Home Music Music Features

Killers Guitarist Dave Keuning Explains Why He Left The Group, How He Returned

“I could not go to the airport and devote myself to two more years of being gone,” says the guitarist and founding member. “I was going crazy”

Dana Trippe*

Guitarist Dave Keuning formed the Killers in 2001 when he took out an ad in a Las Vegas newspaper seeking musicians, and he’s a key creative voice in the group that co-wrote classics like “Mr. Brightside,” ‘Somebody Told Me” and “When You Were Young.” But he stepped off the road in 2017 to spend more time with his family, citing exhaustion. The group insisted he was still technically a member, but it became a little hard to believe when he didn’t participate in the sessions for 2020’s Imploding The Mirage and the band talked about him in the past tense to the press. (Bassist Mark Stoermer stopped touring with the Killers in 2016, but he participated in the album.)

“I don’t want to spill too much dirty laundry, but it’s been years since [Keuning has] been really been a productive part of this band,” Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. told Rolling Stone in May 2020. “And it sucks. We have to get used to it, and hopefully that will level out and we’ll figure out a way forward. He can come back if that’s what he wants. This is all his decision.”

Earlier this year, however, the Killers shared a video of themselves working on their next album. At the 12-second mark, the camera pans to a masked man in the corner that is clearly Keuning. It wasn’t paired with any sort of announcement and the group has been quiet since then. (A rep for the group did not reply to a request for comment on Keuning’s statements.) But we recently spoke to Keuning about his upcoming solo LP A Mild Case of Everything, and he finally revealed what’s happening with him and the Killers.

Do you miss playing live?
Yeah. I miss shows and I’m hoping to play some shows, either with myself or hopefully the Killers, whenever that is possible again. But I was just sick of the touring, which is the other 22 hours of the day, when you aren’t onstage.

I was done with that, just traveling and going back to the hotel or going back to the bus and going to the next town. I’ve done that a lot. Some people aren’t very sympathetic. But everyone’s situation is different at home, or how much they can take. Sometimes I felt like I was under a little, unnecessary microscope. It was like, “Why don’t you want to tour?” I’d be like, “You mean why don’t I want to be gone 11 months out of the year? Do I need to come up with a detailed explanation? Are you gone 11 months out of the year?”

My perception of Brandon and Ronnie is that they thrive on that.
Everyone has a different threshold or motivation or personal situation. I loved it. I really do miss the shows. I mostly miss the shows and the fans and the crowds and all that stuff. But I did it a lot for 10 years. After a while, I just wanted to experience something else. I was fortunate to get a house, but I was never there. I wanted to actually live in it and have a normal life.

Did you feel weird about other people onstage playing your parts?
Yeah. I did. But I didn’t know how to feel. I still don’t know how to feel. It just is what it is. Someone was going to play my parts unless they were going to not tour at all. This was the compromise. But it feels weird. Sometimes things happen and someone will play my song and I’m like, “Hey, that’s cool and I’m flattered.” But it’s kind of a mixed emotion thing. When that happens, I just try and be rational about it.

“After a while, I just wanted to experience something else. I was fortunate to get a house, but I was never there.”

I saw them play at Madison Square Garden on the last tour. It was fun but at times it did sort of feel like the Rolling Stones without Keith Richards.
Thanks for saying that. I’m a big Stones fan and a big Keith fan. And I feel like people don’t understand certain dynamics of certain bands. Speaking of the Stones, I love the Bill Wyman era. They haven’t been as good since he left.

Why didn’t you play on Imploding The Mirage?
I don’t know. I just needed a break from everything. That album was probably just as busy of a schedule as touring for 10 or 11 months. That record took a long time to record. I feel like it took a year and a half. Only they would know, but I feel like it took a while.

I just … we were kind of at a stalemate. We have broken that stalemate a little bit now and I’ve been recording on what will be the next record. I came in towards the middle of it. But I was just playing guitar on songs and just trying to make them as good as I could. I think we did write a couple songs that we put together and used my chord changes and stuff.

You said two years ago you were frustrated your songs “fell to the bottom of the pile.” The fans got the sense you left because you were unhappy with not just the heavy touring, but also your role in the creative process.
Yeah. I mean, I shouldn’t be very specific because fans jump on everything I say and it’s very hard to not … I think the touring thing, I could not do anymore, even if I wanted to. It’s hard to go into it. As I said, and nobody is going to sympathize with me, but physically and mentally I could not go to the airport and devote myself to two more years of being gone. I could not do it. I was going crazy.

I’m not a big druggie or anything like that, but I get why all the past rock stars did that stuff. I understand it 100% because being on the road you start to get bored. You start to miss home. You miss your family. And what are you going to do all day? You don’t want to … I got tired of constantly feeling guilty because I was never home and I have a son.

I had all these thoughts. Also, I just needed some balance. There was no way i could do the tour. And the writing is kind of a separate question. But like I said, if it was recorded in San Diego, I probably could have been a part of it. I wasn’t ready to work out of Vegas or Utah for a year and a half.

“As time goes on, everybody wants to make something different.”

I spoke to Ronnie about a year ago. He said, “I don’t want to spill too much dirty laundry, but it’s been years since he’s been really a productive part of this band.”
I remember hearing something about that and I was annoyed. But Ronnie and I get along pretty well. I don’t want to ruin that. [Laughs] But…[sighs] … we were a band in the beginning. And why did we become a band in the first place? Because we all agreed on everything. We all got along great. We all wanted to make the same kind of music.

