- The Guardian, Saturday 18 July 2009
Brandon Flowers sits bolt upright in his train seat. So handsome you feel like putting a paper bag over your head the minute you meet him, his teeth a gleaming testament to the might of American dentistry, he is nevertheless not merely visibly uncomfortable but audibly uncomfortable, too. His conversation is punctuated with a high, fluttering giggle that seems to have nothing to do with amusement and everything to do with anxiety. Interviews make Flowers nervous. (A few days later, when I see him at a photoshoot - where a fearless snapper faces the prospect of becoming the first person in history to be charmed to death - Flowers is sweet, endlessly amenable and positively radiates good humour, a change of mood he explains with admirable candour. "I'm a lot more confident in my handsomeness than my wisdom," he says.)
- The Killers
- Day and Age
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I have tried to make small talk about his children - married in 2005, he has one son and another due in August, hopefully during a two-week break in the Killers' touring schedule - and about the festivals the Killers are traipsing around, but Flowers seems no better equipped for small talk than he is for breathing underwater. He answers politely, but monosyllabically, then silence falls over the first-class carriage on Eurostar, which is conveying him to yet another festival, this time in Belgium. His fear of flying is only one among a panoply of traits you might assume would preclude Flowers from a career as an international rock star. Indeed, that is something Flowers neither looks like - he has the face of a wholesome 50s matinee idol - nor behaves, nor talks like. He is wont to describe the Killers as a "business". "Well, it is a business. People want their rock stars to be stumbling around and we're not that way. I can't help it if I'm businesslike."
It is a job at which he is awesomely successful. In five years, the Killers have been fast-tracked into the upper echelons of musical superstardom, where U2 and Bruce Springsteen ask him to join them on stage. Meanwhile, artists who once stared down from Flowers' bedroom wall turn up to pay homage: the Cure's Robert Smith, David Bowie, the Pet Shop Boys, even Morrissey (the latter having apparently recovered after a starstruck teenage Flowers, waiting on his table in a Las Vegas restaurant, attempted to deliver a heartfelt eulogy with his mushroom pizza and was removed by a bodyguard for his trouble). Their 2004 debut album, Hot Fuss, sold more than 7m copies, was nominated for five Grammys and went to number one in Britain, Australia and Argentina. Its follow-up, 2006's Sam's Town, almost perfectly replicated its success: 7m copies shifted, number one around the world, awards won, among them a Brit. At the end of last year, their third album, Day & Age, went three times platinum in the UK alone.
Flowers is very much the band's public face. General knowledge of the rest of the Killers amounts to: looks like the guy from My Name Is Earl (drummer Ronnie Vannucci), has curly hair (guitarist Dave Keuning) and nothing whatsoever (bass player Mark Stoermer). It's not as if he hasn't been interviewed before, which makes his obvious unease all the more peculiar. But then Flowers is a very peculiar kind of rock superstar. He is a practising Mormon, who claims his devotion to a religion that frowns upon alcohol, tobacco, tattoos, premarital sex and body piercings has only been strengthened by five years in the godless world of rock'n'roll. He is a man who refuses even to swear on stage - "It's just a cheap way to get a rise out of the crowd," he sniffs - yet swiftly gained music press notoriety for gobbily starting feuds with other bands, among them Radiohead, whom Flowers suggested should try writing some proper songs again, and emo bands such as My Chemical Romance, whose music he described as "dangerous". He is an anglophile who briefly considered thumbing his nose at Mormon orthodoxy by getting an Oasis tattoo, but who has taken other US artists to task for being insufficiently patriotic, particularly when it came to their views on the presidency of George Bush. "I'm not saying we should be complacent, but you should try and find some hope. Which I didn't get out of 60,000 kids who aren't from America screaming, 'I don't want to be an American Idiot.' I didn't like it."
He is the youngest of six, born to parents from the same Las Vegas trailer park. His family were so resolutely blue-collar that he literally snorts with incredulity when asked if they were in any way musical or artistic. "No," he says, as if I'd just asked if his father ever landed on the moon. "My dad worked in a grocery store. His father did as well. Mom worked in a fast food restaurant called Taco Time, which later became my first job as well."
Nevertheless, life in the Flowers household was far from without incident. His father was an alcoholic who stopped drinking when Flowers was five, then converted to Mormonism in the 80s following a religious epiphany, demanding to be baptised so quickly, there was no time to find a church and the ceremony had to be performed in a nearby swimming pool. Flowers watched - "It was great" - and, the odd cigarette or vodka Red Bull, and the business with the Oasis tattoo notwithstanding, has stuck with Mormonism ever since. "It's a blessing for me. I've been thrust into a situation where I'm around a lot of people who don't believe. I just haven't been easily persuaded. The older I get, the more comfortable I get with it. Having a child reinforced my belief that we're created. There's just no doubt for me, not a thread of doubt in my mind, that there is a God."
