Atwood Magazine catches up with The Killers’ drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. to discuss their Imploding the Mirage Tour, playing onstage with Bruce Springsteen, the legacy of ‘Pressure Machine,’ and the band’s hopes for the future.
Stream: ‘Pressure Machine’ – The Killers
Underneath whatever glitz and glamour you might think we possess as a rock band from Las Vegas, underneath it all we’re very blue collar.
The Killers have been one of the biggest names in rock n’ roll for the past twenty years, but they haven’t let it get to their heads.
With seven critically acclaimed studio albums and a massive stadium-sized world tour underway, the band have no time to rest on their laurels or take it easy. There’s always more work to be done – another song to be written, another show to be played, another metaphorical rung in the ladder to climb.
“We are very much worker bees, and I think we’re very conscious of this lucky spot that we’re in,” the band’s drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. tells Atwood Magazine. “We’re grateful for it, and we don’t take it for granted… I think there’s a lot of noise in our profession, where people can just get possessed by that noise or everything that comes along with [it]. I just think we ignore the noise.”
“That’s probably the secret,” he adds. “Stick to what’s important.”
The Killers have been on something of a hot streak in recent years. Their fifth album, 2017’s Wonderful Wonderful, saw them reach the top of the Billboard 200 with their first US No. 1 album (across the pond, The Killers have had a consecutive string of UK No. 1 records ever since their debut, 2004’s Hot Fuss). That album spawned the Wonderful Wonderful World Tour, which saw The Killers, sans lead guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer, play 135 shows across 34 countries across five continents over the next 19 months.
The band released their sixth album Imploding the Mirage (“a passionate, boundless embrace of the tenacity and sheer power of the human spirit,” per our review) during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020, and quickly followed that up with 2021’s devastatingly beautiful, bittersweet, and breathtaking Pressure Machine.
“Intimate, cinematic, and stirring, Pressure Machine aims to capture a slice of “Americana” through powerfully expressive storytelling,” Atwood Magazine wrote of The Killers’ seventh album. “Tales of loss and tragedy, depression and disenchantment, nostalgia and longing comprise the band’s most visceral and vulnerable exploration of small town life and the poignant pursuit of the American dream.”
Is this the life you chose yourself
Or just how it ended up?
Is that the yard you pictured when
You closed your eyes and dreamed
Of children in the grass running through the sprinklers?
Being somebody’s wife?
Or were you living in another life?
When will I make it home?
When I damn well feel like driving
Down these empty streets
That burn through our birthright
– “In Another Life,” The Killers
Vannucci considers Pressure Machine the most selfless record they’ve ever made.
“It was about telling other people’s stories through a personal lens,” he explains. “It’s a biography about people in a town, in music form.”
Pressure Machine also marked a sonic departure for The Killers, finding them add a folk warmth atop their charismatic rock sound (as such, the album became the band’s first to top both the Top Rock Albums and Top Folk Albums charts). The band have always had a bit of “heartland” in their sound, and here it was full-blown, both in Brandon Flowers’ storytelling and songwriting, as well as the group’s overall sound; they held nothing back, especially on such standout tracks as the wistful and wondrous “Pressure Machine,” the radiant anthem “In the Car Outside,” the enchanting “Quiet Town,” the haunting “Desperate Things,” and the heartfelt, breathtaking grand finale “The Getting By,”
“It really took a happening like this pandemic to allow us to go to that place,” Vannucci says. “The desert is in us, but it took a pandemic to bring it out.”
Reflecting on 20 years of The Killers, Vannucci feels they’ve still got plenty more work to do.
“We’re not quite there,” he says. “I think what would be really nice is to become a part of this sort of consciousness of the world. I think we’re still probably pretty underground… We do well and people buy records and show up to concerts, and it’s going great, but I hope that we can carve out a place to be around forever, and hopefully be a viable working cog in the music machinery.”
