By Philip Chevalier. Additional contributions by Philip Runco.
No matter where you stand on Brandon Flowers the singer, the songwriter, the artist, his success as frontman of The Killers is unimpeachable.
There are the four studio albums – plus two compilations – that between 2004 and 2013 sold nearly 21 million copies. There are the international tours with draws that have rivaled any of the past two decades’ biggest acts – Oasis, The White Stripes, Radiohead, take your pick. There are the laudatory public statements of rock and roll royalty like Bono and Elton John. And it’s not just that The Killers ascended to such heights – it’s that the band got there so quickly and never left.
Early on, such accomplishments understandably did little to preserve any healthy level of doubt in Brandon Flowers’ mind about whether or not Brandon Flowers was an historic musical icon. Logically, high profile hiccups followed, like some very public misfires on the interview circuit and one merciless lamb-in-a-slaughterhouse-style conversation about religion with Richard Dawkins. Most people with the same multi-platinum wind in their sails might have chalked all of this up to the entertaining pangs of being squarely under an unrelenting spotlight. All famous people fuck up and say stupid shit – it’s literally most of what gets written about on the internet.
But Flowers seems to have been gut-checked by his missteps as a younger man. Speaking with me on Monday, his attitude felt almost soulfully remorseful and often markedly downtrodden. Perhaps this had something to do with the false start he had just experienced on his current tour in support The Desired Effect, his recently released second solo record. “We haven’t had a chance to spread our wings yet,” Flowers bemoaned. “The first gig got rained out and we only got to play for twenty-five minutes.”
Something had apparently gotten to him, and without much if any provocation, he began to reveal himself as someone with a substantial amount of anxiety about his past. When asked about a recent interview in which he listed Father John Misty as a current favorite, Flowers answered with the reticence of a man who’s been burned more than a few times in the name of click bait. “I’m not trying to get into it with Father John Misty, man,” he said in way that resounded not of defensiveness but of an honest reluctance for his words to be used against him in a headline – in a way that might make him sound anything less than totally excited about the music Joshua Tillman is making these days.
Spanning across the continental US with spots in Canada and Mexico, Flowers’ tour is almost surely going to bring him out of the rain to conditions more suited to his past experiences. After all, even with no Killers radio hits underway, his star hasn’t fallen all that far. It’s worth noting that his DC stop is at the Echostage, a venue that has a capacity of 2,000 people – it’s just not at the Patriot Center. In other words, Brandon Flowers is still a rock star; he’s just not one of the world’s very biggest at this particular moment.
“We played at this new festival called Wayhome in Ontario yesterday. We were on toward the end of daylight, and I’m not accustomed to that,” he recounted. “I felt a little more exposed than usual.”
“I’m spoiled being in the Killers,” Flowers continued. “This is probably a good learning experience for me.”
Brandon Flowers plays DC’s Echostage tonight and NYC’s Terminal 5 next Tuesday. The Desired Effect is out now on Island Records.
What do these solo albums mean to you? In what ways do they mean more or less than a Killer’s album?
I couldn’t say they mean more or less to me than a Killers album. I put everything I got into what’s ahead of me – into whatever the next project, I guess. I made a real conscious effort on this record to, you know, do my best. On the first record, I left off songs like “Runaways”, and it may have been a blessing because it was a good addition to the Killers catalog. But for the most part, I just try to put my best foot forward.
The Killers obviously has had a lot of hits. It’s kind of crazy to have a best-of album out when you’re 31. Do you still feel pressure, internally or externally, to still produce hits?
It’s tough. I’m definitely guilty of chasing that rabbit down that hole. You just can’t make it happen. A lot of people are gonna connect with it, or a certain demographic is gonna connect with it, you just never know.
What I have found, though, which I need to follow more, is that the songs that I love and mean more to me seem to translate to other people, and I feel more comfortable performing them. As I get older, I’m gonna try and go with that more than go for the radio.
So when you’ve had radio success, it’s been with songs you most personally related to.
I guess I was really lucky, too, because when those two worlds coincide, it’s beautiful. That’s the holy grail. When you write something like “Read My Mind” or something like that, a song that really resonates with people and that I love, and I love to sing it. I want more of that.
