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The Killers

When he was young

The early years of Brandon Flowers, The Killers’ enigmatic frontman

Joshua Longobardy

From the convex windows on the ninth and top story of Sam's Town, you can see the place where he used to live. Right on the opposite side of Boulder Highway, a restless street with its bus stops running over, its mothers walking with children in one hand and grocery bags in the other, its men meandering apparition-like across the busy street. So close that he, just a teenager 16, 17, 18 years old and without a car back then, in the late '90s, could visit the hotel and gambling hall at a whim.

Just as three handsome little boys are doing today, no older than 10 and left to their own devices, approaching the dusty casino with the miraculous joy of discovering one's own city.

It's a large multiplex, Sam's Town is, built six miles east of the Strip in the fashion of old western saloons. Inside there are slot lights and slot sounds and the gamers who sit and drink and smoke next to them, and there is a $7.99 buffet and a bowling alley, and outside there is an RV park. Las Vegas tycoon Sam Boyd erected it in 1979, back when a new wave of popular music that ignited in London was about to crash over America, and two years before Brandon Flowers was born in the southeast end of the Las Vegas Valley.



***


After graduating from Chaparral High School without grief or glory, and no longer with any pretensions of becoming a professional golf player, an aspiration to which he had dedicated himself during his two years at Chaparral, Flowers left that home near Sam's Town and moved to Henderson, to live with his sister, his only immediate family member residing in the Las Vegas Valley. It was the region in which most of Flowers' extended clan abounded, and the place he considered home.

The new millennium had dawned and no particular light was shining on Flowers. "He was just a typical Vegas kid," says Travis Price, a longtime acquaintance who booked The Killers' gig at Celebrity last summer, to foreshadow the release of the band's sophomore album, anticipated throughout the world. "When I first met him, I was underwhelmed."

Just a small guy—comely, taciturn, and a bit coy—Flowers joined after high school the faceless current that makes this city rush on, taking up various jobs: one as a restaurant runner on the Strip, another as a bellman at the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino.

"He was just another young kid," says Kelly Edwards, hotel director at the Gold Coast. "If I remember anything in specific, it was that he was always very pleasant—pleasant to me, to his co-workers, to the customers. Very nice kid. Oh, and his hair. He had his mop-top coming over his ears like this," Edwards says, cuffing his own, "and my boss used to get on me, saying he needed to cut his hair, and I would tell him: ‘What am I to do? He thinks he's a rock star!'"

But he wasn't. By his own admission to friends, he harbored feelings of detachment—Should I just get along with myself/I never did get along with everybody else—outcast on account of his particular interests, like golf and new wave music. He attracted not just girly attention but also the propositions of several visiting women at his jobs in hotels, but friends say he was too diffident to be a big-game hunter, even in this wide-open, bountiful region. "No, no, no, no, no—he was by no means the ladies' man," says Corlene Byrd, a local songwriter who was friends with The Killers from the start and has had vocal and recording credits on each of their two platinum albums. "A lot of my friends thought he was cute, but they were too intimidated to approach him. When you're on the receiving end of that, you think there's something wrong with you."

And further: "Brandon has friends, but he, the band, myself—we weren't the most social bunch."

Flowers, at The Killers' birth, was possessed not just by music, but by very certain artists, most of whom excelled in the '80s, and many of whom employed the elements of new wave and Britpop to achieve their success: The Smiths, David Bowie, The Cure—all with their glam rock, synth-pop and effeminate romance.

And thus it had been Flowers' good fortune that he did not enter the local music scene five years earlier than he did, in 2002; his sound would not have been viable. Nirvana's grunge had shattered the synth and glam of the '80s, and the superfluous aggression of Korn and Limp Bizkit buried the new wave. Las Vegas' own music scene followed suit.

"Whatever's popular—whatever's on the radio—is what's being played in the local scene," says Nicole Sligar, a Las Vegas native who promotes local musicians under her company Shoestring Promotions. "When I heard The Killers in 2002, they were so different than everybody else, there was nobody like them. My problem was that I didn't know what to do with them."

But by that time nostalgia for the '80s had begun to fertilize throughout the country, and Flowers picked up the fragments of the decade in which he was born and raised, and with his three bandmates he pieced together what would become The Killers' definitive sound.

Which, in essence, got them nowhere in Las Vegas, says Sligar.

"They wore eyeliner, had a soft, kind of poppy sound, and a lot of older guys I knew didn't want to hear that kind of stuff," says Charles Earland, a friend of Flowers and one of The Killers' original fans, now a singer himself. "I remember hanging out with my buddies at bars and clubs, trying to get them to go see The Killers. They'd resist, they'd rather stay at the bar or club, or they'd want to listen to something a little more mature, I guess. Now, of course, they all have The Killers downloaded in their iPods, but back then I had to drag them along."

