September 1, 2012
It is perhaps inevitable that the world’s most famous Mormon politician, locked in a tight race to become US President, would seek the support of the world’s most famous Mormon pop star to add a fashionable edge to a campaign notable for its dad jeans and sensible khakis. With the telegenic likes of George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker punting for Barack Obama, Mitt Romney is desperately trying to amass some stardust. Clint Eastwood made his day. Now it emerges that the former Governor of Massachusetts is canvassing younger support, starting with Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the Killers.
At the band’s Las Vegas studio, Battle Born (the title of the band’s fifth album), Flowers reveals that Romney’s team have asked for his support. The 31-year-old Mormon rock star is “excited” by the prospect of a Mormon president, but adds, with a languorous twang, “I said no. I represent this band. If I supported him that would label the other guys. A couple of them would definitely not be happy with that. We’re staying neutral.”
Does Flowers want Romney to win? “I don’t feel strongly either way. I don’t see a difference, president to president. They just seem to be a face. I’ve met them both. They have great smiles and look good in suits.” There are differences between them, I say. For example, Romney supports a ban on gay marriage; Obama backs marriage equality. Where does Flowers (who has a wife and three children) stand? “I can’t say. It’s difficult to explain. I’m in a pop band. I don’t think I should be preaching from a soapbox.” A star since the Killers first stormed to fame in 2003 after the release of their hit Mr Brightside, he reveals that Elton John, pop’s most prolific loudmouth, has advised him to “shut up”. Which, he says, is hard, “because obviously I have opinions”.
What would a Romney presidency mean for Mormons? “There’s so much mud-slinging, so many crazy lies and weird perceptions,” Flowers says. “It would give us a chance to correct them. The first Mormon to run for president was Joseph Smith. He was shot dead. If he [Romney] became president it would be a triumph, just as it was to have the first black president.”
Flowers’ faith, including daily prayer, “is very important, not just a tradition. I believe it, I understand it. When I was young I read stories of David Bowie and Led Zeppelin and knew what was expected of rock singers. It’s up to me what I do when I’m exposed to something. It gets easier and easier”. Has he taken drugs? “I’m not going to say. I don’t advocate doing drugs. I can’t remember the last time I drank. I’m not preachy about it. I’m just on a different road.”
Excitement buzzes around the studio — which is far from the city’s “Strip” where Prince Harry recently partied naked, and is hidden in anonymous warehouses. Only four Killers fans have ever managed to find it, a studio manager tells me. The film director, Werner Herzog, is expected any moment to begin shooting the Killers for a special online film series pairing famous directors with pop bands (David Lynch with Duran Duran; Anton Corbijn with Coldplay). “We’re excited,” Flowers says. Battle Born’s rooms are a maze, with flock wallpaper, old-fashioned lamps and a ping-pong table in the main studio.
“Battle Born” derives not just from the words on Nevada’s state flag but “you can apply it to yourself, this band. We’ve had to fight to get to where we are,” Flowers says. the Killers, formed in 2001, were accepted in Britain quickly, but “we struggle in the US because we never stick to a particular sound. Radio stations never know what we are going to give them”.
The latest album is not a huge departure from the previous three: anthemic, luxuriantly chorded, synthy and redolent of Flowers’ own heroes from early Eighties British pop, including the Cure, the Smiths and the Human League. Flowers’ brother used to pass him their tapes when they were young. “The sound was so romantic. I wasn’t a rebel, I didn’t want to wear make-up like Robert Smith to piss off my mother. I just loved the music.”
The British embrace Flowers’ yearning standards, feather-accessorised jackets, sequins and guyliner. When David Cameron, a long-avowed Killers fan, turned up to one of their gigs at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008, a fan told The Sun: “Surely that’s a blow to their coolness. He should be banned from gigs for life. Apart from maybe Il Divo.” At last year’s Tory Party conference, Cameron was accompanied to the podium by his favourite Killers song: All These Things That I’ve Done.
The fan who bitched about Cameron said that the Albert Hall gig “was the opposite of rock ’n’ roll, full of people over 40 doing mum and dad dancing, thinking they’re it” — which encapsulates the band’s great strength, and its weakness. The Killers’ songs are not only good rock, they’re excellent karaoke fodder, even if some of the lyrics border on the nonsensical. The refrain “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” from All These Things That I’ve Done was parodied by the comedian Bill Bailey as “I got ham, but I’m not a hamster”. Much as one loves the plaintive, “Are we human, or are we dancer?” from Human, it produces more head-scratching.
The Killers formed after the guitarist Dave Keuning placed an advert in a Las Vegas paper in 2001 seeking musicians for a band: “Influences: Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, Bowie, Radiohead.” Their first album, Hot Fuss (2004), sold more than 7 million copies, and the band has won four NME awards and been nominated for seven Grammys. In 2009, XFM listeners voted Mr Brightside the best song of the decade, and Amazon.co.uk named the Killers the third bestselling artist of the decade, after the Beatles and Take That.