Still, the whole band got to cross one dream off their bucket list recently, when Bruce Springsteen joined them onstage at Madison Square Garden for a three-set encore. Together, The Killers and The Boss ripped through a dazzling rendition of “Badlands,” “Born to Run,” and “Dustland” – a revised version of The Killers’ epic heartland anthem “A Dustland Fairytale,” originally taken off their 2008 LP, Day & Age.
“Every time I think about it, I think the words “what a night” just come to mind!” Vannucci exclaims. “It was great! For ten minutes there, I was being led by The Boss… He means a lot to me, to our band, and to a lot of people. I’m honored that he would share his time with us like that.”
And The Killers aren’t stopping there. The band are currently in the studio to “finish up some stuff” they made earlier this summer – the first result of which was “boy,” their first single of 2022 (released in August). A high-energy anthem driven by relentless, pulsing synths and radiant, charged guitars, “boy” was actually the first song on what became Pressure Machine, but the band opted to leave it off the album as they felt it didn’t belong with the rest of the songs – a tactic Vannucci says they’re using more and more frequently these days.
“We think about the body, the vessel these songs are sitting in,” he explains.
Right now, Vannucci can’t say exactly what The Killers have cooking; whether “boy” stands alone or becomes the first look at the band’s eighth album remains to be seen.
“We’re thinking about doing a little EP,” he says. “I think we have enough to do an EP, which is something. I don’t think we’ve done an EP before!”
Head down, wrong fit, big deal
That’s just growin’ up
Untouched, sixteen, don’t overthink it, boy
White arrows will break the black night
But don’t overthink it, boy
And when you’re out on a ledge
Please come down, boy
There is a place that exists
Just give it some time
Drawn arrows unseen will fly
– “boy,” The Killers
The Killers recently finished off the 30-day North American leg of their Imploding the Mirage tour, which returns this November and December for a run through Latin America and Oceania. Atwood Magazine caught up with Ronnie Vannucci Jr. on the last day of the North American tour, hours before the band took the stage before a sold-out crowd at Washington, D.C.’s The Anthem. Catch up with The Killers in our candid interview about getting back on tour, playing with Bruce Springsteen (and other dream collaborators), the legacy of Pressure Machine, and the band’s hopes for their own future.
For Vannucci and co., the hard work never stops.
“Underneath whatever glitz and glamour you might think we possess as a rock band from Las Vegas, underneath it all we’re very blue collar… we stick to what’s real,” he asserts, later adding, “There’s a lot of garbage out there, and I hope that we’re part of those little sprockets of great bands. I hope that we can get to that point someday.”
The desert is in us, but it took a pandemic to bring it out.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE KILLERS
Atwood Magazine: Thanks for chatting today, Ronnie! I had the pleasure of seeing you guys at Madison Square Garden back in early October, and you absolutely killed it. Tonight is the last night of The Killers' North American run, if I'm not mistaken. What's it been like to be back on the road this year?
Ronnie Vannucci Jr.: Thanks! It kind of feels like more of a communal celebration than anything else. It’s less about us and more the thought and the discovery, or rediscovery, of everybody getting out there and being somewhat free again. It’s palpable; I feel like you can tell there’s a difference. There’s something in the air. There’s a genuine sort of like, “Let’s go out tonight honey. Let’s spend the kids’ college fund on t-shirts and let’s go see a band. Let’s go do stuff.“
From your perspective, how does it compare to past tours?
Vannucci: I think we’re a better band now. Hopefully, we’re better. It certainly feels better. It took a little while to get back in that sort of proverbial pocket, as us music folk like to call it. And I think us settling into that was unfortunately one of the biggest runs we’ve ever done, which was starting in the UK with a big stadium run! Hell of a place to rediscover your sea legs.
My perspective, it’s the best seat in the house! I tend to be so immersed in the music, and then once in a while I can peer out of that fishbowl in a way and enjoy it like somebody would in the audience, which is kind of a fun thing to do.
Obviously the talk of the town that night was Bruce Springsteen joining you guys on stage for a full encore of “Badlands,” “Dustland,” and “Born to Run.” What was that experience like for you?
