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How the biggest rock song of the century came from a small Las Vegas apartment

Updated February 10, 2021 - 10:46 pm

It all began in a closet.

Before the biggest rock song of the 21st century sold more than 5 million copies, before it shattered chart records in the United Kingdom, before it earned a Grammy nod and became as ubiquitous at sporting events as the raw throats of overzealous fans, The Killers’ iconic hit “Mr. Brightside” originated in a small Las Vegas apartment.

“I had my amp in the closet surrounded by clothes. It was a nice sound-proofing thing,” Killers guitarist Dave Keuning says, recalling the birthplace of the tune’s signature riff two decades ago. “I just plugged in and was messing around. I was actually getting a sound, so I held this fingering. I just kept playing it like, ‘Well, where should I go from here?’

“I kept playing that, and then it goes to the pre-chorus later,” he continues. “I laid all that down on my four-track at the time. It just felt cool. I knew I had something.”

That, he did.

Recently, “Mr. Brightside” — with its heart-in-a-vise lyrics and fist-in-the-air chorus — became the first song of the 2000s from a band to tally over 1 billion streams on Spotify, a remarkable feat considering that “Brightside” was released in 2003, years before the streaming service became as prevalent as it is today.

“It was the right song at the time, the right feel and sound,” Mark Needham says. The veteran mixer and producer, whose clients have included Fleetwood Mac and Shakira, mixed “Mr. Brightside.” “It was just so aggressive and punk and indie, but with such a big pop chorus. It kind of pushed all those buttons.”

And it was the very first song the band wrote.

“It’s funny: The more that you learn and the more you go back to the studio or to the garage, the more times you walk out with your head kind of hanging low, feeling discouraged,” Killers singer Brandon Flowers says. “But those early days were different for us. They were just kind of magical.”

Birth of ‘Brightside’

He’d pull people over if they had stickers on their car for bands he liked.

Then he’d ask if they played an instrument.

That’s how badly Flowers wanted to start a band.

“I was knocking on people’s doors, once a week, meeting people,” he recalls. “I was just going for it.”

In 2001, Flowers answered a musicians-wanted ad in a local newspaper placed by Keuning, an Iowa transplant who also was hoping to launch his own project.

The first time they met, Keuning gave Flowers the four-track recording with the “Mr. Brightside” riff on it.

“When he came back, he had the lyrics and the vocal melody for it,” Keuning recalls. “That was like, ‘Wow.’ I instantly loved what he did with it. Then we added the chorus together right there — not sure exactly how that came about. I think he had the chords or we just played them.

‘Just felt good’

“We had this great chorus that I remember just felt good,” Keuning continues. “As soon as we were done, I wanted to play it again like, ‘What just happened here?’ ”

Next they recruited drummer Matt Norcross via an ad in the City Life weekly.

Norcoss recalls being impressed by the recordings upon hearing them at Keuning’s apartment for the first time.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, this is awesome,’ ” he says of the band’s mix of ’80s New Wave pop and hard-driving rock. “It was definitely something different from what was being played on the radio at the time. The songs didn’t sound like everything that was coming out then.”

In November 2001, the trio entered the now-closed Kill the Messenger studio to record a four-song demo featuring “Under the Gun,” “Desperate,” “Replaceable” and “Mr. Brightside.”

“I think we dropped, like, $2,500 on the recording,” Norcross says.

“I remember having butterflies a little bit going in, being nervous,” Flowers notes. “It was the first time paying for studio time. The red light’s on. The clock’s ticking. You only have so much time to make these demos. It felt thrilling just to be in there, in a studio, doing it.”

That time crunch inadvertently spawned the somewhat-unorthodox song structure of “Brightside,” where the second verse repeats the first.

“That comes from procrastination,” Flowers acknowledges. “One of the memories I do have of being at Kill the Messenger is being in the vocal booth and having the lyrics on paper, looking at an unfinished second verse and that clock’s ticking. You paid for it. It’s like, ‘What do you do? Mumble through this, the second verse?’ I opted to just sing the first verse again. It ended up sticking.”

Norcross would give the demo to radio host Laurie Steele, who has helmed KOMP-FM, 92.3’s “Homegrown Show” since 1998 and was among the first to play The Killers on local airwaves.

“The time period around when they were first starting out here, it was the Papa Roach vibe, the rap-rock kind of thing,” recalls Steele, who initially was drawn more to “Desperate” than “Mr. Brightside.” Their sound was completely different — different, like, ‘Where do they fit in?’ ”

Turning heartache into hit

Their beginning was prefaced by a pair of endings.

When Flowers and Keuning first met, one of the things they had in common was they were both getting out of relationships.

“When that happens, you have a lot of free time,” Keuning chuckles. “So, it was good timing. But his was a little more heartbreaking than mine.”

This would inform the lyrics to “Mr. Brightside,” which burns with a man’s jealous thoughts of an ex-love’s romantic entanglements like a heart doused with kerosene and set ablaze.

