As its namesake suggests, Battle Born – the fourth studio album from Las Vegas’ most famous musical exports, The Killers – was indeed birthed from tricky beginnings.
But borne of its long gestation, over many sessions in and out of their Nevada studio with multiple producers in what became a four-year break between records, the result may well be the quartet’s definitive album.
“Yeah I don’t disagree with that,” guitarist Dave Keuning says frankly in his Iowan drawl.
“It took four albums for people to finally understand what we are, because each of the first three albums are a little different from each other and this one ties it all together,” he affirms.
The guitarist – who looks like the love child of Jim Morrison and Marc Bolan, with a hybrid cross-breed of American style with the glam rock finger work to match – is calling from on tour in England.
Manchester to be precise, where the curly-mopped guitarist and his bandmates are currently enjoying the fruits of their latest studio labour, “we can finally play to audiences who know the album,” he sighs.
It certainly helps that there’s an inherent familiarity to the Killers work. Fish for any one of Battle Born’s 12 tracks and you’d come up with an arena-sized catch, an album brim with rousing, lung-bursting anthems and emphatic choruses drenched in canyon-sized reverb.“We’re always trying to write big songs, some of them are bigger than others…”
Soaring on big melodies and bigger polish, it’s not anything we haven’t heard from the band before, but in the vein of a Hollywood sequel, it does it bigger and better.
They’ve never sounded so content in delivering their yearning tales of white-knuckled vagabonds and hard-luck romantics charging down the highways of life away from some dreary small-town and towards some elusive dream.
It’s arguably the same story they’ve been peddling since 2004’s Hot Fuss, their synth-dappled debut, but it was the Born To Run-indebted Americana of Sam’s Town that solidified their sonic aims, causing a bit of fuss of its own upon release.
Or, as Keuning puts it in his pointed American burr, “the second album people were like ‘what!?’ and then the third album people were like ‘wait, what!?’”
A simplified assessment of the genre leaps of faith between Sam’s Town and its uneven successor, 2008’s Day & Age.
An album that confused the mainstream as much as the band’s dedicated with its lead single, ‘Human’, a dance club-suited hit that was a gateway to a hodgepodge samba jams, saxophones, and more head-scratching lyrics over stretched pop rock.
Fast-forward to Battle Born however, and those genre excursions seem to have paid off, the band having found a way to better bridge their nous for wilfully broad accessibility, colourful pop, and the blue-collar mysticism that frontman Brandon Flower is so fond of.
“Now people are like ‘OK, I think I finally know what they are now’,” agrees Keuning. “It turned out good and something we’re all proud of.”
But it probably took the band just as long to find that footing themselves. Recording with five mega-producers (Steve Lillywhite, Daniel Lanois, Brendan O’Brien, Stuart Price, and Damian Taylor) could have become another case of ‘too many cooks’, but Keuning shakes loose the cliché that it was ever an intense struggle to reach the finish line.“…each of the first three albums are a little different from each other and this one ties it all together.”
“It never seemed like it was out of reach, it just seemed like the end was getting further and further away,” he proffers.
“Our estimates were way off of what we thought it would take,” he affirms. “I remember thinking it would be done late 2011 at one point, and then early 2011, and then Spring of the next year, then Summer. Then of course it comes out Fall of the next year.”
The musician adds that “having no deadline was a good thing and a bad thing… we had all the time in the world to work on the songs.”
A double-edged sword that meant the band took the necessary time to “live with the songs” but risked muddying their broader focus. To keep their day job’s output lean, three-quarters of the lineup used the downtime to work on other projects.
Flowers and bassist Mark Stoermer released their solo albums (Flamingo and Another Life respectively), while drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. took to side-projects Big Talk and Mt. Desolation.
So is there any secret solo material from the guitarist the public doesn’t know about? “Yeah, I mean I guess it’s secret because I haven’t told anybody about it. I have songs that I worked on – even yesterday – that I don’t know what to do with yet. I can’t decide if I want to be on a solo album, or some random side-project.”
Rather than fuel rumours, the musician remains forthright. “Every artist has songs that never see the light of day that they just live with and have in their back pocket.”
With touring now once again the focus, Keuning says there is “no time to make a solo project, so it won’t be for a while – if it ever even happens.”
Instead, he’s content in pouring his creativity into where it counts, back into the band; “I would rather have one of my ideas get used on the Killers than ten on a solo album that, let’s face it, isn’t going to sell very much.”
Speaking of sales, Battle Born has earned Gold status in Australia in the short five months since its release, which says a lot for its consistency and reliability. A collection of songs custom built for the fields and arenas the quartet now regularly habituates.
When pressed if that’s an intentional method, Keuning casually defends, “we’re always trying to write big songs, some of them are bigger than others… Within us we don’t even really talk about it, we just like that kind of music.”
Battle Born’s biggest moment is undoubtedly the unabashed power balladry of ‘Here With Me,’ the Killers’ very own ‘November Rain’ or ‘Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing,’ a tear-jerking blockbuster of melodramatic proportions.
“That was a song I liked right away,” admits Keuning. “When I heard it, for the first time, just a rough version. I thought ‘that must be released’, I really believed in that song – a big power ballad that we never had anything like that before.”
If The Killers had flirted with penning a wide-eyed epic before, ‘Here With Me’ finds them throwing caution to the wind and embracing their guilty pleasures; and as Keuning words it, they were “never shy about having it out there for a second,” but concedes, “it may have been released in the wrong decade or something… it’s a big song.”
It’s also a number that benefits in the live setting, as Flowers belts out “don’t want your picture/on my cell phone/I want you here with me,” with the seriousness of a man who’s life depends on it.
“It’s a fun moment,” says Keuning of the song in its live incarnation, “just seeing a lot of people holding up their cell phones. So that’s nice for me to look out and see that. It’s kind of a sentimental moment for the audience.”
It’s one of many that Australian audiences will get to enjoy when the Killers return once more to play the Big Day Out this week.“Most people want the hits and we’re not ship shy on giving it to ‘em.”
The group have a rich history of playing the festival circuit down under, having graced Good Vibrations and V Festival in the past as well. So why the love for Australia? “Well the fans know how to enjoy a show,” declares Keuning.
“Plus, it’s [generally] your summer but it’s our winter, so we come over there and it’s like transporting through time and landing in a place of great weather – it instantly puts us in a good mood too,” he slurs enthusiastically.
Keuning also fondly recalls letting their hair down on the final dates of the Sam’s Tour, which wrapped at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena as ranking among one of his better touring memories.
“That was a fun night. When you know it’s the last show of the tour in its entire cycle,” recalls the guitarist. “I think I tipped over my amps thinking ‘if it breaks, who cares’ …Australia is usually a good time no matter what.”
When asked what bands the hard-touring outfit look to in terms of delivering their own live show, Keuning displays even more passion for Australia.
“I look up to AC/DC… I went and saw them play for the first time a couple years ago in Australia, and they had an amazing amount of energy that humbled me. Because I went into it thinking ‘oh, they’re old so it probably won’t be as good,’ and it was the best concert I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Seeing the energy of the world’s most famous rock band inspired Keuning to “take it up a notch… how long they’ve been doing it – they’re just firecrackers, especially Angus [Young]… their music alone – talk about music that’s meant for stadiums.”
As for the Killers own arena-baiting anthems, those expecting the band to shirk their festival responsibilities at their headline Big Day Out slots can breathe easy.
“Most people want the hits and we’re not ship shy on giving it to ‘em,” says Keuning with a cowboy’s whoop, before adding with a curling enthusiasm that only a member of one of the world’s most popular bands could deliver with such casual affirmation: “it’ll just be a party.”