Coming Of Age: Brandon Flowers
On Flamingo, The Killers’ frontman Brandon Flowers finds his inner troubadour with the help of producers Daniel Lanois, Brendan O’Brien, and Stuart Price
About 250 miles north of Las Vegas, U.S. Highway 50, nicknamed “The Loneliest Road in America,” winds its way across the desolate landscape of central Nevada like an ornery old rattlesnake of dust and asphalt. It’s the typical lonesome highway, conjuring up near-mythical images of the American wilderness—images that have inspired music from the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Johnny Cash, to name a few
“This album feels like the place where I’m from,” says Vegas native Brandon Flowers, describing the rootsy altcountry rock sound he had in mind for many of the songs on Flamingo (Island), his first solo effort apart from The Killers. When the band decided to take a break after more than a year on tour supporting their 2008 dance-rock slab Day & Age, Flowers saw an opening to start tracking his own material.
“I’ve tried to do this kind of music with The Killers,” he explains, “but sometimes it’s difficult when you’ve got four different people coming from four different places. That ‘dusty roads’ sound is something I’ve always admired about some of my favorite albums, and I had a pretty clear vision of how I wanted to get it.”
The picture came into focus with Stuart Price, who worked with The Killers on Day & Age. Price might be more well-known for his electropop forays, particularly with his group Zoot Woman, but he’s also a practiced hand at laying down a performance-based rock record— the Scissor Sisters’ Night Work being his latest. Once he and Flowers settled in behind the API 1608 console (outfitted with Apple Logic Pro 9) at The Killers’ Battle Born Studios in Vegas, the ideas started flowing.
“At first I didn’t realize the steps that I was taking away from synth and pop music,” Flowers recalls. “I was already knee-deep in the album with Stuart when I thought it would be great to bring somebody in who had already been down the road I was traveling. Daniel Lanois came to mind because I knew he likes organic roots music, but he’s obviously not afraid of synthesizers and experimentation.”
Intrigued by the invitation, Lanois loaded up his car in L.A. with his Sho-Bud LDG pedal steel guitar, a Suzuki Omnichord, a Korg SDD-3000 digital delay, an AMS Harmonizer, a vintage Moog Taurus 1 bass pedal synth, and a smattering of guitars and gadgets. As soon as he arrived at Battle Born, he set up the Sho- Bud and a Gibson Les Paul guitar, plugged into a Vox AC30 amp and started jamming—with Price on bass, ex-Ambulance LTD members Benji Lysaght on guitar and Darren Beckett on drums, and Flowers on synths (primarily a Nord Lead 2 and a Juno-G).
“They actually already had a record,” Lanois says, “but sometimes when you’ve been in the trenches for a while, a new face can wake up another way of looking at things. Brandon had some new songs, so I encouraged him to huddle up the band and force us to knock them out live off the floor. With Stuart’s computer skills—I mean, you just pour yourself a coffee and suddenly he’s got a track together—and with my more renegade approach, I think we ended up with a nice blend.
Lanois’ guitar atmospherics and richly textured electronic treatments—a signature sound that he has brought, both as producer and musician, to classic albums by U2, Brian Eno, and Bob Dylan—fuel the dusky heart of Flamingo, especially on the spooky desert rocker “Playing With Fire.” Opening with cascading synth and guitar washes and a quietly plucked slide figure on pedal steel, the song settles into a midnight groove, with Flowers singing the verses (using only a Shure Beta 58) in his lower register, and the chorus in a Roy Orbison-channeling falsetto.
“I can’t claim the Beta 58 is the ultimate mic,” Price jokes, “but it has a great character when Brandon wants to bite a line; the cupping happens naturally for emphasis. The chain we usually have is straight into the API with no EQ, with a Purple Audio 1176 500 Series compressor on him—low ratio, high input, fast release. It’s easily pulling 12 to 16dB of gain reduction.”
Lanois is credited with the song’s “dub sonics”—a process he says has taken 20 years to get right. “Basically I’ll take any available ingredient, extract it, process it, and then surgically stick it back into the song,” he explains, referring to the swirling intro section. “It might just be a split second of guitar that I sample with the SDD-3000 or the AMS Harmonizer, and then I might add an echo or put it through a distortion box and then back into the amp. But you have to be musical with it; it has to make harmonic sense when you put it all back together.”
Price elaborates further. “We’d send a guitar or an organ—anything, really—out of a Logic aux to the Korg or the AMS. The goal is to make the sound unrecognizable, so the choice is less relevant. This send would go to Dan’s rig; then we’d do a few passes back into Logic and go through it to find the magic.”
Flamingo is rife with effects processing, but never to the point where it trumps the album’s organic feel. On the upbeat “Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts”—one of just two songs mixed on the API desk—Flowers’ vocal cycles through a modulating effects stream that originates with an AMS DMX 15-80S, with brief swims through a Roland RE-201 for further delay and Logic’s Platinum Verb plug-in for reverb. “Overall, it’s close to a resonator-type effect that subtly changes throughout the song,” Price notes. “It brings out harmonics in Brandon’s voice to give you a sense that it’s evolving.”
After three weeks of recording, Flowers still had one more card to play. “Stuart was back in England and Daniel was working with Neil Young,” he recalls, “so at the time I thought I might as well shoot for the stars and try Brendan O’Brien.” The legendary rock producer rarely takes on a project that isn’t his from the ground up, but when he heard an early demo of “Crossfire,” the stirring anthem that eventually became Flamingo’s first single, he was hooked. “He told me it could be a great song if I changed the way I sang the chorus,” Flowers says. “We ended up making it a bit more bombastic and recorded it right away.”
Price mixed the bulk of Flamingo on his SSL G-Series desk back in London, relying on Logic for automation and riding the faders only on vocals. (“The red light does wonders for vocal perception!” he quips.) To say that Flowers was pleased with the results is putting it mildly; from the Springsteen-like inflections of “Hard Enough” (with backing vocals by Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis) to the gospel stirrings of “On The Floor,” this is the grown-up rock album that he set out to make.
“I think what’s great about a lot of these songs is that you hear five guys in a room, and we’re not playing to a click,” he says. “We’re just hammering it out. To me, it sounds like five guys that have been through something. That’s one of the first things I really recognized. There’s a serious and even holy feeling that you can get out of making music this way, and I want to hold on to that.”