"Battle Born" is the first Killers album in four years since the 2008 release of "Day & Age". In some respects the Las Vegas quartet's fourth album-discounting the compilation release "Sawdust" - is a kind of summation of everything the band did on their previous three albums. Guitarist Dave Keuning explains, "We've got a couple songs that could be on 'Day & Age' and a couple songs that could be on Sam's Town or 'Hot Fuss'." Still it is biggest rock record they've ever made and that can be heard on the albums's first single, "Runaways".
The Killers have brought in a dream team of producers including Steve Lillywhite
, Daniel Lanois
, Brendan O'Brien
, Stuart Price
and Damian Taylor
. Amongst them, these A-listers have worked with everyone from U2
and Smashing Pumpkins
to Pearl Jam
. Why bring in so many producers? The answer is simple - because they can. Dave Keuning grew up listening to Achtung Baby
so why not work with Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, the production team who created the U2 classic?
The guitarist talks about the new album and runs through the three earlier releases as well. In fact the conversation begins with a dialog about Keuning's earliest metalhead days.
UG: Early on you were listening to Angus Young and AC/DC but you eventually turned to bands like Smashing Pumpkins and U2. Why did that change happen?
Dave Keuning: Some of it was just being in the band I was in 'cause the band I was in before was different; they've all been different from each other. There's definitely an evolution of influences I’ve had. When I first started and I first picked up the guitar, I don’t know how it is for every guitar player but naturally I was interested in music with loud guitars. AC/DC, Aerosmith and Motley Crue is just what I was drawn to first and those were the kinds of bands that made me want to learn to play the guitar 'cause I was excited to play along with those songs. It's not as fun necessarily to play along with other stuff.
Were you playing Motley Crue and Aerosmith covers in bands?
Well, not real bands; we're talking like eighth grade and it wasn't very good. That's what got me interested in the guitar enough to pick it up and want to practice. Those kind of hard rock, '80s metal bands. That's kind of my early influences.
When did you start listening to less guitar-driven bands?
In the '90s I think it evolved into the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. I was heavily influenced by both of those bands in the '90s and I changed my way of thinking. And like, "Oh, maybe I should start to give other bands a chance." So I did and I guess a lot of people did in that era. Then when I got into college I evolved even more and kinda started listening to The Cure, New Order and just anything really. When I discovered The Cure for the first time I had heard of 'em a little bit but by the time I was into 'em, they already had like 17 albums out. It was like, "Oh wow, there's a whole body of work here I haven't even tapped into to listen to."
"When I go to concerts I watch everybody but I learned over the years that most people just watch the singer."
But bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana were where you started veering away from the heavier bands?
I exhausted the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana - I listened to them to the death and eventually I had to just move on and start listening to other stuff. But they're definitely still part of my playing.
When you were listening to these bands were you actually absorbing the styles and sounds of the guitarists in these groups?
Yeah, it was part of the thought process. Like I said just going from some of those hard rock, metal bands or whatever to the '90s where you had Nirvana playing parts clean and then dirty and using different amps and guitars - I noticed that stuff right away. It was like, "Oh, you can do it like that."
Ultimately you felt more of an affinity for players like The Edge and Johnny Marr than you did with Angus Young and Joe Perry?
No, I like AC/DC just as much and maybe more than I like Johnny Marr. But Johnny Marr came in and there was a little bit more diversity to what he was doing. I have a world of respect for Angus Young but Johnny Marr has got some cool songs and parts and he uses major seventh chords and acoustic guitars. It's just a little different than just straight-up Angus riffs.
What about the more classic rock guitarists like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page? Brian May?
I've always loved Queen even in the '80s and '80s and now. I remember going to Summer Camp at Rocky Mountain High and I listened to the album "Classic Queen" like back-to-back most of the ride there from Iowa because it was like a 12-hour bus ride. That just sticks out; I listened to it a lot then. You know how he's got his own sound and literally his own sound because it's his own guitar. I've always been somebody who listens to solos and guitar parts.
It's usually other musicians and guitar players who tend to listen to the solos.
I don't know why because for the longest time I thought everybody did. But it wasn't until I got in a band like The Killers where I got feedback from everybody and it was like, "Oh, I guess some people just listen to vocals." I had no idea. I don't even know that many lyrics to what Brian Johnson is saying [laughs] or what Billy Corgan is saying. I like those bands for their music.
