The Killers' Brandon Flowers is one of pop music's reigning front men. In the years following the Las Vegas-based band's triple-platinum glam-rock debut Hot Fuss in 2004, Flowers has chilled out a bit with the eyeliner and become a father of two. The band has also come more into its own, with two albums more introspective and pared down than the first. Flowers, a little bit ingÃ©nue, a little bit bad boy, recently caught the admiring, obsessive eye of artist Elizabeth Peyton, who over the years has painted a myriad of male musicians (David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Eminem, Jarvis Cocker, among others). The subject of recent retrospectives at the New Museum and Whitechapel Gallery, Peyton paints intimate, sweetly idealized portraits of her friends and idols using jewel-like, vibrant colors. And since Peyton's always taken photos, often using them as source material for her paintings (last year The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum even organized a survey of said photos), we asked her to shoot her newest discovery for the cover story. To our delight, she agreed. Here, Peyton interviews and photographs her muse.
In early July I was in London and saw that The Killers were playing at Royal Albert Hall. I don't know what I was doing in the mid-2000s, because I somehow missed hearing this band, but I thought they must be something special if they were playing there. And so I went. From the first song, I was blown away by the enormity of the music: It was melodic, anthemic, huge, and then there was the crushing beauty and ferocity of lead singer Brandon Flowers's voice. He was singing like his life depended on it. In a very short time every human being in that room was connected to him, on their feet, hands in the air, jumping up and down. Everyone knew every word to every song -- except me. But I've been catching up.
Brandon Flowers has a passion and individuality that is American in the best sense. His songs are about love, life, death and spacemen, and like Walt Whitman and Bruce Springsteen, he radiates joy in being alive and human.
Elizabeth Peyton: What's your favorite Beatles song?
Brandon Flowers: "In My Life."
EP: When and where were you born?
BF: I was born June 21st, 1981, in Henderson, Nevada.
EP: What are your favorite words?
BF: Conundrum, desert and Ammon -- it's my son's name.
EP: What does the title of your first album Hot Fuss mean?
BF: It comes from a very specific moment that I am not at liberty to give out.
EP: You actually say more by not saying... What was it like when you first met your bandmates?
BF: It was one at a time. First, it was me and Dave [Keuning], and yeah, it was exciting to meet anybody in Las Vegas that liked some of the same bands that I liked, 'cause there aren't a lot of opportunities for great music in Las Vegas. It was exciting to meet people who knew the Talking Heads and the Smiths. As crazy as that sounds, someone who liked those bands was a really different person in Las Vegas.
EP: I read that the first song you wrote together was "Mr. Brightside." When you first played that, did you guys all look at each other and go, "Oh my God, where did this come from?"
BF: Well, Dave had the guitar line, and we didn't have a drummer yet. I wanted to have this monotone driving thing over it, and I added a chorus to it, and I don't think I knew how exciting it was until we did it with a drummer. As soon as we stuck the BPM on it, it was really exciting. I felt really good about it.
EP: Based on the lyrics, "Mr. Brightside" seems to be about a girl who cheated on you, but it was good because that freed you to fulfill your destiny -- to be in a huge rock band. Did you know then how big you were going to be when you wrote that?
BF: No, it was so exciting to play in bars. We had big aspirations, but I knew I had a lot to learn.
EP: Were you happy as a young person?
BF: I was very happy.
EP: You seem so sweet and nice, but then when you sing it's just like an avalanche of every kind of emotion. There are so many songs like that. Sometimes it's really delicate and then you're, like, breathing fire. Do you get surprised by your voice?
BF: I remember when I first started to realize that it had a power about it, and it was after Hot Fuss, during the touring of [our second album] Sam's Town. What happened was that there was a huge backlash, there were awful reviews of the album and we had to go tour this thing.
EP: That's so unbelievable, it's an incredible record.
BF: You grow up and you know about Rolling Stone and Spin. My brother had NME and Spin on the wall with Morrissey on it. You can't help but pay attention to [the press]. Spin gave Sam's Town two stars. It was a shock 'cause we loved it, we thought it was so great. What it did, and what I'm grateful for, it lit a fire in us that we didn't have during Hot Fuss. While touring Hot Fuss, we were trying to be cool and not trying to mess up, but for Sam's Town we were playing for our lives, to show every journalist that was going to come that night that this album was good, and I started singing and pushing. We became a good live band.
EP: It's amazing that a band that sold seven million records is saying they really had to push themselves. Do you have to take care of your voice in any special way?
BF: Yeah, I stopped smoking. I always felt guilty about it, but I also knew it
was hurting me, and quitting helped a lot. As soon as I stopped, I started
taking voice lessons.
EP: On that David Letterman clip I keep seeing of you singing "A Dustland Fairytale," your voice was just more, more, more.
BF: I think that had a lot to do with the lessons.
