The Killers (left to right)—Ronnie Vannucci, Brandon
Flowers, Dave Keuning, and Mark Stoermer.
On Battle Born, their fourth record, The Killers spent a year in the studio with super-producers Brendan O’Brien, Steve Lillywhite, Stuart Price, Damian Taylor, and Daniel Lanois, drawing on individual strengths to form a cohesive musical package.
In their relatively brief, four-album career, The Killers have scored multi-Platinum hits through such changeable musical styles that the critics can’t switch gears fast enough to keep up. But at the end of the day, The Killers—singer/keyboardist Brandon Flowers, guitarist David Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer, and drummer Ronnie Vannucci—are simply great songwriters. Whether channeling Depeche Mode or Bruce Springsteen, The Killers ultimately create glitz-filled, but down-at-theheels Americana. Sure, it’s not the hirsute style popularized by Kings of Leon or Alabama Shakes, but by mythologizing the fading American dream better than a lot of bands in the past 20 years, The Killers appeal to not only the collective rock-and-roll heart, but a sense of dashed hopes and a disquieting future. Yet even given their innate talent, The Killers are far from figuring it all out. They regularly misstep, as would any band going for broke.
“With Day and Age, we were experimenting and having fun, but it wasn’t right,” Ronnie Vannucci explains. “It didn’t have the liftoff I wanted; it didn’t feel like everybody was represented—enough. The general answer would be that I wanted more guitars. [Laughs.] I was a big proponent of having more of a meat-and-potatoes approach to our music, which is four guys in a room, capturing that kind of temperament. We wanted the sound to remain big and be able to fill arenas, but still have something to cling to lyrically and yet be more personal.”
How to capture a band’s essence when it wants to both fill stadiums and retain some semblance of “meat and potatoes”? After Hot Fuss, Sam’s Town, and Day and Age, The Killers wondered, “Why work with one producer when we can work with five?” As the band compiled a new album’s worth of songs, they reached out to Brendan O’Brien, Steve Lillywhite, Stuart Price, electronic boffin Damian Taylor, and Daniel Lanois. The result is Battle Born, which gathers The Killers’ disparate strengths into a single mighty songcraft package.
Robert Root at Battle Born studios. “When you wait ’til the last minute to find a producer, chances are less likely you will land somebody,” Vannucci explains. “So we’d get somebody for two weeks at a time and splice them in when we could. That’s recording parlance! At first, we were wondering if that was going to be a problem, and of course continuity of sound was a concern. But we tend to be so heavy handed as co-producers, there’s going to be that kind of congruent line anyway. Everyone shared their brain for a while.”
Brendan O’Brien worked with the band at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio; the other producers journeyed to Las Vegas and The Killers’ own studio, Battle Born. The experience gave the band a unique insight into the producer’s process.
“Brendan O’Brien is like a stone-cold professional,” Flowers says. “He knows what he likes and he can articulate that and what direction a song should go in, and just like that—Bang! That’s what we’re going to do, and we do it. Lillywhite is a little more of a free spirit, and he kind of flies by the seat of his pants. He says things like ‘Be fearless.’ Damian Taylor is more of an electronic guy, but he knows guitars; we did a little bit of everything with Damian. It was nice to be able to send Damian a demo and see where he would take it, and then he’d bring it back in and work on it with Lillywhite and put guitars on it. After 30 minutes jamming with Daniel Lanois, we had ‘Heart of A Girl,’ he works very organically. We were doing things we’d never done.” Often one producer would start a song, and another would finish it. Or in the case of Taylor and Lillywhite, the two worked simultaneously in Battle Born’s A and B rooms.
Jamming, Producing, Alternating As with Day and Age, songs grew from demos and jam sessions. Engineer Robert Root manned the Pro Tools rig as songs took shape.
“Demos played a bigger part even than on Day and Age,” Root explains. “The guys realized that even though these are demos and we’re working out the songs, some of it can be used. Parts of the demos did make it to the record. Mostly Brandon would record demos by himself; he’d lay down piano or melody lines. Then they’d jam on it. Also, the writing sessions were half-days of the guys just jamming in the room. They work and come together and flesh out the songs so quickly.”
