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Cover Story: Brandon Flowers

| May 1, 2015 | 1 Comment

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Life-changing epiphanies can often happen when you least expect them. Back in 2007, Brandon Flowers and his Las Vegas alt-rock combo The Killers were following in the footsteps of their longtime musical idols Oasis, and offering fans an odds-and-sods album called Sawdust, comprised of rarities and B-sides. A single, “Tranquilize,” was issued from the collection, and it featured a cameo from legendary New York bad boy himself, the late Lou Reed, who also filmed an accompanying clip for the song. The summit meeting sent shockwaves through Flowers. And they’re still reverberating through his latest work — his second solo album, The Desired Effect.

Flowers has gotten some great advice over the years, since forming his group back in 2001. He’s been befriended by usually-standoffish Oasis band leader Noel Gallagher, who saw him as a kindred songwriting spirit. He just swapped stories with post-punk veteran Richard Butler, when the Psychedelic Furs frontman agreed to star (alongside actress Evan Rachel Wood) in the video for “Can’t Deny My Love,” the kickoff Effect single based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. He’s even become pals with that poshest of pop stars, the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, who guested on one of The Killers’ annual Christmas singles (“Joseph, Better You Than Me”) and a new album track (“I Can Change,” which also samples Bronski Beat’s classic “Smalltown Boy”). But hanging out with Reed was on another lofty level, entirely.

“And it was a big realization for me,” recalls Flowers, 33. “When we were doing that video with Lou Reed, he showed up to the shoot in just his regular clothes. And then he went in to get prepared for the filming, and he put on his black leather pants and his black leather jacket and his sunglasses. And then it was just him and me in this room, and there was a big mirror. And he looked at himself, then pointed at himself in the mirror and said, ‘I wish I was that guy!'” He sighs, visualizing that exact moment in time. “And everything just opened up. What was I pretending to be? Or was I this thing? Or was it okay to not be?

“That was what made me more comfortable with just being myself. And when you step onto that stage and you put your boots on, you are taking on a role. So I’m definitely more comfortable knowing that that’s the way that the king of cool looked at it – it was just a really profound moment for me.” Pause. “I dunno. I think about it a lot.”

For this artist, it all comes down to a clear-cut case of separation of church and state – both figuratively and literally. Flowers was raised Mormon, and happens to be one of the most elusive, near-mythical animals in the rock and roll kingdom: A man of faith, of serious scriptural conviction, doing above-board business in, of all places, Sin City.

Surrounding him in Las Vegas, another metaphor – the vast, unforgiving Nevada desert itself, which looms large in the Killers catalog, in sprawling good-triumphs-over-evil anthems like “Runaways,” “A Dustland Fairytale,” and the forlorn, sun-baked “Miss Atomic Bomb.” Springsteen had his stultifying New Jersey environs to rebel against, with salvation taking the form of a fast car, some warm beer, and a fairly-faithful paramour sitting beside you in the front seat as you exploded past the county line. “I never really gave up on breaking out of this two-star town/ I’ve got the green light, I’ve gotta live right, I’m gonna turn this thing around/ Can you read my mind?” he inquires on the band’s Gospel-fervent classic “Read My Mind,” then heads out into that sandy expanse to vanquish it like some lifelong bête noire. As in the best comic-book origin issues, a virtuous hero always needs the polar opposite of a supervillain to define him.

The irony of his last-sentry-on-duty situation isn’t lost on Flowers, who issued his first Vegas-inspired solo set Flamingo in 2010, in between The Killers’ third and fourth efforts, 2008’s Day & Age and 2012’s Battle Born, a name he also employed to christen the group’s new Winchester, Nevada studio facility, where most of The Desired Effect was recorded. And it’s there in blackjack spades on the latest material, starting with the opening horn-punctuated, female-chorus-fluid rocker “Dreams Come True, wherein the protagonist – who spent “the better part of my 20s on a corner of this dirty street” – rises like Lazarus from his self-interred tomb. The bubbly synth-popper “Lonely Town” follows, as it recalls carnival comforts “spinning like the Gravitron when I was just a kid,” and a chugging, piano-girded Killers-school exercise “Between Me and You,” which finds the singer cautioning that “I’ve been worried about the future…I think I’m losing it now.”

Elsewhere, Flowers swears allegiance to spouse and family (the power ballad “I Can Change,” a passionate declaration called “Still Want You,” and the propulsive “Untangled Heart,” in which he swears a telling “blessed are the young at heart”). And – like his songwriting hero Springsteen – he’s grown adept at using characters to tell an Aesop-wise story, as on “Never Get You Right” and the chugging “Digging Up the Heart.” Effect closes, appropriately enough, on a harpsichord-delicate processional dubbed “The Way It’s Always Been,” with Flowers mourning that “they shut down the golden Sahara Hotel,” which takes on a grander metaphysical meaning in the chorus: “Ain’t that the way it’s always been/ Everybody’s waiting for the sun to come again/ Hoping that He’s got the power to save us from our sins.” The answer is left murky, unclear, Sword-of-Damocles pending. The strength to surmount life’s difficulties can come from without, Flowers seems to be saying. But ultimately, it should be cultivated within.

