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Monday 27 May 2019

Brandon Flowers: Killer Instinct

The Killers frontman isn’t afraid to speak his mind, but even after criticising Green Day and U2, he’s still got a legion of high profile fans. Before the band’s headline slot at Oxegen, Ed Power finds out what we love about Brandon Flowers

Brandon Flowers isn't afraid to speak his mind
Brandon Flowers isn't afraid to speak his mind

Ed Powers

Brandon Flowers looked like he'd been dragged backwards through the bargain rail at a fancy dress shop when he took to the stage at last February's Brit Awards.

Resplendently silly in a faux-military jacket accessorised with eagle-feather epaulets, his boyish features softened with eyeliner and rouge, he bestrode the ceremony like a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Michael Jackson on the cusp of full-blown, Bubbles-in-the-bedroom bonkerdom.

In other words, he bore a suspicious resemblance to a proper, just-the-right-side-of-crazy, pop star. And how long since we've had one of those at which to point and/or giggle? (Lady Gaga doesn't count, on the grounds that there truly is such a thing as trying too hard).

But The Killers frontman, who will command a slightly larger audience at Oxegen this weekend, isn't simply a limelight-hogging throw-back to the glory years of pop. He's far more enigmatic and contradictory than that. He's a God-fearing small town American who isn't adverse to partying until dawn, a sensitive new man with control-freak tendencies, and a budding style icon who exercises an iron grip over how he is photographed and marketed, yet has a widely mocked penchant for comedy facial hair.

If you can't figure out who Flowers really is or what his rise says about modern pop culture, maybe that's because sometimes he gives the impression of not being sure himself.

"I had to learn how to be the rock and roll guy," Flowers said last year, on a visit to London to promote The Killers' latest LP, a rather fruity piece called Day And Age. "I've always seen a division between the guy who goes out and sings in front of all those people and the real me. I couldn't be that person all of the time. I think if you try to do that -- to be a rock star 24 hours a day -- you are storing up a lot of trouble for yourself."

This isn't affectation or false modesty. In concert, Flowers lights up the stage with 800-watt charisma, holding thousands under his spell with little apparent exertion. Face to face, however, the 28-year-old is almost Michael Jackson-esque in his shyness. He even speaks in a Jacko-style little boy lost whisper, as though afraid of waking someone in the room next door. Sitting down to lunch with a group of Irish journalists circa The Killers' second album, Sam's Town, he projected intense self-consciousness. Over the course of the interview that followed, he spent much of the time gazing awkwardly at his shoes, his soft, rambling sentences, punctuated by moments of baffled silence. You came away with the impression that you'd spoken to an over-achieving, largely inarticulate, 14-year-old.

Flowers isn't simply introverted. He flouts rock-star convention in all sorts of ways. Married to his childhood sweet-heart, and the father to an infant daughter, he lives a quiet suburban life on the outskirts of Las Vegas (raised in rural Utah, he has spent most of his adult life in Sin City). Throughout The Killers' Exocet-like rise to the top -- unbelievably, the quartet released their debut single only five years ago -- he's never once given any indication that life inside the pressure cooker might be too much. When you read about him in the tabloids, it's on account of his ridiculous moustaches, not because he's had some sort of Pete Doherty meltdown or Chris Martin-style fisticuffs with paparazzi. He is that rare superstar who actually seems at ease with his fame -- something he attributes to his Mormon faith.

"If I didn't have spirituality in my life, I don't know what I would do," he said a few months ago. "It keeps me centred, it stops me from going off the deep end."

Does he feel any attraction at all to the wild side of being a rock star?

"Well, if you say 'wild', it makes it sound kinda bad. Look, I'm not adverse to staying up late. I try not to make a habit of it. You see certain behaviour on the road and you can see why it would exert a hold on people. I try to keep clear of all that."

And like Jackson, there are hints of something darker raging beneath the puppy-dog exterior. For an immaculately mannered young man he has, for instance, a striking habit of starting bunfights with other bands. In 2004, he conducted a media feud with New York new-wave peacocks The Bravery, attacking them as tragic wannabes who, out of deepening desperation, had jumped aboard the new-wave revival bandwagon.

Since becoming famous, he's moved on to bigger targets -- three years ago he slammed Green Day's American Idiot LP as unpatriotic, suggesting the California punksters were cynically pandering to anti-American sentiments in Europe (around that time he also voiced tacit support for George Bush -- he has since rowed back and is now firmly an Obama man).