Though he is credited with producing specific songs, Damian Taylor is Battle Born’s sonic Everyman, mixing many tracks, programming synths, and even providing radical drum-miking techniques. “Damian was a huge help in programming,” Root says. “He’s organic but also works with all these synths and electronic instruments. That really helped steer the direction of some songs to find the happy place in between the electronic and the acoustic. Steve is very organic as well. He’s very hands-on-the-faders; he doesn’t typically jump into the computer at all, but that’s how they differ. Damian works a lot in the computer and plug-ins and tweak-land. Whereas Steve listens to the performance and the feel, then does everything analog. Stuart Price plays everything, very hands on. He is very much into Logic.
Battle Born studio has two rooms, A and B. A, the live room is roughly 30 x 18-feet with nine-foot drop ceilings. It has an iso booth and a former drum booth that houses a grand piano. The B room consists of the control room and an iso booth. Across from the B room is a storage closet that doubles as a supplementary drum booth. When recording, the band formed a circle in A’s live room, with Flowers singing to a scratch track then re-cutting master vocals in the A performance room and control room. The former drum booth proved too bright for Vannucci’s drum sound, so Lillywhite suggested using an untreated storage room with 25-foot ceilings and non-parallel walls as the drum room for a handful of songs.
Tracking Tricks “When I’m singing with a [Shure SM] 58, I have to have my hands on it because I am so used to performing live with a 58,” Flowers explains. “That’s where I feel comfortable, gripping that sucker. I have my hand over the ball. I think it makes it more directional and it also distorts it. The emotions come across a certain way when I’m really up on the mic like that. It’s about being comfortable, but it does affect the mic detrimentally when I grip it like that. But sometimes if it’s an edgier song, that can sound cool.
“There are songs where I use a Neumann or a Telefunken U48,” Flowers continues. “There, I’m doing it old-school behind a pop filter. I use the 58 live, and it tends to be the mic I go to when recording. It sounds more like us when I am singing on a 58; my delivery is stronger. In the early days when we used to play bars, we were more raw and played faster, and a little heavier. The sound is better live now. But cupping the 58 can still be the natural thing to do.”
Root typically runs the 58 into an API 550A into a Purple Audio Action compressor. “I don’t set it too fast on the attack for Brandon,” he says. “I set to a pretty fast release, and the ratio is usually four to one. I get rid of some low mids occasionally. Often I will really push it into the red off the preamp just because it’s supposed to be an 1176 kind of sound. But the Purple Audio isn’t too murky sounding in the low midrange when pushing it really hard like an 1176 might be. We also go through an 1176 at times, or a [Empirical Labs] Distressor. The 58 won’t pick up the nuances of a large-diaphragm mic but unless the song really requires that sort of detail we just stick with the 58.”
Taylor replaced Flowers’ Nord Lead 2 parts with various synths, including M-Audio Venom, Moog Voyager, Korg MS20, and Roland MKS-80. “Brandon demoed songs with a Nord Lead in Logic,” Taylor says. “He liked the clean and wooshy sounds. A few demo sounds had a certain character so we used a bunch of his original stuff on the record. Then we replaced melodies on different songs. Brandon will always throw down melodies on whatever he’s got lying around. So I found the right tones for the given song, and dialed them in from scratch. The Korg MS-20 is my desert island synth. And I also like a free one called Chip 32 by Sam. It’s really good, it’s like a wavetable synth, but it’s like it’s out of a Commodore 64. Super basic, but it has a real character to it. That is most often lacking in plug-ins.”
Taylor processed everything including drums through Universal Audio plug-ins. “They just sound really good, basically,” he says. “I switch as much between plug-ins as hardware EQs for their inherent quality. UAD is good in terms of being able to access different colors without sounds being degraded too much. I mixed The Killers’ Dark Shadows song ‘Go All the Way,’ and usually I want separation and distinction and depth between the elements, but with that song we wanted to sound totally 1970s. I wanted everything to gel together so I put virtual 1176s and virtual tape machines on everything. The UAD stuff made it really gel together and sound like one thing, which doesn’t always happen with digital.”
Keyboards went direct, but Ronnie Vannucci also had the bright idea to mic keys on the cheap. “One day Ronnie came back from a music store with a collection of these little micro amps,” Root reports. “Literally, five inches tall by five wide. You clip them to your belt. Ronnie bought every model they had. Sometimes we’d have one of those in the control room, put a 58 on it, and add it on top of the direct signal from the analog synths. We got a nasty little distorted mic signal from the mini amps.”