The Desired Effect was co-produced by the keen-eared Ariel Rechtshaid (of Vampire Weekend renown), and features guest appearance from not only Tennant but Tony Levin, Joey Waronker, Haim’s Danielle Haim, keyboardist Bruce Hornsby, and co-Killer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. Flowers favors one cut in particular, he says – “Between Me and You,” simply for its diary-honest reflection. Every time he turns on the television to view the incrementally worsening state of our planet, he does get worried about the future, like the song insinuates, “And there’s just this tremendous amount of pressure that I think is on a man sometimes to provide, and keep things together with the family,” he sighs, dourly. “I thought now that I’m getting old enough, and because I’ve gone through enough of that, I should be able to touch on those subjects. But I think you have to have some kind of optimism. I’ve been lucky enough to go around the world, and I’ve seen a lot of places. And I dunno – I think there’s still a lot of good people out there, and that’s something to be optimistic about. We’re not all bad.”

Again, it all boomerangs back to faith. A few years ago, Flowers found himself on a European talk how, seated opposite noted atheist Richard Dawkins, who grew increasingly strident in his verbal attacks on the Book of Mormon. The musician’s eyes narrowed, his face reddened during what felt like an ambush, and – incensed – he fought back and staunchly defended his religion. “I don’t think I held my own, though,” he now thinks in retrospect. “But everybody has a right to their own belief. And to sort of attack me the way that he did just seemed a little uncool. I definitely wasn’t prepared for that. If he wanted to talk about it, and have a genuine conversation about it, I’m definitely open to that. But I was just caught off guard with how aggressive he was toward me. And it’s all water under the bridge.”

Flowers doesn’t mind turning the other cheek. In fact, a day-to-day existence in the cynical music business practically demands it. “It’s definitely always been a contradiction – being a faithful person and being the leader of a band, or however you want to look at it,” he cedes. “And in the age that we live in now, it’s definitely becoming even more of a contradiction. But my wife and my kids make it a lot easier for me. I think without them – and the foundations that were laid for me from my parents – I think I would definitely be a rock and roll casualty. Because I definitely have temptations and gravitate toward things. But I’m always able to point myself in the right direction, because of…well, I guess, my eye on the future.”

Terence Trent D’Arby – who was raised by a minister father – once opined that, in his rebellious youth, he threw out every last bit of hard-line dogma from his upbringing. And the words of wisdom that reverberated back to him in his 20s – which were many – were the ones he deemed to be true. Which essentially translates to: You can run from basic human morality all you want, or deny your own awareness of right and wrong, but for only so long, if you possess any measurable vestige of a soul. Flowers agrees, wholeheartedly, with the concept of questioning, not robotically following any pre-ordained set of tenets.

“I definitely went through that in my late teens,” he says. “And I think a lot of people go through that – it’s healthy. And what was good about that for me was, when it was time for me to decide what road I was going to go down, I think I had more conviction because I had actually questioned it and thought about it. I didn’t just go in blindly because my mom and dad told me that there’s a God – that’s not why I believe in God. I have my own testimony, and I think that I got stronger because I asked questions and I went through that. And I’m really happy that I went through that phase. Growing up being a Mormon in Las Vegas, I feel like that definitely prepared me for being in a band, and for going up against the excess and the carrot that’s dangled in front of me a lot.”

Thanks to Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and even the otherwise-on-point Real Time HBO talk-show host Bill Maher, it’s quite hip to be atheist these days. Especially when religion – thanks to Islamic splinter sects like ISIS and Boko Haram – are being horrifically warped and twisted to suit their believers’ own violent, fundamentalist agendas. But for most, something that provides daily comfort – even a credo that simply gets you through a difficult night – is nothing to be sniffed at disdainfully. And certainly nothing that preaches harm to any non-believing others, as variations of The Golden Rule are intrinsic to most world religions. “And a lot of people don’t know about Mormons – we believe in, and we read, the Bible,” Flowers says. “We have the KJV – the King James Version of the Bible – and the Book of Mormon, obviously. And those are definitely touchstones, the foundations, and the things that I go back to. But it’s less about what you read and more about the experiences that I had, gaining that testimony.”

The vocalist – who never once preaches, but cleverly couches his thoughts in neighborly, universal wordplay that doesn’t easily reveal itself, even on repeated listenings — can also testify to the redemptive power of big dreams and aspirations. That’s one truly obvious reference in his work. “And I mean, that’s all we’ve got, you know?” he says, chuckling. “That was what kept my dad going. My dad had this sort of eternal sense of optimism. He’d be a grump sometimes, but there was something just genuinely happy about him – there was always something that he was looking forward to or dreaming about, and he made $20,000 a year, but he wasn’t miserable. There was a…a happiness to him, and I’m sure having a family was a big part of it. But there was always something to accomplish for him. And yeah – I believe in it.”