Vannucci: Every time I think about it, I think the words “what a night” just come to mind because it was just like, “What do you say to that?” It was great! For ten minutes there, I was being led by The Boss. It was a great experience, and it was just good vibes! Talking to him afterwards, I think it was fun for him too because aside from the Broadway stuff, he hasn’t been with the E Street Band for six years or so, so it was a return for him as well. It all just kind of plays back into that whole return to normal.
I heard Brandon choke up when he was first bringing Bruce onstage. If you had been asked the question, “Who are your dream artists to play with,” would he have been on that list?
Vannucci: I think so, yeah. He means a lot to me, to our band, and to a lot of people. But it was really special. And I’m honored that he would share his time with us like that. It was really cool.
Who else might be on that list for the future? Who do we need to get playing with The Killers next?
Vannucci: Oh, my gosh. I mean, is this a living or dead type of thing, or is this like a real thing? [laughs] We’ve had the chance to play with some heroes before. I think it would be fun to do something with The Who. Something to do with those guys, Zeppelin – I would just like to just go and see all those guys. I think it would be fun to do something with Jerry Lee Lewis, the original killer. You name it! We’re lovers of music.
One of the best things about this tour is being able to do that type of thing with Johnny Marr, and he was the guy that was sort of this fictional legendary kind of person in this legendary fictional band. When I was in fifth grade, sixth grade, listening to The Smiths, they were unattainable. They were godlike, and that’s another huge “What the hell?!” kind of moments, we get to not only share the stage, but play songs with Johnny every night – and backstage, we went out to dinner last night and now we have a genuine friendship that’s not based on anything other than mutual respect and proximity. [laughter] Thank God he’s with us. But I’ll tell you man, I’ve met a lot of people, and he stands out as being one of the nicest, if not the nicest, most genuine characters I’ve ever met. And I don’t mean “character” in a wacky way. He is just a general through and through, and what an honor it is to be with him as well.
That's wonderful to hear! He was hands-down the best opener I've ever seen; he blew us away…
Vannucci: We’re not worthy. And Andy Rourke played those shows too, so you’ve got half of that legendary band right there. It’s been a really, really cool tour.
I have no doubt. Speaking of, this is the long delayed Imploding the Mirage Tour, and you've been playing songs off of both that album and Pressure Machine. Some of these songs like “My Own Soul's Warning,” “Caution” and “Dying Breed,” always felt tailor-made for the live stage. What's it been like to finally bring them to life in concert?
Vannucci: It’s been great! You’re right, we were very much thinking of the live element to those songs. And they sat in different vehicles for a little while until we were just like, “Oh, how is this gonna go over live?” And even after we put it on record, and we were satisfied with that version of it, you find that you have to jump it up even more, you know, inject a little bit more power into it and just kind of make them stay alive.
So, my hottest take in music these days has been that I think Pressure Machine is one of, if not The Killers' best album.
I thought the way Brandon introduced it was actually really interesting, because I don't really consider it to be a country record. I'm actually excited to talk to someone about this album, because this record really resonated for me on multiple levels. Personally, I think it's the band's best songwriting to date. Where do you feel Pressure Machine stands in The Killers' catalog?
Vannucci: I think within every band, the band itself has little seeds of making certain types of records or songs, whatever, like that. It really took a happening like this pandemic to allow us to go to that place; to conjure up those feelings. We’ve tried to speckle records with a bit of that vibe, because it is inherent in us. It’s part of this intrinsic thing that’s just part of our band, because we’re from that area; the desert is in us, but it took a pandemic to bring it out. I also think we’re a little bit more deliberate about how we make records now.
Whereas before, I think we would put – and it started with Sam’s Town, which is its own beast – but with Day & Age, we’d have a song like “Goodnight, Travel Well,” and then you’d have “Joy Ride,” and then you’d have the “Human,” and it was all over the place as far as what this band is. It was cool, it’s a nice moment in time. It’s kind of like being playful and showing you what the band possesses.
