Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story.
Interview by Jimmy Kimmel
Photos by Gene Smirnov
Viva the Killers—Las Vegas natives who return with Wonderful Wonderful, their first album in five years. To mark the occasion, MAGNET united them with fellow Sin City local Jimmy Kimmel for a conversation about growing up in the glitzy capital of American excess and experience.
I met the Killers 13 years ago. Somebody told me that one of them had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that I’d had in February of that year, and so, of course, I wanted to meet them. Las Vegas is my hometown, and I always root for bands and others who share that unusual distinction, and in this case, I was a fan of their music before I knew where they were from. Singer Brandon Flowers, drummer Ronnie Vannucci and I bonded over time (not immediately, as you’ll read), and they are two of the sweetest, most thoughtful and best guys I know. We wrote a Christmas song together called “Joel The Lump Of Coal”—look it up, it’s said to be one of Jesus’ favorites. This interview was conducted by phone, and unbeknownst to those on the other end, I was naked throughout. —Jimmy Kimmel
Jimmy Kimmel: I’ll start by saying that I was very excited to meet you guys back in 2004 because we are both from Las Vegas, and I was a fan of your music and got it in my head that you would be equally excited about meeting me. So when you were on the show that night, I walked up to you guys and started making chit-chat about Vegas and what high schools we went to, and it seemed that you couldn’t have been less interested in any of it. Then I walked offstage and was like, “All right, I guess these guys don’t give a shit about the Vegas connection.”
Brandon Flowers: We were so nervous to play on national television in the beginning. I still get really nervous, and I think that you were probably experiencing that coming off of us firsthand. Sorry about that.
Kimmel: Fortunately, we got to know each other later on, but I thought it would be fun to relive that awkward moment today.
Flowers: I don’t think we knew how close the ties were at that point. I didn’t know you and Ronnie both had gone to the same high school.
Kimmel: Even more so than that, Ronnie—share your connection to my best friend and bandleader Cleto Escobedo (III), who I grew up directly across the street from in Vegas.
Ronnie Vannucci: I was very young when I started playing drums. My mom worked at Caesars Palace, and she would sort of brag about me to the musicians who were coming in and out. Cleto Sr. was a name that was thrown around the house; he sort of ran the Strip as far as music goes. At least I got that impression, anyway.
Kimmel: That may have been exaggerated. He is a very talented sax player who gave up life on the road to become a room-service butler at Caesars, and his son, Cleto Jr., started playing the saxophone too. It just so happened that Cleto Jr. got a job playing sax with a band called the Checkmates on a stationary boat that floats inside Caesars called Cleopatra’s Barge. Your mom also worked on the barge as a cocktail waitress. The first time I heard this anecdote, I got nervous because I don’t think Cleto left too many cocktail waitresses unplucked. I’ve investigated, and I have good news: Nothing happened.
Vannucci: My first experience was playing that song “Play That Funky Music White Boy” by Wild Cherry.
Kimmel: How old were you?
Vannucci: I think I was like eight or something. But I just remembered being part of an all-black band, which, looking back, was kinda funny.
Kimmel: And not only that, but an eight-year-old playing in a cocktail lounge shows you just how different Vegas is now.
Vannucci: It was a neighborly place then.
Kimmel: What’s the greatest Las Vegas act you guys have seen, either together or individually? And you know what I mean by Vegas acts, the classics.
Vannucci: I saw something called Metal Skool 20 years ago.
Kimmel: It was school with a “k,” right? Metal Skool with a “k”?
Vannucci: So good. They nailed everything. It was like going to see Mötley Crüe and Van Halen and Skid Row all in the same concert.
Kimmel: Where did you see them?
Vannucci: It was, like, the Suncoast or something.
Kimmel: One of those off-Strip Vegas hotels. I wonder why they decided to spell Skool with a “k.”
Flowers: That’s cool.
Vannucci: With a “k.”
