Finding A Killer Sound

Fremont Street, 1986–taken from wikipedia

When I was fourteen I was living in Las Vegas, and it was impossible to ignore the growing success of a couple of locals in a band who got noticed by some fancy, British representatives for Warner Bros. named the Killers.

During this time, MTV still played music videos (at a reasonable hour) in the morning, and before school I’d eat some eggs, drink a glass of milk, and watch the popular videos of the month. Mainstream music seemed to be consolidating, and hit-makers such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Usher, Green Day, and Avril Lavigne, although categorized under different genres, all fit under one classification: MTV garbage. However, one morning, this came on:

From the beginning, the group’s aura was intense. The crash of the cymbals, along with a polished, distorted guitar, and some futuristic synth leads, made me wonder if they were dance pop, or a rock band. As the strange combination finally settled into a rhythmic chugging, accentuated by the drummer’s work on the floor tom, lead singer Brandon Flowers made his presence known. He was good looking, seemingly shy, but completely convinced that this was his moment. His charisma and assurance fueled the entire energy of the band, and I could no longer ignore the fact that a band from Vegas had made it.

Listening, I was breaking my back to figure out what Flowers was trying to say in his overly dramatic lyrics. “Somebody told me/you had a boyfriend/who looked like a girlfriend/that I had in February of last year,” was like an equation I could not solve, or like all those times I tried to understand what third cousin, twice removed meant. Does this mean his girlfriend was a man, or is this his pick-up line, I thought.

The song ended and I was jealous. Who did these guys think they were? It was the first time I felt offended and violated while listening to music, and like the rest of the popular groups who had videos on MTV, I hated them. Loathed them.

As the Killers put out more singles and got bigger, it was rumored that Vegas had become a hotbed for talented musicians, and suddenly an influx of crappy alternative bands started popping up in the growing desert town with the same dream that they’d get discovered. This extended my hatred for the group beyond normal limits. I could handle the mania that surrounded Britney and Christina, because if there was any direct result from that fad, all it did was make girls want to dress prettier, or provocatively within the school’s dress code, which only made me insecure about approaching them, and damaged whatever self-confidence I had. These guys, though, were influencing the local music scene, and making it terrible. Musicians went to Vegas to die; no one ever made it out of there.

Mr. Brightside” was another big hit, and I dismissed it. To me, they were just another pop band that was going to reach its peak early, and then fade away, but then “All These Things That I’ve Done” was released. It sounded like the Killers, though something was different. It was catchy, it was energetic, but it wasn’t flooded with the Euro-dance pop sound that contaminated their earlier singles. The line, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier,” started picking up, and they weren’t just influencing terrible musicians in Las Vegas anymore; they were influencing established musicians now, like Bono and Chris Martin.

The song’s music video showed them prancing around a neighborhood in Vegas like a bunch of rebels, dressed up as cowboys, wearing fake mustaches, and I started to wonder if these guys were for real. This fake Euro-dance pop group couldn’t have been who they really were. There was something in that cowboy garb that made them seem totally rock ‘n’ roll, and they wanted to show that, and if it wasn’t evident on Hot Fuss, then the world would see it later.

The buzz circling Hot Fuss died out, and their next album was highly anticipated. Flowers grew a real mustache and made a bold statement claiming Sam’s Town would be one of the best albums in the last twenty years, and I instantly dismissed the album before listening. It was trying to be Sgt. Pepper anyway, I thought. The album would find me though.

One day, the title track, “Sam’s Town,” blasted through the speakers of a friend’s car, and the moments of intensity and energy that was expressed in Hot Fuss had been multiplied by ten. Flowers sounded real, he sounded pissed, and the rest of the band followed his lead. The opening line, “Nobody ever had a dream ‘round here” was about Las Vegas, and I knew it, because that’s how I felt. He had a sentimental heart, and an “energy beneath my feet like something underground’s gonna come up and carry me,” and I wanted to follow him, wherever he went. We listened to the entire album, which was filled with desert imagery that reminded me what it was like living in that two-star town, and I knew then that this was who the Killers were: a couple of guys who had to escape Las Vegas, but couldn’t erase it from their minds. This was their sound, it was real, and I was obsessed.

