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Natural born Killers

The synth-rock of `Hot Fuss' was a huge hit, so why change? The Nevada band turns to its roots in pursuit of grander ambitions.

October 15, 2006|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

ALONE in the darkness behind the outdoor stage, Brandon Flowers jumped up and down and waved his arms like a boxer preparing for a fight, and wailed "hey-yay-hey!" over and over at the top of his voice like a street-corner crazy.

In a few minutes the singer would join the other three members of the Killers for the parking-lot performance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," part of an intensive campaign launching the band's second album, "Sam's Town." But first Flowers was enjoying his moment in the shadows, a spindly harlequin with a sheepish smile for anyone he caught watching his ritual.

Just his standard pre-show warmup?

"I don't know what I'm doing," he said with a laugh as he jogged toward the stairs of the stage.

Flowers might have been joking, but that's exactly what a lot of people are thinking about the Killers as the Las Vegas-based band returns with the follow-up to its rags-to-riches debut, "Hot Fuss." Second-album time is a crucial career juncture for any pop act, and the Killers have used the occasion to unveil a radical redefinition.

Instead of the obvious -- another helping of steamy, noirish scenarios set to thumping, catchy, faux-British synth-rock, such as "Somebody Told Me" and "Mr. Brightside" -- "Sam's Town" is filled with guitar-based anthems that aspire to something more substantial, rooted and American.

It still has the Killers' flair for hooks, but its grand, sweeping scale proclaims that the Killers want to be a band that matters, one with a fist-in-the-air connection with its audience.

"There's that feeling you get when you're in a stadium and U2 plays 'One,' what that means to everyone there," Flowers, 25, said during an interview the following evening.

"And it doesn't have to be to that many people. You go from U2 size where they sell 35,000 every night to where Morrissey always sells 2,000 a night, but when you're there, there are moments that are just -- people say it's a substitute for religion for some people. We're believers."


An American band

FLOWERS, a passionate music fan and a competitive, ambitious player, knows that nothing is guaranteed in rock these days. Take Franz Ferdinand, which arrived just before the Killers. The Scottish band seemed to have the world at its feet, but its second album faded quickly despite its excellence. So why not follow your instincts and hope for the best?

If nothing else, "Sam's Town" fulfills two of Flowers' primary aims.

"For me, the things that were deliberate were to sing like an American, because I'm an American, and to sing about what I know about instead of fantasies," he said, sitting with bassist Mark Stoermer in a dressing room at the Hollywood studio where Kimmel's ABC show is shot.

"Fantasies are OK too, but I just felt like I wanted to make an album that people could relate to right now," he said. "I guess the American thing came from people who were talking about how English we sounded, and me actually singing with a fake accent.... Americans are getting a bad rap right now, and we felt that everywhere that we went, whether it was Germany or France or wherever, there's a look that you get when they hear you open your mouth....

"It's because of the war and everything that's going on. It's understandable, but to an extent it's not fair because we're just people that were born here, and we're not ashamed of it, and I wanted to sing about growing up here and things that I know about and humanize us in a way," he said. "People don't see that, they see us like monsters."

The Killers' new sound (and the hirsute look that goes with it) might open new horizons for the band, but it's also brought it its first critical pounding. Even though the balance of the reviews has been positive, three high-profile outlets -- Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times -- lit into the Killers, calling the band calculated and cliched, more Bon Jovi than U2.

"The funny thing about the negative press is that it's never about the record, it's always about the way the band looks or something that Brandon said," said Rob Stevenson, the A&R executive at Island Def Jam Music Group who signed the band. "I think it's really transparent.... I think it hurt them a lot, because those negative reviews were really personal."

"Everybody doesn't have to like it," said the tall, laconic Stoermer. "But it seems like we're on the verge of being one of those bigger bands, and some writers maybe want to be the gatekeeper and want to maybe help hold you back."

"Some indie kid on a blog, we expect that," added Flowers. "But those are ones that we expected to be smarter. Like Mark was saying, they're so used to people not being good that they don't want to believe it. They just want to believe it's a rip-off.

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