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After a heavily scrutinised four-year absence, The Killers quietly returned to the scene in September with their new album Battle Born. Unlike the 80's dance pop production of their last effort, Battle Born is a leaner beast, marking a return to the Americana-tinged songwriting of their early years. With a focus on Springsteen-esque character narratives and escapist open-road imagery, the album performs that brilliant balancing act between pastiche and innovation that has made The Killers so exciting, and their sound is still tailor-made for the grand scope of the stadium spectacular.
Currently touring the UK’s finest arenas before bringing their show Down Under for Big Day Out 2013, guitarist Dave Keuning spoke to us from Manchester.
Battle Born went through a long process in the studio, and you had a sort of revolving door of producers on a bunch of different tracks, but to me it has the clearest focus of any of your albums. How was that achieved?
DK: Obviously, the four band members are the common link, regardless of what producer we use. But I appreciate you saying that because we definitely had concerns that it wouldn’t be cohesive and we talked about, like, “How is this gonna be cohesive if we’re working with this guy?”
Part of the reasons for working with different producers was just plain scheduling. There were a variety of different reasons why we ended up doing that, but we were concerned about that … Maybe just because of having us all on the same page, it all just kind of ended up sounding like us anyway – no matter what we did, I think.
So the revolving door wasn’t necessarily an experiment on your part – a new way of trying things?
Dave Keuning: Oh, to a smaller extent. We were experimenting when we worked with a couple of producers we had never worked with before, like Steve Lillywhite – we had never worked with him before. His name’s been on a lot of classic songs. So we thought, “He’s available these certain days. Let’s see what he brings to the table.” That was a little bit of an experiment, but it turned out that he kind of added to what we already had, you know? Helped that way.
The album has been out for a couple of months and you’ve been playing the songs off the album live for a while now. Do they feel like they’re settling in, like they’re part of the standard set?
DK: Some do and some don’t. I think the new ones… We go through the same thing every new album – [the audience] don’t quite know some of the deeper album tracks and some audiences maybe know one song more than the next one. I guess it’s just the luck of the draw.
Sadly, we’re in an era where people don’t necessarily even finish your album. Some people just listen to the first half and then move on to something else. That’s just the way it is. It’s not like you’ve got just a CD player or a vinyl player, like 20 or 30 years ago, and then you listen to both sides or you listen to the whole CD before you move on. I’ve been with a lot of people who listen to the hit song and then just take the CD out of the car and throw it on the ground or whatever, even though there’s other tracks. So you have to have a little bit of patience and hope that people kind of eventually experiment and give the other ones a shot.
So do you try and work everything into your set at some point?
DK: We force some of the new ones upon them, whether they want to hear it or not! We just say, “Look, you’re gonna listen to eight new ones tonight and we’re still gonna play all the hits and you’re gonna enjoy that”, and that’s just how we roll.
You’re coming back to Australia in 2013 for the Big Day Out. Before you arrived last time, you made a statement about the band taking a break after you finished your shows here. That obviously made quite an impression on the music press around the world.
DK: Yeah, I guess so. That’s an understatement. I really should never have made that statement. I regret it. I wish I could retract it. All I was saying… People were saying, “What are you doing next?” I said, “We’re taking a break”, and everyone was like (GASPS) “What?!”
Like, every band takes a damn break! I’m sorry I said we’re taking a break. If we wouldn’t have said anything, I don’t think people would have noticed that it was four years or whatever between albums, because it goes by really quickly.
So you don’t have any other grand announcements you’d like to share this time around?
DK: No, no! No grand revelations. Learned my lesson.
You were last at the Big Day Out in 2007. It’s kind of a rite of passage for Australians to go to that festival. Do you have any memories of your first Big Day Out?
DK: No. I mean, I know I had a good time that first tour. Everyone at that festival’s having a great time and those are my favourite gigs to play ’cause it’s a great vibe.
Because I keep hearing over and over that you guys love touring Australia, specifically. I can never tell if that’s due to me hearing you speak to the Australian media and you blowing smoke up our asses.
