You could call Dave Keuning the first Killer. After chasing his rock ’n’ roll dreams from Iowa to Las Vegas in 2000, the guitarist hooked up with singer Brandon Flowers through classified ads Keuning ran in Las Vegas Weekly, birthing the state’s most successful band ever.
From 2003 through 2014, he toured and recorded almost continuously with The Killers (which by that point also included bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci), and in 2015, began work on the group’s fifth studio album. And then, Keuning says, he needed a break. His trips from his home in San Diego to Las Vegas to work on the record became less frequent, and in 2017, when his bandmates began touring behind that LP, Wonderful Wonderful, Keuning wasn’t with them.
Flash forward two years, and Keuning has returned to the stage … just not with The Killers. This week, when he kicks off am 11-date tour (which includes a February 15 show at the Bunkhouse), he’ll do so with a new project—simply called Keuning—along with a new batch of tunes, from January 25 solo debut Prismism, on which he sings lead vocals for the first time ever. The Weekly connected with Keuning for an hour-long phone interview to discuss his new music, his old band and much more.
You told Rolling Stone last year, “I was always happy just being the guitar player.” What changed? I had songs and [felt like] it would be great if they were completed with vocals. Eventually it just dawned on me that the only way they were gonna get finished is if I sang on them and did it myself and did it from home. I considered getting a different singer, but this just seemed like a move I had to make for the rest of my life, so that I wouldn’t always be reliant on a singer. I could just do it myself.
As the other three Killers were releasing their solo albums, were you ever tempted to do so, too? I had no desire to do that at first, because The Killers kept me busy enough, and when I wasn’t on tour I had a busy home life. I have a son, and I didn’t necessarily want to go straight from the road to work on a solo project in the studio. I wanted free time when I wasn’t touring. So the ideas that I came up with I tried to share with the band and hoped they would get used there.
You had only one songwriting credit on latest Killers album Wonderful Wonderful. Were you attempting to put forth other musical ideas that weren’t being incorporated? I put forth ideas in the beginning. That album took about a year and a half to make, and in the beginning I was very excited. I brought a handful of ideas, and after four or five months we had a board with 40 or 50 ideas, mine and other people’s. I would say that most of those songs—not just mine, by all band members—did not make it to Wonderful Wonderful. That part maybe is frustrating, because I felt like I didn’t have as much say in deciding what made the cut.
I don’t want it to sound like I did this because they didn’t use my ideas. There were a lot of ideas by other people I wanted to be on there, too. Brandon wrote some great songs that I liked that didn’t make it. What I took from that [experience] is I didn’t like having no control.
The press release says the album was “taken from hundreds of voice memos that [you] stockpiled while on tour with The Killers over the last decade.” Describe that process. I had three old iPhones, and I loaded all the voice memos from all of them onto my computer, probably four or five hours of stuff. I’d sit there and go through these voice memos and put the heart over the ones that were decent, to get back to later. It was a time-consuming process, but it was kind of fun. There were a lot of memories that came back. Sometimes there’d be a TV in the background, on CNN or whatever, and there’d be something going on with Obama. Or sometimes I’d be watching sports. Or sometimes I could hear other languages, like when I was in Dubai. It was interesting.
How involved had you been in writing lyrics prior to this project? I hadn’t. Basically, Brandon writes all the [Killers] lyrics, and I never try and show him lyrics. So that was a challenge for me. I found it easier when I would just play the music and then try and put words over it. I have a harder time with no music playing and just a piece of paper, trying to write poetry.
How cognizant were you that you’d be letting people in on Dave Keuning, the person, through your lyrics? Well, if that’s the case, maybe it was overdue, because it seems like a lot of people didn’t know me. I hear things—gossip or people online saying things about me—that aren’t true. So maybe it’s a good thing to shed a little light on my life.
When it came time to write the lyrics, whatever ended up there just kind of came pouring out of me naturally. People will analyze it … just know that some of it is about me, and some of it is fiction. And some of it just rhymed with the previous line.
How do you feel about the final makeup of Prismism? I originally couldn’t make up my mind: Am I gonna do guitar-rock record? Or a synth-y keyboard record? And I have a ton of acoustic stuff. It ended up being a little bit of everything, and I’m happy with the variety.
As the release date creeps up, do you think about how it might be received, by Killers fans or whomever else? I try not to worry about who’s gonna like it or not like it. Obviously, I hope Killers fans like it. I hope anybody likes it. I’m not gonna be playing for as big of audiences as The Killers, so I’ll have to take what I can get. And hopefully these songs will connect with people.
Do you have any goals for how it might do? I have already achieved my biggest goal, and that is to do this at all. I think my life would have felt incomplete if I didn’t make an album with songs that I want to put out. … As far as long-term goals, I don’t really know what to expect, but I am definitely going to keep making music. I hope I make music with The Killers, but now that I’ve made the decision to sing, it allows me to always do this on the side, because I’ll always have a computer and a microphone at home and song ideas I can finish.