Edwards recalls with a chuckle: "He used to sing around here, and he'd tell everyone about his band. I used to give him a hard time. He would ask me if I wanted to go see their show at whatever little bar around town they were playing at, and I'd tell him, ‘I'm not gonna watch a band that wears makeup! C'mon!' We used to have a good time."

A thriving local music scene is not easy to cultivate in this town, says Ozzie Sanchez, a local promoter. "It's an over-21 town," he says. "The problem has always been, how do we get the kids to come out?"

For Flowers that absence of support would keep burning the fire in his belly to make it out of the Vegas scene.

Sanchez had heard about Flowers and his passion through Sanchez's brother, who worked with Flowers at Josef's Brasserie in the Desert Passage. Sanchez booked them a slot at the Ritual, a weekly fusion party at Tinoco's Bistro on Jones Boulevard and Harmon Avenue, and he invited CityLife music journalist Mike Prevatt to attend.

"I walked in, and I was standing there, and a young guy walks up to me," says Prevatt, now arts and entertainment editor at CityLife. "He's about my height, a little nervous, and he says, ‘Hi, my name is Brandon Flowers, and I hope you watch my band because I think we're really good.'

"The next time I saw them was at Coachella [in 2004], and they were about to become the world's biggest band."



***


The genesis of Flowers' tale is now common knowledge—the day he walked through the Hard Rock in 2001, scored some Oasis tickets, saw the Britpop band play "Don't Look Back in Anger," with its massive sound, something altogether more lurid and beautiful than the music Flowers had made with his first band, Blush Response, a keyboard group that split with Flowers because Flowers loved Las Vegas and did not believe in going to LA like the others. And the way he then began stopping people in their cars down Maryland Parkway and asking if they played the same kind of music as the bands on their bumper stickers, desperate and determined to start an earthshaking band—so desperate, in fact, that he would pick up the Las Vegas Weekly and find a guitar player named Dave Keuning seeking musicians, "for all original band. Influences: Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, Bowie, Radiohead." And how when he showed up at Keuning's apartment, shy, quiet but above all hungry to make great rock 'n' roll music, as Oasis did in his mind, he was greeted with enthusiasm, because Flowers was the first sane person to answer Keuning's long-running ad.

"I lived with Dave in these apartments behind the Strip, next to Imperial Palace," says Dell Star, the original bass player for The Killers, who continues to play in the local scene without bitterness. "Brandon came over. He was a cool kid, young, but a really good writer for his age."

They started making music. The first song was "Mr. Brightside."

"Those first demos were awful," says Travis Price. "But I could tell right away that Brandon had a good voice, and he was a very good songwriter."

Over the next year, Flowers, 21 years old, began to write songs that were flat-out sexy, racing with boyish charm and innuendo. "He was so young back then, in age and in innocence," says Earland, who worked with Flowers at Josef's Brasserie during that time. "It was like he had never been exposed to Las Vegas. I found out later that he'd lived in some place like Utah."

That's right. When Brandon was 9, his family left their home near Horizon Ridge and College Drives for Nephi, Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints multiplied and was fruitful and where Brandon was never kissed; and he didn't return here until he was 16, when he convinced his parents I can make it/As long as somebody takes me home, and they permitted that he move in with his aunt across the street from Sam's Town.

As any artist here knows, Las Vegas is an unexcavated mine of raw material, with its man-made stimulation in juxtaposition to God-given splendor—the heartstopping Mojave sunrises and the lights of the Strip at night—Well have you ever seen the lights/Have you ever seen the lights?

There are tragic little girls raised under escort billboards waiting on some beautiful boy to, to save you from your old ways; there are countless Uncle Jonnys walking down Boulder Highway. There are the women who cheat and the Mr. Brightsides who catch them and can do nothing about it, and there are characters like the musician and professional poker man Michael Valentine to draw from.

"Ronnie [Vannucci, The Killers' drummer] told Brandon about Michael Valentine," says Valentine, whose real name is Rod Pardey. "He brought him to meet me at Cappozolli's on Maryland Parkway. Brandon walks in and he's 20 years old or so—real young, real shy. We hit it off right away because we both like Morrissey in the same kind of way. You know, later, I'd be at a club and break out a dance move from a Morrissey video, and Brandon would be the only one who caught it. We liked Morrissey like that. Which is rare—very rare in this town.

"The difference between us is—and I think this is very telling of Brandon and what he's trying to do now with his band—he only likes Morrissey's hits. He has told several of my friends: ‘Just give me the greatest-hits album.'"

Flowers' first hit would come in 2004, with "Somebody Told Me," a song dug up from Vegas' club scene.