"You have Green Day and American Idiot. Where do they film their DVD? In England," he said. "A bunch of kids screaming 'I don't want to be an American idiot'. I saw it as a very negative thing towards Americans. It really lit a fire in me."

Not that any of these eccentricities or sharp edges have impeded his rise. Indeed, few rock franchises have micro-managed their careers so adroitly as The Killers. Realising a band has to keep evolving if it is to hold on to its audience (witness the lukewarm reception accorded to Snow Patrol's same-y last record), Flowers and company have flitted between genres as if trying on different T-shirts.

Regurgitated British new-wave, Springsteen rawk, Roxy Music pastiche -- The Killers have gamely had a stab at them all. Occasionally, it is true, they end up looking silly -- however, they shift guises so quickly that the occasional faux-pas is quickly forgotten.

"I like their ambition and sense of scale," Victoria Hesketh, aka BBC Sound of 09 Poll winner Little Boots, said last week. "Their music is almost like it comes from a musical -- it's verging on cabaret, all big soaring notes and dramatic stories. They've managed to change their sound on every record, albeit not too much to alienate people."

This isn't to say the frontman always gets things all his own away. Bear in mind that The Killers wasn't even Flowers' project to begin with -- The Killers started life in 2002 when guitarist Dave Keuning placed an advert in a Las Vegas record store seeking like-minded musicians. Since then, the baby-faced frontman may have become de-facto leader, but his dominance only goes so far. For example, his attempt, circa the release of the band's four million-selling second album, Sam's Town, to paint The Killers as Springsteen acolytes prompted dissent, verging on outright revolt, in the ranks.

"I got into a lot of trouble with my band mates about all of that," Flowers confessed in December.

"I absolutely fell in love with Springsteen -- he became the most important thing in my life. I wanted to shout it from the hill-tops. Was it cool? Not at all. And I think certain people involved with The Killers weren't too happy."

Speaking to the rest of the group, you do indeed get the sense that, though Flowers is a valuable, if not indispensable, asset, sometimes the rock-god preening gets a little out of hand.

"It's kind of surreal," bassist Mark Stoermer said last year. "You're thrown together, in a relationship that is in many ways as intimate as marriage. I mean, you're around these guys, all the time. And you don't really know each other. You sort of have to work on the relationship part as you go."

If there's one thing that unites The Killers, it's their low regard for rock and roll hierarchy. Flowers (who else?) is especially vocal about his ambition to unseat Coldplay and U2 (despite a long-standing friendship with Bono). The way he sees it, these acts have been around the block a few times and are ripe for toppling.

"They're getting old," he said. "You know there's going to be a couple songs on [U2's new] record you're going to love. They're unbelievable. But there's gotta be... I dunno, it feels like it's time."

Given his habitual trumpet- blowing, Flowers can hardly cry foul when people write him off as an oddly attired egomaniac. After all, it's a perception the singer hasn't gone out of his way to demolish. When The Killers played their largest ever headline show, before 32,000 fans at Marlay Park, last summer, only a band-approved photographer was allowed to snap the performance. Afterwards, the media could pick from a selection of images pre-approved by the group -- surprisingly, all painted Flowers in a flattering light. In a subsequent interview, he explained that he'd been unhappy at how the press kept taking pictures of him from beneath the jaw line, so that he was made to look flabby and sweaty.

"It's a very unflattering place to have your picture taken," he said. "You can't avoid looking like you have a double chin, especially if you're singing and opening your mouth and screaming. It's a misrepresentation."

Does this make him a difficult person to be around? Perhaps. Then again, nobody would claim that -- to take two random examples -- Michael Jackson or Lou Reed were agreeable company during their creative peaks. Who said Mr Brightside has to be Mr Nice Guy?

"The thing I love about Brandon is that he says whatever the fuck he thinks," said Stuart Price, the Day and Age producer who, having collaborated with Madonna, knows a driven super-star when he sees one.

"And he doesn't care if he's blowing six litres of smoke up his own arse or in someone else's face. That is so refreshing, to have someone that just goes: 'Fuck it, I want to be the best and this is what I think'. And he backs that up with hard work."

The Killers headline Oxegen Main Stage on Sunday

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