And then as time goes on, everybody wants to make something different. People’s personal lives change. It wasn’t by choice that I wasn’t involved. I tried to contribute. [Sigh] I want to answer this very carefully: It’s kind of a perfect storm. I don’t have creative control. I can’t just walk in and say, “This song is going to make the record.” But also, I had so much drama going on in my personal life that it was hard for me to devote my creative brain to it 100%.

I think the break has actually done me a lot of good. Maybe that’s what I needed. I’ve felt really creative the past five years. But when my idea doesn’t get used over and over and over again, I’m kind of left with only a few choices: I can fight about it or use it in a solo project that not nearly as many people will know about, but at least it gives me a finished sense of satisfaction. And I’m happy that some of these songs are seeing the light of day instead of never being finished.

So how did you return to the band?
It’s fairly simple: Something came up and we hadn’t had much contact in a couple years. I think it was kind of the pandemic, actually. They were about to go on tour before the pandemic and that tour was cancelled. And then they reached out. They were working on a record because they had all this time on their hands, and they asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I said, “I’ll try.” It hasn’t actually been super easy to get all four of us in a room because of the pandemic. But it got me talking to them again and recording with them again.

We got tested before a lot of these recording sessions, especially in the early part of it. Sometimes it was someone else, like an engineer or producer or a studio owner, that didn’t want the studio used unless everyone in it was tested. Everyone had to be willing to take risks since the last year and a half has been scary. It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing, just logistically. But we have been able to record, which got us talking again. Things area little more relaxed. Maybe just because there wasn’t much to do or argue about.

Are you giving them material? Are they using your songs?
Uh … On some songs, an idea that I came up with or worked on is going to make the record. There’s probably two of those. A lot of these were songs that were already written. I don’t want to give too much away because that would be unfair to the guys that are going to do interviews about the material, but it’s kind of a concept record. So any material written for it had to fit with it.

We’re already discussing recording yet another record, which would be crazy if the Killers would do three records in three or four years. It would be probably the quickest turnaround we’ve ever done.

“I felt like I was in a no-win situation. I couldn’t ask them to stop even though they wanted to keep going.”

Are you going to go on the tour they eventually do?
I would like to. [Laughs] I respect you [for asking], but this is band stuff. It has been brought up. I mean … I think I will. I just don’t want to announce anything. I feel like I’ll jinx myself if I do. But I definitely miss playing the shows.

If they go out and do 100 shows, are you willing to devote that much time to the road?
A hundred? That’s nothing. Are you kidding me. Yeah, I’ll do 100. What people don’t understand is that I’m only in their town one night of the year, but there were some years where [we did 200 shows] a year in the Sam’s Town/Hot Fuss era.

Will Mark be on tour also?
I can’t answer that. And I honestly don’t know. I’m not him. I’m happy to be back in the picture. I’m taking it one day at a time, I guess.

The fans are going to be thrilled. To make a different band analogy, for a while it was like U2 going out without The Edge. It’s not the same band at all when you remove the guitarist.
Well, I appreciate you saying that. [Laughs] I can’t add to that.

If The Edge said he needed a year off, I think U2 would just wait until he was ready. They wouldn’t just get some other guitarist and hit the road.
I’ve had those thoughts. I’m not going to lie. I felt like I was in a no-win situation. I couldn’t ask them to stop even though they wanted to keep going. Either way, I lose, pretty much. It’s a tough choice, and there’s always fans out there that don’t understand my personal situation. “Why aren’t you there?” I’m like, “I know you hate me, but at least you’re still seeing Killers shows. I don’t know what to tell you.”

You inadvertently became a mysterious person. To use yet another band analogy, you became like Izzy Stradlin in Guns N’ Roses, a founding guitarist that wrote a bunch of the key songs and then was gone one day without a lot of explanation.
Ten or 15 years ago, I would have never, ever thought I would have done that. You would have had to drag me kicking and screaming from doing a tour. I loved it. I remember growing up and wondering why band members would leave. I have a lot of respect for bands that are still together and I always wonder why members leave. It’s very hard to understand these situations unless you’re in them. And unfortunately, I’m in it.

It’s hard to walk away. I’ve been there since day one. I still love playing the hits live. That’s never going to get old, even if it’s just to see the crowd’s reaction to songs I’ve played 1,000 times. It’s as great a feeling [as it ever was].

There’s never a moment where you’re playing “Mr. Brightside” and you’re thinking, “I’ve played this damn song 10,000 times…”
No. There are nights maybe where a moment comes and goes like, “Man, I’ve been doing this for six months.” But they come and go. Most of it is fun.

If you do a Killers tour, do you think you’ll play songs off Imploding The Mirage?
I’d rather…[Pause] Yeah, I’ll play on them. They haven’t gotten to really play those live. There will be songs from at least one or two records … if it’s on the setlist, I’ll play it.

Did it feel weird to hear a Killers record that you weren’t on?
Yeah. I don’t know what to think. If you’re no longer on a sports team, do you root for or against him? I don’t know. You’re a part of them and you’re a part of the team forever. Or do you hate them because you aren’t on it? But then you get back on the team and are traded back. It’s confusing. [Laughs]

When I left, we used the word “hiatus.” I don’t know why we were doing things that other bands don’t bother doing, like explaining our reasons for everything. We took about a year off after Day & Age. But if we hadn’t had said anything, I don’t think people would have noticed because lots of bands do that.

Time goes by so fast that if bands wait four years for another record, you probably won’t notice because you’re doing other things and listening to other music, and all of a sudden, they’re back. But everybody kind of had a different amount of thresholds of what they could … I just couldn’t do tour/record, tour/record. I couldn’t do that forever.

I don’t blame you, but it’s great you’re back. Very few bands still have all their founding members. It should remain that way for as long as possible.
You’re preaching to the choir. I agree. [Laughs]

From Rolling Stone US