The Pressure Machine
The Killers’ Brandon Flowers uses his spiritual compass to navigate the extremes of a rock and roll lifestyle.
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.
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.