By Their Stars
Brandon Flowers’ faith has helped steer the course for his rock band The Killers. Choreographer Mark Morris confidently pushes the limits of modern dance, even in the face of criticism. And violinist Augustin Hadelich uses technical mastery to achieve human connection.
The Killers are a chart-topping rock band whose seven studio albums have all made the top 10 in the Billboard charts and number 1 in the UK charts. Their music spans popular genres, including indie rock, post-punk, and dance pop.
The group was formed in Las Vegas in 2001 by singer and keyboardist Brandon Flowers and guitarist Dave Keuning. They were signed to a British indie record label on the back of a five-song demo containing the first song they wrote together, “Mr. Brightside”. With bassist and rhythm guitarist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. rounding out their lineup, the band released their debut album Hot Fuss in 2004. It sold over seven million copies worldwide, spawned four hit singles, and earned five Grammy nominations.
The Killers reached the Billboard top 40 (and UK top 10) with the single “When You Were Young” from their followup Sam’s Town (2006) and with “Human” from Day & Age (2008). Their fifth LP, Wonderful Wonderful (2017), topped the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. They released their seventh album, Pressure Machine, in 2021.
Mark Morris is a world-renowned dancer and choreographer. He has created work for the San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and other major troupes and his work has been performed by companies around the globe.
Born in Seattle in 1956, Morris began dancing at age 8 and had choreographed his first dances by age 14. He toured with the Royal Chamber Ballet of Madrid while still a teenager before launching the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980. He has created over 150 works for the company. He served as director of dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels from 1988 to 1991 and won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1991. In 1990 he cofounded White Oak Dance Project with preeminent ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Morris has also directed and choreographed opera productions for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, and the Royal Opera, among others.
He published a memoir, Out Loud, in 2021.
Augustin Hadelich is a celebrated violinist, admired for his wide-ranging repertoire of traditional and contemporary classical works.
Born in 1984 in Cenina, Italy, to German parents, Hadelich began studying violin at age 5 and gained a reputation as a child prodigy. Injured in a fire at age 15, he was unable to play his instrument for over a year, but recovered to study at the Istituto Mascagni and the Juilliard School. He debuted at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2008 and the New York Philharmonic in 2010, and has since performed with the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, and most of the other major orchestras in the world.
Hadelich has recorded over 15 albums, playing work by a variety of composers. His recording of Henri Dutilleux’s Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. He teaches violin at Yale University.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how creativity is the very bedrock of what makes us human. And on this episode, “By Their Stars.” The Killers’ Brandon Flowers uses his spiritual compass to navigate the extremes of a rock and roll lifestyle.
Brandon Flowers: The choices that I have made and the road that I’ve chosen to follow, I think it’s probably benefited the band in a lot of ways.
Choreographer Mark Morris confidently pushes the limits of modern dance, even in the face of criticism.
Mark Morris: I remember some things as ammunition for future references that sound funny that are really, really insulting. It’s like, thought you forgot about that. I like that kind of surprise. That’s collecting material, that’s what I think.
AJC: Right, that’s the artistic process.
And violinist Augustin Hadelich’s devotion to technical mastery moves him closer to his true goal: human connection.
Augustin Hadelich: When I kind of experience the piece very intensely as I’m playing it, then I do find, I am able to get it across also. If I’m not feeling it, then they also don’t feel it.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
In the aftermath of the 2017 mass shootings in Las Vegas that left dozens dead and hundreds injured, Brandon Flowers turned to music. He and his band The Killers were one of several performers who played a benefit concert that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for victims and their families.
Brandon Flowers: One of the beautiful things, if you can find some beauty in a tragedy like that is the way that people come together and rally around the town. And we definitely saw a lot of that in Las Vegas after the shootings.
And so rock and roll became not only a way to deal with tragedy, but also a way to heal from it. The band understands the role their music can play in people’s lives and the responsibility they have to respect that power.
Ronnie Vannucci Jr.: The audience is paying attention and I think that’s one, that’s a diamond we always keep in our eye. We know that they’re listening and we wanna make sure there’s something that’s gonna be digestible, but also, you know, have good calories.
This sort of mindfulness is in the very DNA of The Killers, especially for Brandon Flowers who grew up Mormon and unabashedly uses his music to explore his spirituality.
