Music News

Killing Time

"I wouldn't consider us a throwback, but I also wouldn't say we're reinventing the wheel of rock 'n' roll," says Ronnie Vannucci, drummer for the Killers. "We're taking the best parts of the music we were influenced by, putting them in our songs and making them our own."

The Killers are hardly the only current band attempting to turn this trick. The latest revolution of the music-business cycle has spun out a slew of groups, from Interpol to the Rapture, that draw their inspiration from '80s-era British acts whose style and substance were often indistinguishable from one another. It's no surprise, then, that the press in England has gotten overheated about Hot Fuss, the Killers' debut platter. The resultant buzz convinced MTV to start airing the video for the Fuss track "Somebody Told Me," which couldn't seem more like stuff the network aired two decades ago if it included cameos by Martha Quinn and Nina Blackwood.

Even so, the clip's neon and dancing girls, as well as its desert backdrop, actually connect personally to the Killers. The tunes may sound as if the players -- vocalist/keyboardist Brandon Flowers, guitarist David Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and Vannucci -- just stepped off the Queen Elizabeth II, but the four-piece actually got its start in that most garishly American of cities, Las Vegas.

"There's a lot about the music that really represents Vegas," Vannucci notes. "It's dark and moody like Vegas is. It's glamorous and superficial and fictional like Vegas is. There are a lot of different comparisons."

As one of three Nevada natives in the combo (odd man out Keuning is an Iowan by birth), Vannucci speaks from experience. With the exception of a couple of years spent in northern California when he was a kid, he's lived his entire life in this rapidly growing metropolis. "It's turning into quite the little Los Angeles," he says. "I used to live on the outskirts of Vegas, but it's not the outskirts anymore, because the town has blown up."

Part of what he loves about the community is its inherent conflicts. "Of course, you've got your Sin City tribes," Vannucci allows. "It's a 24-hour town, like everybody knows, and everything is completely accessible at any time. But you've also got a large Mormon settlement there, which is just the antithesis of what people think of when they think of Las Vegas. But maybe they're not so different. When you think of Mormons, you think of good, clean fun and polygamy. When you think of Vegas, you think of gaming and prostitution."

Thanks to his bartender father, whom he describes as "a pretty weird dude, although he's calmed down some," Vannucci was exposed to a wide range of tunes during his youth. He recalls hearing everything from the Beatles to Michael Franks, a jazz-oriented singer-songwriter whose irritatingly vapid musings wound up leaving no discernible mark on the Killers' material, to Vannucci's vast relief. "I blocked that out," he says. In contrast, he absorbed every note of The Head on the Door by the Cure (the first tape he bought) and other albums of its ilk, which made him the perfect fit for Flowers, Keuning and Stoermer, all of whom had similar tendencies.

After tightening up during garage sessions and clandestine visits to the UNLV music room, the Killers hit the Vegas club scene, such as it is. The city overflows with venues, but because most of them specialize in spectacles designed to attract well-heeled out-of-towners, working-class locals with an appetite for homegrown rock have a tougher time satisfying their hunger.

"That's how Vegas kind of suffers," Vannucci says. "You've got to remember, places like the House of Blues and The Joint at the Hard Rock are funded by the hotel and casino industries, so even when there aren't any shows, they can still stay afloat. It doesn't work that way with other clubs, so a lot of them only last for a few months -- and the bands seem to follow that same trend. Everybody gives it a good six months or so and then quits because nothing's happening for them. It's kind of sad, because I know of some great musicians and good songwriters there. But nothing's really come out of Vegas to put the place on the map."

For the Killers, the lack of a distinct Vegas sound allowed them to do whatever they wanted. "We're obviously not a Strip band or anything like that," Vannucci says. "There's nothing like us in Las Vegas, which is what made us stand out in the first place." At the same time, they're not anti-Vegas, either. Rather than railing against the old-style indulgence of city staples like Wayne Newton, they adapted it for their own, donning natty jackets and adopting a showy stage persona. As Vannucci half-jokingly puts it, "We're definitely not rebelling against Wayne. We're embracing his greatness."

Overseas tastemakers reacted just as positively toward the Killers. In 2003, Lizard King, a British independent label, inked the band and transported it to England, prompting the requisite drooling. Somebody Told Me, an EP released on Lizard King in March 2004, justified such salivation when its title track and another cut, "Mr. Brightside," hit the Top 10 in the United Kingdom. The Hot Fuss full-length, which arrived within months, seems destined to do just as well on the far side of the Atlantic.

It's too soon to tell if the U.S. version of Fuss, released in June on the Island imprint, will set stateside cash registers ablaze, but the disc is unpretentious enough to give it a chance. Whereas some groups on the Killers' wavelength feign innovation so strenuously that their borrowings lose their amusement value, these boys just want to have fun emulating the ditties that entranced them in their youth. "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" kicks off with helicopter effects and a hearty "whooo!" before evolving into a head-bopping groover that's pure Robert Smith, whereas "On Top" declares its allegiance to Duran Duran in its first line: "Remember Rio and get down." Like Simon LeBon before him, Flowers loves to strike lyrical poses, and the sexier, the better. Take "Midnight Show," in which he interrupts his throes of ecstasy to declare, "You got a real short skirt/I wanna look up, look up, look up, yeah, yeah!"

This easygoing attitude has made it easier for Vannucci and company to enjoy their ride on the Hype Express, which has already included a prime slot at May's Coachella festival. Some underground musicians heading toward the big time are consumed by guilt, but not the Killers, whose "Indie Rock 'n' Roll," which can be found only on the U.K. version of Hot Fuss, is a celebration, not an excuse for moping.

As for those originality questions that keep cropping up, Vannucci claims not to be bothered in the slightest. "We're being compared to some of the best bands that there've ever been, in my opinion," he says. "There's a lot worse things than that."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently oversees Westword's news blog.
Contact: Michael Roberts