Kip Berman (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart) Talks the Killers’ Battle Born

The Strokes were meant to be the definitive American rock band at the turn of this century. Then, about two weeks before the intended U.S. release...

The Strokes were meant to be the definitive American rock band at the turn of this century.  Then, about two weeks before the intended U.S. release of their debut album Is This It?, 9/11 happened.  In the wake of the tragedy, New York’s cultural image did an about-face. Once perceived as a bastion of left-ish subversion (à la the New York Dolls, Dog Day Afternoon, Keith Haring, etc.), the city became the very symbol that galvanized much of the nation around conservative leadership. America “hearted” New York more than ever, but fell out of love with what was once a favorite image of the city: the jagged punk bohemian paradise that Legs McNeil brilliantly captured in his oral history Please Kill Me.

For a band like the Strokes, whose insouciant charm, not to mention wardrobe, seemed borrowed from Mike Damone and whose lyrical flair and interview (in)eloquence rivaled Lou Reed’s, this was bad news. That autumn saw the apotheosis of Rudolph Giuliani and the beatification of the same “New York City Cops” who a few months earlier would have been an easy punchline on Is This It?  That song was quickly excised, the intended Spinal Tap-esque album art was replaced with a freakin’ fractal and the release of the album pushed back to October.  Whether or not the Strokes were the legacy — or travesty — of the anti-authoritarian, libidinous New York of Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, and all-but-Johnny Ramone, the band was now decidedly out of step. The kids were all right-wing.

Sure, the group was still huge enough to appear on Saturday Night Live, inspire clothing lines, and date, although not truly become, celebrities. If they didn’t entirely achieve a Hard Rock Cafe notion of rock stardom, they certainly touched on a lot of the key signifiers. I LOVED (and still love) Is This It? and saw the band perform five times that year. Though many still harbor resentment about their perceived privilege or a lack of originality, listening to that first record (the version with “New York City Cops”) a decade later, there isn’t a single bad moment on it. In my view, it’s a classic.

Although darlings of a music press that was equally fascinated with stoking imagined rivalries (the Strokes vs. the White Stripes vs., well, the Vines!) and exposing the well-heeled upbringings that the band hardly concealed, they never connected with the tastes of the American record-buying masses the way Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins did a musical generation before. There was something that felt top-down about the band’s rise. That charmingly straight-faced appearance on Saturday Night Livedid bump their record from #66 to #33 in the Billboard Top 200. But how many new bands on the wrong side of the Top 40 ever get that opportunity? (Are the Mountain Goats booked next week? I hope so.) There was a surfeit of magazines with their name on the cover in a large font, but it was rare to see someone wearing their t-shirt. To me, the Strokes weren’t imposters — they were a great classicist rock band that never became canonized by modern or classic rock radio. At least the Strokes became legitimate superstars in England, which adopted the perfectly tousled Yanks as worthy American cousins to their own backwards-looking guitar-pop explosion of the ’90s.

Enter the Killers. About four months before George W. Bush was re-elected, their debut album Hot Fussdebuted at #7. By comparison, Is This It? had entered at #74. Thanks to the former’s relentlessly catchy synth/emo/pop singles (“Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me,” “All These Things That I’ve Done,” “Smile Like You Mean It”), the band would take over the airwaves in a nation whose commercial tastes were now more closely attuned to the (imagined) values of the heartland.

Emerging as equal parts Duran Duran and the Outfield, Hot Fuss evoked the synthetic splendor of an imagined ’80s (Flowers was 9 in 1990), complete with Reagan’s arena-sized optimism. If that debut was a winning, if slightly awkward embrace of British synth-fop, their 2006 followup, Sam’s Town, looked to the everyman appeal — though not the political substance — of Bruce Springsteen and various staples of ’80s American radio rock for inspiration. Initially miscast as decadent, gender-bending arrivistes, the Killers became more convincing (to this listener) on their follow-up, where they leaned on the centrist exurban and suburban legends of John Cougar Mellencamp and Jon Bon Jovi.

I like the Killers — so much so that my girlfriend “politely” just brought me a pair of headphones as “Runaways” was blasting at an uncomfortable volume on my computer. Need further proof? How ‘bout my Sam’s Town picture disc? Or perhaps you’d like to hear my not-so-spot-on Brandon Flowers impression during a karaoke session? No? I’m always happy to discuss the notorious Hot Fuss vinyl-only bonus track, “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll.” (My take is that it’s a knowing, proto-Carles deadpan skewering of an alternative world whose values are just as commodified and predictable as those of pop culture. Or maybe it’s just a kinda dumb song). And if there needs to be any more proof that I think the Killers did something of artistic merit, my own band decided that the two English producers who made the Killers sound ALL CAPS AMERICAN on Sam’s Town would be pretty much ideal to do the same thing on our second record.

Critics generally don’t like the Killers; they never seem like anything other than world-beaters, which makes them a hard band to root for. Are they human? Given the band’s commercial saturation over the last decade, new fans may be hard to come by, as the new record isn’t likely to change their opinion of anyone who’s already dismissed the group.

