The average price per square foot of real estate in Manhattan’s upscale SoHo neighborhood is $1,800, which means that Ronnie Vannucci Jr., limbs sprawled out before me over a pristine white armchair in the corner of a hotel room, is easily taking up ten grand’s worth of space. He doesn’t seem to notice or care.
FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S FEBRUARY 2018 ISSUE | BY ANDREW NUSCA | PHOTOGRAPHY BY FRANCIS GEORGE
It’s a humid day in July. Vannucci is in New York for a few days with his band The Killers to gin up excitement over the forthcoming release of the group’s fifth album, Wonderful Wonderful. There’s an unusual degree of buzz around the album, perhaps because frontman Brandon Flowers told the press that it was “the closest thing we’ve done to Sam’s Town.” The band’s anthemic 2006 work was first rejected by critics as too contrived, but like Weezer’s Pinkerton or the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, Sam’s Town evolved from a misunderstood sequel to a catalyst in The Killers’ journey to superstardom.
To date The Killers have sold some 22 million records, won seven Grammy Awards, and packed arenas as big as Wembley Stadium — though truth be told, they’d rather be in Las Vegas. Indeed, when the band appeared on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! this summer, it did so not from the cavernous Hollywood Masonic Temple where the talk show tapes but from a stage erected outside Caesar’s Palace on the Las Vegas Strip. The thinking: If you’re playing new music on national broadcast television, why not do it in front of a hometown crowd?
But Vannucci is momentarily captive in this New York hotel, thousands of miles away from the dry heat of his desert hometown. He slouches, tired from the traveling and the humidity. Flowers putters around quietly in the adjacent room. Two nights before Vannucci arrived here, the drummer tells me that he and the band left home — “split,” as he says — for the beleaguered gambling center of the eastern United States, Atlantic City. “We borrowed the stage at the Borgata for a quick rehearsal to do these two shows: a warm-up show the night after, and last night we played in Philadelphia for a radio show,” he says, gazing at his battered chestnut leather boots. “So, kinda shakin’ the rust off.”
For more than a decade there have been four members of The Killers, but only two of them are regular fixtures at the band’s live shows: Flowers and Vannucci. (Guitarists Dave Keuning and Mark Stoermer now choose to record and not tour, citing their families.) Flowers, with coiffed hair, angular cheeks, and sharp jackets, embodies the band’s Bowiesque tendency for spectacle. Vannucci, with his unruly dark locks, Paul Bunyan beard, and sleeveless shirts, personifies its dogged, Springsteenian work ethic. Like Flowers, Vannucci is a native of greater Las Vegas — a musician who finds comfort in the desert-and-dazzle dichotomy of a scene he’s still exploring. Vannucci prefers the grittier side of the city.
“We found this studio in the back of a record store in downtown Vegas,” Vannucci recalls, his voice picking up energy. “It’s called 11th Street Records. It’s in the old part of Vegas. The front is a record store. The back, unassumingly, is a door into a Sun Records-style thing. A guy named Ron Corso runs it. I ran into him at a bar one night, next door to the place. He says, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a studio, you want to see it?’ And I saw it. And I went back to the guys the next day and said, ‘We’ve got to record here.’”
And so The Killers did, spending six weeks to record Wonderful Wonderful.
Discomfort, but not too much, is a popular maxim for mid-career musicians, and The Killers are no exception. The slow-moving gears of the major-label music industry machine mean more than a year can pass between swapping song ideas and tearing the shrink-wrap off the final product. (The Killers are signed to Island Records and share the label with Bon Jovi, Demi Lovato, and Elton John.) Touring, now the principal way a professional musician makes money, can stretch two or three years for major acts. In the six months following the date of Wonderful Wonderful’s release, The Killers will play about 50 shows across the US, Canada, UK, and European continent. The world tour in support of the band’s previous album, Battle Born, lasted 15 months and spanned almost 150 shows across five continents. It also grossed an estimated $42 million in 2013 alone.