Pressure Machine, I think, is probably the most selfless record we’ve made. It was about telling other people’s stories through a personal lens. But it wasn’t about like, “I miss this girl or da-ba-da.” It was about like, here’s a guy or here’s a girl or here’s a situation, and this is a song about it. It’s like a biography about people in a town, in music form.
A couple of kids got hit by a Union Pacific train
Carrying sheet metal and household appliances
Through the pouring rain
They were planning on getting married after graduation
Had a little baby girl, trouble came and shut it down
Things like that ain’t supposed to happen
In this quiet town, families are tight
Good people, they still don’t deadbolt their doors at night
In this quiet town
When we first heard opioid stories
They were always in whispering tones
Now banners of sorrow mark the front steps of childhood homes
Parents wept through daddy’s girl eulogies
And merit badge milestones with their daughters and sons
Laying there lifeless in their suits and gowns
Somebody’s been keepin’ secrets
In this quiet town, they know how to live
Good people who lean on Jesus
They’re quick to forgive, in this quiet town
– “Quiet Town,” The Killers
I appreciate that. For me, “The Getting By” is an incredibly special story and song. It's really... a very powerful ending.
Vannucci: Oh, thanks, I love that one.
Songs like “In the Car Outside,” “Another Life,” “Pressure Machine” and “Quiet Town,” they not only get at that heart of small town living, but I think they're also some of the band's finest productions altogether. Like in “West Hills,” you've got some incredibly intense drumming that sets the tone for what's to come.
Vannucci: Yeah, I was just drumming that song. I think we’re playing it live tonight, and we haven’t played it live before. So yeah, I just had to change my shirt because of that. Just a bunch of 30-second notes on a high hat. [chuckle]
Do any songs from this record continue to resonate for you a year after its released?
Vannucci: Sure. And they also become almost more meaningful. You have to sell it on stage. You have to make the people looking at you, paying a ticket to see your ass, believe you – and we are not a band of actors. So you have to allow yourself to slip into the song, if you will. You have to steep… You have to “become” the song. But it’s true, you do have to allow yourself to play that part so that you can make the rest of them believers.
It looks like you guys have been changing up which Pressure Machine songs you play per show? Is it a question of feeling things out with the crowd, or is it more about wanting to play those tracks, but feeling like you can only select a few at a time, it being the Imploding The Mirage Tour and all?
Vannucci: I think it’s more of the latter there. I think it’s being sold as the Imploding Mirage Tour, but selfishly we want to play some Pressure Machine stuff. The Pressure Machine record, I don’t know that it’s suited for an arena or a big venue. Certain songs can have a transformation; I think we can play them slightly different. We’ve been playing “Cody” a little more jumped up than we did it on the record. We’ll adjust to the room we’re playing in, and that’s just an art form we’ve been learning to do over the past 20 years in itself. But I think Pressure Machine is probably more of an intimate experience.
Do you envision there being any kind of Pressure Machine concert or tour?
Vannucci: We talk about that all the time. It’s just finding the time. These days, we have to pencil in a bathroom break, you know what I mean? It’s really finding the time and then carving out the venues. There’s a lot of logistics involved, and we don’t try and poke our head in places that we shouldn’t be in. So if it comes naturally… We’re certainly investigating it, but we’re not going to shoehorn our way in too much.
This year also marks kind of The Killers' 20th anniversary as a band. To what do you owe the band staying power? What keeps you inspired and energized?
Vannucci: Underneath whatever glitz and glamour you might think we possess as a rock band from Las Vegas, underneath it all we’re very blue collar. There are blue collars underneath, you know what I mean? We are very much worker bees, and I think we’re very conscious of this lucky spot that we’re in. We’re grateful for it, and we don’t take it for granted. I also think we’re just raised in a way that was just kind of… We stick to what’s real. I think there’s a lot of noise in our profession, where people can just get possessed by that noise or everything that comes along with being in a shit-hot rock ‘n’ roll band or any sort of shit-hot band. I just think we ignore the noise. I think that’s probably the secret: Stick to what’s important.