Flowers’ mother was equally influential. She raised her children – not to stare dumbly down at the path in front of them – but to constantly look up with childlike wonder at the world around them. She urged them to view sunsets, and to study cycles of the moon, so they would know which phase it was in, seasonally. “And it’s a good way to look at life,” he reckons. “I was always that way, whether I was cognizant of it or not. And I think it’s something that I’ve honed in on as I’ve gotten older – my curiosity. I keep searching, and that’s what keeps me on my toes. And I think that just by not giving in, and really trying to stay true to who I was, I still go into every record the same as I did that first one (Hot Fuss in 2004, with breakthrough, New Wave-retro singles “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me”). And I still feel genuinely excited about writing a song that I haven’t written before. So I guess that I’m still not that far removed from that 20-year-old trying to make it, or whatever I was trying to do.”

The Nevadan found solace in other sources, as well, like the desert itself. “It can be a holy place, and it can definitely be a real sinister place,” he says. But he regularly hops into his car and drives out into it for answers. “And my wife knows when it’s time – when I start getting into a certain mood, it’s time for me to go out there. And it’s something that I found I’m really grateful [for] as I’ve gotten older – how much I love it, how much I started going on different hikes and getting out there more. Whether I’m by myself or with a group, I feel really rejuvenated afterward – it’s a real healer for me. And I think it’s maybe underappreciated by people who are brought up in concrete jungles, and I wish we could make it more known – how it’s free, you don’t have to pay for it, it’s out there for us all to enjoy. It’s really helped me a lot.”

Flowers frequently comes across entire herds of bighorn sheep on his treks. It’s the Nevada state animal, he explains. “And there’s always a leader, and he’ll get between you and the herd – he lets you know not to mess with them, but never have I been charged by one or anything,” he adds. As a composer, he’s equally protective of his influences. When The Killers released their more saga-centered sophomore record Sam’s Town in 2006 – with the elegiac “When You Were Young” smash – “there was quite a lot of dust kicked up about Springsteen,” he says. “But I feel like that fascination that I acquired with him in my mid-’20s was really profound for me, because I was stuck with all the clichés – you know, you want to be David Bowie and you want to go crazy. And I feel like Springsteen gave me a way out of that – you don’t associate him with drugs or excess, or any of these things that you associate rock and roll with. And I was like, ‘Oh! I can do it, and I don’t have to do any of this other stuff!’ That was very helpful for me.”

He picked up more tricks from Neil Tennant, with whom he’d grown close enough to request a cameo vocal on “I Can Change.” “When we were doing our Christmas song with him, I learned so much from the way his brain works,” he says. “And things that now seem so obvious to me weren’t obvious to me before. We were talking Joseph, how he was a carpenter, and instantly Neil starts writing down ‘the plane’ and ‘the lathe’ and these traits of carpenters, and he starts incorporating them into the song.” He sighs. “It was great, watching a master at work like that, and it helped me grow. And every time I write a song now, I think about that moment.”

But Flowers himself has amassed a staggering collection of work, perfectly anthologized on the recent Direct Hits best-of release. He has a deft way with a truly majestic hook, and an inimitable, off-kilter vocal quaver that’s the equivalent of an arcane theremin. Humbly, he hopes he’s achieved something unusual. But he’s still not sure – he’s too close to the work to tell. “But it’s something you want,” he admits. “To make your own mark, and not just look like you’re rehashing what’s already been done. But I think that we have been able to put a unique twist on things. And it’s hard, you know. It’s very hard. There are so many great bands and so many people that have come before us over the last 450 years, and a lot has already been done.”

What does faithful husband, father, and party-averse rock and roller know to be true today on The Desired Effect, that he didn’t when Hot Fuss made him a Grammy-nominated superstar? He stops for a minute to collect his thoughts. “Oh, man,” he laughs. “It’s going to sound like clichés! But it’s about being yourself – it was more about finding out who I was and then sticking to that. And it’s nice to know that you’ve got a home, that you have these foundations,” he adds, echoing the prophetic words of Lou Reed. “Because it’s a separate deal. My kids don’t look at me as a singer or a songwriter, they don’t care how many hits I’ve had or what my hair looks like.
“I’m just their dad.”

Appearing 9/11/15 at The Riviera Theatre, Chicago.

– Tom Lanham (Photo BF. Williams + Hirakawa)

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  1. Helen Ward says:

    Hi I really enjoyed your article on Brandon Flowers.I live I. Ireland so don’t see to much information on him.Thanks Helen.

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