Once you were in the Killers you realized that everybody wasn’t listening to guitar solos?
Definitely with The Killers things started to change a little bit. It was like, "Oh, I guess I’m just interested in that. When I go to concerts I watch everybody but I learned over the years that most people just watch the singer."
On the first Killers album, Hot Fuss, the track “Somebody Told Me” garnered a lot of notice. Do you think your sound and style were represented in that song at that point in time?
Sure. I had always loved '80s music like I said New Order and Duran Duran and other stuff. I mean I will say that even before "Somebody Told Me" just as soon as I found Brandon, I had never really found anyone to explore this side of me until I met him. So we were on the same page there and definitely weren't into anything that was going on at the time.
"When The Killers very first started, it actually started kind of because I lost my job."
What time period would this have been?
Early 2000 was kind of a weird period. There was a little bit of metal going on like Limp Bizkit still and not much new stuff. But yeah, "Somebody Told Me" I always thought that was a great recording. We had a demo and at the last minute we decided, "No, we can do better than the demo" and I’ve always loved the way it turned out. The guitar tone and everything; it's one of my favorite songs to play live. I will say this much as far as guitar playing - I've seen it transcribed wrong in the intro and I don't know why. Everybody seems to think I'm just playing octaves there and I've seen it that way a lot. There's an obvious open B string playing the entire intro, which is the key to playing that.
That's the secret?
I guess I'll just get it out now since I've never seen it transcribed correctly. I'm not just playing in octaves.
Was Pete Townshend any kind of influence on you in the way that he would use droning open strings in a lot of his chord playing?
I do like The Who and respect Pete Townshend but he's not one of my bigger influences on guitar. But that is something I like to do. I like to kind of play a part continuously and if there's like an open string that's fits with each chord, I just kind of keep playing it 'cause it fills the chord out nicely.
Your guitar style really is built around finding strange voicing for chords and not simply playing straight up power chords or whatever.
It is. I don't like to use traditional chords because when you play just like G, C and D, it can even make the song seem a little bit more traditional like it's been done before.
You're absolutely right.
You come up with your own voicing like the first chord of "Mr. Brightside" for example. It's just a D chord really but it’s a strange voicing of a D chord. That's something at some point when I was practicing the guitar and I was a senior in high school, I figured out, "You know what? It's about hitting the right but notes but there are so many different ways to hit the right notes and the right chord. You can use the I-III here or you can do this I-V-III up here."
So it's not always what you play but where you play it?
It's like if you just pick one chord and figure out as many different ways to play it, there’s like 20 or 30 ways to play like one chord. Then you go onto the next chord and try it and figure out how many different ways there is to play that one chord.
Brandon is playing those keyboard parts in "Mr. Brightside"? Keyboards have figured in a lot of the Killers' music.
It came pretty easily 'cause he was good at playing keyboards spontaneously and I was good at accommodating him. He would come over every day after work. When The Killers very first started, it actually started kind of because I lost my job. I lost my job and I was "Well, I might as well make another effort to start a band." I was always trying to start bands but had given up for a few months. I was like, "I'm gonna try and start a band now" that I had time. So I didn't have a job for about three months and he'd come over and I'd just wait for him to get off work and we'd get together and write. I had a keyboard and he brought his own keyboard.
This was the period when you were writing the songs that would appear on the Hot Fuss album?
I remember the day we had "Mr. Brightside." I had given him a tape and I kind of had the verse part worked out and the pre-chorus worked out on that original riff. Then he came in and just played it down and he had the chorus and I played along to the chorus and it was just like instantly we both loved it. It was like actually fun for just the two of us to play. It was like, "Let's play that again. That was fun." It felt good.
"I don't like to use traditional chords because when you play just like G, C and D, it can even make the song seem a little bit more traditional like it's been done before."
You knew that if you and Brandon got off on it then chances were good that other people would as well.
Yeah, I thought so. I always thought if we were given a chance for our songs to be on the radio that I believed in this. I thought maybe some bands never get that far but I was actually motivated just because I did't really like the music on the radio at that time. Really from ’99 to 2001, I just didn't like anything that was on the radio. I was just like, "I can do better than this." And as it turns out, I was sort of right.
To say the least. "All These Things That I've Done" is an example of your great riff writing.