You’ve done backing vocals with The Killers, but this is the first time you’ve sung lead, right? I was in a band in high school; I wasn’t the singer, but one day he was like, “You should sing this one.” I was really, really nervous. It was at some small place in Iowa, and I got heckled. And I honestly think that set me back quite a ways. I wish I’d had thicker skin and got right back up the next show, and that could be my story, that I had this great voice and I proved people wrong. But it’s not. My story is that I never sang for the next 20 years.
You’ve played a handful of Keuning shows thus far. How has it been singing live? I was very nervous for the first couple of shows. This isn’t the studio where I can get another take. I had to think about the physical side of singing—like breathing, and making sure my voice wasn’t torn up for the next show. So yeah, very different. The first song, I remember being nervous and just tuning everyone out and trying to stay in pitch. And when that went OK I started to loosen up a little bit.
Am I right in guessing you won’t be playing Killers songs at these Keuning shows? I won’t be playing any Killers songs is the message I want to send. If someone came up to me and said, “Hey, you shouldn’t play that Killers thing,” I would understand why. So I think at least for the near future I should play my own stuff and hope that people go see me for that reason, There’s some tempting [Killers songs], like rare tracks that would be fun for me to play, but I don’t feel right about it at present.
What’s your relationship like with Las Vegas these days? I still have a place there, an apartment, and I still love it there. I have a lot of great memories of when I first moved there and had all these wild hopes and dreams. I moved from Iowa, and it seemed like a crazy place to move to. It was an exciting town with all types of stuff were going on—shows, concerts … I didn’t have much money, but I’d walk the Strip and go in and out of things and kill time walking around. I did that until I finally met people and got the band started.
I still have quite a few friends there, friends that I wish I would visit more than I do. I’ve been gone quite a bit the last 10 years. But I’ll always have a special place in my heart for it. That was my life-altering decision, to move to Las Vegas.
The property for the incoming MSG Sphere includes the site where your old Vegas apartment used to be. Maybe you’ll end up playing a show there someday. That would be fun. That’s where “Mr. Brightside” was born. I wrote it in that apartment. Brandon came over and we finished writing it together right there. We wrote a lot of other songs there, too, and actually did a little bit of recording there that ended up on Hot Fuss. I think I recorded the guitar solo for “Everything Will Be Alright” in my closet. So yeah, I think we should play the Sphere (laughs).
At this point, do you still consider yourself an active member of The Killers? I am technically a member of the band, and anything is possible in the future. It’s such a hard question to answer. The only thing I do know is I won’t be touring on the next tour. I don’t know when I will tour. I suppose it’s possible if I’m lucky I could play a show or two here and there, but I won’t be on the next tour.
I don’t know much about the next album. I’ve been sending in ideas. It’s hard to say when it will be done. So I could be a big part or just a little part or no part. I don’t know the answer to that question right now.
In your mind’s eye what would be the ideal Killers arrangement for you? Writing, recording and some touring? Or just writing and recording? Or maybe at some point the full touring thing again? All of those are possibilities. I think I’m just not willing to do a full-on tour right now. And it’s rough not having a say in that, in the schedule. Asking other people to compromise is very uncomfortable, too. I don’t really like having to do that. You can argue every angle of that, and all the answers would be right. I just know what I’m capable of doing, and I’m not capable of doing a two-year tour, or even a year-long tour, probably. Maybe someday I would. But the first seven years of The Killers were pretty constant touring, record, tour, record, all the way through [2008 album] Day & Age. We had a little break before [2012’s] Battle Born, and for me that year went by really fast. Life changes for everybody; they have different priorities, and asking them to be gone a year or two years is a major commitment. So I guess all the possibilities are up in the air for the future.
You weren’t included in the publicity photos the band used to promote Wonderful Wonderful, which created some confusion about whether you were still in the band and whether you’d be playing the shows. I guess it was a little weird for fans; maybe they didn’t know what was going on. That’s why I said something in Q [Magazine], because I wanted people to know that I wasn’t touring.
There’s some things that could have been done differently back then, for sure. I think I accepted not being in the picture because I wasn’t there for the last two months of recording and I was like, OK, I guess that makes sense. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little weird seeing those pictures. But I’m trying to be realistic about everything, I guess, trying not to be too emotional about it and just be flexible.
Ultimately, do you think this solo project experience will make playing with the other Killers—and playing those Killers songs again—feel fresher and more exciting, or do you suppose there’s a chance it might make you want to stay in your own lane and do more of your own thing going forward? I guess what I hope happens is that we can all get together one day and just put all bullsh*t aside and say, let’s just make music like the old days, and hope that something good comes from it. But before fans jump out and say, “Do it now,” we’ve all got different lives, we’re living in different towns, we’ve got different priorities. I hope something like that could be done. At least in my mind I would try my best, and then whatever didn’t get used at least I could save for my own thing.
KEUNING February 15, 9 p.m., $15. Bunkhouse Saloon, 702-982-1764.