Guitars were recorded through many different amps, using an SM57 off axis and directly on the grill. A U48 was also put up “for depth halfway across the room, 12 or 15 feet out,” Root says. Bass ran direct through a Line 6 Bass POD, coupled with a miked signal from an Ampeg SVT Classic or Fender Bassman. Root prefers an Audio-Technica ATM25 for bass duties. “I’m pretty sure it’s designed for kick drums,” Root says, “but it seems to have the bottom end that’s needed and a nice midrange quality. If he is really digging in, you really pick up the detail on the top end.”
Tracking the Nudge Vannucci’s titanic drumming has practically become legendary, and his hardware plays a pivotal role. His Johnny Craviotto maple set is augmented by huge hi-hats that range from 16 to 18 inches, with crashes of the same dimensions. “Ronnie has these huge cymbals that he seems to hit ten times harder than the drums,” says Taylor. “So if you’re trying to mike up 16- and 18-inch floor toms with this huge cymbal next to them, you get ten times more bleed. On a couple tracks, I used one microphone. We’d wind up with close mics on there too, but it was more about getting a sound at the source. We wound up finding this golden spot: Mark brought a new Telefunken U48. We ran that through a Great River; I didn’t compress it on the way in, ’cause I do a lot of post processing.”
“That captured a very distinct, very present sound without over-cluttering the spaciousness of the song,” Root adds. “We did that method on a couple tracks where Ronnie was in a bigger room with a Telefunken U48 about five feet off the drum kit, pointed at the snare; that really captured the entire kit. Then Damian was free to mangle it however he wanted in the box with EQ and compression.”
Taylor encouraged Vannucci to use multiple drum sets, often within the same song. “For ‘Matter of Time,’ we used a different drum kit on the verse than the chorus,” Taylor says. “The chorus is bigger and more spacious, whereas we wanted the verses to be tighter and almost Billy Idol-esque. On that one we removed the bottom heads and used the smaller drum kit, instead of a five-piece, and we put [Sennheiser] 421s on the toms. That’s a less-natural sound but it really pops out of the speakers.”
Root close-miked Vannucci’s drums with an AKG D 112 or a Shure Beta 52 on the kick, and “a homemade sub-kick using a speaker cone. On the snare top head and toms, we used Josephson E22s, which I love. They are proximity-dependent and very directional, and they have an earthy tone where you actually feel you’re hearing the wood from the drum. For overheads, we used the omni-directional Earthworks which are very accurate and pick up the entire kit. We placed them as a spaced pair just a couple feet away above the edges of the kit. We used the storage room as a chamber with a Neumann U67 in there for a room mic sound. Ronnie was out in the live room ten feet away from the mic, but because it’s only getting a little bit of leakage from the kit we got a nice, natural reverb sound.”
After the songs were tracked and the producers moved on to their next projects, The Killers tackled mastering. In the past, some of their songs, such as “When You Were Young,” sounded as if they were mastered for radio. Dynamics were clipped, and distortion crept in during climaxes. Was that material mastered with radio in mind?
“Whatever you didn’t like about ‘When You Were Young’ was making me excited,” Flowers says, laughing. “I don’t know a lot about recording, so this is all a little new to me. I will literally sit there at the mixing board or in my car or wherever we listen to a mix and just feel how the music affects me and I try to give my comments based on that.”
“It’s really a nightmare for me, the whole process,” Flowers continues. “You get a mix, and you slave over it, then you send it to mastering. We just received three versions of mastering that I’m comparing. Each one sounds different. I hate the whole thing. But I’m thinking about the way it feels, not about radio. One has more sizzle, one has more bottom end and sounds more rounded off, it’s kind of dull, and the other one is obviously meeting in the middle. I care so much about it, I prefer it to be the one I like. I’m leaning to a comp of the two masters. I prefer the verses from the one without so much sizzle, but the choruses hit harder with the sizzle one.” [Sighs.]
Battle Born: Battle-Tested? The Killers continue to prove their mettle as their records roll out, year after year, hit after hit; this is how legacies are born. “I looked at what we really did best on our previous records and I wanted to capture that on Battle Born,” Flowers explains. “It’s not about us throwing anybody a curveball, it’s about playing to our strengths. We’re grown up now. Let’s do what we do.”
Ken Micallef has covered music for DownBeat, Modern Drummer, and Rolling Stone. His first book, Classic Rock Drummers (Hal Leonard), is currently in reprint status while he manages his family’s cotton farm and ponders the future of the vinyl LP and tube amplification.