The guitar riff in "All These Things That I've Done"? Well I'm not gonna lie-that was a melody Brandon had on keyboards. He said "Can you put this on guitar?" and I was like, "Yeah, of course" and that's how that went. Every song on "Hot Fuss" or all of our songs really are written by the band or "Mr. Brightside" was more influenced by me or whatever. But that one was mostly Brandon; he put that together.
"Smile Like You Mean It" has a cool little lyrical solo section. Can you talk about what it was like doing solos on "Hot Fuss"?
Sure, I didn't know what to do on that song. It was just a spur of the moment thing I think I did in the studio. I still hadn’t worked it out and that was the one that stuck on the record. I never was sure if it was good honestly. There was some kind of a classical group [The String Quartet] that did a string version of Hot Fuss and the "Smile Like You Mean It" solo came up with string players playing it and I was like, "Wow, it is a good solo." That was the first time I thought it was cool.
On "Sam's Town" you start working with Flood, the producer for U2 and New Order and a lot of bands you’ve been talking about. Was that the reasons for wanting to work with him?
Yeah, Flood and to be fair Alan Moulder because he worked on that album too, what those two guys have in common is they've worked on Smashing Pumpkins' "Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness"; they’ve both worked on Nine Inch Nails records; they've both worked on Depeche Mode records; they've both worked on U2 records. All those bands are something that all four members at least like two or three of those bands. We all wanted to work with 'em for our own reasons. Maybe I liked Smashing Pumpkins and Brandon liked Depeche Mode more or whatever but we all liked those bands and it was easy to pick them for Sam's Town.
Did you actually have conversations with Flood and Alan Moulder about how The Edge achieved a certain guitar tone or stuff like that?
No, I didn't find out that many secrets but I did ask them how they picked the songs on "Melancholy" and the "Infinite Sadness" 'cause I know there was a lot left off. I guess they just picked what was right for the album. I bought like every single that came out afterwards and I liked a lot of the B-sides myself.
Brandon has described “Read My Mind” as the best song he ever wrote. Would you agree?
I don't know if he explained in that interview how it happened. It was really weird because we had a different song with those chords but a little bit more of a faster tempo rock song. But we just weren't feeling that song. We called it "Little Angela" or something and it didn't feel right. So Moulder kind of made us try it a different way and we slowed it down and I changed the guitar part and Brandon eventually changed the keyboard part. It became a completely different song. When you change a song so drastic at first you don't know if you're supposed to like it or not. You're like, "Is this right?" But each passing day we knew it was pretty special.
It sounds like there are a fair amount of guitar parts on "Read My Mind."
I was just trying to come up with guitar parts on that one. I did the same thing-higher chords but with open strings. I did that kind of trick again.
Another cool solo on "Read My Mind."
Yeah, I love that solo. Some of the solos I've got are spontaneous and then I want to have another shot at it but the band won't let me, which is a compliment. I'm glad they like it but sometimes they just don't let me ever have another whack at it [laughs] and that was the case with that one. I did try a different one and they hated it and they said they loved the original one so that one stayed ever since. For some reason I think I'm the only one who sees it but I thought that "Read My Mind" solo was like my most Kurt Cobain - influenced solo. That's kind of what I was thinking as I was doing it but no one really sees it that way.
"I always thought if we were given a chance for our songs to be on the radio that I believed in this."
Sawdust is a compilation of B-sides and odd track. You did "Tranquilize" with Lou Reed. Were you there in the studio when he recorded?
A little bit. He was there and we were in the studio together for about two days. I recorded the first day without him and kinda got the bass, drums and rhythm guitars down. Then he came in and sang and Brandon had some parts worked out for him. He wrote the majority of the lyrics - I mean I don't know for sure exactly how much but he wrote a lot of those lyrics. He played a little bit of guitar.
Were you a Lou Reed fan?
Yeah, I mean I loved the album "Transformer"; that whole album is good front to back. That's the one I listen to the most. I liked some Velvet Underground stuff. It was just cool to work with him.
You covered Mel Tillis's "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" on "Sawdust". Where did that come from?
I'm surprised you bringing that one up but yeah, that one was recorded in like a day at this studio in England for some kind of radio show. So it was thrown together really fast and I just was messin' around doing those country licks and they said, "Keep that on there." We didn't really have time to try anything else.