And what of this new record? Well, of course it’s an unabashedly super-sized Sun Belt sprawl of an album — it’s built for arenas, not bedrooms. But therein lies the band’s charm: their willingness to go where the Eagles dared. There is no understatement, and little ambiguity — just songs that are as heavy-handed and explosive as you’d expect with a title like “Miss Atomic Bomb.” Pop grandeur is what the Killers do, and they do it really, really well.  On “The Way It Was,” Flowers wonders if “a thief stole your heart” — but you forgive the all-too-familiar metaphorical crime (and the verse from Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face”) because he’s earned it. So many of the lyrics on Battle Born are similarly familiar to anyone who’s turned on FM radio in the last 30 years. But that’s how it should be when a band wants to score the obligatory “THE RETURN OF ROCK” cover stories in the few music magazines that retain the lofty ambition of staying in print.  This is universal music. (In fact, their label Vertigo is a subsidiary of — wait for it — Universal Music Group!)

My favorite track on the record is “From Here on Out,” which seems to gesture toward the logical endpoint for the Killers: TRAD! In the spirit of “Into the Great Wide Open”-era Tom Petty, the song feels refreshingly unforced. It’s the perfect tune for speeding through a big, flat state (and perhaps, as the zoologically confused album cover suggests, playing chicken with a horse).  Lead single “Runaways” is another obvious winner, marrying the bombast of “Living on a Prayer” and the hackneyed small town love story of “Jack and Diane.” This is the sort of song that can’t possibly not be a hit. By the last chorus, you can almost hear the conversation the band had in the studio when listening back to the mixes — “Dude, this is IT!!! We’re DOING it!!!”

I find the Killers’ naked ambition endearing, especially in this age where bands often make a spectacle of their own self-doubt. They seem never to have had a moment when they didn’t think the music they were making was the best music anyone could possibly be making. “We’re the Killers, we ARE the Killers. We are KILLING it!” Just like the once unfashionable Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins or Third Eye Blind (OK, they still are unfashionable), the Killers will be playing on a jukebox in ten years and everyone who rolled their eyes at them will be forced to admit that “Mr. Brightside” and “Read My Mind?” are great tunes. For the Killers, at least, It’s a good thing people remember songs, not record reviews.

But if you’re reading this, you likely aren’t looking for an endorsement, but rather some backhanded or full-fledged denouncement of the group by someone who has sold less than 1% (I just did the math) of the records the Vegas four-piece has. But why? If you don’t like what the Killers represent, move on. There are 1,000 underground bands that all aspire to something very different from the yes-this-is-for-everyone, widescreen pop that the Killers have perfected. I can recommend at least 27 of them off the top of my head if you wanna hit me up. Try Comet Gain or Huggy Bear, the Holograms or Wymond Miles. Anything on Sacred Bones or Captured Tracks is worth a listen, and Patrick Stickles (Titus Andronicus) and Daniel Bejar (Destroyer) are my two favorite lyricists of this cultural moment.

But a world that only has unlicensed warehouse shows and uses “curate” to mean everything but a parish priest would be boring. Even the song-and-dance of smaller bands attempting to not be smaller bands can be painful to watch. When massive brands like Bushmills, Heineken, Honda and Urban Outfitters put their chips on indie-ish artists, these artists invariably feel a need to release carefully worded explanations of their “brand/band” collaboration. (Hint: they all use the word “opportunity.”) And why should they even rationalize that having their creativity seen and heard by a lot of people and getting paid for it is a good thing? Isn’t it refreshing that there is a band that never wanted to be anything other than a BIG HUGE AMERICAN ROCK BAND THAT EXISTS EVERYWHERE ALWAYS and doesn’t feel a need to apologize for it?

Maybe.

The Killers aren’t perfect. I’ll be the first to admit that there is something that feels like a Bob Dole campaign ad in the “blond hair, blue eyes” motifs that Flowers has a knee-jerk lyrical impulse to turn to when describing an idealized America/Love/American Love (“Runaways”). And no matter how many times “Neon Nights/Neon Lights” are invoked, you get the feeling that it is always morning in Brandon Flowers America — and probably without any coffee. That Mitt Romney is a fan isn’t just coincidence — I doubt his aides would be quick to attach his brand to Skrillex (though “Drop the Vote” would be a catchy rallying cry for Republican-backed voter ID laws). And it was disturbing that Flowers went out of his way to condemn Green Day’s “American Idiot” as being anti-American. But that was also in the midst of theSam’s Town press, which is a convenient time to have a beef with an equally huge band. While almost all bands of their scale carefully avoid political statements with the shrewdness of any large business attempting to avoid alienating a single customer, their brand of universal inclusiveness can feel safer than most. They’d never be confused for The United Killers of Benetton.

Big, ambitious rock bands are few and far between these days. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

But I still feel a couple practitioners of rock pomp and excess keep the music landscape from becoming too fractured or too precious. We need Coldplay, Muse, Foo Fighters, the Darkness and My Chemical Romance. I spend most of my time listening to and loving bands whose only claim to fame was never achieving any. But listening to Battle Born, I can’t help but feel genuinely happy for the Killers. They achieved something they’ve been trying to perfect for the better part of a decade — U2 in bolo ties.

Kip Berman plays guitar and sings in the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. You can follow him on Twitter here.