EP: It seems like your first record was more European, and then you got more American on Sam's Town, and now with your newest record, Day & Age, it's like you've gone to outer space.
BF: Yeah, that's a pretty good interpretation. That's how I look at the band. We were all very influenced by English music: the Cure, Depeche Mode, the Smiths, the Beatles, the Stones, U2, all this British stuff. And I think we were really so impacted by it. We all felt growing up that we had to be different from what we were, because what we were just didn't seem good enough. So we put on suits, and I was trying to be Richard Butler or whoever it is -- and it worked. Then we went there -- we had never been to England or Europe -- and when we went, we realized we weren't like these people. So it was a real shock. And it's nothing against them, but I don't want to be like them. I'm an American. So then we had to backpedal. [Sam's Town] was trying to be a little more honest. And so by being honest, people said that it looked contrived because of the first album. So it was all a big mess. Outer space is kind of neutral territory -- that's where we are now.
EP: I think your new record is in a way like The Beatles' Help!, in that it's a reaction to being successful, wanting to disappear. Do you agree?
BF: I try to stay away from that stuff -- though I'm sure it's made its way in there -- 'cause a lot of people aren't going to identify with that. I don't want it to be about, specifically, being too successful or having any kind of fame. I still take out the trash and vacuum, I change my baby's diapers. I think we're pretty solid.
EP: The new record is much more spiritual, and not even in a religious way. It's got a bigger world in it, and also it's dark.
BF: Well, Dave's mom died while we were making the album, so that was on our minds, I think. And my mom got brain cancer, and they only gave her seven months, but it's already been a year and a half. Also having kids, it's funny what that does to you. It's exciting and it's wonderful, but -- I guess it happens to almost everybody -- you instantly realize you're going to die. I don't know why.
EP: Is your experience with music similar to your experience with religion?
BF: I think they're very different, but I see how people can confuse the two. If you don't have religion, I can see how music can take that place. I am not saying that God put me here to do this, but I believe in God, and I believe music is a gift.
EP: What is the song "Human" [on Day & Age] about? And when you say, "Are we human, or are we dancer," why did you use "dancer" in the singular?
BF: It just as easily could have been "dancers." It made sense to me to be "dancer." I didn't realize it was going to cause any type of commotion.
EP: It's kind of abstract.
BF: I guess it is. I liked it because of that. I just thought people could still
digest it. But it really...
EP: Caused a lot of head scratching.
BF: It let me down a bit. I just thought it was good. It made sense to me, and I understand that it's different. When Bowie did something abstract, they didn't question it.
EP: Well, sometimes you have to give people time to catch up. "Human" will probably end up making sense to people. You are looking forward, but some people don't want you to ever change. Different subject: How do you feel when you finish a show? I noticed you leave the stage very quickly.
BF: Have you seen The Wrestler? That's what I feel like when I finish. I limp back to the dressing room, I sit down and if I'm still on a high, I might do push-ups. But usually when it's a really good show and I'm exhausted, I go to a couch.
EP: At Jones Beach, the crowd had very different reactions to you than European audiences do, and it seemed you weren't going to rest until everybody in the place was with you. Is that a responsibility you feel?
BF: I think it comes from being a little spoiled from those crowds over there, but also I almost want to understand why they aren't so excited. And so I can't make them do it, but I try. By the end of it, everyone was excited. It took me an hour and a half [laughs]. One thing I've noticed, no matter how bad the show is, when you finish with "All These Things That I've Done" or "When You Were Young," it puts a band-aid on, it always feels OK.
EP: What was it like playing "Thunder Road" with Bruce Springsteen at the Pinkpop Festival in May? Did you know in advance that you were going to be singing with him?
BF: I didn't know too far in advance. I knew a couple hours before, and the most surreal part was that I got to go into his dressing room with just an acoustic guitar, and we went over who was going to sing what parts, and that was a little more special for me. It was surreal, but it was also something that I've daydreamed about so many times that it wasn't too overwhelming for me. I was able to do my job up there.
EP: In The Killers studio, is it a democracy or a dictatorship?
BF: [Laughs] We all have different answers. But it is a democracy. I think sometimes I get my way a little bit, but I've definitely not gotten my way every time, so it's definitely not a dictatorship.
EP: Does the band have a message?
BF: We don't have one specific message or cause, other than the songs. We've kind of stayed away from taking positions on things going on in the world. I don't know if that will come one day as we get older, but I don't think so.
EP: Do you know when you're going to start recording new songs?
BF: We always have some new ones. I think everyone wants to take a long break after this album.
EP: Do you like being on the road so often?
BF: Well, this time we have these bigger, longer breaks at home, so we're spoiled. We're spoiled on the road. I know people who've toured this long who don't have big buses and nice hotels -- it's not so bad...
EP: Are you tired?
The Killers' first live concert DVD, "Live From The Royal Albert Hall," is out November 10.