It is understandable, then, that Vannucci and company would prefer to stay near home. “Yeah, there’s Shangri-La in L.A. and Sunset Sound and all these wonderful, classic [recording] places. But if we want the comfort of staying at home but getting something different …” Vannucci trails off, digging his boot heels into the cobalt carpet underfoot. “I think there’s a time and a place for all of it. I love to be flexible in that way. You don’t ever want to get comfortable in your own shoes. You just don’t stay, you know, fresh.”
When You Want To Go Right, Go Left
For evidence of The Killers’ pursuit of novelty, look no further than “The Man.” The track starts with a thick, fuzzy burst of bass that gives way to a shimmy-shake of a dance beat underneath a wocka-wocka guitar lick. The hi-hats are crisp, the snare crackles, the bass drum bumps, and wouldn’t you know it — they’re the real analog deal, no looping drum machine necessary. The song is the first single from Wonderful Wonderful and swaggers with lyrics like, “I got gas in the tank/I got money in the bank/I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man.” The video depicts Flowers peacocking down the Las Vegas Strip, chin out, cowboy hat cocked. Sonically, its unabashed funk — new territory for the band, with Vannucci channeling Leon “Ndugu” Chancler’s famous “Billie Jean” strut. Spiritually, it’s all rock and roll.
I ask Vannucci how he began the writing process for Wonderful Wonderful. “The drums are sort of last for me,” he concedes. “I play a little guitar and tickle the ivories sometimes and we’ll do a bit of back and forth. A lot of these ideas came from Brandon.” The band fussed with demos for almost a year, sending scraps of ideas to each other over the Internet. “We tried so many different directions, so many different feels, so many different interpretations of these songs,” Vannucci says — before the album started to gel. “The first sign of which direction we needed to go in came first from a song,” he says, “and secondly from the producer we ended up choosing to work with: Jacknife.”
That would be Garret “Jacknife” Lee, the Irish music producer best known for his work on Taylor Swift’s record-shattering album Red and the 21st century discography of U2. Lee lives and works in a compound in rustic Topanga Canyon, a corner of Los Angeles County that sits 1,000 feet over the shimmering Pacific coastline. In the main room of his recording studio, among the synthesizers, compressors, and drum machines, glows a neon sign proclaiming: “Abandon Taste.” It is this ethos, Vannucci says, that attracted The Killers to Lee.
“He’s a rock and roller,” Vannucci says. “He believes in rock and roll. But he understands that it’s gotta change. You have to do something different. Nobody wants to hear something they’ve heard before. They want to hear bits of that — the DNA still has to be evident. But you have to approach it differently.”
How would a professional band play if you demanded that its members pretend that they didn’t know their instruments or each other very well? What would it sound like if it couldn’t call on the instruments it’s used to playing? How about if it were instructed to play like another band entirely? The Killers explored under Lee’s direction.
Vannucci says he found the exercise freeing. “It was very interesting to transition into that sort of mindset,” he says. “As a drummer, it’s so physical. It’s feeling. So you have to abandon feeling and your natural intuition. Sometimes that means not playing with finesse. Or sounding like a machine. Or f**king up the drums. Or not playing with hi-hats. Totally doing something that’s different from your normal inclinations. When your body is telling you to go right, go left. Ten years ago that would have not flown: ‘No, that’s me, that’s who I am.’ I’m older and wiser now. I enjoy the challenge.”
“As a drummer, it’s so physical. It’s feeling. So you have to abandon feeling and your natural intuition.”
Embracing The Changes
Music critics have always had a love-hate relationship with The Killers. The conflict centers on the well-worn music industry notion of authenticity. The band circa its 2004 debut Hot Fuss (“Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me”) was embraced for its memorable songwriting but derided for its brazen, unironic use of eyeliner — too much glitz for a serious rock band. The band’s turn toward open chords and Americana in 2006’s Sam’s Town (“When You Were Young,” “Bones”) was roundly rejected for ripping off The Boss and his E Street Band before its later vindication. Subsequent releases — 2008’s Day & Age; 2012’s Battle Born — tried to split the difference between the two, pleasing neither camp. Even as The Killers amassed fans and collected increasing ticket revenue, critics locked on its seesawing sonics, deriding the band for relying on clichés and other artists’ innovations in its own work. The criticisms seemed to return to a common theme: An ambitious band born on the Las Vegas Strip couldn’t possibly be genuine. “Human or dancer?” one reviewer asked in 2008, referencing the refrain to one of the band’s singles. “The answer may be neither.”
