- What all the Fuss is about: The Killers.
"I wouldn't consider us a throwback, but I also wouldn't say we're reinventing the wheel of rock and roll," says Ronnie Vannucci, drummer for the Killers. "We're taking the best parts of the music we were influenced by, putting them in our songs, and making them our own."
The Killers are hardly the only contemporary band attempting to turn this trick. The latest revolution of the music-business cycle has spun out a slew of groups -- from Franz Ferdinand to the Rapture -- that draw their inspiration from '80s-era British acts whose style and substance were often indistinguishable from one another. It's no surprise, then, that the press in England got overheated about Hot Fuss, the Killers' debut platter -- and Stateside listeners soon followed suit. The band became one of the breakthrough acts of 2004, thanks to MTV's frequent airings of the video for "Somebody Told Me," which couldn't seem more like stuff the network aired two decades ago if it included cameos by Martha Quinn and Nina Blackwood.
Even so, the clip's flashing neon and dancing girls, as well as its desert backdrop, actually represent a personal connection for the Killers. The tunes may sound as if the players -- vocalist-keyboardist Brandon Flowers, guitarist David Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer, and Vannucci -- just stepped off the QE II, but the four-piece actually got its start in that most garishly American of cities, Las Vegas.
"There's a lot about the music that really represents Vegas," Vannucci notes. "It's dark and moody, like Vegas is. It's glamorous and superficial and fictional, like Vegas is. There are a lot of different comparisons."
As one of three Nevada natives in the combo (odd man out Keuning is an Iowan by birth), Vannucci speaks from experience. With the exception of a couple of years spent in Northern California when he was a kid, he's lived his entire life in the rapidly growing metropolis. His parents' jobs could hardly be more emblematic of his hometown. "My dad's a bartender, and my mom's a cocktail waitress," he says. "I was one of those service-industry kids. I had to be quiet in the mornings, because my mom got home at 4 a.m. As long as they knew where I was, I never got the hairy eyeball or the third degree for coming home late. A lot of times, they'd be later than I was."
Thanks to his father, whom he describes as "a pretty weird dude, although he's calmed down some," Vannucci was exposed to a wide range of tunes during his youth. He recalls hearing everything from the Beatles to Michael Franks, a jazz-oriented singer-songwriter whose irritatingly vapid musings wound up leaving no discernible mark on the Killers' material, to Vannucci's vast relief. "I blocked that out," he says. In contrast, he absorbed every note of The Head on the Door by the Cure (the first tape he bought), along with other platters of its ilk, which made him the perfect foil for Flowers, Keuning, and Stoermer, all of whom had similar tendencies.
After tightening up during garage sessions and clandestine visits to the music room at UNLV, where Vannucci studied percussion, the Killers hit the Vegas club scene, such as it is. The city overflows with venues, but because most of them specialize in spectacles designed to attract well-heeled out-of-towners, working-class locals with an appetite for homegrown rock have a tougher time satisfying their hunger.
For the Killers, the lack of a distinct Vegas sound worked to their advantage. "We're obviously not a Strip band or anything like that," Vannucci says. "There's nothing like us in Las Vegas, which is what made us stand out in the first place." At the same time, their approach was far from anarchic. Rather than railing against the sort of old-time entertainment associated with Vegas regulars like Wayne Newton, they modified it for their own use by donning natty jackets and adapting a showy stage persona. "We're definitely not rebelling against Wayne," Vannucci says half-jokingly. "We're embracing his greatness."
Overseas tastemakers reacted just as positively toward the Killers. In 2003, Lizard King, a British independent label, inked the band and transported it to England, prompting the requisite drooling. Somebody Told Me, an EP released on the label in March 2004, justified such salivation when its title track and another cut, "Mr. Brightside," both hit the top 10 in the United Kingdom. The Hot Fuss full-length, which arrived within months, quickly made a splash there -- and on this side of the Atlantic too.
Fuss's lack of pretense has a lot to do with its appeal. Whereas some groups on the Killers' wavelength feign innovation so strenuously that their borrowings lose any amusement value, these boys just want to have fun emulating the ditties that entranced them in their youth. "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" kicks off with helicopter effects and a hearty "Whooo!" before evolving into a head-bopping groover that's pure Robert Smith, whereas "On Top" declares its allegiance to Duran Duran in its first line: "Remember 'Rio' and get down." Like Simon Lebon before him, Flowers loves to strike lyrical poses -- and the sexier, the better. Take "Midnight Show," in which he interrupts his ecstatic throes to declare, "You got a real short skirt/I wanna look up, look up, look up, yeah, yeah!" The closing "Everything Will Be Alright," for its part, is a trippy, mid-tempo frolic that gives mindless pop a good name.
Some underground musicians heading toward the big time are consumed with guilt, but not the Killers, whose "Indie Rock 'n' Roll," which can be found only on the U.K. version of Hot Fuss, is a celebration, not an excuse for moping.
Still, Vannucci makes it clear that the Killers have standards. "We've had offers of being in video games and movies and beer ads and shit like that," he says, "and we could very well have taken those offers, so that we could blow up and have everybody in Middle America know who we are. But we don't want to do anything to compromise the integrity of the music or the band as a whole." Not that the Killers are unshakably opposed to such offers. "If someday we do a commercial or a video game, we want it to be right -- to be something that resembles us somehow or ties into what the Killers are all about," Vannucci says. "That'd be great, because we don't want to put the brakes on success, and we don't ever want to hide our music from anybody. We're really proud of it, and we want to show the world."