"Watching Brandon write songs is insane," Byrd says. She says that when Flowers puts on a CD he's not just listening to the music: He's going to school. He dissects the components that make the song work and applies them to the melodies stowed in his head. "He'll take something that moves him in a Morrissey song and use it in his own song, so that it might move somebody the way Morrissey moved him," Byrd says.

In fact, Flowers' praise is his songwriting. Sonorous, catchy and a bit enigmatic, his lyrics are what Byrd says had attracted her to Flowers and his band, and they have caught the ears of songwriters like Bono, Elton John and Chris Martin just the same.

And yet, back then, during those years when Creed, Nickelback and Linkin Park reigned supreme on the pop charts, and the predictable hipsters in Las Vegas' music scene followed suit—2001, 2002, 2003—The Killers, in Flowers' eyes, couldn't shine.

Flowers had become disconcerted with the local scene, what he considered torpid crowds and a nonresponsive press. According to remarks he would later make, while The Killers were burning down the skyline on a hurricane of success, he had felt slighted back home: "We got no love in Las Vegas," he said.

The truth is, however, that his band had a significant following, solid and faithful, and they received more press exposure than most bands in this city's sterile music scene. The Killers had believers, like Travis Price, Ozzie Sanchez and Ryan Pardey (Michael Valentine's brother), who booked them shows at all the local venues, the Bostons and Sashas and Tramps and Polopos and Junkyards and Cooler Lounges and Crown & Anchors and Café Romas. The uncooperative sound systems and irascible bar owners they encountered were no different from what other amateur bands had to deal with.

And they were indeed amateur back then. Especially Flowers, who by most accounts was out of tune more often than not, always self-conscious onstage and awkward in all those matters pertaining to a rock star. Limitations that would persist even into the band's success.

The Killers were nonetheless interviewed in the Las Vegas Weekly in 2002, less than a year after they formed, and given a write-up by Billboard magazine, and Mike Prevatt of CityLife even betrayed his publication's rules and printed a review of the band's original demo, calling "Mr. Brightside" "one of the best local tracks in a long time."

Four years later, time would show that Las Vegas never could have in actuality given The Killers "love" commensurate to Flowers' conception of the band, for he believed it to be not merely the best in Las Vegas or even all of America, but the best of his entire generation.

Flowers' cousin, Craig Barlow, 10 years his senior and a golfer on the PGA tour, encountered the same challenge growing up in Henderson. For golf, the Las Vegas Valley had been a barren landscape, both in a literal and figurative sense. Barlow nevertheless molded himself out of the region's dirt into a professional golfer; and in large part, he and his stellar coevals (and the fact that Las Vegas has continued to expand as a world-class destination) have turned the Valley into a place lush for cultivating first-rate golfers. From up close and afar, Flowers watched.

"Everything today sucks," Flowers told his friends in Las Vegas, lamenting the way performers like Britney Spears, John Mayer and No Doubt, whom he found uninspiring, had displaced Bowie's pyramidal work, U2's huge uplifting efforts, the type of songs that shine on in the hearts of man. And so, finding not only his place but also his time intolerable, he evolved. A young man more intelligent than some and more sensitive than most, he molded himself into a musician despite having no particular vocation for either singing or playing the piano, and created the type of songs that he had been yearning to hear. He made Hot Fuss, and it pleased him; and then he made Sam's Town and told MTV News:

"This album is one of the best albums in the past 20 years. There's nothing that touches this album."

"Brandon was quiet—really quiet—when he first came to Dave's apartment," Dell Star says. "It seemed like he was always thinking. Then we started writing songs. Then we said, ‘We're gonna be the band that takes over the world.'"

Byrd says she and Brandon had met and bonded on account of their affinities in music, and because it was a treasurable thing in this town for them to be able to talk about artists like Duran Duran, The Cure and Depeche Mode.

"We all hung out and we talked music and we weren't interested in being social," she says. "Rather, we were working."

Byrd, who playfully says she was The Killers' first groupie, served as the band's historian, "only missing like three of their 100 shows out here," and capturing most of them on video.

"After a show we used to go back and analyze those videos for everything: sound, stage performance, image—right down to our clothes," says Star, who now plays bass for a promising local band called Lips Like Morphine. "We had a lot of fun back then, but our fun was getting something accomplished."

Flowers, the last of six children born to industrious, middle-class parents, kept himself too busy to succumb to the local scene's notorious quagmire, which Star says has swallowed several bands whole.

"One thing Brandon had going for him was that he wasn't worried about other musicians in town," says Rod Pardey. "He was always in a fight with Bowie, Bono, Morrissey—which were the ones he felt he was competing with."