But closer examination suggests The Killers have been surprisingly consistent where it counts. (Look no further than the cover art for its albums, an unbroken procession of Las Vegas imagery.) Each record is a balance of substance and saccharine; each release takes an element of the band’s sound and explores it further. Wonderful Wonderful carries this forward, reviving some of the dance-floor bounce of The Killers’ debut. For Vannucci that means adventures in tight new wave backbeats and spacious, swelling cymbal work — disco swagger on “The Man,” driving drum machine metrics on “Run For Cover” and “Tyson Vs Douglas,” pensive, effects-laden thumping on the title track and “Some Kind Of Love.”
Much of the rhythm work on the new album was the product of a linear studio performance, Vannucci says. It’s only natural. But the more interesting bits — the kind magazine readers are interested in, he reasons — are blown out, edited versions of interesting organic moments, “chopped up, mutilated, Frankensteined,” he says with a chuckle. That’s where things get interesting. That’s where happy accidents become madcap experiments. Sure, there’s always the risk of veering into Chinese Democracy-esque overproduction, and Vannucci concedes that he occasionally had to reel himself in. But the approach is justified, he argues.
“I’m making a record,” he says somewhat defensively. “I’ve made records where it’s been one take and live and dudes in a room. But I also want to do it a different way. I’m on a journey, man. We’re making records here. Anything that’s ever been great that hasn’t been done before has been trial and error. I’m not going to muzzle myself and keep myself from trying new things. I’m a musician. I’m into that. If you’re not willing to stretch musically, that’s being close-minded. You should push the bounds.”
Vannucci admits that he’s anxious to get The Killers’ new material in front of listeners. (Wonderful Wonderful arrived at #1, the first chart-topping debut in the band’s career.) When you finish making a record, he says, your creative thirst to do so is quenched. A month later, you’re thirsty again. I ask him what Drum readers should listen for when they get their hands on Wonderful Wonderful. The question seems to vex him. He pauses for a moment and reflexively rubs his beard.
“When you’re in a band the drums are not a solo instrument,” he says. “So I wouldn’t approach it that way. For a group that writes pop rock and roll songs, thinking about drums in isolation is backwards. So I sort of look at all the different parts together. I think that’s important — everybody in the band is listening to everyone else. I give and get comments on beats and lyrics and guitars and bass. Everybody in this band really takes more of a holistic approach to the songs.”
Fair enough. I change gears and ask Vannucci how he feels about being a self-proclaimed pop rock player in a hip-hop world. On the day we meet, the #1 song in the US is a remix of “Despacito,” the bilingual Luis Fonsi-Daddy Yankee-Justin Bieber collaboration. Right behind it are singles by DJ Khaled and Bruno Mars. The only rock song near the top of the chart is Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” fueled by heavy rotation in several movie trailers. The rest of the list is almost entirely hip-hop: Kendrick Lamar, Future, Lil Uzi Vert, Migos.
The last big wave of rock music seemed to strike just as The Killers first came on the radio, I say to Vannucci. That was when the post-punk revival — The Strokes, White Stripes, Mooney Suzuki, and so forth — was in full swing. You say you like pushing boundaries and trying new things. You’re in one of today’s biggest rock bands. How do you feel about the state of the genre?
