The Killers on Healing in the Pressure Machine
"It's kind of incredible once we opened the door, what was waiting"Photo by Danny Clinch Music Features The Killers
When I ask frontman Brandon Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. of The Killers what the inciting conversation was that led to their forthcoming concept record, Flowers brings up a sketch from the series Portlandia. “It was kind of like a “Dream of the ‘90s” thing, remember?” They both crack up, and Vannucci confirms, “I remember you saying, ‘I need you to follow me on this.’”
“We’d spoken about this, almost jokingly said, ‘This type of shit, I’m really feeling this,’ not those words, but we were talking about this era and these times,” Vannucci Jr. explains. “Then the sky fell with COVID, and it put us in this zone. I keep calling it a zone because it felt like a fucking zone. You were sequestered. You were stuck in this place with this feeling. Nobody was sure what was going on, and [there were] stay-at-home orders. It evoked this feeling, and it just put us in a place, and we decided to bloodhound it and track it down and follow it and make this record.”
When it comes to reverence for the places that have shaped them, The Killers are well-versed in the art of retrospection. “I imagine whenever there’s some sort of introspective search, it wouldn’t make any sense to … ” Vannucci Jr. pauses when I ask about what I assume is their penchant for looking back. “You have to look back to see where you’re going, to see where you’ve been and to think about things. It just makes sense to go back into the files of your mind,” he deadpans, “your mind files, and research that, and see what kind of kernels pop up and what things are triggered, and what emotions develop out of our memories for certain things. It’s not that we’re always—we’re not looking backward all the time, but we’re just present. And I think part of being present is to remember where you’ve been.”
Where their sophomore album Sam’s Town was a triumphant return to the band’s dust-riddled origins of Las Vegas, Nevada, Pressure Machine is a raw and visceral slouching back home. Told through the guises of multiple characters, each song narrates memories and true stories from Flowers’ hometown of Nephi, Utah, weaving tales of religious disenchantment, broken dreams, death by train collision, and escape by means of “heroine hillbilly pills.”
“When I go back again to that time, everything, every day was new, when you’re a kid,” Flowers recalls of his years growing up in Nephi. “Especially if something stood out, if it was shocking or sad, those memories really have just taken hold in different spots in my brain and my heart. It’s kind of incredible once we opened the door, what was waiting.”
It’s hard to say if they would have arrived at that door at all, had it not been for the pandemic halting the touring schedule they’d been on for nearly two decades, or the silence and space of lockdown. “We were about to go on tour for Imploding the Mirage and I think we had 60 gigs booked. It was laid out and it just stopped, and there was this isolation, and words like quarantine were getting thrown around,” Flowers says. “It reminded me of living in this town I spent my formative years in. When I was there, it was probably a few thousand people. I started going back there mentally and these songs started to come.”
Audio narrations recorded from real Nephi residents play between songs, and upon hearing them, I assumed they’d been part of the album’s framework all along, but apparently, they were added at the 11th hour. “It was a very last-minute part of the record. We found a guy that was affiliated with public radio in Salt Lake City and sent him to Nephi,” Flowers recalls. “We were scrambling to figure out what were the right nuggets to put before each song, because we were mastering the record at the time. I remember feeling not sure about it—now it’s like I can’t imagine it not being on the record.” The voice recordings give Pressure Machine a novel-like quality, with each song as a chapter of a larger story. “It was like we had an audio component to the documentary we were making about a place and time,” Vannucci Jr. says. “We were generating the score almost, and we didn’t have the talking part yet, the real sort of obvious narrative snippets. It just made it feel like a more complete project.”
The band reversed their typical approach in the studio for Pressure Machine, with Flowers coming in with completed lyrics in hand. “It was … it was a blessing that the lyrics came,” Flowers laughs, and Vannucci Jr. makes a joke about that usually not being the case. “It’s an ideal way of working, but it doesn’t always come that easily,” Flowers adds. “I was just really grateful for the couple of months when it seemed like it was just flowing. And I hope, our fingers are crossed, that I can continue to tap into whatever that is.” Vannuci Jr. seemed to appreciate going in lyrics-first, adding, “We had a narrative that we can musically wrap our minds around where usually we’re making music to inspire a lyric. It was cool to have that kind of zone, that focus, that intent, to have these lyrics we had to make sense of musically.”
