Photo: Timothy Saccenti
Brandon Flowers jumps to his feet again and hits the volume on the nearby flat screen. “That's it — he's having him for lunch,” he marvels, his dark eyes fixed on the two figures duking it out in front of 40,000 rabid fans. “I feel bad for the kid. He's young and he'll get another shot, but he's gotta be scared to death to be out there now.”
Boxing match? Mixed martial-arts smackdown? Not even close. We're watching the men's final of the U.S. Open, where Roger Federer is giving the young Scot upstart Andy Murray a thorough shellacking. At first it seems a little weird that Flowers, frontman for one of the biggest rock bands in America, would even give professional tennis the time of day. But then it sinks in: The Killers share their hometown with Andre Agassi, a living legend of the game. Maybe Las Vegas isn't just about casinos, cowboys and crime scenes after all.
There's certainly more than meets the eye to the band's latest album. Whereas their 2006 sophomore outing, Sam's Town, produced by Flood with Alan Moulder, transmuted the synth-pop bluster and rock star potential of Flowers and his bandmates — guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci — into an epic slab of sonic hugeness worthy of the Next Big Thing, Day & Age (Island, 2008) actually manages to expand the scope even further. It comes through in the galactic synth and guitar washes of “Spaceman,” the throwback glam-funk beat that drives “Losing Touch,” or the left-field harp and Caribbean steel drums (that's right: steel drums) that spice up the Bowie-esque “I Can't Stay.” Simply put, The Killers have tapped a way-out rebel seam — a devil-may-care vibe — that has a lot to do, no doubt, with the thrill of recording for the first time in their new Battle Born Studios.
To be sure, it's a buzz that can only get better when you have London-based producer Stuart Price riding the faders and tweaking the LFOs. Known for his marquee work with pop royalty (Madonna, Seal, New Order), but also in particular for his own indie projects (Zoot Woman, Les Rythmes Digitales) and a spate of sharp remixes he's churned out over the years under his Thin White Duke alias, Price brings a mind-stretching, almost psychedelic ear to Day & Age. He loves his vintage synthesizers, compressors and outboard units, and has become a wizard at old-school recording techniques like re-amping and miking a room for natural reverb, but he's also equally attached to his computer.
“I don't think there's really any right or wrong in terms of whether you record an album wholly analog or wholly digital,” Price says, pointing out that even though he now has regular access to a high-end mecca like Olympic Studios in London (where Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Queen once recorded — and where Day & Age was finished and mixed), he's always been a bedroom producer at heart. “You have to pick and choose what's right at the time, but I think for this album, we got a really good blend of stuff that happened in the real world and in the digital world.”
It all started last year with a tour stop in London. At the time, Price was finishing mixes of “Sweet Talk,” a song that he'd taken up after the band's enthusiastic response to his Thin White Duke remix of “Mr. Brightside” from The Killers' 2004 Island debut, Hot Fuss. (“Sweet Talk” had its genesis in the Sam's Town sessions but ended up on the band's B-sides collection Sawdust .)
“One night we had dinner with Stuart,” Flowers recalls, “and we didn't know if he was gonna do our next album or not, but I had a 4-track with me that I told him was like a mix of Pet Shop Boys and Johnny Cash. So I asked him, ‘What are you doing later?'' And the next thing I knew, me and Dave were back at his house recording tracks.”
These were the earliest takes of “Human,” an uptempo dancefloor anthem and the first single from Day & Age. The song gradually took shape as Price and the band, both working separately in Logic, continued to send new demo versions back and forth online via Apple iDisk while the band was on tour — an approach that worked so well, they applied it to the bulk of the songs that made the album. “It was like Christmas, checking your e-mail to see if he'd sent something back,” Flowers says. [Laughs.] “We'd never worked on preproduction like that before, so it was exciting.”
