hope You Enjoy Your Stay'. You know, cheap fucking matches you get at the hotel casinos. To me it was very Tom Waits-y. I loved that."
The album artwork reflected Vegas through the eyes of a band who didn't just experience it as a playground, but instead saw it in all its day-to-day mundanity. Living and working in the city (Brandon as a hotel bellboy, Ronnie as a wedding photographer), they saw behind the flashy façade. Trailers, beauty queens, desert landscapes - even Brandon's grandfather - were depicted in the stark photography of Anton Corbjn.
For Ronnie, the partnership was a positive one. "It was nice to have Anton, to see this guy - he was a European fella - look at our band and where we are from and take a component of that and run with it. He could have just as easily have gone to the other side of Vegas and taken pictures of Elvis and stuff like that but he chose the darker, more desolate end."
“There was a lot of buffet eating. We’d go downstairs and we’d have the run of the place! So we ate like kings!”
— Ronnie Vannucci Jr.
The confident, almost Kanye-sized, claims of the album's greatness made by Brandon in the run-up to the release masked an element of fear, apparently. "We were kind of scared about it because we knew it was so different," Ronnie admits, pointing to the fact that "there weren't any glossy dance numbers on this one." Some of those surrounding them were clearly getting a sweat on at the lack of another 'Mr Brightside' or 'Somebody Told Me'. "Because it was so different we had all these people in our ear all the time about how different it was, freaking us out... but we all felt really, really good about it."
Brandon's bravado appeared to backfire when it came to the critics. Rolling Stone famously gave the album two stars and a good battering, levelling that "The Killers leave no pompous arena cliche untweaked". Ronnie contests the accusations of inauthenticity: "It felt like a really natural and honest representation of where we were at the time," he counters, adding that the band were largely unfazed by the haters. "I remember there being a sort of stink about it but that was exciting for us. It's kind of fun to listen to somebody bed-wet about it… When you're satisfied with it, my take is that it's almost comedy to listen to opinions, good and bad."
In any case, The Killers had the last laugh. Brandon flourished as a frontman during the touring of 'Sam’s Town' (“I think that’s where he sort of caught fire first” Ronnie suggests), a Glastonbury headline slot followed the next year, and they became one of the biggest bands in the world. Their next album ‘Day & Age’ – which saw them “writing songs to a calypso beat” - was further proof of their willingness to challenge expectations.
Having recently headed back into the studio in Vegas for the fifth album, who knows what’s next? You can bet your bottom dollar it will be a surprise.
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