Photos by Williams + Hirakawa, except where noted
It’s a mid-spring afternoon and Brandon Flowers is days away from the release of his second solo album, The Desired Effect.
“I’ve been anxious,” he admits. “It’s always a strange feeling knowing people have heard your songs even though this is what I live for. The [album] cycle, the rush, the show, everything.”
Even after 12 years in the spotlight, The Killers frontman says he still isn’t past having moments of “wow, this is really happening.” One such experience was his recent performance on The Tonight Show.
“It’s such an iconic show and I definitely feel the pressure with stuff like that. But I’m hardest on myself. So I gave it a B-plus,” he says with a hearty chuckle.
Regardless of that light-hearted self-criticism, Flowers says he’s been looking forward to getting back on stage, under the bright lights and in those signature, flashy jackets.
“I’ve sort of always gravitated toward all that,” the singer explains. “And the jackets are probably because of my roots in Las Vegas. I like the whole ritual of getting ready to perform. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’m a performer and when I get on that stage, I want to feel like I look the part. Maybe that’s getting into character, but it’s still me. Some musicians feel comfortable jumping on stage in jeans and a T-shirt, and that’s great. I can do that. But I like the whole, flipping a switch, you know? It makes something light up in me.”
"I had to ask myself, ‘Do I want to be famous or do I want to be a celebrity?’ I want to be great at writing and performing songs, of course. But that other stuff, not really."
While he has a natural affinity to the rock star image, something the 33-year-old embraces, his wife and three sons are now the most important part of his life. And even though he loves the limelight as a performer, he is quick to point out that being a “celebrity” isn’t something he craves.
“There’s a lesson I learned from Anton Corbijn, the photographer,” he recalls with confidence. “He said he would shoot famous people but not celebrities. And I didn’t realize until then that there’s a line. First of all, I was grateful he would work with me, but I had to ask myself, ‘Do I want to be famous or do I want to be a celebrity?’ I want to be great at writing and performing songs, of course. But that other stuff, not really."
Fortunately, Flowers and his family have found the perfect balance in Las Vegas, which is close enough to Los Angeles but far enough away from Hollywood and the 24-hour, tabloid culture.
“It’s just enough off the radar,” he says, laughing slightly. “Because I really don’t crave the cameras in your face and that kind of invasiveness. Especially now that I have three kids and I know my wife wouldn’t like that at all. I feel like we’re fortunate because The Killers are still doing really well and we can play big shows and do what we do, but I don’t feel claustrophobic or like people are chasing me down when I’m at the grocery store. When I’m not in the studio or on tour, I’m just a dad. Shuffling kids to school and running errands and doing family stuff—being an adult.”
Perhaps that personal growth in the nearly five years between his first solo album, Flamingo, and this new one also allotted him what he’s recently described as a “relentless” blend of pop and honest storytelling.
“I was feeling confident that day,” he quips, with a generous laugh. But then he quickly clarifies that he did in fact “pour more of myself” into the album without any regard for possible consequences.
“With the last record, I don’t know that I held back but I didn’t trust myself enough,” he concedes. “Like ‘Runaways,’ I had that for Flamingo but I saved it for the next Killers album, Battle Born. Sure, it worked out and it probably turned out for the best, but I do wonder about it. On this album, I was determined to go for it even if I had that little bit of doubt. And I’m glad I did."
Photo of Brandon Flowers performing on 'The Tonight Show,' by Douglas Gorenstein
Having spent about a year in and out of the studio with producer Ariel Rechtshaid—whose recent work includes producing for HAIM, Beyoncé and Vampire Weekend—Flowers leaned on his inner pop compass and created some true gems, such as “Can’t Deny My Love” and “Lonely Town,” which are examples of the singer’s impeccable ability to find the happy medium between glossy pop and gravelly rock.
“It’s a shame that pop music is sometimes branded as all plastic and hollow,” Flowers explains. “Grunge music distorted the idea of pop. It’s not even debatable. As great as grunge was, and it was a powerful movement, that was an effect. For every action there’s a reaction. And I grew up loving pop music. I remember reading interviews with Morrissey and even though we don’t necessarily think of him as pop, that’s what he considered himself to be. He was trying to write catchy pop songs. Now, he was able to turn it on its head and he’s definitely on a different level than everyone else—you know I think he’s just the greatest—but I always thought of pop music as being a positive thing.”
"It’s a shame that pop music is sometimes branded as all plastic and hollow. Grunge music distorted the idea of pop. It’s not even debatable."
And in further defense of the genre, the singer calls it a “great craft and a wonderful form of art. It’s not that easy,” he ardently declares. “And you can’t just write it off. If making pop music were as easy as critics say, everyone would be doing it. Of course, I don’t like the idea of these massive teams of people formulating a single, but I still appreciate when I hear a really great song.”
While he’s been at this for more than a decade, Flowers makes clear he wants more than the past hits, past Grammy nominations, past arena tours. Sure, The Killers get to pick and choose the festivals they play and how often they work, but he’s got just as much determination—maybe more of it—than before.
“I guess it’s just a heart thing,” he concludes. “I came equipped with that desire. Some people have it and some people don’t have it. It’s not wrong or right, but I have a certain drive. I grew up hearing songs on the radio and I never felt guilty about wanting to be one of those guys you hear on the radio—Bryan Ferry, U2, those guys.”