DK: No, they’re very good crowds and the festivals are even better than their normal crowds. So it’s a good time. I can’t remember many specific memories. I know I played there once on my birthday – that was an Australian festival.
The sideshows you’re playing in Sydney and Melbourne are in relatively intimate venues. Do you reshape the show to cater for a smaller crowd?
DK: Usually, we have less stuff on stage – all of our screens and pyrotechnics and things like that. It just means less people, smaller stage, so everyone’s a little bit closer and closer to the front. Like you said, it’s more intimate. They’re both fun. We like those gigs as well as the festivals.
Do you change the song arrangements up at all?
DK: Not necessarily, but the smaller the crowd seem to be, the more well-versed they are with all our music, like the deeper tracks, so we feel a little bit more free to kind of play any song we want, whereas with a big crowd we want to be a little bit mindful that people want just the hits, which we like to play anyway.
Your songs have an expansive, anthemic quality, which sound like they’re written for large audiences – arenas and stadiums. Did you always have that earnestness?
DK: I think we always had it in us, even before we were playing big crowds. From the get-go, we wanted big choruses and big songs, and we were never afraid of just explosive, fun songs. I don’t think we ever shied away from that from the get-go. I think, to us, it’s really not something we talk about. It comes natural to us. I know that other bands, just from playing around with local bands and meeting other musicians, it’s something other bands do shy away from or are almost embarrassed to try and do it. I don’t think that we ever understood that, so we never shied away from it. We were just like, “Why wouldn’t you want to do this?” That’s who we are, I guess.
I guess, specifically, I’m interested in what your first few gigs were like, together as a band for the first time. Did you try and sell the big sound straight away?
DK: Some of the songs, yeah. Brightside has been around from the beginning. So that one certainly falls into that category, I think. I think it caught the attention of people that were like “Huh”. Their ears maybe perked up a little bit more when we played.
I remember the first time we played Somebody Told Me, a friend of mine came up and said, “You guys have that great new song. You know – the one with the chorus!” And I was like, “Yeah, I
know which one you’re talking about!” I knew right away he was talking about Somebody Told Me because we’d just played it for the first time. People liked it. That was a good sign, right away.
You’ve said that your sound isn’t something you try and manufacture. Is it a reflection of who you want to be as a band?
DK: I think it’s a reflection of our influences. U2 would be one of them, The Cure, Duran Duran, all those guys. And The Beatles, of course – just good, plain songwriting. I think as the band evolved and started playing, doing lots of touring, then it was maybe something we were a little bit more conscious of. Like, “Oh, this song is going to go over live and maybe this one isn’t.”
On our album, there’s still room to take chances on songs, and if we do something a little bit more experimental, it doesn’t mean we have to play it live. We’ve never played Goodnight, Travel Well live, but it’s one of my favourite songs. But then, you can do kinda whatever you want, but there’s definitely songs on each album that are meant for a live singalong type thing.
I have to ask you about this Werner Herzog documentary, which is available to watch online. I know you weren’t there, but you were notable by your absence. Where were you to be found? [Herzog recently shot a mini-documentary featuring slo-mo footage of Keuning with the subtitle 'Dave Keuning, guitarist, was not to be found']
DK: I was on vacation in Hawaii and I didn’t want to come to town for that. That’s the big mystery that everybody’s wondering [about]. It’s not really a great answer, but there isn’t a lot of time off once the tour began, which it has, and I don’t have much time off. That was the only chance I had to go so something had to give. (CHUCKLES)
I guess it was a bit of dry humour on his part.
DK: (LAUGHS) It’s fine. It’s fine. If I’m not there I shouldn’t be able to say what is said about me.
Do you have a Christmas single this year?
DK: Yeah. We do that pretty much every year… It’s for the (RED) Campaign. The money goes to that.
Is there anything new to report there?
DK: The song is almost… It’s being finished as we speak and I’m not sure when it’ll come out but we’re just putting the finishing touches on it. I just was listening to the mix about a half-hour ago… It’s sounding good. I like this one more than the last couple. It’s got a good vibe to it. It doesn’t sound like a Christmas song, necessarily, but we kind of made it into one.