Dave Keuning, lead guitarist and founding member of The Killers, opens up about the influence and inspiration behind his solo project and catchy debut single, “Restless Legs.”
As soon as I started this process, I just realized how fun it was to make music again. Now, I’m always working on new songs!
Some of us choose our paths in life, but for others, their paths are chosen for them. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being so drawn to something, be it a profession or a person: The subconscious pulls us in a predetermined direction, and that’s where life takes us.
Such is Dave Keuning’s relationship with music, and making music. He was drawn to it seventeen years ago, when he formed a band called The Killers in Las Vegas; and he was drawn to it last year, when he began stitching together the scattered demos and phone memos that eventually became his solo debut.
This month, Dave Keuning becomes the fourth of The Killers’ four founding members to embark on a solo project, releasing new music under the name Keuning. His debut single “Restless Legs,” out now, is the first off his forthcoming album Prismism (set for a January 2019 release).
Everywhere you go
anything you do
no matter what you say
you can’t shake this feeling
The Killers founding member and lead guitarist, responsible for such memorable and historic gems as “Mr. Brightside,” “When You Were Young,” “A Dustland Fairytale,” and so many more, sets off on his own with a driving pop/rock sound that is at once familiar and distinct.
Keuning went on indefinite hiatus from The Killers in 2016, taking a break from recording and touring to spend time at home in San Diego with his 13-year-old son. While he’s thought about releasing music on his own for a long time now, it was actually this time off that finally (and unintentionally) allowed him to make it a reality.
Whether it’s with The Killers or on his own, Dave Keuning is irresistibly drawn toward making music. He attacks his new material with overflowing passion and creativity, but above all, excitement: “Restless Legs” captures Keuning’s drive as he valiantly shares his full singer/songwriter self, arguably for the very first time.
“This is the music I wanted to make,” Keuning says. “It’s just me being me.” Dive deeper into Keuning’s debut single “Restless Legs” in our exclusive interview below! Prismism is out January 2019.
Stream: “Restless Legs” – Keuning
A CONVERSATION WITH KEUNING
Atwood Magazine: I want to start off by discussing your own creative process.
Dave Keuning: I was just thinking about that – it’s different for a lot of the stuff; throughout the years, it’s maybe changed a little bit. I wrote some of it on guitar and some of it on keyboard, and those create two very different results. Lots of times, I would almost make a point of trying out a new pedal that maybe I hadn’t really dug into, or a new keyboard or sounds that I hadn’t dug that far back to find and I would jam on that sound. Something good would happen, and I would put it down on voice memo and then kind of pick through and find the ones I liked. With this album especially, I went through voice memos I had had for the past ten years while on tour for The Killers. Some of them are just me mouthing an idea, or playing a guitar in a hotel room… There’s one I really like, that became the song “Boat Accident.” The voice memo was a really kind of ‘80s chord change that I kind of laughed about, almost, when I heard it. And then I started making a demo of it on Pro Tools, and it totally evolved into something else. And I was like, “Oh, wow! Okay, this could be something good!”
Let's see where this goes.
Keuning: Let’s see where it goes, and from then on I was inspired to do the same with other ideas. Ideas that you’re not sure about can really turn into something good! And then sometimes, ones you think are going to be a home run aren’t – that’s almost bad to set yourself up that way. But you don’t know until you try to work on it. Between all the old and new voice memos I have, I probably have a lifetime of music, if I actually worked on each one for a day!
Ideas that you’re not sure about can really turn into something good!
This is a really good segue into something I wanted to start with, which is, what finally triggered you to release an album under your own name?
Keuning: I actually wanted to do it for a long time and I could go through all my excuses for not doing it ten years ago. You know, my life was crazier six to eight years ago… I think when I was in the tornado of The Killers, like touring, recording, touring, recording – and when I wasn’t touring and recording, I was actually home spending time with my son – I didn’t necessarily want to use any of that free time to make another record; The Killers kept me busy enough!
Music is work.
Keuning: Yeah, it was like, The Killers kept me busy enough, and I would try my best to contribute to whatever album I was working on at the time with The Killers. I wasn’t really thinking about my own thing until… Well, I almost did it after Day and Age and Battle Born, because there was a little time… Sadly, my biggest excuse is a terrible one: I’m just really bad with computers! I would get started recording, and then hit a bug, or something would go wrong, and then I would just quit and go in the house and do something else. This time around was different, because I wasn’t touring with The Killers, and I had a lot of leftover ideas up to this point, and I hired an engineer to come over and do the dirty work for me. As soon as I recorded one song, that really got the ball rolling because that was a lot of fun right away from me. I was like, BAM – I’m going to do plenty of these! And I think I still feel that way; it just took one song that I really liked to get me going.
