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The Killers on Collaborating with Bruce Springsteen and Creating an Album Over the Pandemic: “We [Had to] Actively Pull the Plug”

Brandon Flowers and Ronnie Vannucci Jr. on crafting a "record about a very unique place in time"

The Killers Interview
The Killers, photo by Danny Clinch/illustration by Steven Fiche
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    When The Killers unleash their seventh studio album, Pressure Machine, on Friday, August 13th, it will be less than a year to the day since they released 2020’s Imploding the Mirage. The pandemic has had that effect on bands: upending the traditional album cycle, but also presenting, as it did for the Vegas quartet, an unforeseen extra slot for creativity.

    “At this point, we’re ready for anything,” drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. tells Consequence. “We sort of bobbed and weaved and pivoted and shifted, and just rolled with whatever was thrown at us.”

    Pressure Machine is not your typical Killers album. Their songs are historically character-driven, but for the first time, they’ve centered on a very specific and personal concept: frontman Brandon Flowers’ small hometown of Nephi, Utah, and the people who live there. It’s technically these townsfolk’s stories that are told on this album, though each song is dexterously intertwined with Flowers’ own experiences, and sung in his capable tenor — except for when the song calls for a Nephi resident to speak on tape, but more on that later.

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    Furthermore, The Killers — on pause from touring for the first time since 2004 — likely couldn’t have made this album, in its special and intimate nature, under other circumstances. “I was able to just really immerse myself in those memories,” Flowers notes, “And try to do justice to the stories that I was kind of being almost nagged by.”

    Below, find the rest of Consequence’s conversation with Vannucci Jr. and Flowers, which took place over Zoom a few weeks ahead of Pressure Machine’s arrival, and has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


    You were beginning to roll out Imploding the Mirage early last year, then everything was shut down, and your touring plans were put on hold. You released that record in August 2020, and now you’ve emerged less than a year later with Pressure Machine. Can you take me through everything that happened in that time?

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    Brandon Flowers: We were promoting Imploding the Mirage when we sort of started getting the red alarm. You know, we had heard about it. It was just like everybody else, you’re hearing it, you’re seeing it on CNN, you’ve never heard of this thing. And then it got serious and we went home — that was the last day of February.

    Ronnie Vannucci Jr.: The sky was falling.

    Flowers: So then we do what everybody else did — we did the whole hunker down. And then we realized the tour was going to get canceled, and we were gonna have a lot of time on our hands. So we just kind of got right to work. We live in the same town, and we were in our own bubbles, and being careful, and we started working.

    Ronnie Vannucci Jr.: We were sort of in a fortunate position, in a way. We weren’t mid-tour, you know? There were a lot of people who were in mid-swing. And tours are expensive, you have people to pay for, you’ve got hotels and flights booked and all this stuff. So we were sort of at this apex, this point where we could actively pull the plug and decide, “Okay, hunker down, let’s make another record.” We’re already in that mode.

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    Obviously, we had this gutted feeling of not being able to play shows, but our hearts also went out to the bands, especially the baby bands who were mid-swing mid-tour trying to do this shit. It was sort of fucking us up a little bit. And putting us in a bit of a zone thinking about like this, you know, that we felt before earlier in our lives, and you know, that kind of shit.

    I guess at one point, during that time, you’ve got to say, “We don’t get to tour Imploding the Mirage. Now we’re shifting into this next album already.” What’s your mindset when it comes to already saying goodbye to an album you didn’t quite get to put out there the way you maybe wanted to, and then going right into the next one?

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    Flowers: It was wild. But we did get to represent it. We did some alternate versions for TV. We had to get creative to promote it. And that pushed us into some uncomfortable territory, but that exposed some beauty in the songs. Like we did a version of “Blowback” for CBS that was right here in this room [in our studio].

    So there were some great moments that I think we’ll never forget. Our first time showing “Caution” to the world live was in my bathroom in my house, me and Ronnie — our drummer’s on guitar. And it was pretty wild times.

    Vannucci Jr.: Desperate times.

    Flowers: But it exposed it, the songs were good. And so that was something that was gratifying, even though we were sad that we weren’t going on tour. But yeah, it’s like Ronnie said. The beautiful thing was we were already in this zone and flexing these muscles in the studio. And then we just kept doing that, as opposed to going on tour. And so the next record came a lot easier than it would have, I think.

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    This is a character-driven album, which is not new for The Killers. But this is really, truly a concept record, and it’s centered on Brandon’s hometown in Utah. Who are some of the characters that you stepped into on this album?

    Flowers: There were all kinds of things. These are people that I knew. So about four or five of the characters are actual people that I grew up with. But then I also step into the boots of a murderous cop at some point, on “Desperate Things.” But the wonderful thing that anchors the album is it’s all in this place that I’m very familiar with. And it’s in the shadow of this mountain, Mount Nebo. And I know the canyons and the roads and the places people go to make out, and the places where people get their hamburgers.