Flowers: I think it’s OK for me to say Copperfield is up there. David Copperfield.
Kimmel: Really? Wow.
Flowers: I remember Danny Gans. I saw him play a few times.
Kimmel: Yeah, he’s one of those guys that not too many people outside of Vegas knows. He passed away, right?
Flowers: Yeah, he died.
Kimmel: And he did imitations of singers, right? That was his thing?
Flowers: He was supposed to be really good at it. I never saw it.
Kimmel: It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to imitate you guys. That’s a real-life Vegas tragedy. OK, I’m not gonna dwell entirely on Las Vegas, but it is what brought us together, so what is the most “Las Vegas” thing you’ve ever seen? You can translate that in any way you like. For me, it was seeing Liberace at the Mayfair Market on the Strip. He was wearing a hairnet and buying meat.
Vannucci: You got one, Brandon?
Flowers: I was a busser at Spago when I was 18, and Carrot Top came in. It was during the day—and during the day only the cafe’s open at the Forum shops, but because he was Carrot Top, he requested to sit in the dining room so nobody would bother him. My server—I wasn’t 21 yet, so I couldn’t be a server—was not familiar with Carrot Top so he didn’t know that there was a comedy side to him. And Carrot Top assumed that everyone knew who he was, I guess, and my server, he was from Japan and he was a martial artist. Carrot Top, when he sat down, picked up his knife and made this move kinda jokingly at my server, who didn’t know who this guy was. My server did this judo chop thing, and the knife went flying across the dining room. It was this whole scene, and we had to calm the waiter down and explain to him that this was a performer on the Strip and famous comedian and he was just joking. It was crazy.
Kimmel: He actually chopped the knife out of his hand?
Flowers: He was one of those guys who was just prepared, I guess.
Kimmel: The move will hereafter be known as the Carrot Chop. Can I tell you something? Carrot Top emailed me this morning. I’m not kidding. So you see how strong my Vegas ties are? I won’t reveal the contents of the email, but just know that he did contact me and I will get to the bottom of this story. Ronnie, did you want to answer that question? The Top is hard to top.
Vannucci: I can’t top that. Or chop that.
Kimmel: Do people ever give you ideas or lyrics for songs? I’m not talking about people like Elton John. I’m talking about people in your life. And if so, do you ever take them?
Vannucci: In the early days, there may have been a couple attempts from family members to chime in. I would politely listen to what they say, but I don’t think anything ever made its way into a Killers song.
Kimmel: Have the four of you guys ever shared a room?
Flowers: Yeah, when we were recording in Berkeley, we were all in the same room.
Kimmel: And how did you split that up, bedwise?
Flowers: There was a couch in the room, so I think I went on the couch because I was younger than them. I sort of got last dibs.
Kimmel: And then who had to pair up? Were there multiple beds?
Flowers: I think it was one of those two-room deals or, like, a kitchenette, where there was, like, a double-bed-and-a-couch scenario, and then we got a rollaway or something.
Vannucci: This is, like, before everybody had access to cellphones, otherwise we would’ve taken pictures.
Kimmel: This is not necessarily a music-related question. I want you to go back into your lives and think about this. What’s the first award you ever won?
Vannucci: I actually won the school talent show in fifth grade.
Kimmel: For playing the drums?
Kimmel: And what did that feel like? Were you instantly a celebrity at school?
Vannucci: Yeah, I went from nobody to being a drummer. The runner-up was this girl who made French toast.
Kimmel: Did you get to try the French toast?
Vannucci: Yeah, it was good. It just goes to show the level of my talent if French toast is the runner-up.
Kimmel: I know you’re being sarcastic, but I think if you asked a thousand people, “What would you rather have right now, a drum solo or some nice French toast?” 900-something of them would say French toast. So I think that’s fairly impressive.
Vannucci: You’re right. It was good, and then my family moved away, like, two days later so there was sort of this legend. I left a legend.