“I Was a Believer”: An Interview with the Killers

The Killers

With some gigantic crossover singles, one of the most under appreciated albums of the decade, and the group’s brand new holiday song getting released not too long ago, it seems somewhat surprising that when the Killers decided to film their adrenaline-fueled live show at the Royal Albert Hall, the stage they got placed on … was very, very small.

Yet perhaps this was a deliberate choice: as evidenced by the tiny set that music video director Mark Romanek gave the Red Hot Chili Peppers during the filming of their clip for “Can’t Stop”, sometimes a small stage is just what a stadium-rocking band needs to find a new kind of energy. As the DVD for Live from the Royal Albert Hall proves, this small setting showed just how explosive this Las Vegas quartet can be regardless of stage size, rocking out familiar Guitar Hero anthems (“When You Were Young”) and fan favorites (“Read My Mind”) with equal ferocity to the delight of thousands upon thousands of screaming fans.

In talking to the Killers guitarist/songwriter Dave Keuning, we discover that such a frenzy is actually a very deliberately crafted sort of move, as the group’s set-list is carefully constructed to garner such a reaction. During our talk, Keuning talks about the group’s humble origins (which often get glossed over), the joys in upsetting people’s expectations, and how his biggest regret is that the group didn’t release another debut album …

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So I just finished watching the Royal Albert Hall DVD awhile ago, and I was rather impressed with the response you guys were able to generate from the audience. During most live concert programs, the audience frequently sings along to choruses of the big hits, but there, they were echoing back every word verbatim. What is you general response to something like that? Is it ever intimidating to go out there and perform for such a rabid following?

Yeah, I mean it never gets old when there are audiences like that. I mean that’s the perfect audience: singing along to every word, knowing the songs, appreciating the non-hit songs, stuff like that. It was a good setting for it, and hopefully that came across in the DVD.

I think some of that may have had to do with the stage as well, which seemed very small and tight-knit for what is normally seen at the RAH.

Yeah, it is smaller! We had played there once before and then when we came back for the DVD we had kind of [forgotten] how small it was. Now that we’ve [done] that size, if we’re doing this again, I think we might be on a bigger stage.

One of the things that actually surprised me about the Royal Albert performance was the way in which you designed the set list, opening with “Human” and “Somebody Told Me” right off the bat, almost as a way to satiate those who had come in solely for “the hits” just so that you could then dive into the back catalog a bit more. What’s usually the thought process behind designing a set-list like that?

Well, I don’t know. Those are definitely two of our biggest hits, but, fortunately, we hang on to some others and make ’em wait for that. We usually have “Mr. Brightside” towards the end of the set, “All The Things I’ve Done” and “When You Were Young” is usually our final song. So there is stuff at the back as well. People have been waiting — some of them for hours and hours — and when we finally play that first song, we want it to be a good one and reward them a little bit. It just puts the crowd instantly into a frenzy, and I think it’s pretty fun for us too to finally give them what they want a little bit.

One of the nice moments prior to breaking out “Mr. Brightside” during that performance was when Brandon just grabbed the mic and reiterated the story of how you guys met through an ad that you had posted, eventually spawning what the Killers have become today. In looking back, are you at all surprised at how far you’ve come since then, and has your rise to fame affected your friendship with Brandon at all?

[The rise] does surprise me sometimes, but that’s what we set out to do, and I didn’t know if it would happen, but that is what we tried to do. I thought [that] when we had songs like “Mr. Brightside” and — a few months later — other ones that stuck like “Somebody Told Me” and “On Top”, I thought we had pretty good material. If it ever saw the light of day, I thought it might do good if still in town. I was a believer.

From the beginning.

Yeah — I was a believer, and that’s how our friendship started, you know? Brandon and I were on the same page and we even talked about it. I said “You want to be as big as we can get, right?” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah!” I had to get that out of the way because there are musicians — plenty of them that I’ve met — who would laugh at that idea or that goal, like “Oh, you think you’re gonna be all big some day?” or “Why even try?” That’s our goal, and there’s nothing wrong with [not wanting] to be big and just playing around town — that’s different. We just wanted to take it as far as we can get, wherever that would be.

