Photo by Williams + Hirakawa
When you''re in a massively popular band, your life is often consumed by the endless cycles of touring and recording. Finding time to veer from the collective musical vision to work on your own project is not always so easy. For The Killers lead singer and keyboardist, Brandon Flowers, the opportunity came when the band went on hiatus early in 2010. Flowers had written a bunch of songs that he planned to use on The Killers'' next album, but with the newfound time off provided by the band''s break, he decided to record them on his own. The result was Flamingo.
The material ended up evolving into something pretty different than it likely would have had it been on a Killers album. Due for release in mid-September on Island Records, Flamingo is less edgy than the band''s alternative-rock sound, and has an ''80s-rock vibe, almost Springsteen-like at times. Songs like “Crossfire” and “Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts” epitomize that. Production-wise, many of the songs feature clean, in-your-face drum sounds; present, up-front vocals; and textural guitars and synths. There are a few eclectic moments such as the country-and-gospel-influenced “On the Floor,” the ethereal-sounding and string- infused “Right Behind You,” and the almost Spaghetti-Western-like “Playing With Fire.”
To capture his wide-ranging musical vision, Flowers turned to three distinguished producers: Stuart Price (who produced the last Killers album and is known primarily for his work in the dance music world), and two production legends, Daniel Lanois and Brendan O''Brien. Much of the album was tracked at Battle Born in Las Vegas, the former commercial recording studio that is now The Killers'' personal facility. Flowers recorded a lot of his lead vocals with a handheld Shure SM58, sometimes cupping the mic while he sang. He is comfortable with a 58 as he uses it onstage, and he chose its familiarity over the sonics of a high-end studio vocal mic. (To watch a video of him talking about his vocal recording on the album, see Web Clip 1.) I had a chance to speak to Flowers recently about the songwriting for and production of Flamingo. I also talked with Robert Root, who engineered much of the project. You can read what he said in the sidebar, “At the Controls.”
Although it''s standard in pop and hip-hop, having multiple producers on a rock record is somewhat unusual. What was your rationale for going with three producers on Flamingo?
The initial idea was to use only Stuart [Price]. And then the songs that started coming out were just going down dustier roads than Stuart was accustomed to [laughs]. I think he could''ve done fine; I just thought maybe we should explore and bring in some other people that have been down these roads.
Stuart worked with you and The Killers on the last album, right?
Yeah, Day and Age [Island, 2008]. We came to know him from a great remix of “Mr. Brightside” that he did.
On Flamingo, which songs were produced by which producers?
Brendan O''Brien worked solely on his songs. Those were “Crossfire,” “From Nogales to Magdalena,” and “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.” And then the rest are pretty much a combination of Stuart and [Daniel] Lanois.
They worked together?
Except for “Only the Young,” which is just Stuart.
Did Stuart and Daniel handle different phases of those co-produced songs, or were they together in the studio?
It''s kind of a combination. Some of them Stuart started and Lanois came in. But the song “Hard Enough,” and then the songs like “On the Floor” or “Was It Something That I Said?”—those three were kind of a collaboration.
And what about “Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts”?
That used to be a different song. I never thought it was good enough until Lanois played some of those guitar parts on it.
That one jumped out at me the most.
Yeah, it sounds very classic.
So Daniel didn''t just sit behind the board; he was actually playing?
Oh, yeah. He''s very hands-on. And singing and dancing, and pedal steeling.
He''s kind of known for his ethereal, reverby kind of production.
Yeah, subsonics [laughs].
Did he impart that on your songs?
Yeah, he brought some gear—you know, things I''m just not [familiar with]. It''s just alien to me [laughs]. It was great. He and Stuart had fun with that, and it was right up Stuart''s alley.
It sounds like it wasn''t a competitive situation between the producers.
There was a little bit of collision in the beginning, but it became very collaborative, and it was fun.
A collision of styles?
Yeah. Stuart and Lanois come from two different worlds. I think if Daniel would have met him at an earlier age, it would''ve been different. But [Daniel] just has a different way of looking at things now because he''s done things; he''s worked with Peter Gabriel. So you know, it''s not that foreign to do things the way that Stuart does, but he''s just in a different place now.
In this shot from Battle Born, Flowers is singing into his SM58, Price is on bass,Lanois on guitar, and Darren Beckett on drums.
Photo courtesy Robert Root
You recorded this in The Killers'' studio, Battle Born. I guess it was more comfortable for you to work in a place that you''re used to.
Yeah, it''s nice. It''s good for me. It''s a decent excuse for me to keep working, [and] to my wife, that I''m just going down the street [laughs]. But I did have to go to L.A. to Henson Studios with Brendan. That''s where he feels comfortable.
