When The Killers left home for greener pastures in the United Kingdom, no one expected the band would come back big rock stars. For the fab foursome to conquer radio, late-night TV and top-10 lists in the music rags was by no means a stretch of the imagination. But for the barely 2-year-old group to earn three Grammy nominations from the Recording Academy?
I was freelancing for CityLife back in 2002 when I received a call from the paper's arts and entertainment editor. I had a column that featured local bands and he wanted me to do a write-up on a new group called the Killers. I had no idea who this band was, and neither did my editor.
I had covered the local scene for years, during and after my own stint in the unsung battle for rock stardom. I knew most of the major and minor players—but the Killers had came out of nowhere. When I met the quartet at a Starbucks on Maryland Parkway, none of their faces or names were familiar. Three were recent transplants to Vegas; only the drummer at the time was a local, but he was new to the music scene.
The difference between the Killers and almost every other band that has never left this valley, aside from writing great songs, is that the members always acted as if they were rock stars from another planet. The robotic, distant, Bowie-meets-LeBon stance was not just for show; this band was never content, nor compliant, with making the rounds of the local bar circuit.
"Part of the problem with this music scene is the bands," guitarist Dave Keuning shared with me in our 2002 interview. "The other part is places to play, and the other part is that no one shows up at these places."
No more than six months into the Killers' existence, the band lost two of its founding members—a hidden blessing for Keuning and singer-keyboardist Brandon Flowers. They quickly added the talents of bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, the new rhythm section truly living up to the songs coming from Keuning and Flowers.
The recruitment of Vannucci not only gave the band a precise, innovative, hard-rocking backbeat, but also a strong tie to the local music scene. Vannucci formerly pounded the skins for a number of Vegas bands, most notably the mid-'90s ska-metal favorite, Atta Boy Skip. My own ties with Vannucci date back 10 years, when he worked with a mutual friend at a local health-food store. I became a fan and friend to ABS.
I would run into members of ABS all over town: cafés, shows, copy shops. I hung out with them in their home studio, helped Ronnie set up his drums at shows, and worked with the saxophone player. But the Killers? They were untouchable. Setting up the first interview was easy enough. After that, the only place to find the boys was at their gigs. Except for Ronnie. The last time I saw Ronnie was in the halls of the fine-arts building at UNLV when I congratulated him on his new gig with the Killers.
The band made a somewhat strange decision to become a weekly fixture in a now-closed gay drag club called Tramps (formerly Sasha's). Booked in tangent with an '80s retro night, the band avoided being pigeonholed as some sort of gay house band and drew serious numbers to the strip-mall venue every week, culminating in a full house for the Killers' last performance there in August 2003. Then, as quickly as they came, the foursome disappeared from the Vegas scene, turning their attention from proving their live prowess to making a real career out of this music thing.
Tidbits of buzz began to float around. In September 2003, the Killers signed with a UK indie label to release "Mr. Brightside" as an EP. The band played a showcase during New York City's CMJ music conference in October. The next day, they signed a reported seven-figure deal with Island Def Jam Records. Like 12-Volt Sex and Clockwise before them, the Killers had to escape Vegas to grab major-label attention. But, unlike those Icarus stories, the Killers' deal was real.
Now, the little, local new-wave band is competing for Best Rock Song, Best Rock Album and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group against U2, Elvis Costello and Franz Ferdinand. It's surreal. It's exciting. And it's somewhat sad and hopeful, because though the Killers started here, the band could not have attained such achievements had they stayed. If nothing else, perhaps the Killers' story can serve as a wake-up call for local bands making the rounds in our tattered and barren music scene: Get a distinctive sound, write some decent songs, get a good entertainment lawyer, and most of all, get out of town. Just don't forget about us when you come back as Grammy-nominated rock stars.