Flowers was born in a suburb of Las Vegas but spent much of his youth in Nephi, a little town in Utah. As he grew older, he wanted to escape his small community. He also wanted to explore the transcendent power of rock and roll.
Flowers: I was 13, first time anybody put eyeliner on me, my sister had this friend that was a goth. And my brother and her were taking me to The Cure and it was, she just, she took me into the bathroom and did my eyes. And we went and saw The Cure. It was the “Wild Mood Swings” tour in Salt Lake City.
Flowers: And it was just so beautiful, and it really was profound for me. And I didn’t think, oh, I wanna do that. I just thought this, it moved me. And it’s, you know, it’s still moving to this day.
At 16, Flowers left Nephi to live with his aunt in Las Vegas. There, he met new sorts of people and discovered new ideas that weren’t part of his world in Utah.
Flowers: My first job was at a golf course and I met this eccentric character who made, you know short films and wrote songs. And I had never met anyone like that. It was just an enlightening experience. I had always been a big fan of music but it never crossed my mind and that I would, you know be a singer or be in a band.
But that seed took root and began to grow. In 2002, Flowers answered an ad in a local paper seeking musicians for a new band. That led to him connecting with a group of similarly aspirational musicians, including guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. The group named themselves The Killers, and for much of their early years ambition and determination were what kept them going.
Flowers: We all came from working class families. I think I had tried to apply the way that my dad worked to music. When you’re 20 years old and you’re starting a band, the modus operandi isn’t restraint and subtlety yet. You know what I mean? That’s the only way that we know how to do it is, you know, the best that we can and work hard and hit it.
Vannucci Jr.: We’d have really weird looks and stuff, ’cause we would play like we were playing at Wembley for 13 people in a sports bar.
AJC: Fake it till you make it right?
Vannucci Jr.: Well, we weren’t faking, we believed in it, but it was really hard to find, you know, the four piece band, it was really hard to find everybody that was crazy enough and ambitious enough to make the steps necessary to like, do what we do. It was practicing every day. It was like every day we practice and on Friday and Saturday we had a gig, it’s just rinse and repeat. It was just like that.
That discipline has been at the heart of a musical journey that’s been both accomplished and long. The band has amassed five Grammy nominations, seven of their albums have topped the charts in the UK, and over a decade and a half after its release their hit song “Mr. Brightside” has nearly half a billion views on YouTube.
The Killers road to longevity hasn’t been without its bumps but the band has always pushed on, finding a balance between determination and adaptation. Flowers believes his spirituality has been key in helping to maintain their long run.
Flowers: Everybody’s got their own beliefs and the choices that I have made and the road that I’ve chosen to follow, I think it’s probably benefited the band in a lot of ways.
As he’s grown older, Brandon Flowers has also started looking back on his adolescence in Nephi with renewed curiosity. The Killer’s latest album, 2021’s Pressure Machine, is an ode to his boyhood hometown.
Flowers: There’s been so much made about Las Vegas with The Killers. And so I hadn’t really reflected too much on the formative years of my life which were really in this rural town in Utah. And I sort of had realized how much I’ve been trying to escape it. And no matter how hard I ran, I still sort of had one cowboy boot on one foot and a yolk on my shirt. You know, I still had these country elements that were a part of me and these wholesome elements and I couldn’t escape it.
And while things are different from the early days for this group of musicians who came together thanks to a newspaper ad, there’s still a drive to find the joy, connection and revelation that music can bring.
Vannucci Jr.: We’ve had plenty of opportunities to let ourselves sort of change in certain ways. But we also have recognized that this is what got us here. This kind of work ethic, this code, modus operandi, you know, it isn’t broken. It’s what works for us. And that’s sort of where we were, you know, where we wanna keep it.
Flowers: Going in to make a record, you never know what’s gonna happen. When you’re really invested and going in there, you’re vulnerable, and that never, I don’t think that ever goes, I hope it never goes away.
Vulnerability might seem like a surprising desire for someone who’s thumping rock and roll has filled stadiums for years. But for Brandon Flowers, it’s been a crucial way to stay grounded and continue to explore a world of change, of joy, tragedy and mystery.
Though those who know him well call him forthright and straight talking, Mark Morris calls himself a mean curmudgeonly perfectionist.