“It was an honour to be taken in by the people we were inf luenced by,” says Flowers of the British (the band’s name comes from a New Order video). Flowers’ father used to play Elton John’s music, so it was “amazing” for Flowers to collaborate with John and also Neil Tennant. “Every song has been better with just having talked to Neil for ten minutes.”
Recently there was speculation that the band were about to split after a two-year hiatus, during which Flowers released a bestselling album, Flamingo. Are the rumours true? “Not that I can foresee,” Flowers says. “Our guitar player [Keuning] was saying some ominous things in interviews, but it was blown out of proportion.” Has the band discussed breaking up? “Yes, we always think about it. Everybody has their ups and downs, but there was always a plan to make another record.” The hiatus came from “a lot of touring. Even though it can be exciting and glamorous it’s not what you’re raised to experience,” Flowers says. Going solo would “certainly be easier”, he laughs. “The band’s a democracy. We don’t agree on everything. The four of us are as different as people can be.”
Despite his nice cheekbones, Flowers claims: “I still struggle with my looks. I was a heavy teenager. I have a strange interpretation of myself. I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I never have. Physically I still feel heavy.” Would he have plastic surgery? “No. It’s a tragedy what some men do, like Kenny Rogers, who went too far. My dad is cool looking. I think I’ll be all right.”
Rufus Wainwright, who wrote a song, Tulsa, inspired by Flowers, says: “He is so sexy yet so unhappy and also somewhat sane and crazy at the same time. I haven’t met anyone who quite fits the Brando mould as much as he does. There’s this dark, moody, restless . . . figure that’s sucking up all the energy out of the room.”
Some of Flowers’ musical heroes, like David Bowie, blurred lines around sexuality. But Flowers was never attracted to men. “When I was little . . .” he grins, “you’re getting me to spill my guts . . . I instantly went to the women’s underwear section of the J.C. Penney catalogue. I was a late bloomer, which was a blessing. If I’d had more charisma when I was 16 I would have married a girl and none of this would have happened.”
Flowers lived first in Nevada, where his father converted to Mormonism, and later Utah. His mother “spoiled me in ways she shouldn’t have. I didn’t know we were in debt”. His father (and his grandfather) worked in a grocery store. His mother, sister and Flowers worked in a restaurant, Taco Time. He still goes to a “dingy, and that’s comfortable to me,” casino, the Skyline, where as a child he recalls his mother “driving up and down” looking for his father, who gambled and drank there. “To go from that to never wondering where he was (after he converted to Mormonism) was amazing. “The drinking stopped. He still likes to gamble though.” Growing up a Mormon “wasn’t fire and brimstone”. Though Flowers had to wear special underclothes at church (a white scoop-necked T-shirt and white underwear ending above the knee), “it was a gentle vibe”. At 16 he returned to Las Vegas, working in a club, “obsessed” by golf. He hung around with “shady people” in his late teens, and recalls practising music with drug dealers knocking at the door: “I could have gotten arrested or worse.” He credits his introduction to music to Trevor Gagner, his bandmate in a pre-Killers group, Blush Response. “He was avant-garde, I learnt everything from him. He showed me chord progressions by taking apart Depeche Mode songs. I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Flowers has always loved Vegas: “Cadillacs . . . Frank Sinatra. Sometimes I see it for what it is, but I still romanticise it. We have amazing sunsets, the desert isn’t brown, it’s majestic. I can’t imagine bringing our children up anywhere else.” But isn’t it the city of sin? “The Mormons settled Vegas,” he says stoutly. “There are a lot of good Mormons here.” We may think there is a disconnect between Mormonism and rock stardom; Flowers does not. What is his vice, if not drinking or drugs? He smiles: “I have fun. I go hiking.” Flowers’ mother died in 2010: “It’s part of life. The saddest thing is my sons [Ammon, Gunner and Henry] won’t meet her.” There’s “nothing better than being a parent and there’s not a song you could write that would beat having those kids. I prefer being with them than on the road, although I love my job”.
He has been married to Tana, who he met in a thrift store (“she was braver than me and handed me her number”), for seven years. Heart of a Girl on Battle Born is about meeting her. “We have our peaks and troughs, but I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t married and had my kids.” He wants more, “but my wife has to agree”, and relishes getting older: “Tom Petty and Sting did some of their best stuff in their thirties and forties.”
Do the Killers have a long future? “I don’t know. I’m proud of what we have done. We’re like brothers. It doesn’t mean we’ll last forever, but we have something.”
Herzog appears, bearish and with many assistants. Flowers and his bandmates seem agog that he has materialised in their anonymous studio. “We will make it work,” Herzog declares of the shoot, as ideas are floated about Flowers dangling his legs from a car window. Herzog’s eyes light up when he sees the ping-pong table: it’s an obvious meeting of minds.