The Killers' Brandon Flowers on Band Shake-Ups and a Crucial Assist From Bono

Brandon Flowers photographed June 13 on at Soho Grand Hotel in New York.
Ryan Pfluger

Brandon Flowers photographed June 13 on at Soho Grand Hotel in New York.

At the age of 36, Brandon Flowers admits that he’s already thinking about his legacy. “It’s not something we talk about a lot,” says the Killers frontman as he sits on a couch in New York’s Soho Grand Hotel. “But the older you get, the more you’re conscious of time and how limited it is. And the megalomaniac in you says, ‘Well, what kind of mark have I left?’ ”

Soft-spoken and reflective, Flowers is no longer the Las Vegas-bred spark plug who wore eyeliner in music videos, proudly paired his Mormonism with glam-pop and declared of The Killers in a 2004 interview, “I want us to be the American U2.” In hindsight, he wasn't far off the mark. Along with the commercial success -- 7.1 million albums sold, according to Nielsen Music, with 12 top 20 hits on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart and hundreds of arena shows -- The Killers’ legacy has been one of malleability, even more so than Bono and Co. Flowers, drummer Ronnie Vannucci, guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer conquered rock radio with synth-driven new wave hits like “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” from 2004 debut Hot Fuss. They defied expectations with their Springsteen-inspired 2006 follow-up, Sam’s Town -- reviled by critics upon release, now considered a cult classic -- and have since hopscotched across dance-pop, heartland rock and electronica.

Fifth album Wonderful Wonderful is another amalgamation of sounds: Lead single “The Man” is a glitzy disco track, while songs like “Run for Cover” and “Some Kind of Love” aim for post-punk and arena balladry, respectively. Yet the album, out in September, is also the band’s most introspective to date. Flowers says that the pulsating “Tyson vs. Douglas” is about fallen heroes and how he hopes his three sons (Ammon, 9; Gunnar, 7; and Henry, 6) “never see me go down” like Mike Tyson in his shocking 1990 defeat to Buster Douglas. Elsewhere, soon-to-be karaoke anthem “Have All the Songs Been Written” hints at the difficulties the band had with figuring out the album. The five-year gap between 2012’s Battle Born and Wonderful Wonderful is the longest between albums, and with the members in different states (Flowers is moving to Utah, Vannucci and Keuning have relocated to California, and Stoermer splits time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas), the new LP was its hardest to finish.

Rob Loud
From left: Vannucci, Flowers and Lee in Lee’s L.A. studio in the spring.

“The dynamic has changed,” says Flowers. “When we used to start writing, anything was possible. Now, there’s a weight and something looming over us -- what we’ve done, if we can do it again. Those things creep into your mind.”

According to Stoermer, the band began the creative process in October 2015 and spent a year formulating ideas that would ultimately be scrapped. “We attempted writing songs in groups, in pairs, co-writing with producers,” says Stoermer. “A lot of material was put aside.” In the middle of the struggles, Stoermer also made it known that he no longer wanted to tour with The Killers. The 40-year-old, who records solo music and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in art history, says the group’s rigorous touring schedule (its Battle Born World Tour played over 140 shows) made him feel unfocused. “I get joy out of making music with The Killers, but being on the road and in the studio was too much,” he explains.

The rest of the band knew how unhappy Stoermer had become with touring; part of the reason Flowers had recorded two solo albums between Killers projects was to break up the band’s long live runs. Once the group decided to hire a touring bassist, Stoermer became “much more pleasant” in the studio, says Flowers. “He’s still in the band, he still helps write. He’s just not going to be playing many shows,” says Flowers. “It’s a hurdle, but we’ve got the legs to jump it.”

The process also became smoother when the group committed to a single producer last September. After working with studio vets Ryan Tedder and Steve Lillywhite, The Killers called in Jacknife Lee (Taylor Swift, R.E.M.) to helm all of Wonderful Wonderful -- after Flowers received a recommendation from none other than Bono. “Jacknife is doing U2’s record,” says Flowers. “We met him and liked him a lot. Then we tried him out [in the studio] and liked him even more.”

Flowers brushes off questions about hanging out with Bono and how often he and the rock legend chat. He’s more interested in gushing over U2’s current stadium show and recounting how he was blown away when he first saw the band perform in Las Vegas in 2001. At that point, Flowers had just turned 20. He had no idea his group would be opening for U2 within four years and that he’d be emulating the ambition in its songwriting on The Killers’ fifth album. (U2’s fifth LP, for those keeping score, was the 1987 classic The Joshua Tree.)

“I wouldn't feel this excited if the songs weren't true,” asserts Flowers. “We’ve been hearing a lot of false music out there -- music designed for the nondiscerning listener. It’s always good when you have that satiated feeling, the desire that’s quenched, when you have substance behind it. That’s when you know you have something.” 

The Killers' Chart History

Number of top 10 Killers hits on the Alternative Songs chart, led by one No. 1 (“When You Were Young” topped the tally for two weeks in 2006)

Total downloads of The Killers’ best-selling single, “Mr. Brightside”*

Combined copies sold of the band’s first two albums, 2004’s Hot Fuss and 2006’s Sam’s Town*

*Source: Nielsen Music

This article originally appeared in the July 22 issue of Billboard.