You brought in Stuart Price to work on the third album "Day & Age". Was that a different experience than working with Flood?
Yeah, it was quite different. Stuart works really fast and he’s really good at what he does and sometimes it was almost too fast. I would play a guitar part and sometimes he would piece it together. I enjoyed it but it was good and bad. Sometimes he'd say, "This time try playing on one string on this take." I'd try a part on one string just to go along with it and it was in there. Sometimes these parts are mixed low so you can't really hear it but I did a lot of weird stuff like that on "Day & Age".
You seem to be hinting at a bit of unhappiness with your guitar work on "Day & Age"?
I felt a little bad 'cause some people were like, "Oh, I don't hear the guitar as much on this record." Even though it was technically all over the place-there was guitar all over the place.
Just more subtle.
It was subtler and atmospheric and different stuff like that.
"Human" contains some of those great ambient guitar sounds you’re describing.
The main part I play live is what I threw down when we first started recording. I just had this idea and it plays over the whole song. But a lot of people aren't even aware that's a guitar part.
After "Day & Age" The Killers went on hiatus in January 2010. When you returned about a year later to start recording "Battle Born" did you bring any new insights with you?
I don't think I had exactly an idea. I didn't know how different we were gonna try and be or anything like that. I think the album sounds a little bit like all our albums, which is to be expected. There's some new stuff on here: we've got some ballads and we’ve never really done anything like that. We’ve got like a power rock ballad and we’ve never done anything like that before.
Which track is that?
"Here With Me." Yeah, it's a big sounding song. It's in a way risky for us because it doesn't sound like it's even from this decade or something. We recognize a good song as a good song and it shouldn't matter what style or era it belongs in. So yeah, stuff like that we've never done before. I think we did want to be a little more rock on this record and some of the songs show that. It represents us pretty well I think.
You have brought in a dream team of producers including Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, Brendan O'Brien and Damian Taylor. Where did that idea come from?
Achtung Baby was an album I was listening to in high school. I read the credits on these albums so Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite were names that have been in my head for 20 years [Lanois and Lillywhite co-produced Achtung Baby]. And then Damian Taylor, I’m a big Bjork fan so he was right there too. They’re all people we wanted to work with. The proper thing really would have been to just give one of ‘em a chance and do the whole album with one person. Instead of waiting 10 years to cross all those guys off our lists, we just used ‘em all on one record. Like Brendan O’Brien, I loved what he did with Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. And now I know what it’s like to work with each one.
That must have been an amazing experience.
It's not necessarily the right way to do it but it is how we did it for a variety of reasons. It also had to do with scheduling because we picked these guys at the last minute and some of 'em were only available he first few weeks here and there or a month here and there. It's unfortunate that it's inevitably gonna look like, "Ooh, The Killers needed five producers to make this record." When really it was just curiosity on our part. Like, "I wonder what Steve Lillywhite would do with this song? I wonder what Stuart Price would do with this song?"
"Some of the solos I've got are spontaneous and then I want to have another shot at it but the band won't let me, which is a compliment."
It's doubtful whether anyone thinks The Killers can't make an album with one producer.
"Runaways" the first single has kind of a Bruce Springsteen-meets-the Cars type vibe?
Yeah, I think Bruce Springsteen - meets The Cars - meets The Who. A little bit of that in there with the big chords in the chorus and stuff like that.
Talking about guitar chords, over the years you've switched between Fender Strats and Gibson Les Pauls and 335s. What would you rather play?
It seems like I slightly do prefer to play Gibson stuff live but I have almost the same amount of respect for Fender just because if you get a good Strat or Telly they're great. But I think they're a little bit more specific-sounding and I feel you can do more stuff with the Les Paul or a 335.
Did one producer work on a specific song?
Brendan O'Brien worked on "Runaways" probably the most as far as we did the original tracks with him. Then later we took it to Damian Taylor and Steve Lillywhite and each worked on it a little bit. We were still recording vocal takes and additional keyboard stuff with them.
"Miss Atomic Bomb" has some cool Brandon keyboard parts with delays.
Yeah, that definitely reminds me of U2 that song. That's what I thought of right away when we kind of laid it out.
There's a cool little fuzz guitar riff on "Flesh and Bone."
Yeah, I like that part. I think that was one of the parts that Brandon really liked. I just wanted a part that sounded mighty. I thought the verse should sound mighty 'cause it's kind of a mighty sounding song. So I'm playing like a low one-note thing with a little bit of echo and it just sounded big.