At his home studio (dubbed “50” for the street address where he lives), Price would often access his bank of vintage synths — including a Moog Polymoog, Korg MS-20, Roland SH-09 and a rare Rhodes Chroma — to add textures to a demo track or to supplement the Clavia Nord Lead 3 that Flowers uses as his main synth. “Brandon might say, ‘I really like the lushness of this sound,'' but he'd want to expand on it,” Price explains. “So I might work out a sound on one of the analog synths here and then send it back. Later on, when we finally got in the studio, I actually took a lot of my synths over with me.”
Price and the band spent six weeks at Battle Born, where they chose from more than 30 different demos and began fleshing out basic tracks for the album. Working on a new API 1608 console with Logic 8, an Apogee Symphony interface and a UAD-2 card (an early version sent to the band by Universal Audio), Price found that the relatively stripped-down setup was a blessing in disguise.
“One of the best things about the API is that we were limited to 16 channels for recording,” Price says. “These days, if I'm mixing or remixing something, I constantly see 32 tracks of drums, for example, and with that amount of mics, you start going, ‘Hang on a minute — is this really the essence of the drum sound we want or are we just getting limitless options?'' So we recorded the drums very simply, with Earthworks mics on a lot of the kit and some of the usual suspects like [Sennheiser] 421s in the room, but it was very limited because we had this small-format mixer.”
AN INSTRUMENTAL EXISTENCE
Drum sounds, in fact, were subject to a lot of experimentation on Day & Age, although Price and the band also came up with ways of tweaking the sound of just about every instrument on the album (including even Tommy Marth's saxophone on such tracks as “Losing Touch,” where the horn gets re-amped and squeezed through a chain of distortion and compression in the song's tail-out section).
As Vannucci describes it, the overall low-end presence of the rhythm section was often a matter of sonically damping the kit, layering drums or trying new signal paths. “We did some cool stuff on ‘Human,''” he explains, “where I was playing a little bebop kit in the isolation booth where we record the guitar amps. I had an 18-inch bass drum, a 12-inch tom-tom, a 14-inch floor tom with a T-shirt over it and one really old, dry cymbal. We also ran the snare through an old Simmons SDS-5 module. If you listen to it, the snare is changing from time to time — one track is the Simmons module and the other track is just a deep, solid mahogany snare that's tuned really low with a diaper on it. We wanted the drums to sound almost programmed, but I'm also playing accents on the hi-hat to make it sound more human.”
True to its title, “Spaceman” is another vehicle for the band to mess with the overall sound after the fact. In the song's tripped-out breakdown section, the kick drum becomes a star going nova, with Vannucci stacking on a huge bass drum that he played marching-band style with a yarn mallet. The drum was recorded through a high-end Soundelux 251 microphone and subjected to a wash of custom-designed reverb.
“A lot of the reverbs in that section were made using Space Designer in Logic,” Price explains. “I used to have an Akai S1100 sampler, which had this really good reverb preset on it called Cavernous. I always missed that sound, so I recorded some impulses through Space Designer, but what I didn't realize was that I accidentally had a Yamaha SPX-90 chorus stuck on the mixer, so the impulses got recorded with this chorus effect on it. But that ended up giving them this great swirling effect, which created a lot of that revolving panorama in the song.”
Stoermer also opted to try something new on bass, switching from his main Fender Jazz bass (a Geddy Lee model, no less) to a Hofner semi-acoustic bass, which tends to have a much rounder, plunkier tone that takes up the lower registers. “It sometimes blends in with the kick, so it totally changes the texture and gives it a lot more low end,” he says. “There are other songs on the album, like ‘Losing Touch,'' where I think I even popped on it, which I wouldn't do normally because it might stand out too much, but on the Hofner it's kind of subtle. It's percussive and the notes are shorter, but it still has some kind of sub-tone to it that's not necessarily there on other basses, maybe because it's hollow.”
Of course, with the rhythm section breathing as one, this left plenty of room for Keuning to stretch out on guitar. For the first time on a Killers album, he plays a nylon acoustic guitar (on “I Can't Stay”), and he layers multiple takes on “Neon Tiger,” which stomps with Beatles-like bombast. “I tried a bunch of solos when we were making the demo for that,” Keuning says, “and then Ronnie had the idea of keeping them all. It was just a big pile of guitars, but once Stuart got hold of them, he made them sound totally different from how they started out, so they really fit together.” This often meant close-miking Keuning's amps in a very small iso booth using a Shure SM57 with a Coles ribbon mic, which was stacked on top of the 57 and facing in the opposite direction for a slight phase differential.