Earlier you talked about becoming more conscious in how you create albums. How do you feel the band has evolved musically over the past two decades and seven albums?
Vannucci: I think we started out as being inspired by a lot of stuff that we grew up listening to, and we were playful with that. And I think we found out that people are actually listening to us, and that it’s incumbent on us to make songs that are meaningful enough to be listened to. That’s just… It’s just growth. That’s just becoming men, I guess, and hopefully better people.
There's a lot of intent and thought behind it. You guys have now released three albums in five years' time. From a listener’s perspective, it feels like The Killers are on a hot streak. What's the temperature like in the band?
Vannucci: Temperature? It’s like a nice 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Low humidity. [laughs] We are working on something. We’re headed into the studio at the top of November while we have a little space between the South American shows and the Aussie-New Zealand run. So we are preparing for a little studio time, finish up some stuff we did before the run. That’s where “Boy” was created, and we’re sort of following up the seedlings to the song “Boy.”
I understand “Boy” was written before the rest of the songs on Pressure Machine. Do you feel this is the relic of an era that you're moving out of, or is this the start of a new chapter?
Vannucci: You never know until you dig in. “Boy” was actually the first song on what became Pressure Machine and “Boy” was its own beast. There were a lot of songs that we wrote on Pressure Machine that just didn’t belong on Pressure Machine, that we set off to the side, and you become less anxious about showing everybody what you have and keeping songs for a body of work that makes sense to be together. Like I said before, usually we would write something, we’d be so stoked, got a song called “Space Man” or we got a song called “Neon Tiger.” Well, fuck ’em, let’s put ’em both on there! Let’s do it! Now I think we’re a bit more deliberate, a little bit more honed, and we think about the body, the vessel these songs are sitting in, if that makes sense.
What about EPs?
Vannucci: Yeah, we’re thinking about doing a little EP! I think we have enough to do an EP, which is something. I don’t think we’ve done an EP before!
Well, maybe that ties into my last question. Where are The Killers going next? What as a band have you not done that you're still gunning for?
Vannucci: I just think we’re not quite there. I think what would be really nice is to become a part of this sort of consciousness of the world. I think we’re still probably pretty underground. I mean, we do well and people buy records and show up to concerts, and it’s going great, but I just hope that we can carve out a place to be around forever, and hopefully be a viable working cog in the music machinery. There’s a lot of garbage out there, and I hope that we’re part of those little sprockets of great bands. I hope that we can get to that point someday.
There’s a lot of garbage out there, and I hope that we’re part of those little sprockets of great bands. I hope that we can get to that point someday.
Are there any artists that you're listening to these days that you would recommend in a paying-it-forward spirit?
Vannucci: God. Yes, there are a lot of people doing great stuff. I think St. Vincent’s doing awesome shit, I think Idles are doing great stuff, Johnny Marr‘s writing some awesome stuff – that dude is like a fountain of cool songs. There’s something about him. I mean, there are a lot of people out there… We’re playing with a guy – his name is Joe Pug, he’s from DC, and he’s playing with us tonight. There’s so many people out there that are just doing it, really moving, making me think about shit. I always get nervous when I’m asked this question, Who are you listening to? Off the top of my head, who the fuck am I? I’m just an artist.
Besides pop and rock music, there’s a lot of people doing great stuff in jazz before. They’re like the new school of Josh Redman, Brad Mehldau, Brian Blade, Christian McBride. Those four guys just made a record together, and it’s amazing, and then there’s even newer school people who are taking breakbeat stuff and jazz piano and putting it together.
I love pop and rock n’ roll, but I think my heart is really in jazz. I’ve just met him, but I’m so impressed by Mark Guiliana. He’s a drummer, and he actually played drums on the last David Bowie record, but he’s playing with St. Vincent now in her band, and he’s just released a solo record, and it’s really cool – whatever shit he’s doing… It’s jazz, but it’s also next level shit and I know that there are smart listeners out there that would get that.
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? © Chris Phelps
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