How different is his style from those of Stuart and Daniel?
He''s very professional and efficient. Stuart''s quick, maybe faster, but it''s a different kind of mentality. [With Stuart] it''s more about just trying things and experimenting; he''s just a wizard on [Apple] Logic. Whereas I think Brendan''s just got so much experience and knows what he likes, and is very concise.
Did you use the same musicians with Brendan?
Different musicians. Brendan is a band in himself [laughs]. If you could clone him into four guys, I think you''d have an amazing band. He''s a great piano and organ player, and he''s amazing on the guitar. He also brought an instrument called the [Yamaha] Tenori-On. Have you heard of it?
Yes, it''s an electronic instrument.
Yeah, it''s on all three of the Brendan songs, and it''s amazing. I never associated any kind of electronic device with him, and he whipped this thing out right away [laughs].
So what kinds of sounds did he get on it? Just like synthy kind of things?
Yeah. And they just blend right in. When a lot of people think of synthesizers, their minds go toward OMD or Flock of Seagulls, or something like that. But it''s amazing the landscapes that can be provided by these things and the sentiments that follow.
And it can be really beautiful having real instruments, acoustic instruments, and electronic stuff mixing up.
A pad to me—as soon as a pad starts, I see the desert. I''m sure a lot of people don''t get that, but it''s very organic to me, that sense of openness and sort of ethereal—I don''t know what it is.
Which keyboards did you play on the album?
I''ve always kind of been conscious with The Killers to try to use something that I used on the first album. But I didn''t do that on this one. So maybe that''s one case where it''s going to be a little bit different. It was always the Nord Lead 2 and the MicroKorg. Those were just the things that I had enough money to have when we first started, and so they kind of made their way onto all three Killers records. But with Stuart, it''s a lot of presets from Logic.
Using synths in Logic?
Yeah, they''re as good as anything I''ve ever heard. It''s amazing. And at home, Stuart—he didn''t bring them with him, but he may have used them while he was mixing things and added things—you know, he''s got some great analog stuff at home.
Were most of your keyboard parts synth-based or were you also doing piano parts?
Mostly synths. I play piano on there, too, but it''s nothing to write home about.
What''s your songwriting process like? Do you just get an inspiration and jot it down, or do you sit at your piano and play to get inspired?
It''s kind of both; it kind of works each way. I take it as it comes. Sometimes I like to just sit down and see what happens, and then other times an idea will pop into my head and I''ll record it onto my phone. I''ll be looking like a crazy person singing into my phone [laughs].
When you were working on your preproduction demos with Robert Root, was it mainly keyboard and vocal tracks, or did you use any loops or anything?
There was a lot of getting world beats and loops and layering things and adding things, and trying to add percussion.
You mean live percussion?
Yeah, on top of these loops. There was a lot of that stuff going on. I like to be playful in the studio; it''s fun.
Were there any situations where you fell in love with the demo and couldn''t match the feel on the final version?
Yeah. I''m still going through the struggles of that. I guess they call it demo-itis. You know, I don''t know if it''s the simplicity or if it''s just that you like that it''s not perfect or you like that it sounds weathered, or whatever it is, [with] the demos. And then you hear this glossed-up, big version of the song, and it maybe doesn''t capture the sentiment as well as the demo did. I struggle with that every time we record.
Are you ever tempted to do an album that you just self-produce and don''t even go into a big studio?
Maybe. Yeah, I guess I would be afraid that it wouldn''t sound good enough. But I guess it''s a possibility.
Back to the multiple producers issue. Were you concerned about not having a cohesive sound across the whole album?
Yeah, I started to worry about that. I''ve never felt great about The Killers records; I''ve never felt like they, from front to back, were like a piece of art. I never thought it was like this work—this perfect, cohesive thing. I don''t think any of us really do. We struggled with that. So now I''m making it harder on myself [laughs].
Did you ever have to say to any of the producers, “This is really going off in the wrong direction”?
There were songs that didn''t make it that felt like they were just too different. I struggled with placing “Only the Young” next to all of these other songs.
That''s the slow one?
Yeah, it''s the only one that has a programmed beat. For me, it''s an amazing song; it''s just weird putting it next to the other ones. But it''s so good that it''s got to go on there.
Then there''s “On the Floor,” which has a bit of a country feel to it.
Yeah. There''s another version that''s even more country—Stuart brought that one into the future. Daniel was on his way to Las Vegas for a couple of days, just to meet. He hadn''t really heard much and he wanted to find out if he even, I think, liked me enough to do this. So he was coming just to shake my hand and just stare me in the eye, I think. And so I kind of wanted to impress him with something, and I knew he liked gospel music so I kind of conjured that one up.
