Brandon Flowers Isn't Happy With Commercial Radio
Williams + Hirakawa
An hour after talking with Brandon Flowers, his publicist called me back to ask me to take out part of my interview.
First, she thanked me for conducting it so early in the morning and let me know that Flowers had enjoyed speaking with me, which surprised me as he struggled to talk over the background noise of the airport he was in, but she was fearful that his rant about the state of commercial radio would be misunderstood.
Considering how much shit Flowers talked in the direction of The Bravery and Fall Out Boy in 2006, this felt overcautious. Despite his short answers and obvious annoyance at the less than ideal interview locale, he seemed like a matured artist. Flowers’ life has changed significantly in the nine years since his remarks. He’s become a family man and mourned the loss of his mother to brain cancer in 2010. He released his first solo album, Flamingo, later that year.
In an article on NME.com, he talked about how he wanted the songs from his second solo album, The Desired Effect, to be played on the airwaves. Did an artist of his stature even have to make that declaration, as he’s achieved that goal time and again with The Killers? The new record is filled with songs that bring to mind other singer-songwriters who had departed their bands and went solo: Don Henley, Sting, and Peter Gabriel. Flowers isn’t breaking up his band, but these songs stand very well on their own.
It’s obvious that Flowers is understandably proud of his output and his skills as a songwriter. Was his publicist worried that his contempt for radio stems from his bitterness over a lack of airtime for the album's singles? We agreed he could clarify his statements, but in the weeks afterwards I never received a response.
His full answer to the question is below. The answer might not help his cause, but few will disagree with Flowers’ strong point of view on commercial radio. There’s also a discussion about getting out of his comfort zone, and scaling down his trademark anthemic sound.
New Times: When I first heard about you, I knew I was going to pay attention to you because, like me, you were a Mormon who listened to The Smiths and Duran Duran. Did you feel that was a conflict growing up?
Brandon Flowers: I never felt I was rebelling. My brother listened to all that music. He was 12 years older than me so my parents had already been through one round of it in the ’80s. Then they had another round of it in the ’90s. They were very used to it.
Forgive me if this is too personal, but did the passing of your mother have an effect on your songwriting and career focus?
I’m so close to it that it’s hard to tell how much of an effect it had on me. It made me start to look at my life in a different way.
What makes a song a Killers song and what makes a song a Brandon Flowers song?
I don’t know anymore. I didn’t set out to be a solo recording artist, but a couple of guys in The Killers wanted long breaks. I wanted to keep writing.
You could have taken a break, too. What makes you want to keep writing?
It’s become a big part of my life now. I really enjoy it. It’s like breathing for me now and I don’t see any reason to stop. I can’t wrap my head around why the other guys don’t want to keep doing it. I really can’t. I just do it.
You said when making The Desired Effect that your producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, got you out of your comfort zone. How did he accomplish that?
I was pretty accustomed to making demos and songs the same way every time. I have my studio and engineer in Las Vegas. I have a certain way of doing things and it gets repetitive. That’s not always the best thing. In sports, maybe that’s a good thing. You’re doing something right. Sometimes you need to be thrown a curve ball when trying to be creative and explore new territory. He helped me just by being thrown into the equation.
What about his resume impressed you the most?
It’s about the diversity. He was able to do something like Cass McCombs, HAIM, Vampire Weekend, Usher, and Snoop Dogg. He’s the only guy to work with rappers, pop stars, and rock bands.
You said that when making the album, you were taking cues from Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Don Henley. One of the traits they share is their ability to surround themselves with talented musicians who support their vision. What made the musicians you chose for The Desired Effect the right ones for this album? How much input did Ariel have in this decision?
Over the years, Ariel has become friendly with a number of great musicians. A lot of it was for him, but they were people I was also a fan of. For example, I’ve always been a fan of [King Crimson’s] Tony Levin’s bass playing. That was a real treat to be able to call upon him. It was great having Bruce Hornsby on the record.
You said you wanted to album to walk a line between accessibility and sophistication…
I’m not sure which line I fell on (laughs). I don’t know if I fell on either of them.
I’m not trying to toot your horn here, but I think you accomplished what you set out to do. You took cues from those artists you love and turned it into something new. How do you think they got to that point? What did you need to do to get to that point?
I have an ability to write pop songs. It’s hard sometimes to come up with an idea that isn’t a pop song but the right thing to do is to serve it. I want to find common ground with all the outliers that we have. We all want to be serious and have success. It’s hard to balance that, especially when you grew up with as much radio as I did. As I’m getting older, I’m getting better at it. I hope I’ll be happy with it one day.
You said you wanted your songs to be heard on the radio. Isn’t that the goal of a working musician? Do you think your music is considered niche or has radio become too commercialized?
I think a lot of people want to be on the radio. It’s hard to find a home on the radio right now. This album seems like a no-brainer to me. Songs like “Can’t Deny My Love” and “Lonely Town” sound good. The songwriting is good. I’m proud of [them], but they didn’t get played on the radio. They got played a little bit. It didn’t work out.
Do you think it’s because radio has become too commercialized?
It’s the worst it’s ever been! (raises voice) That’s not really up for debate. It’s a weird time. I’m doing fine because I got my foot in door before it happened. I feel sorry for people that are young and trying to find a place.
Why do you find commercial music to be weird?
There’s just too much. I don’t have the answer.
I guess there’s a tolerance to how much Taylor Swift you can listen to in a day.
I don’t know. I listen to a rock station in Vegas and it sounds like a pop station. Everyone is scrambling to get the same thing. I’m sure it will come around.
But there are songs on the album, like “Still Want You” and “The Way It’s Always Been,” that feel like smaller songs for someone who’s known for big anthemic songs.
It was nice to be able to try to keep it small on a few of them. Part of my goal was to strip it down for a couple of songs.
What would you say is the most profound thing you’ve learned about yourself since you’ve been in music?
I enjoy performing. I didn’t think I’d be able to just enjoy it. I used to have to drink alcohol to grease it up and get on the stage. Now I’m at a point where I don’t even think about that. I’m excited to get on stage. I think that’s been pretty profound in my life. It’s given me a little more longevity.
Brandon Flowers is scheduled to play Wednesday, September 23 at Crescent Ballroom and Summer Ends Music Festival Thursday, September 24.
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