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How the Killers Started Over Again

Before ‘Imploding the Mirage,’ they’d never made an album without founding guitarist Dave Keuning. It proved to be much more difficult than they imagined

Chad Kirkland for Rolling Stone

When the Killers began work on their new album, Imploding the Mirage, they had virtually everything they needed: a batch of new songs, a seven-month break from the road, and a large home studio nestled away in Park City, Utah, where they could work and live without distraction. The only thing missing was their guitarist, Dave Keuning.

Keuning started the band back in 2001, when he took out an ad in a Las Vegas newspaper looking for local musicians to play with. The first song he wrote with future Killers frontman Brandon Flowers after they met up was “Mr. Brightside,” and he’d gone on to play a pivotal role in crafting each album they’d made since then. But he stepped away from the road shortly after the recording of 2017’s Wonderful Wonderful, citing factors including creative frustration, and he hasn’t played with the Killers in the three years since, though they say he technically remains an official member.  (Founding bassist Mark Stoermer has also scaled back his involvement in the band, but he continues to play some shows and studio parts.)

On the road, the Killers were able to soldier on with hired hands, but recording new songs turned out to be a different story. “We were trying to make it sound like the band wasn’t fractured,” says Flowers. “And trying to sound like the Killers. It was almost like we were doing this dumbed-down, mannequin version of the band.”

The more collaborators they brought in to fill that void, the worse it got. They don’t want to name everyone they tried during this self-described “speed dating” process, but producer Jacknife Lee — whom they worked with on Wonderful Wonderful — was one of them. “He was trying to make it sound like there was a Dave there,” says Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. “It felt a little dishonest.”

After six months of recording, they didn’t have anything they were happy with. Then producer Shawn Everett and Jonathan Rado of California psychedelic-rock duo Foxygen entered the picture. “That was a big awakening for us,” says Flowers. “We loved being with them, and it made us want to course-correct.”

Around the same time, producer Ariel Rechtshaid played Flowers some of the new Vampire Weekend album, Father of the Bride. “I realized I couldn’t continue on the path that I was on,” says Flowers. “It reminded me of the way I felt when I heard Is This It [by the Strokes].  I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t just phone this in. If Ezra [Koenig] is doing this, I need to up my game a little bit.’ I was inspired and jealous. For me those, two emotions combined really light a fire under me.”

The Killers decided to throw out nearly everything they had done in Utah and start over in Los Angeles and in their own studio in Las Vegas. Everett and Rado joined the effort full time, and songs started coming more quickly. Still, Keuning’s absence remained a vexing problem. Vannucci recalls the recording of “Caution,” which would become the new album’s lead single: “We got to the point where it was like, ‘Okay, time to put some guitars on it.’ Then we’d be like, ‘Fuck, Dave’s not here.’ We were having Thai food one night, kind of pissed, and I jokingly said, ‘Okay, we’ll call Lindsey fuckin’ Buckingham!’”

The band just so happens to share a publicity firm with the former Fleetwood Mac guitarist, and the next afternoon, Buckingham showed up at the studio, guitar in hand. “He brought that song from 2D to 3D with his guitar playing,” says Vannucci.  “He seemed to really get the musical sensitivities of the song right off the bat and just knew what colors to add.”

That encounter set the template for the rest of the sessions, where everyone from Weyes Blood and K.D. Lang to the War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel joined in on the fun. “The charm about being in L.A. is that you’re so close to everybody,” adds Vannucci. “They’re just a phone call away.”

The track “Dying Breed” was created in collaboration with producer Flood, whom the band hadn’t worked with since their 2006 LP Sam’s Town. Flowers says that helped give the song “an industrial vibe” that he likes: “What I love about Flood is he doesn’t have a problem x-ing something out if he doesn’t like it. What he did with it was a lot more stark than what we would have done, but it kept the spirit of the song. It has a heart to it that really grabs you.”

Lead-off track “My Own Soul’s Warning” was written near the end of the sessions, when Flowers worried he didn’t have a single yet and started to panic. The song came to him in a burst of inspiration, but getting the right mix has been a problem. “It’s a stubborn son of a bitch,” says Flowers. “We’re near 90 mixes of it I think. But it’s my favorite song on the record. I can’t wait for people to hear it.”

Taken as a whole, Imploding the Mirage has the kind of roaring energy and catchy hooks that recall the band’s early classics, even though the collaborators all bring unique twists to it. “A lot of moments reminded me of making our first album, where you just know that it’s going to connect because of the way it makes you feel,” says Flowers. “I felt like that 20-year-old kid almost inventing something again.”

Still, the Killers aren’t the same band that started out nearly 20 years ago. Stoermer took a step back in 2016, a few years after a pyro mishap in London left him with hearing damage; he remains close to the other guys in the band, and they expect to play select dates with him in the future.

The situation with Keuning, who released a solo album last year, is different. “All I ever wanted was to play guitar in a successful band, but it took its toll in more ways than one,” he said in 2019.  “Mentally, physically, doing the same thing over and over again . . . I needed balance back in my life.” He was also upset about his role in the creative process. “I was writing all these ideas for songs,” he said. “But they always fell to the bottom of the pile. So I felt, well, may as well do something. And it was fun to realize I could have complete control over them, after having very little control in the Killers.”

Both Flowers and Vannucci say the door is open if he ever feels like getting back to work with them. “I don’t want to spill too much dirty laundry, but it’s been years since he’s been really been a productive part of this band,” says Vannucci. “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.”

The band is still mixing Imploding the Mirage, whose May 29th release date has been pushed back by the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re incredibly psyched for fans to hear it, even as they are realistic about their odds of getting a song on the radio — if they do get a major hit of that kind, it would be their first since 2008’s “Human.” In that same time, however, the Killers have became one of the most popular touring rock bands on the planet, regularly headlining stadiums in Europe and packing arenas all over America.

They’ve pulled this off by touring relentlessly, sometimes playing more than 100 shows a gig a year and never getting off the road for more than a few months. “There’s a lot of cities in the world and a lot of people and the fans keep coming,” says Flowers. “It’s addictive. It’s become more than cathartic or more than exciting for me. It’s something that’s a part of my identity, and I still enjoy getting better at it. I love it.”

That strategy will be more complicated this time around: The band booked an extensive European summer tour, followed by a run of American arenas, but venue closures due to COVID-19 mean that most if not all of those dates will have to wait. “It’s frustrating,” says Flowers. “But there’s just more important stuff going on right now. Those stadiums are going to still be there in 2021.”

In the meantime, the group is trying to think of ways to promote the album from their homes. They already taped a stripped-down performance of “Caution” for Jimmy Kimmel Live from Flowers’ bathroom, and they are thinking about more streaming shows. “We’re starting to bat ideas around,” says Flowers. “I guess the only alternative would be to make another record.”