I found out later though that most of the people who liked Hot Fuss, hated Sam’s Town, because, as some of my friends said, “it sounded too rock ‘n’ roll,” too pre-historic. My opinion flipped. Suddenly, I thought my friends were stupid and I dismissed them, and the Killers were keepin’ it real. The Killers knew who they were, and they were loud, grandiose, and totally badass.

The Killers topped themselves when they released the single “Tranquilize” a year after Sam’s Town. It was eerie, while remaining energetic, and it featured Lou Reed. Flowers’ voice sounded dead and out of key, but it felt right, and meshed perfectly while mumbling along with Reed’s own dead voice. It was a song someone could lose their mind to and feel good about it.

Killers all dolled up–taken from MTV.com

Finally, Day and Age came out during my first semester of college, but the first single, “Human,” was completely disappointing, and the music video was horrifying. First, Flowers shaved his mustache, which was a big deal to me, for every great man had a mustache while they were producing their best work: John, Paul, George, and Ringo while recording Sgt. Pepper, Ernest Hemingway while writing The Sun Also Rises, and Kirk Gibson while hitting his famous home run for the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. Second, the group got rid of their thrown together cowboy look, and started dressing like arena rock stars, with Flowers wearing what looked like a bear skin rug on his back. Then, when I looked away and started listening to the music, it sounded like futuristic dance pop, and I felt betrayed. People didn’t like their Sam’s Town sound, and they went back to focusing on what made them famous. There were remnants of who I thought they were in songs like “A Dustland Fairytale,” “Losing Touch,” and “Spaceman,” but it wasn’t the same. They lost touch with me, and while it wasn’t a disgustingly awful album, I didn’t want to listen. I couldn’t listen. I couldn’t relate.

My brain was jumbled by this shift, and it seemed that the band was jumbled as well. They lost a sense of who they were, or perhaps they never knew, and after a few years of non-stop touring and recording, the band went on hiatus. The Killers were burned out, but I didn’t know from what. I think about it now and I’ve settled with the idea that they aren’t just influenced by their Las Vegas background, but they are a complete embodiment of the city. After experiencing success, the struggle of finding themselves conflicted with how others portrayed them, and what seemed to make them honest and original was suddenly shut down and imploded, making room for a glitzy, tacky outer shell that mystifies everyone, when inside it’s all the same crap and all they want is your money.

Their hiatus is over, however, and are currently recording a new album, which might be named Battle Born, in reference to the battle born state, Nevada. I can’t expect it to be like Sam’s Town, though I’m holding on to the idea that it might be greater. I expect them to grow, because I’ve grown during the time they’ve taken off, and I enjoy listening to all of their albums now, which means I’ll probably like whatever they release. I’ve cleared my head and I’m hoping that they’ve cleared theirs, and have figured out who they truly are, knowing that they might have to leave behind the fans that have decided not to grow with them.

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5 comments
  1. This piece looks long, but doesn’t read like it. My favorite part is when you describe trying to make sense of the Killers and say, “I was breaking my back.” (I also similar feelings about the band.) I like how you take the lyrics and make the words your own, just how you put the band’s music in the context of your life. I also had no idea they were making a new album, so I’m pretty excited.

  2. I agree with the above post. Like “Love Is a Mix Tape,” this post looks long but is written well enough to keep my attention throughout. I’d also add that the piece feels real and flows naturally. I really enjoyed the way you described their sound (“The crash of the cymbals, along with a polished, distorted guitar, and some futuristic synth leads, made me wonder if they were dance pop, or a rock band. As the strange combination finally settled into a rhythmic chugging, accentuated by the drummer’s work on the floor tom,…”) and especially the end when you compare the progression and apparent plateau of the Killers to an embodiment of Las Vegas.

  3. Ashlin said:

    I hate to be a piggybacker (if that’s even a word) but I have to agree with the above comments.. this post at first glance seems a bit lengthy, but it flows so nicely that it brings the reader right along. You definitely capture the reader with your descriptions of the music by providing them with language that they can easily identify with.. great post!..

  4. Nice, easy read. But you know what I want…more Alex. I know more about the changes in the band, but I like to see more of how you were changing as the band changed.

  5. This is absolutely fantastic. I feel the same way about The order of Killers albums: Sam’s Town is by far the best, though nobody gives it any credit because it sounds so different from the rest.

    Only other comment I have is that while yes, we do get glimpses of what you’re going through throughout this, it reads more like a history of the band with small bits of relation to yourself.

    Otherwise, this is rad. nice work.

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