    When we went to write the record, I just was surprised at how many of these memories I was holding on to, and I hadn’t dealt with them properly. And I was able to do that with songs.

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    There’s got to be a catharsis there. It also got me thinking, would you ever write a memoir? Because this is sort of like your memoir, in a way.

    Flowers: I kept my family out of this, you should see… [Laughs] Maybe when everybody’s older and gone. I don’t want to expose too many people. I have some crazy stories!

    Where did you get the voice recordings that are used as the intros to the songs?

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    Vannucci Jr.: Those were townspeople — people from Nephi, Utah. We were at the end of the record, mixing the record, and we were talking about how this was sort of like an audio documentary. It kind of felt like an exposure to this town that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed at all or talked about, especially in song. But because it was either a lot agreed upon, or total firsthand knowledge, these stories were coming to life.

    [Producer] Shawn [Everett] was asking us, on his way over — he was listening to NPR’s This American Life, and there’s a program where they put up a set recorder in a diner and just let it go, and recorded really interesting conversations on what was happening — [he was saying] that it’d be really cool to have, to somehow get recordings of the people in the town of Nephi. “You guys should go out there and do it!”

    Which would have been tricky for you to do yourselves…

    Vannucci Jr.: [Right,] we can’t go out there and do it. We’ll get a very biased version of these stories. So we got a hold of somebody who actually worked for NPR, who’s a professional at it. And he just went out into town and found people and got real life stories, and the true grit of the town was shown through. We made these very last-minute decisions to put these audio snippets before and after songs to thread it all together, to weave it in and make sense of it.

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    We couldn’t be happier with it, because it was perfect. It was sort of validating, in a way. I didn’t grow up there, but it was like, “Oh, okay, he [Brandon] wasn’t lying!” And it’s really cool, when you sort of have that completion, when things get wrapped up like that, and you’re able to just go ahead and say, “Hey, here’s a unique record about a very unique place in time.”

    Flowers: Some of them did find out what it was for, but they didn’t have any background about what the album was about or anything. And they were really nice. There’s some colorful people on there; I felt like we got pretty good representation of the town.

    We have to talk about Bruce Springsteen — Brandon, I know you’ve told it a million times, but I am very tickled by the whole story of how Bruce texted you.

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    Flowers: I feel bad letting it out. I’m just terrible if I get a new phone. Here’s my problem. I’ll tell you why this wasn’t on the phone. Like on this phone right now, I have these the voice memos. I wish that people could see what I’m showing you…

    Let the record show he’s physically going to the app on his phone.

    Flowers: I’m in the high 1600s for the notes. So when I get a new phone, I don’t want 1600 voice ideas on my phone. So I don’t just transfer all the names and all the info.

    Vannucci Jr.: You don’t do the migration?

    Flowers: Yeah, ‘cause I don’t want 1600 voice memos. [Waves iPhone around.] So these are all ideas, and most of them are bad. After a new record, I want to get a new phone. And so that’s why I had a new phone, because we had finished Imploding the Mirage. I hadn’t put Bruce’s number on, so that’s why I didn’t know that [it was him texting]. I need to get a new phone. [Laughs] On that last one, I probably had 2000, and it eats up a lot of data. So that’s why his name wasn’t saved, why his number wasn’t saved yet.

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    So what did he text you?

    Flowers: It was just such a nice text, and I didn’t know that it was real. It was like, “We’ve got to do ‘Dustland’ one day.” He talked about “Be Still,” which is sort of not a well-known song. But for real fans, it’s a real favorite. And so all of a sudden he’s talking about “Be Still” and working on that one, and seeing us play with Johnny Marr and Pet Shop Boys. I think he was watching [our set at] Glastonbury. And then it finishes off with just “Bruce,” and so I really thought maybe it’s someone messing with me, like, “Who is this? Maybe it’s Bruce Hornsby,” because I also had his number on my old phone. There was a lot going on, a lot of emotion.

    Back to Pressure Machine — Phoebe Bridgers is featured on “Runaway Horses.” How did that collaboration come together?

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    Flowers: We actually did a little bit of the last album, and a lot of this album, in the room where she does her records. And so her spirit’s there, and we knew we wanted a female voice on “Runaway Horses,” and we have some mutual people that we work with. I had done an interview with her for Interview magazine, and we had talked about doing maybe a cover of something one day. And I had heard boygenius — they had done a beautiful version of “Read My Mind.” So she was on our radar. We sent her the demo and she seemed excited to come do it.

    Vannucci Jr.: Total professional.

    Flowers: Oh man, yeah, she had it down. And it was right in the middle of COVID, so everybody’s wearing masks and I don’t remember seeing her face, but she went in the live room. And it was dimly lit and the mic’s setup, and we’re just kind of listening. She just did a couple takes. It turned out great.

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