Could you relate that to the magic of recording Hot Fuss so many years ago - that first record that was something so special, and a new step for you?
Keuning: I think it was a similar feeling because here we had all these songs that we all liked and were playing around town and writing in the garage or my apartment… and then, to really them to a quality recording, all of us were like, “Oh wow, this is amazing! Way better than we ever thought!” That’s really what gets an artist excited, is seeing your song come to life – instead of just an idea that you’re kicking around.
That’s really what gets an artist excited, is seeing your song come to life.
How did the making of Prismism differ from your experiences with The Killers’ albums?
Keuning: Well, obviously the biggest difference is that I call all the shots on this one, and just did whatever I wanted. I think every Killers album was done a little differently, and you know, people have evolved over time, but this one was more like, just me having fun and kind of doing whatever I wanted, messing around. I know that some people will be like, “Oh, he was trying to do this,” but no, I was no! I was just having fun – I felt like being weird on one song, so I would try something weird. “Restless Legs” is the first single, but really I was just in the mood to make a pop song that day. It was almost like an experiment, like I’m going to make a pop song. I was listening to Prince, and I was just in that mood. So I made that, and then of course, that’s what everyone wanted to be the first single… But actually the styles are all over the place, because my tastes are all over the place. And I think that will probably be how I proceed going forward; one day I have an acoustic thing I just created, and I’ll sound that way, and then the next day will be some other guitar rock thing I make.
I like your openness! Why don't we dive right into “Restless Legs” then: Why did you choose this song for your project’s debut?
Keuning: Like I said, it was the one everyone thought we got to open with – the pop sweet number. It’s one of my favorites, for sure – every time it turns on, I turn it up in the car. Of course, I’m a little biased – but I’ll be honest, it makes me a little nervous! I don’t think there’s any song that wouldn’t make me nervous as my first impression. It’s tough to know what is your first impression, because I don’t know of any song on my album represents the whole album perfectly. Every song is pretty different than the next, which – I wasn’t even trying to do that! I just let that happen naturally, but I would say that in general, I don’t love bands that kind of sound the same every song. And some of my favorite bands sound the same on every song, and they’re great bands, but I like a little more variety.
Like, one of my favorite bands, The Smashing Pumpkins, does that really well; they’re all over the place too. They’ve got great rock songs, and they’ll do an acoustic song, and they’ll do something else! I kind of like living the same way.
I always tell people that Led Zeppelin are everything: I mean, the acoustics on their third record are some of the sweetest songs I've ever heard.
Keuning: Absolutely! That’s another perfect example. Actually, I’m kind of weird with my Zeppelin choices, because I’m not as fond of their classic rock stuff, but I love their weirder stuff, their sadder stuff, their acoustic stuff, and their moodier, whatever-you-want-to-call-it stuff – that is top quality stuff, too! It’s probably my favorite stuff, if I had to pick.
I couldn't agree more. But I got to tell you, I feel like “Restless Legs” is a combined effort of guitars and synths, making it an apt introduction to your album - which highlights, as you said earlier, both instruments throughout – sometimes independently, yet often together. How did you stretch yourself creatively between these two vehicles?
Keuning: Oh, fairly easily. I’d been wanting to play keyboard for awhile, and I had nothing holding me back making this record, so I just kind of unleashed it. Some songs were more guitar-driven, with a keyboard melody in the background, and in other songs, the keyboard riff is what invented the song and then it’s got a lot of keyboards with maybe some atmospheric guitar in the background.
How do you know when to use guitar rather than a keyboard, or vice versa? Is it a gut feeling, or the result of trial and error?
Keuning: It’s just trial and error. All I’m doing is messing around and trying my best to come up with either something original, or something that just sounds good. Like, like these chords just sound good – I’m going to try to make something over the top of these chords. If I’ve got a cool keyboard or guitar riff that I think is original, then I gotta use that. Trying to be original on guitar is becoming one of the most challenging things out there – to play some guitar riff that hasn’t been done. I’m not even saying that mine are super original; they’re just ones that taste good.