As for what’s on the radio now, Flowers is and isn’t a fan of what he hears, depending on the day.
“I’ve said before that I wasn’t all that much in favor of some of the electronic music. I know I called it ‘keyboard records.’” he says, unable to stop himself from laughing as he recalls his past statements. “And some people probably caught me on a bad day or sometimes I just let my mouth go. But if we’re talking about working with those guys, yeah, if the song was just right, I would do it. To put my stamp on it, though, I can’t just sing somebody else’s songs. It has to be something where I can help mold the song, that’s something I want to be a part of. I can’t ever rule anything out.”
He does admit that while he’s trying to keep an open mind about the musical landscape these days, it’s a very different world than when “Mr. Brightside” became an international top 40 hit.
“There was something special happening around 2003, 2004, and it just didn’t last very long,” he recalls with a sigh. “It was tough for a lot of bands that were just trying to keep their heads above water because it faded so quickly. And that’s how it goes. Cycles come and go. Everyone complains about EDM, but there are some great songs out there. And eventually guitars are going to come around again. There’s still great stuff. Father John Misty, The War on Drugs and Dawes—these guys are making really great records. And when I hear their music, I feel stupid for saying there’s nothing good because there is obviously a bunch of it.”
As Flowers is admittedly eyeing the next Killers album already, he acknowledges that music streaming has been another major change for his band and others to come to terms with. And while it was already a factor in 2012 when Battle Born was released, music sales declined drastically over the next three years and will continue to do so as JAY Z’s Tidal and Apple step up to compete with Spotify.
“I don’t see how you beat it though,” Flowers says. “Even though the labels will try and they are trying to fight it, people have experienced it already. I’m lucky that I’m in a band that’s established, because even if we lose out on people who don’t buy the album, they can stream it and then come to the concert. The people I feel for the most—and they’re the ones getting overlooked—are the young bands. The buzz is all about what JAY Z or Taylor Swift or Drake support or don’t support, but they’re doing fine. The Killers will be fine. What about the other bands? And I’m not knowledgeable enough about any of those deals to speak out for or against one service or another, but it’s not hard to read between the lines and see that the people at the top will get the biggest share of the pie.”
Still, the singer is optimistic. He points out that the music industry has been in a constant state of evolution and he’s excited about what comes next. And that’s why he keeps pushing himself to make music, even if it’s on his own between albums with the band.
“I’m sort of at my male vocal peak, age wise, so I don’t want just be sitting around,” he admits, with a hint of gusto. “I like doing this and I’m thankful for the opportunity. And as long as the seats have butts in them and as long as the songs keep coming, that’s really what it’s about. I don’t really like the idea of ever becoming some kind of heritage act and relying on the old songs. For any rock band, that’s why we look at the Stones or U2 or Springsteen, because they kept putting out good stuff. I want that. And as long as the drive to make music is there, I’m there.”
But with so much already accomplished, what’s left for him to conquer?
He pauses and inhales audibly before confessing: “I still want to write a masterpiece,” he says. “Maybe one of them is, but I don’t feel we’ve done that yet.”
"I truly feel like it’s still in me and in the band to do our best work. I feel like our best days are ahead and our best music has yet to be heard."
Yes, he says, it’s great to hear thousands singing his songs back to him in stadiums or on massive festival grounds. “But I still want more than that,” he explains. “I think some of the songs are masterpieces, but I want a whole record,” he says, laughing as the words echo back at him. “I hear myself, I know, but this is what I mean: I truly feel like it’s still in me and in the band to do our best work. I feel like our best days are ahead and our best music has yet to be heard."
While he’ll be promoting The Desired Effect for most of the year, “I’m already on the next Killers album in my head,” he says rather frankly. “As soon as the masters are turned in for an album, I’m already thinking about the next one. It’s been great because Dave [Keunig], our guitarist, has been anxious to write again. In the past, it was hard because we’d all have to talk about when to get together and when we’d have time. But with technology as it is, we can send stuff back and forth. We’ll be starting here in a bit.”
Flowers notes that in the past he might have been reluctant to express such hopefulness about the band’s progress. But he says he hasn’t “heard Dave this excited in years. And that excites me. I could see us starting later this year if we get it right. And I think the energy is there. That’s why I feel really confident that our best is still in us. I really do have this new sense of hope for The Killers.”
He also says he’s leaving the door open to collaborate with M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, who opened for The Killers’ tour in 2009 and then produced their exceptional 2013 single “Shot at the Night.”
“He’s one of the most consistent and creative guys in this industry,” Flowers says of Gonzalez. “He’s definitely on the list of guys we’d love to work with again. I don’t know if we’ve thought that far ahead though.”
Even if Flowers is ready to get back in the studio and hit the road again (he’ll tour solo this summer), he’s not in a rush to get old.
“The gray hairs and stuff? I’m good without them,” he proclaims, while noting that as he does start thinking about how he wants his career remembered—"decades from now, mind you!"— he hopes he’s simply known for “being a hard worker. And that I’m forgiven for my big mouth back in the early days—and you know, last week,” he adds with a laugh. “But really, I hope the music speaks louder. It’s always been about the music." ■
The Desired Effect is out now on Island Records.