Hot Fuss came out over a decade ago. Do the last eleven years feel like a blur, or does it feel like you were entirely different person – like it was a lifetime ago?
I’m thankful for it. It’s a curse and blessing. When we started twelve years ago, I thought I knew what the trajectory of the band was. An ideal situation was U2 or Depeche Mode or these other bands that I looked up to: You go and you grow and you develop your sound and you evolve, and then you make Violator or Joshua Tree or whatever it is. But we came out with this huge record, and I wasn’t prepared to do that many interviews; I wasn’t prepared to play for that many people.
Was there a paradigm shift or more of a gradual change?
It was pretty gradual. I’m just now starting to really feel like I belong up on stage and I feel more confident in my singing. I guess I’m starting to have more of an idea of what I want to be and who I am and what I’m becoming. When I was twenty-one, I just had no idea.
Looking back, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? It’s hard for anyone to look back on your twenty-one year-old self and feel like you made all the right decisions.
I’m still paying the price for my interviews. Twelve years later, people’s perceptions of me are still pretty heavily based on some of the stupid shit I said when I was twenty-two or whatever. That’s frustrating.
I was just insecure and puffing my chest, and like I said, I literally wasn’t ready to be interviewed or ready for what the internet had to offer. I didn’t realize it was gonna be spread around the whole Earth. You know, that’s something I regret, but I’m doing my best to climb back for it. It wasn’t so bad.
Is there anything in particular that caused you to be misunderstood?
No, I just wasn’t open-minded enough yet. I’m constantly getting blown away when I come across a band that I didn’t know about, new or old, or a song I’d never heard of that’s just magnificent. I’m just constantly realizing how many great and talented people there are, and it makes me humble. I wasn’t very humble in the beginning.
For The Desired Effect, you collaborated with Ariel Rechtshaid, a producer who has worked with the kind of talented people you might be talking about. Was there anything you heard that made you want to work with him?
Yeah, my buddy Benjy had showed me Cass McCombs and some of that stuff that Ariel had worked on before. Then we were on tour with Vampire Weekend right when the record [Modern Vampires of the City] it did with Ariel was coming out. I heard those songs, and then I heard a couple of the [Dev] Hynes singles, and it seemed this guy really had his finger on something. It was a no-brainer to give him a call.
I’d read that you came to Ariel with pretty polished songs. What was the process like of getting him to put his stamp on it?
It was difficult for him because he’s use to being there and being around people that don’t make as finished demos as I do. Part of his thing is putting his stamp on it, I guess, and his identity. He has to find a seed or something that he likes in a song, and then he’s gonna have to take it and rework it and reshape it. So, I think it was a challenge for him, for sure.
Do you find yourself to be pretty malleable?
I had to be. I know that if I was gonna go with this guy, and see what he brought to the table, I’d have to be pretty open-minded and flexible. And there were times that I felt I had to reel it back a little bit. That’s what makes it a collaboration. I’m really happy with how it turned out. I think that “Lonely Town” is one of best sounding things I’ve ever made. There’s some pretty good stuff on there.
This is your first record to include a lyric sheet. Is that of any significance to you, personally?
I’m getting more comfortable with the writing, and I guess I’m more open to letting people see it. It’s more cohesive. It makes a lot of sense for the first time. And I love telling stories, and I hate when people get the words wrong, so it all came together.
You mentioned in a recent interview that Father John Misty was currently a favorite artist of yours. Joshua Tillman is someone who often pokes fun at the rock star persona, and, at least during certain points of your career, that’s seemed like something you were very invested in. How do you reconcile that?
That’s a tough one to answer. You should ask Morrissey about his performing on stage. He acts like it’s not performing; that’s just real life. He’ll tell you that’s real life. [Laughs] And so it’s a complete contradiction to what you say Josh is saying.
I’ve seen him live a couple times, and he does sort of stick it to that part of the rock world. And I don’t know, when they asked me what records I like, and I like that record. I’m not necessarily crazy about everything about him. I think his melodies are wonderful, and what he deliver is wonderful. There a lot of smart people, a lot of intellectual people, but they aren’t always able to be clever and have that translate to music. It’s tough.