Following his father's conversion, the family moved from Las Vegas to Nephi, a tiny, Mormon-founded town in Utah. Improbably, it was in Nephi that Flowers discovered music, via his older brother, who gave him his Cure and Smiths cassettes as he replaced them with CDs. There was "never" any sense of youthful rebellion about his love of music - "I didn't wear black and not talk to other kids or anything" - nor did it feel like something he wanted to do himself: "I never thought it was an option." Instead, he harboured ambitions of being a professional golfer.
He returned to Vegas at 16 to live with an aunt and at 17 left school, taking a succession of jobs - cleaning golf carts, waiting tables, working as a hotel bellhop - while making tentative forays into putting together a band. It sounds like a rather bleak period - the menial work, the failure of the world to be set alight by his early synthesiser combo Blush Response - but it was anything but. "The great thing about Vegas is the tips," he says, suddenly animated. "You wake up, you go out to your job and you hustle. You've always got this wad in your pocket, you know it's there, you want to count it all day. It's exciting. I loved it."
Still, the music wasn't going well: Blush Response had broken up, and Flowers found himself in a band with people he delicately describes as "a little more experimental than me". "This guy sold speed and he was a hooker. He had a son and we would watch his son while he went with women." He frowns. "I can't imagine what the mother was like that didn't have custody of the kid."
Perhaps understandably, their association was short-lived. Next, Flowers answered an advert Dave Keuning had placed, which mentioned Oasis. They took the name the Killers from a New Order video and together wrote Mr Brightside, which went on to be their first hit. Keen to stand out, Flowers took to wearing make-up on stage and bedecking his keyboard with rhinestones. "The other bands in Las Vegas hated it, they hated us," he says with what sounds like a note of relish. "They still do. We don't get much love in Las Vegas. But their girlfriends like us."
Fittingly, given Flowers' anglophilia, they were spotted by a British record label before the US expressed interest. They flew to England - Flowers had never before had a passport - to seemingly instantaneous success: Mr Brightside went into the top 10 and stayed in the charts for 65 weeks. But no sooner had success arrived than dissenting voices were claiming that the Killers' orthodontically perfect take on alt-rock seemed oddly stilted and contrived. "If you look at us and you hear it, it's almost too good to be true," he says flatly, and he has a point: a ready-made pin-up singing songs that sound impossibly commercial. "We have good songs, it sounds perfect, it sounds contrived, but it wasn't."
But there was also a sense that people simply thought Flowers was perhaps a little too gimlet-eyed, a little too driven in the pursuit of success for his own good. There was also his refusal to add his voice to the clamour of musical protest surrounding the Iraq war and the Bush presidency. "The height of it all was when you went to a concert and you knew someone was going to say something about George Bush and everybody would be so happy. It's an easy way to get a cheer. That really irked me." An interviewer recently got Flowers to admit he supported Obama, which makes the Bush stuff a little puzzling - it made people think he was a raving neocon. A nervous giggle: "Yeah, that's how they spun it." Wasn't that annoying? "A bit." A long pause. "I don't know enough about politics to talk about it."
And finally there was the Killers' sudden physical transformation, around the release of Sam's Town - make-up and rhinestones abandoned in favour of looking like extras from Deadwood - which was interpreted in some quarters as a cynical attempt to get middle America to like them. Flowers says not - "That was never thought out" - and in any case, if it was, it didn't work: in the US, Sam's Town did noticeably worse than their debut. Worse, Day & Age failed to make up the lost ground, which clearly rankles. "How much does it bother me?" he says. "I think about it every day. I've thought about it today. I've already talked about it today with my press officer."
Indeed, he still seems to be thinking about it after their performance at the Belgian festival, which by anyone's standards is a triumph: the crowd sing along, scream, hold up signs bearing messages of undying devotion to Flowers. But Flowers picks apart his performance: a wrong note here, a missed cue there. He hates playing in sunlight, he says. He worries that US audiences won't be able to work out how huge the Killers are in Britain because they've chosen to record their live DVD at the Albert Hall rather than a vast stadium.
We repair to the side of the stage to watch Coldplay's headlining set. Chris Martin goes into overdrive, asking the crowd if they enjoyed the Killers - they did - saying how hard it is to follow such a great band on stage, and getting the audience to sing, "I got soul, but I'm not a soldier", the deathless refrain from All These Things That I've Done, the Killers track David Cameron elected to be shipwrecked with.
I look over at Flowers and notice something extraordinary: nothing. He doesn't react at all: not a smile, not an aw-shucks shrug. He just looks straight on, impassive to the sound of the biggest band in the world praising him to the skies and thousands of people singing his words. After all, he can't help it if he's businesslike.
• The Killers' new single, A Dustland Fairytale, from the Day & Age album, is out on August 10