Star explains it this way: "With the Strip so close to us—Rome, Paris, the pyramid and all that—we could dream big. Real big."


As everyone knows, The Killers—Las Vegas locals Dave Keuning (guitar), Ronnie Vannucci (drums) and Mark Stoermer (bass)—had to leave Southern Nevada to realize those dreams: This town was meant for passing through/But it ain't nothing new.



***


Hot Fuss sold 5 million copies, garnered critical acclaim, made The Killers one of the world's hottest bands—in all certainty the brightest to ever emerge from Las Vegas—and elevated Brandon Flowers to the position he had envisioned himself obtaining but never had the disposition for: that of a rock star.

It was a British album, for sure. He sung about promenades in the rain with a British accent, and it is very easy to see why: The British giants of the '80s were his masters. And when he did sing about Las Vegas, the invigorating experience of the clubs, he said: Heaven ain't close in a place like this.

But then, with the second album, there was reinvention, a new embrace of his native country, his home town. Just like Las Vegas' mutable identity he changed both face and attitude, indicative to locals by the album's title: Sam's Town. He threw on the frontier semblance of the Wild West, sang tunes fit for driving down I-15 into the Las Vegas Valley, welcomed listeners to the new album as if they had come to listen to The Killers at the hotel Flowers grew up next to, singing, We hope you enjoy your stay/Outside the sun is shining, it seems like heaven ain't far away, depicting in "Bling" what he has come to know as a Las Vegas resident, The sun is beating down my neck ... I can feel my vision slip in and out of focus/Now I've got the blowing wind against my face ... Quite strange/I get my glory from the desert rain.

And furthermore, like the Mirage in 1989, Oscar Goodman all the time and Vegas' centennial cake, Sam's Town was over the top with ambition. Flowers and his gang tried to accomplish something grand, took a gamble, and failed, in splendid fashion. The critics pounced. Rolling Stone and The New York Times criticized Flowers for his weaknesses as a vocalist and chided the band for its hasty ambition, and even the Las Vegas Weekly's Spencer Patterson wrote this without pity:

"So, ultimately, what is Sam's Town, besides a Vegas insider reference sure to draw dozens of young adult rubberneckers to a nondescript Boulder Strip casino? Not the collection of salient parts Hot Fuss was before it, nor the sweeping wall-to-wall statement Killers devotees have prayed for since."

The public followed, attacking The Killers on message boards and blogs. They bought only half the number of albums the first record sold. And the surprise show at the Celebrity right before the album came out did not incite the mayhem promoter Travis Price had hoped for. He says the crowd was typical of this city, smug and judgmental. And I'm sick of all my judges/So scared of what they find. "From the sound guys to the kids in the local scene, there's a lot of hometown jealousy," Price says. "Especially with The Killers."

With the new album Flowers quit the eyeliner, grew a mustache and some facial hair, wore sunglasses during interviews and took on an air of masculinity as counterpoint to his previous boyish, metrosexual disposition.

It's almost as if Flowers was trying to hide the natural timidity and awkwardness that has proved to be insurmountable to him thus far, and his non-rock star temperament prior to forming the band.

"[In 2003] a lot of people started talking about how big of rock stars The Killers were going to be, but I saw them play the Huntridge and I was not convinced," says Pardey. "Being out of tune was still a problem for Brandon, and he didn't have any stage presence. If you notice today, during concerts, and interviews, and even on the new album, those are still problems."

Sometimes I'm nervous when I talk and shake a little/Sometimes I hate this line I walk ...

"Brandon always used to be quiet, humble, hard-working and in love with what he did. I was proud of him then, and I'm proud of him now," Barlow says. "When I see him now I don't see a rock star; I see my cousin."

"Brandon has never had street credentials," says Pardey. "The spirit of the '80s was ‘Screw the record companies, screw the game'—that was Morrissey's way. Brandon's doesn't have that.

"But we're living in a different time now. We're living in an age with American Idol and Justin Timberlake. There's no pressure from the streets anymore."

Cultivated in Las Vegas, and then evolved, Flowers now possesses the ability to change his environment.

"Are you kidding me?" Sligar says. "Every demo I hear now sounds like The Killers. Without The Killers there would be no Panic! At the Disco. But people are finally getting signed here now, and it's so good to see that."

Charles Earland, who is now pursuing his own musical dreams, singing in Lips Like Morphine with Dell Star, says:

"Brandon blew up. It's like, one day I was working with him at the restaurant, and the next day he's a platinum artist. He gives us hope—inspiration—motivation—you know, that we can do it too."



***


The three handsome boys who walked into Sam's Town have now re-emerged, and they are approaching Boulder Highway, and you can see them from the place Brandon Flowers used to live. The Sunrise Mountains are pretty in the backdrop.

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