Hometowns can be strange places, despite their familiarity, and Pressure Machine somehow captures that dissonance. The album opens with “West Hills,” a slowly swelling track, featuring Flowers’ expert allegory-crafting skills, about the carnal meeting the spiritual, and a drug dealer’s fraught search for freedom. It immediately pulls you into a voyage marked by the discomfort required when reconciling the past, not letting you off the ride for 10 more tracks. You can hear it in the desperate desire to escape from not only a town, but also life itself in the gentle humming of “Terrible Thing.” It’s also there in the realization, “We keep on waiting for the miracle to come,” in the grunge-tinged “Cody.” And even though Flowers’ voice is bell-like and pacifying in the album’s title track, when he echoes, “Butterflies don’t just dance on a string / It feels like you clipped all their wings,” it sounds like a confrontation.
Though Pressure Machine will likely draw comparisons to previous blue-collar case studies (looking at you, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska), upon closer inspection, it really just sounds like a more integrated Killers—a band playing and writing with the hindsight they could only procure after hearing every version of themselves, landing somewhere between gritty and beautiful, symphonic and straightforward, finding themselves at home.
Blame it on a recent self-enforced exile to the small town where I grew up, a place where my Sundays are spent sat in a pew, wondering whether I should heed my dad’s sermons on damnation, and dinner conversation revolves around local tragedies or admiration for those who finally got out, but as an evaluation of the human condition, each of Pressure Machine’s stories hits home.
It’s easy to imagine the buoyant “Sleepwalker,” with its treatise on optimism and Vannucci Jr.’s rising drum beat at the bridge, as a calmer moment at the Killers show after “Somebody Told Me” or a meditative break before a mainstay like “When You Were Young,” but outside of a few moments, songs made for the band’s typically larger stages are few and far between. When I ask Flowers how they plan to add these tracks to their setlist, he replies, “This album is not lending itself so much to arenas and stadiums. It feels more like a theater club situation, but there might be a couple, maybe ‘In The Car Outside’ or ‘Quiet Town.’”
Most of Pressure Machine’s brightest moments come by way of quiet contemplations on forfeited desires. It can be heard in “Another Life” when the protagonist harps on a parallel reality where hopes are fulfilled. It’s also there in the timeless, tear-inducing “Runaway Horses,” which sees Flowers and Phoebe Bridgers duetting the lyrics, “Small town girl, put your dreams on ice, never thinking twice / Some you’ll surely forget and some that you never will,” over acoustic guitar. Despite being one of the world’s most successful rock bands, when they sing about broken dreams and small-town struggles, every single word feels true.
“We aren’t that … at least we don’t feel that far removed from regular life. We grew up with regular homes and experiences, and we have siblings and cousins, and friends from the places that we grew up. It’s not that far, or in our rearview mirror. Being able to draw from those experiences, it’s kind of what our job is to do. Reflect some of these things, do justice to these observations and these experiences, and we’re really happy with how this one turned out,” Flowers shares when I ask how they stay so close to these stories from the other side of success. Vannucci Jr.’s response is slightly more satirical: “It’s all about truth, you know what I mean?” he laughs. “I’m sorry. I’m joking, but you ask about what our lives might be like. It’s crazy, I’ll see new artists who have only been sort of happening for a couple of years and they have this perception of them [that’s] kind of crazy and blowing tons of cash. They’ve gotten movie star friends. I don’t think we’re a band that really wants to be involved with anything that isn’t real and true and honest.”
Healing can be a strange thing. Last year, around this time, I wrote a story for Paste about rock bands using their platforms to speak out on social justice, noting how The Killers hadn’t posted a black square on Black Out Tuesday. A month after that, Flowers told NME in an interview, “We need the understanding of what is still happening in America. Yes, slavery has been over for a long time, but systematic racism has been in place ever since. We need to make changes.” It felt more contextualized—more real, true and honest than a vague social media post. Towards the end of our video call, I mention that, as a fan, reading that conversation had been healing for me. Then I shift the focus back to them: Was creating Pressure Machine, with all of its mining of uncomfortable memories, healing?
“I think so.” Flowers pauses, and I can hear a slight change in his voice. “I was in eighth grade, some seniors at the high school got killed by a train, and I only had small encounters with each of them. But here I am, 25 years later, and I still get really emotional thinking about that time and what it did to the town. It was just an end of innocence. It’s such a cliché thing to say, but it was real. I felt like it opened the door for these other sad things that happened in the town with opioids. I saw that as like this beginning point. It can definitely be a healing thing. To explore those things, work through those things, and see where you’re at.”
Pressure Machine is out this Friday, Aug. 13.
Erica Campbell is a host and rock journalist with stories in Spin, NME, and Alternative Press. She’s the former music editor of Consequence and owns a star ornamented boot collection that would make David Bowie proud. You can confront her about her boot hoarding habit on Twitter and check out her latest stories and interviews at campbellerica.com.