I know you''ve performed at least once with Springsteen. In certain songs I could hear his influence. I don''t know if it was an intentional homage to him or just the kind of material that you were writing.
His influence has—I refer to it as the pot—he''s been added into the pot [laughs]. So I guess it''s just definitely going to come out every now and then. It''s nothing that I''m consciously doing.
Do you have any desire to get more deeply into the gear so that you can sit and record yourself without needing an engineer?
I just don''t have the desire to do it. I don''t know if it would make my life easier or if it would start to consume my life [laughs].
It is time-consuming and money-consuming. So was everything mixed in the same place, or did each producer do their own mixes?
Brendan mixed his three and Stuart mixed the others.
And do you get involved in the mixing?
Yes. For some reason, I have kind of fantastic hearing. I''ve never used in-ears [for onstage monitoring], and I have no damage. I get paranoid that I have damage and I go to the doctor, and they put me in the booth. Every time, the doctor just can''t believe the paper when he looks at it because I''m above the normal. I should knock on wood; I don''t know why. It''s loud as hell onstage [laughs].
Do you wear earplugs onstage?
I don''t. [But in the studio] I hear every little thing. It could be a little edit or a mistake that nobody else hears deep in there, and I find it. I don''t know if I can just zone in there or what it is.
Musically, do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Maybe I micromanage too much. I think it''s just that you''re so close to it and worried about it and want it to be perfect. You know, you want it to be amazing. So maybe I just get too involved.
Do you have musicians redo parts in the studio, where they think they nailed it, and you''re like, “Try that again”?
[Laughs] I''m not too bad. I think I''ve seen people worse than me.
So do you sit in on mixes or do they just give you mixes when they get to a certain point? Or are you there for the whole thing?
Brendan is able to say, “Leave me for 20 minutes,” and he will have it mixed. I mean, he''s very quick. The other thing that he does differently is if there are changes, he doesn''t pull up the mix and just fix the changes; he re-mixes the whole thing.
And what about Daniel? Was he involved in the mix?
No, he was really impressed with Stuart, I think, and seeing somebody that worked—you know, it''s a totally modern way of working that Stuart has. So I think he was really impressed with that.
So are you going to be doing a lot of touring for this?
Yeah, I think we''re definitely going to tour. I don''t know how extensive or how much it''s going to be. But around the time it comes out, we''re going to do a run in Europe and a run in America, and I''ll just kind of see what happens.
It seems like great material to play live with a band. No need for backing tracks or anything like that. Just a rock band playing.
Yeah, it''s going to be fun.
AT THE CONTROLS
As the engineer for much of the Flamingo tracking sessions, and for The Killers'' Day and Age, Robert Root is pretty familiar with Brandon Flowers and how he works. In fact, Root was there from the beginning on Flowers'' solo effort, engineering the demo sessions. “I got to see the songs take form from the ground up,” Root says.
The primary DAW used for the tracking sessions was Apple Logic Pro. Although the studio is also equipped with Avid Pro Tools, Root says that he primarily uses Logic. Battle Born is based around an API console, whose mic pres were used heavily on the Flamingo project. The studio also has a small but high-quality selection of outboard gear including preamps from D.W. Fearn, Avalon, and Neve; and compressors from Universal Audio and Purple Audio, among others.
The latter two compressors were both put to use on Flowers'' Shure SM58-recorded vocal tracks. In the studio, Root says, Flowers has two techniques with the 58. “Sometimes he''ll just kind of hold the back of the mic and sing into it as he''s performing onstage, and sometimes he''ll cup it to give more of a dry—I guess the best way to describe it is kind of an intimate sound. It really picks up the proximity of his voice if he cups the mic. And as far as processing, a little bit of subtractive EQing usually with an API 560 and some compression; usually we would run him through an 1176 or a Purple Audio Action compressor.”
Flowers did use some other vocal mics, as well. “We tried a [Shure] SM7,” Root says. And on the sessions for the Brendan O''Brien-produced songs, which were tracked in L.A., Flowers sang through a Telefunken 251. “I think immediately he noticed a difference going to a more defined microphone. It took him a little while to warm up to it, but he sounded amazing on it, and it was just a matter of going through the motions enough times to get comfortable with that kind of sound coming back at you.”
As for the mixing, Root says, “For the most part, it was done by Stuart [Price] and by O''Brien in their studios. As much as Stuart felt could be done at the same time as recording, editing, arranging. [Price] was also doing mixing at Battle Born. But for the most part, the final mixes were at least touched up by him in London.”
Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.