Vannucci doesn’t hesitate. “I think you need to be flexible and willing to change and still use your voice to do that,” he says. “I’m a drummer. I come from more of a jazz, ’60s spaz-geek background. Those are my roots. Mitch Mitchell is my favorite drummer. Buddy Rich. Papa Jo Jones. All these guys — that’s where my DNA goes. Max Roach. Tony Williams. Early stuff — I love all that. That’s what feels most comfortable for me to play. But I have to be willing to make changes, put different arrows in the quiver. If a drummer can’t play a shuffle beat, or a bossa nova, or the ‘Rosanna’ beat by [Toto drummer Jeff] Porcaro, and do all those confidently, than they’re not really a drummer. They’re just a guy who knows how to play rock music. You have to round yourself out.”
So how does Vannucci keep it fresh? Instagram. He’s happy to admit that he barely knows how to use the social media service but uses it to keep tabs on innovative drummers like Mark Guiliana (“what he’s capable of is really cool”), Billy Martin (“such a hippie beast”), and Brian Blade (“one of my favorite drummers ever”). It’s a matter of gaining perspective on your own playing. “The most important thing is learning how to listen,” he says. “You can’t play well unless you listen well.”
I ask Vannucci if he thinks he’s a better listener than when he started playing music as a child.
“Every record I think I get better,” he says.
Sweating The Hits
Vannucci grins as he recalls the show he played the night before in Camden, New Jersey. It was for the tenth anniversary of the launch of Radio 104.5, the alternative rock station in Philadelphia, across the river from Camden. To play a date like this is par for the course for a working band like The Killers, a necessary stop on the long promotional circuit ahead of a new release. “You have to kiss the ring so they’ll play your music,” Vannucci says, matter-of-factly.
But that’s not why he’s beaming. After many months of nitpicking over recordings, Vannucci was just happy to get onstage and get back to what he does best. The spirit of the Camden gig sweeps over him anew. “It was a really great show,” he says, smiling widely. “Really sloppy.” The temperature that day peaked at 94 degrees Fahrenheit. “It was so hot up there,” he says. “There was no air. But the crowd was fantastic. So we were reciprocating that energy.”
Precision certainly wasn’t the name of the game at the concert. Though the band largely hits its marks in a diverse set list that spans its career, there’s a freewheeling attitude to its performance. For much of the show, Vannucci is covered in sweat, his sleeveless arms flailing above the kit. Everyone’s having a good time.
“After four songs, I was just givin’ it,” the drummer says. “I knew my brain wasn’t working because of the heat, and I’m out of shape, and I was like, ‘F**k it, I’m gonna give it passion. People aren’t looking for the cleanest notes. So I’ll give ’em big notes.’ It was a lot of fun.”
Vannucci and I begin to discuss the band’s forthcoming tour and how he plans to interpret the programmed, manipulated elements of Wonderful Wonderful in a live setting. “Because you can’t layer 40 snares, and you don’t have all the studio trickery live, you have to augment it to make it believable and sing in a live setting,” he says. “I’m putting hi-hats in the chorus now. And in the very last chorus, which I overdub, but it’s really light in the mix …”
Midway through Vannucci’s explanation, Flowers’ excited voice begins to bleed through the hotel room wall. “… Brad Pitt … You can’t, I mean it’s so ….” The frontman is wound up about something, and he’s shouting loudly enough to interrupt our shoptalk. Vannucci and I stop to listen.
“… everybody’s already said this for f**kin’ 20 years! And you just said it again! And Ronnie … And I said no …”
Vannucci begins to laugh, letting the rest of his answer to my question fade away. I can’t make out enough of what Flowers is saying to piece together the punch line, so I ask Vannucci what his bandmate is so amped up about. A radio interview they did yesterday, he says. “It was just awkward,” he says. “They asked, ‘Who would you want to play you in a documentary or movie about yourself?’” The question seemed to pique Flowers; Vannucci, not so much. “I’m like, uh, Jamie Foxx,” the drummer says with a shrug.
Flowers, face flushed from his temporary tirade, walks into the room. Vannucci turns and, with a mischievous glint in his eye, addresses his bandmate directly.
“One of the things we’ve been talking about is listening,” he says with mock accusation. “How we’re trying to become better listeners.”