There still seem to be a lot of bands that try to build up credibility first before really going into any commercial waters these days, almost as if that’s a prerequisite for success, forming those friendships with other bands in the area …

We did! We did that. We played for two years. Small bars in Vegas. We played around, we paid our dues. We played around town, all the sort of drinking holes, we toured quite a bit of England and small places before Hot Fuss came out — that was, of course, after we got a record deal. So we did do that — the building of the cred thing — a lot of people just don’t know about it.

It’s not as advertised as much.

No, no it’s not.

I remember that in an interview prior to the release of Sam’s Town, Brandon discussed a new song called “Read My Mind”, which he summed up as his favorite thing that the band had ever done together (and I’m somewhat inclined to agree myself). For you personally, is there a favorite Killers song that you have?

I have a few, and most of them are the same as everybody else’s. I would think that mine is “When You Were Young”, and that’s kind of the overall favorite of all four Killers.

I thought it was interesting that it was used on the original Rock Band game as well, but that was a smaller move in the larger frame of things: it appears that you guys have deliberately been trying to mix things up over the course of your career. I think a lot of people wanted to write you off as glammed-up synth-rock revivalists from the onset, but you’ve diversified by doing Dire Straits covers, a Joy Division song for the Control soundtrack, and now you’ve even contributed a song to the New Moon disc as well. And to top it all off, you have Lady Gaga going to a Killers concert in one of her songs [“Boys Boys Boys”]. Is there a deliberate direction that you seem to be wanting to take the Killers in, or are you …

I don’t think there’s a deliberate direction, but I do think we enjoy surprising people because everybody thinks they got us figured out. “Oh they did this!” and then we do Sam’s Town. Then they go “Oh they did that!” and then we do Day & Age. Everybody thinks they’ve got us figured out, but we have a lot of influences, all four of us. We have a lot of favorite bands. Brandon & I never said, “Hey, we’re gonna sound like this…” — we just started playing with each other and those are the songs that came out, and I didn’t even know what we were gonna sound like when we got together. I think we sound like ourselves, but I think “ourselves” have a lot of different tastes, and I think with one song at a time, we’re showing what we can do. Whenever people try and predict us, they’re gonna be disappointed.

Given how you’re still wrapped up in supporting Day & Age, what’s next for the Killers?

Well, we’re gonna be touring until the end of February 2010, then we have this DVD coming out which is kind of nice — it’s our first DVD. Then we’ll probably take a break — we put out the one song for the Twilight soundtrack, but the Killers are probably going to take a little bit of a break before getting back to writing.

Alright, last question: now that you’ve been a fully-formed band for almost a decade, looking back, what has been your biggest regret, and — conversely — what is your proudest accomplishment?

[Dave takes a deep breath] OK. I don’t know … I don’t have many regrets, although one thing I daydream about sometimes is that I feel like there should have been one more album before Hot Fuss, because we had quite a few songs that we threw away. Probably around 50. I feel that some of those are sentimental favorites for me, and a lot of them are just on four-track. So knowing that some of those may never see the light of day, I kind of wish we made another one, but I think that’s what made Hot Fuss so special, also, is that it took us awhile to get a record deal and then we had all these great ideas to put into that first record.

So you didn’t have the “newbie jitters” as it were — it was pretty much like a sophomore album from the get-go.

Well, we definitely had a lot of songs to pick from for that album. We tend to pick stuff for albums that we have just recently written — and it turned out alright. There’s a lot of great accomplishments I’m proud of. Playing at Live Aid was the greatest feeling at the world. A great lineup and an awesome thing to watch. Getting compliments from people like Bono and Elton John. Those are the places you want the compliments from. That kind of helps erase the bad reviews — which I don’t even read anymore [Laughs].