Stuart Price has made a career out of trying just about anything in the studio — a philosophy that meshes 0with The Killers' no-holds-barred attitude when it comes to songwriting. Whether he was programming synths or excessively re-amping and tweaking tracks at Olympic Studios [see sidebar “In the House of the Holy”], Price left himself open to any idea, especially if it was accidental.
“I've always found it to be like that,” he says. “I don't want to say all music is mistakes, but I think a lot of exciting music comes from your mistakes because you weren't thinking too much about it. It might be programming a synth or recording a guitar — you may not get what you're looking for at first, but eventually you'll get something that excites you in a different way.”
Flowers agrees, taking “Neon Tiger” as a prime instance of The Killers grabbing a little more freedom. “We're never really trying to sound like anyone,” he insists, “and even though that song was really adventurous for us, we kept the pop side of it. You mentioned the Beatles, and that's what I love about them. Even at their most experimental, there was something catchy that your mom could sing along to, and that's something that gets lost when most people experiment. They get too much credit for just fucking around. I think going for weird, unexpected things just comes naturally to us.”
Name Your Price
Stuart Price's 50 Studio might be economical in terms of space, but as far as the sound is concerned, he spares no expense, with exotic analog synths being one of his specialties.
Computer, DAW, recording hardware, mixer
Apogee Symphony conversion system
Apple Power Mac G5 Dual 2.8 GHz computer
running Logic Pro 8
Lucid AD9624 converter and GENx6 clock
Neve Melbourne 12-channel mixing desk with
Neve 33129 modules
Universal Audio UAD-2 DSP card
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Alan Smart C2 compressor
API 3124 mic preamp
Avalon U5 instrument DI,
Vt-737sp mic preamp/compressor/EQ
Drawmer LX20 compressor
Eventide Eclipse effects processor
GBS spring reverb
GML 8200 parametric EQ
Neumann M 149 mics
Neve 1084 mic preamp/EQ
Shure SM55, 57 and 58 mics
Urei 1176 limiter/compressor
Synthesizers, drum machines, modules
Korg MS-20 synth, SQ-10 sequencer,
Roland SH-09 and TR-909 drum machine
Simmons SDS-5 drum modules
Yamaha DX7s and TX7 (rack module)
Dynaudio M1s powered by Bryston amps
Neve built-in console speaker
In the House of the Holy
There's a sense of the majestic that seems to permeate the walls of Studio One at Olympic Studios (www.olympicstudios.co.uk/studio1) in London, and that's not just because of the massive live room with 30-foot adjustable ceiling, the meticulously tuned Steinway concert grand or the state-of-the-art SSL XL 9000K mixing desk. The legends of rock have tread heavily here; it's where Jimi Hendrix recorded all of his 1967 classic Are You Experienced? and where Led Zeppelin made its explosive debut in 1969 with engineer Glyn Johns.
It's also where The Killers spent three weeks doing final tracking and mixing for Day & Age. The live room's changeable acoustics were especially useful, whether for recording the Graceland-like backing vocals that open the epic “This Is Your Life” (with all four bandmembers singing 10 feet away from a pair of Neumann U 87s) or for capturing natural reverb by throwing tracks into the room through a high-end Tannoy speaker. “I'd have a mic pointing away from it to capture as much of the reflection of the room as possible,” Stuart Price explains. “I would just leave that on an aux send and use it as one of the main vocal reverbs in mixdown.”
A 20W Fender practice amp, owned by the studio's receptionist, also came in handy for strategic re-amping. “That was always set up in the corner with a U 47 on it,” Price says. “That was also running off an aux send, cranked and distorted to hell, but we would run stuff through it from track to track in strange combinations just to see what would happen. You never had any idea what the result would be like, but it was always something interesting.”