Mark Morris: I’m not easy to work with, I’m a little bossy.
But if Morris expects a lot from others, he demands just as much if not more from himself.
Morris: I teach class, I run rehearsals, I’m on my feet, I’m happiest doing that instead of, I mean sitting, God knows sitting, oh my God.
And as a child, Morris was kept busy. Raised in 1960s Seattle by a family of amateur musicians, filmmakers, and dancers, his parents gave him a lot of freedom, and little Mark was rarely bored.
Morris: It’s not that I was feral, it’s not that I was unmanaged or undirected by my parents, by my family. I was, but they thought broadly. And so I was allowed if I was interested to do anything that was interesting to me
Dance delighted him most. And he began taking lessons when he was nine. It turned out that he had talent, so much so that by age 13 he was teaching flamenco at his dance school. And by age 15, he had choreographed his first ballet. But his academic education wasn’t as easy. In junior high he was bullied for being effeminate, especially in gym class. Young Mark fought back with a sharp tongue and explored this period in one of his first dances, 1982’s Jr. High.
Morris: I remember some things as ammunition for future references, that sound funny, but that are really, really insulting. It’s like, I thought you forgot about that. I like that kind of surprise. That’s collecting material, that’s what I call that.
AJC: Well, that’s the artistic process.
In high school, the teasing stopped. Morris had become bold and unyielding about who he was. But almost as soon as his social life got easier, his till-then mostly stable childhood began to derail. The family home burned down in 1971 when Mark was 14; two years later his father died of a heart attack at age 59. A beloved uncle died the following year and his grandfather the year after. Morris feared that he might be next. It was then that he gave up on God.
Morris: I don’t feel particularly courageous being an atheist. It’s just, it’s mostly, you know, it’s like, well to face that there’s nothing, it’s like, one of us is gonna be very surprised, you know, that idea, which I like that. I think that’s pretty interesting. It’s like, then you’re living in order to live.
And live he did. When he was 19, he moved to New York City and found his people in dance. By the time he was 24 he had created the Mark Morris Dance Group with close friends. Word got around that Morris was giving new life to modern dance, marked by an intuitive understanding of and a keen ear for melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Morris: I work with music, I listen to it. I think it might make a good dance. I’m obsessed with it. I listen to it. I read the score, I read about it. I look stuff up, I do a lot of research and then I leave it alone.
The Mark Morris Dance company quickly became the company to see. By 1988, they were invited to be the company in residence at Belgium’s National Opera House. Morris had found success, but his outspokenness often got him into trouble. He rejected the idea that dancers should always be young and thin, reversed gender roles in his ballets, and publicly criticized Belgian society. Yet while in Brussels he also produced masterpieces that were difficult even for his critics to dislike. L’allegro in 1988, Dido and Aeneas in 1989, The Hard Nut in 1991. And all the while his star was rising back home. After receiving a MacArthur Genius Award in 1991, new opportunities arose and pressure mounted. Morris demanded excellence, and he was hard on his dancers. And while his peers could handle it, newer members of his company felt bullied. They revolted. It was a breaking point. Morris understood his dancers need to challenge what didn’t work for them, which was often his behavior.
Morris: I’ve recognized the potential problems, the message was that I was mean and insulting, that they didn’t want to hear it anymore. I know that I can be a bully but I was honestly surprised to hear how much it upset them. I finally realized that it’s okay, even desirable to become less personally invested, to be someone who doesn’t talk as freely and openly all the time.
Morris’ relationship to his company isn’t the only thing that’s changed since he started it over 40 years ago. He’s become one of the most prolific choreographers of his generation, creating nearly 150 dances since 1980 that have earned him countless plaudits from his peers, critical acclaim, and 11 honorary doctorates. In 2001, he founded the Mark Morris Center for Dance in Brooklyn, a haven for dancers of all ages and abilities. Now 65, many of Morris’ dancers are less than half his age and he’s an elder in his field. And even though he’s changing how he applies the pressure, it doesn’t mean that he would change much about the past.
Morris: I don’t have a lot of regrets. I’ve done some stupid in my time. And you know, you go on. I’m not very nostalgic but I also, I’m interested. The history of things is interesting to me. And then, and I don’t believe that it ended when I was born or will end when I die at all. I believe things change.
