From out of the wreckage of the American Civil War, the great state of Nevada came into being on October 31st, 1864. Its creation immediately helped to secure the re-election of Abraham Lincoln, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and, ultimately, the future of the union. Today, that proud but painful history is enshrined in the two words emblazoned on the upper left-hand corner of the state flag: ‘Battle Born’.
That phrase has always resonated with Brandon Flowers. It’s what The Killers named their studio in Las Vegas, and when the band reconvened last May to start work on the follow-up to 2008’s Day & Age, it became first a song title, then a thematic touchstone, and eventually the name of the album itself. But not all battles are blood and thunder: after a yearlong hiatus that saw three of the four Killers launch solo careers, they quickly discovered that timing and circumstance can be daunting adversaries in their own right. Safe to say, Battle Born’s title was well-earned.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, no question,” says Brandon. “It’s the longest we’ve ever taken to make a record, and the longest I’ve ever spent on the lyrics. We thought we had enough songs, but then we realised that we didn’t, and so we had to pound away and grind it out until we were certain that we were ready.”
That took time, and The Killers had already spent a lot of it. In February 2010, after the better part of a decade spent on the road and with the end of a mammoth 18 month world tour in sight, the band were at a crossroads. They had sold over 15 million copies of Hot Fuss, Sam’s Town and Day & Age, visited every corner of the globe, and become one of the world’s biggest rock ’n’ roll bands in the process, but they found themselves needing time to, as Brandon puts it, “put everything into perspective. Mark and Dave were pushing for it, while Ronnie and I probably would’ve gone and made another album right away if they’d wanted to. But if anybody in a band wants to take a break, then it becomes the right thing to do. And so taking that time off was definitely the right move.”
After Brandon, Mark and Ronnie had all dabbled successfully in solo waters, it was the band’s rapturous live return headlining last April’s inaugural Lollapalooza festival in Chile that convinced them to, in Ronnie’s words, “Get back in the fucking room together and write some songs.” After a few days, the song they all ended up coalescing around was Battle Born’s eventual lead single, Runaways.
A small-town drama of epic-scale proportions, Runaways is everything you could wish for from a Killers comeback single; an unmistakably American expression of romance and optimism that heralds their return with cyclonic, Who-esque guitars and a chorus big enough to be bellowed from one end of the Mojave to the other.
One of the album’s oldest songs, the bare bones were written in 2009 on the Day & Age tour, but, says Brandon, “We never knew what to do with it. Day & Age was us trying to be more of a pop group, but Runaways was rootsy and American, and it threw me for a curve. I knew it was a powerful song. But when it came time to make the album, there was an understanding the four of us had that we were gonna do what we’re good at. The Killers write a specific kind of song, and we’re not gonna shy away from it. So ‘Runaways’ became a kind of launching pad.”
More songs followed: the title track, a musical ‘brother’ to its lead single; Here With Me, the album’s heartstring-tugging emotional gravity-centre; the stadia-quaking electro-rock of Flesh & Bone. By the time the band had satisfactorily refined that body of songs, however, none of the producers on their shortlist could commit to making a whole album, necessitating a process whereby they recorded in fits and starts with a stellar roll-call of names that included Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, Damian Taylor, Stuart Price and Brendan O’Brien.
The band had initially feared that process would “confuse the shit out of us.” Instead, it ultimately proved beneficial, even invaluable, to the record: not only did it give them a keener understanding of their own sound, but one song in particular - the tender blue-eyed soul of Heart Of A Girl - was a happy accident that came about from an in-studio collaboration with U2 and Bob Dylan producer Daniel Lanois.
“We wrote that song with Daniel, and it was interesting because we’d never written anything with anyone before,” says Ronnie. “Some producers work in a capacity where they become like a fifth member; they’ll pick up a guitar and get in the room with you. We did it entirely live, and only spent about an hour on it - we did a couple of takes, and that was it. It was a really fun song to do.”
Ultimately, reckons Ronnie, the fractured recording process, “showed us that The Killers have a certain way of doing things, a certain style of songwriting. We ran this album through five different producers and it’s still come out sounding like us...”
And therein lies Battle Born’s real triumph. Recorded almost entirely at the studio that shares its name, it incorporates elements from each of the records that came before it - Hot Fuss’ storytelling eye for detail, the yearning, mythic Americana of Sam’s Town, the gratuitous hooks and pop nous of Day & Age - without sounding overtly like any one in particular. It's the sound of a band recognising - and celebrating - their own identity. To borrow Brandon’s maxim, Battle Born is The Killers “Doing what we do best.”
“We were ready to get back to the sound of four guys in a room again,” admits Ronnie. “Day & Age was a great record, but we were having so much fun experimenting and creating the songs, we let that get in the way of finding a common thread. This time, we owed it to ourselves to do something that felt more like a personal blueprint for the band.”
As such, it's an album made with the live arena and fans’ expectations in mind. Here With Me - a windswept cinematic ballad with echoes of greats like Tom Petty, Depeche Mode and Simple Minds - is surely destined to become a live favourite, while the plaintive Miss Atomic Bomb (a reference to a Las Vegas beauty pageant and the days when above-ground nuclear tests were a major Nevadan tourist attraction) should prick up the ears of attentive listeners, thanks to the unexpected DNA it shares with one of the band’s signature songs, Mr. Brightside.
The story of The Killers’ first ten years together - during which they went from Vegas bellhops to Glastonbury headliners, earning themselves a reputation as one of the world’s finest live bands and amassing a collection of Brit, NME, MTV and (most recently) ASCAP Awards that their collective mantlepiece now heaves under - is a tale of runaway success. Battle Born is its latest and greatest chapter, yet Ronnie remains adamant that, "Every record is a proving ground. We feel like we need to keep upping the ante with every new one we put out. We've got no interest in resting on our laurels.”
Meanwhile, with the record now finally in the can, all four members are eager to get it out on the road and re-introduce the world to The Killers, starting with a series of American and European dates this summer.
“I feel like there are a lot of live moments on this album, more than we’ve ever had before,” says Brandon. “I feel like people are going to be able to relate to and understand these songs. Pound for pound, this is our strongest record, and I’m really excited about it. We’re starting to feel more comfortable being what we are. And we’re proud of what we are.”
Spoken like a true son of the battle-born state.
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