"Here With You" is the ballad with really strong rhythm guitars providing the groove.
Yeah, that's just an example of doing what's right for the song. I didn't want to like try stuff out. I think Brendan had made a demo of that song already and I immediately liked it. I was like "Well, we can’t let that go to waste. That's just a hit." So I didn't want to step on the toes of the piano too much or anything, which is sometimes a hard thing to do to play around piano or keyboard.
There is acoustic guitar in "Heart of a Girl."
Acoustic on that one.
There is also pedal steel on that song?
I think Daniel Lanois does do a little bit of pedal steel. I do just some regular slide guitar on kind of the bridge to that song also. Just with a regular guitar and a regular slide. I play a little bit of lap steel now here and there. But it's almost a weird atmospheric part Daniel was playing on it. He's got his sound.
"Matter of Time" is sort of a mid-tempo rocker.
I hate to say it but we're still working on that song. It's one of the last ones to be done. We're gonna work on that one tonight and that's one I really, really liked when we first put it down. Then there was something funky about it and the enthusiasm dropped for a while but now we're sort of bringing it back to life.
Those are the only songs that were made available thus far.
"Rising Tide" has got some good guitar on it; I really like that one. It's probably got my favorite solo of the record on that one.
During the hiatus the band took, all the other members made solo records except you. Is there any desire to do one?
I did not do a solo record and I'm still thinking about doing one. It's not a priority for me right now because of this album. It's been my priority for over a year now to get this Killers record done. I'd like to do something. I’ve played around. I played a solo on one of Brandon's songs even ["Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" from Flamingo]. He asked me to play on one song so I did that. I've got some friends who record in San Diego and my friend Shaun Cornell didn't live that far. This band Halloween Town was there and I played a little bit of guitar on two songs on that. There's a band called Hyena and I played on one song on their album. Not a really a super time consuming thing. I would just kinda come down for one day and mess around and come up with a guitar part.
"It seems like I slightly do prefer to play Gibson stuff live but I have almost the same amount of respect for Fender just because if you get a good Strat or Telly they’re great."
The style and sound of guitar playing in modern metal music-shredding, dropped tunings-is the very opposite from what you do with The Killers. Yet in many ways it's equally as difficult.
There's more finger movement but I can play that kind of music if I wanted to. I don't want to. I grew up on a different kind of metal almost. I really don't like the kind of bands you're talking about right now. The current metal scene is not my thing. I like more of the AC/DC, Motley Crue and Def Leppard stuff. That's still in my blood but I'm not really into this kind of new metal thing.
When you finish the record you’ll be out there touring to promote "Battle Born"?
For me it's the funnest part is playing it live. It's a lot of work finishing an album and it's fun to see a song go from just an idea in your head to a recording. That's cool. But then the next step is having the audience be familiar with it and singing it back and that’s probably more fun and a little less stressful.
The Killers haven't recorded a new studio album since 2008's "Day & Age". Did you feel any kind of unspoken pressure to have to deliver the good with "Battle Born"?
I mean there's a little pressure. I think sometimes the label's almost nervous to tell us they would rather us sound like a certain way like pop because they know we'll resist it. We try and write the best songs anyway. We like songs we think will be great on the radio and we try and do that naturally. But at the same time we want to do our own thing. They were unsure about "Hot Fuss" and then after "Hot Fuss" they wanted us to be like that. And they were unsure on Sam’s Town. You just gotta do what you wanna do and do it good.
Is Battle Born what you wanted to do?
Well, I mean, yes. I'm proud of all the songs and the body of work. I'm really anxious for the whole album to get out so people can see that there's differences and not every song sounds like "Runaway." It was hard to pick a first song to lead with. It would be like, "Well that’s what everybody's gonna think you sound like is that first song." There's a few other songs like "Runaways" and then there's other stuff that is totally different. So I'd love for people to just see it all.
Are you happy with your guitar playing on Battle Born?
I'm happy with the guitar like I said. There's some good solos in it and then there's other songs like "Here With Me" where I lay back and just like accompany sort of. I'm more proud of the songs if anything. It's not necessarily like a guitar-heavy record as far as crazy solos or anything. But there's some rock songs on it for sure.
Interview by Steven Rosen
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