And Mark Morris has changed modern dance by honoring and defying it. Now he hopes that generations after him will continue to do the same. And as they do, he won’t feel like a statue being torn down. Quite the opposite. He sees himself in like-minded company with his young dancers as they too dismantle old values to make space for a more creative, inclusive future.
Augustin Hadelich is among the most gifted violinists of his generation. He showed these gifts early, but it took time for him to get out of his own way.
Augustin Hadelich: I did tend to think I knew everything when I was a teenager.
AJC: But you did.
Hadelich: I was terribly arrogant.
AJC: We all did.
Today, he is constantly taking on the most difficult, the some times near unplayable, such as György Ligeti’s violin concerto. The Caprices of Niccolò Paganini. Hadelich has a special gift for making the near-impossible look easy, but he says this often hides a real conflict between him and his instrument.
Hadelich: On the violin, because you use your two hands so differently, the sound production is very complex and the bow is always creating phrases that you don’t want. You have to sort of work against your instrument often.
Working against his violin in pursuit of that most organic of musical instruments, the human voice.
Hadelich: It’s about communication, and one aspect that’s been always extremely important to me is the sounds that I produce and that it sounds like a voice, like a singing voice, that’s something I used to focus on very, very much. And I think it was more as an adult that I also thought more about the speaking aspect and sort of the sentence structure, but all of those components that can make it feel as though the music wasn’t written before and it’s not just being played but it’s actually happening in the moment.
Born to German parents, Augustin Hadelich grew up on a vineyard in Tuscany. His father, an amateur cellist, introduced Augustin to the violin and gave him his first lessons at age five, so he could join his two older brothers who played cello and piano. He gave his first concert at age seven and quickly became a local sensation. The sleepy countryside of rural Tuscany was not exactly a hotbed of classical music. Yet it liberated the young Augustin to search for his own sound, his own perspective.
Hadelich: There was a lot of time spent working by myself, and it had a good side and a bad side. I couldn’t really see often how other people were playing. I think it did lead to maybe a slightly more personal way of playing.
He went on to study at the Istituto Mascagni, a conservatory in Livorno, Italy, then onto the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin to study composition. Soon, America was calling.
Hadelich: When I was 20, I came to New York to study at Juilliard. And at that point I think there were certain aspects of my playing that were really developed and others that I kind of needed to be around other people to develop. Certain technical aspects that, I changed a lot how I use my bow for example, but also chamber music was something I suddenly discovered that I absolutely loved it. I loved playing with other people in that setting.
In America Hadelich quickly distinguished himself as a violinist who was both technically exceptional and emotionally profound, executing the most complex works with an effect of quality, among them those highly challenging Paganini Caprices so troublesome for many other violinists.
Hadelich: I always found it to be very beautiful and charming music. And maybe because I did grow up in Italy where Paganini is seen that way and often also played, I think, in a way that’s less focused on technical perfection. Some performances that I saw when I was growing up by Italian violinists were not necessarily the most technically perfect, but they somehow sung and danced and were really, really fun.
Audiences and critics alike were and continue to be spellbound by this extraordinary Italian-raised, German-bred, and now American musician. Today, Augustin Hadelich calls New York City home. There, he continues to be one of the most in-demand soloists and recitalists around. Isolated no more, he is now deeply connected with his peers.
Hadelich: You do have to listen so much to everything else. And I find that’s probably become one of the favorite things about my work is that I almost always play with other people. That it’s almost always a collaboration, there’s this social aspect. So in a way my life now is the opposite of how I grew up because I’m always with other musicians, somehow making music.
And though he is now far from his boyhood home, Hadelich doesn’t feel unmoored. Instead, he has found a new site of belonging.
Hadelich: Sometimes I step on stage now and I feel like this is home. You know, this is kind of feels like, I feel like I’m where I’m happiest. And I actually love that feeling.
And his constant motivation, the reason for his pursuit of virtuosity and excellence was to achieve his real goal: connection.
Hadelich: And I try to feel the emotion that I’m trying to communicate to the audience. I try to feel that myself in the moment which isn’t always easy, or sometimes it’s not even possible. But when that does happen, when I kind of experience the piece very intensely as I’m playing it, then I do find I am able to get it across also, ’cause I think if I’m not feeling it, then they also don’t feel it even if I play all the right notes.