“Everywhere you go, anything you do, no matter what you say, you can’t shake this feeling.” I listen to your song’s opening lyrics, and hear a songwriter who can’t escape his calling. Can you speak to this notion?
Keuning: I suppose that’s true. Those lyrics… I hate saying the meaning of my songs, but it could mean a lot of things. It could be a guy or girl you’re infatuated with at the time, or it could just be something that’s weighing on your mind heavily; or music that’s weight on your mind heavily, or whatever. Like I said, I think that I was just having so much fun that day, that I just kind of had these happy lyrics to go with it. I will say this about those lyrics specifically: “Restless Legs” was one of the later songs I recorded, and I had written a ton of lyrics for the other songs; some of my friends that heard the music were like, “Wow – I like your lyrics!” and I was like, “Thank you!” Because I’m pretty nervous about showing my lyrics to the world. And they said I had a lot of lyrics, so I was thought, “Oh really? More than most?” When I was done, I was proud that I had all those lyrics, but I also thought I was working too hard on lyrics – maybe I’ll just cheat on this next one. I was riding somewhere in the car, just like the day before, listening to some of the new peoples’ music, and was like, “Gosh! This song has like two lines it! I am working too hard” So I kind of cheated on my homework with that song. Like, “Alright, I’m just gonna spit out whatever feels good, and I’m not going to try too hard to write a book.” Call it laziness if you want.
“Searching for your inspiration, look beyond your motivations. Try to read this body language, find I’m between love and anguish.” I think, here’s the lead guitarist for The Killers, who has taken the past year and a half off from touring with his fellow bandmates of nearly two decades. I sense an inner struggle, perhaps between the narrator and his calling, but really between any person and that thing they do. I know that I'm perhaps reading way too far into it, but you know who knows – maybe other people will too.
Keuning: Yeah, it’s true. Yeah, it’s safe to say there’s some inner struggle sung about on this album! (laughs) I think that’s a safe bet; everybody’s got their own inner struggles.
What's nice to know is that the music you keep on being pulled back to music. whether you like it or not, right?
Keuning: Oh yeah, for sure – and I think, I’ve had a lot of changes in my life just in the last two or three years, to where I can do this album. I think I had a lot of funky, bad mojo happening during a big, good chunk of my life the past ten years, and I’ve just tried to clean some of that up. Now I can kind of think straight – I can focus more on music again. You know, I’ve had to rethink my diet and take pills for certain things that help me focus, and it’s really helped. I did this weird thing where I like, shocked my brain, and then… You do it like, twice a week, and it’s supposed to clear away some of the stuff in your head. I felt like after I was done with those sessions, that I was massively creative, like instantly. I was just exploding with ideas after that – and maybe that was all part of the snake oil salesmen thing that he sold me, and maybe I just bought into it? Maybe it was all a big placebo; who knows.
But either way, you got there. “Restless Legs” has this cyclical drive that could keep the song going, pretty much nonstop, ad infinitum. Why cut it off at 3 minutes? What made that the right stopping point?
Keuning: Thank you! I had a lot of arguments with the producer. That was some of his input – to make it shorter, etc. We would have these little friendly arguments about whether or not to cut it down… Yeah, I probably wanted it a little longer myself, but for radio and whatnot. Everyone has a different attention span, so it’s a dangerous thing. I’ve ridden in cars with people who are every band’s worst nightmare, you know? They’re like, flipping through songs, listening to half of one per album… That’s like, everybody’s worst nightmare. I grew up listening to every song on every album; I didn’t know I was in the minority, though. I guess I’m in the minority!
While Prismism has several distinctions from The Killers’ music, it retains the band’s driving delivery and anthemic sound. There’s no doubt in my mind that you have defined this world-renowned band’s sound. How have you attempted to distinguish your personal work from your work in The Killers?
Keuning: That’s a tough thing to answer. I think it speaks for itself. It’s just me being me, and this is the music I wanted to make, and their last album was the music they wanted to make. They change a lot from album to album, depending on their mood, or whatever. So maybe the next one will be totally different; I have no idea. I have no idea which of my ideas might get used on their next record, too, but I really just felt like this was just me doing what I wanted to do. I remember thinking before I started the project, should I do more of a rock thing or make one specific album? No, no, no: Just do it all! Do the acoustic stuff, the keyboard stuff… just do whatever I want! That’s what I did: I just did whatever I wanted to do.
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📸 © Dana Trippe