“I think a lot people, sadly, identify with it,” Flowers says of the song. “It’s just something that a lot of people go through, especially in their first couple of relationships. It’s that, matched with a resilience in the chorus — there is a bit of a silver lining — and the music is triumphant feeling.”

It’s this mix of vulnerability and resolve combined with a universal emotion that has made the song so relatable to so many.

“The lyrics are obviously very personal to Brandon, but they’re also an everyman’s lyric. Everyone’s made it their own story,” Needham says. “I’ve been at concerts where 20,000 people in the audience just start singing it from beginning to end, screaming at the top of their lungs. It’s just one of those songs that, lyrically, really resonates with people.”

And it has from the very beginning: “Mr. Brightside” was one of three songs that Flowers and Keuning played at their first live show during an open-mic session at the now-shuttered Cafe Espresso Roma in 2002.

Scary gig

“We just put our name down on this list,” Keuning recalls. “You’re watching other people and you’re wondering if you have the guts that they do, waiting for your name and your stomach is turning. Our names were called, it just said, ‘Dave and Brandon,’ so we got up there, everyone stared at us and we started playing.

“No one really did anything during the song,” he continues, “but then a chunk of the audience clapped afterward, so that was comforting. But it was brutal. That might be the scariest gig we ever had.”

The Killers eventually parted ways with Norcross, recruiting drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. and bassist Mark Stoermer, who played on a fresh demo of “Mr. Brightside.”

“They add a lot,” Flowers says of the two bandmates’ contributions to the re-recorded version of “Brightside.” “You can’t discount what Ronnie Vannucci Jr. and Mark Stoermer brought, because they really elevated it when they got their hands on it.”

The Killers then landed a deal with British indie label Lizard King, which pressed “Mr. Brightside” as a 7-inch single, the band first building a buzz overseas. Ryan Pardey, a local DJ who would later become The Killers’ tour manager, and who was working at Cafe Espresso Roma at the time, got a copy of the record and played it at the weekly indie dance parties he hosted at transgender club Tramps.

“I believe I was the first DJ to ever spin The Killers on the dance floor,” Pardey says. “This was in the era of the Postal Service, the Strokes and Interpol hitting. I mixed them in easily with some of those songs, along with a lot of my ’80s New Wave songs. I realized The Killers were par for the course, were holding up with these other big names of the time.”

The band played a label showcase at Tramps in May 2003, where Keuning came clad in a large fur coat despite the heat.

“It must have been like 110 degrees in there because it was just packed wall to wall and sweaty as all hell, and Dave had this big furry jacket,” Pardey remembers. “They were wearing makeup and eyeliner at that point. They definitely were going for it.”

And they got it: The band signed to Island Def Jam Records.

Pardey recalls an encounter at Cafe Roma with the editor of one of the weeklies back when The Killers were first making waves in town.

“He was like, ‘What do you think of this Killers hype?’ ” he says. “I remember saying, ‘Mark my words, this is going to be the biggest band to ever come out of Las Vegas.’ ”

A ‘Hot Fuss’ in America

The stars weren’t out and yet stars were born.

It was during an explosive afternoon performance at the Coachella music festival in April 2004 that The Killers truly announced themselves to U.S. audiences.

“That was like, ‘The rock stars had arrived in America,’ ” Pardey recalls. “There were thousands of people jumping to ‘Mr. Brightside.’ That’s when Killers mania had finally come to America, when we knew this thing was going to have some legs.

“ ‘Mr. Brightside,’ at every point along the way, was one of the key moments in the set,” he continues. “I don’t think they’ve ever not played ‘Mr. Brightside’ in one of their sets.”

Still, the song was not an instant hit.

Though it was released as the band’s first single from debut album “Hot Fuss” in September 2003, “Brightside” didn’t impact the charts here initially.

It was The Killers’ second single, “Somebody Told Me,” that first gave the band serious momentum in America.

Over 250 shows in 2005

Then “Brightside” was re-released later in 2004 as the band practically lived on the road, with Pardey estimating that The Killers played more than 250 shows in 2005 alone — including 19 gigs in 20 days during one stretch.

“It took time,” Flowers says of the song’s slow-building success. “We weren’t really looking at charts, we were looking at the (crowd) reaction every night. You would go play Cleveland, or wherever it is, and then you go back the second time and then the third time, and you can see which songs are resonating. ‘Brightside’ was doing that. We definitely saw a different engagement with the crowd. It was physical.”

The song would peak at No. 10 on the charts in America and become an even bigger hit in the United Kingdom, where it stayed in the Top 100 of the U.K. Singles Chart for over 200 weeks.

“I’ve never had a cocky bone in my body, but I was pretty sure the song would do well, if we got a chance,” Keuning says. “I was like, ‘If this was ever on the radio, people will like it.’ I was very confident in that. But I didn’t know if it would ever get on the radio.”

Twenty years later, it’s never left.

“I was still so young — I was so young — I wrote it half of my life ago,” Flowers says of the song’s origins. “Everything was brand new and exciting. It wasn’t until the touring and making the second record that we realized, ‘It’s not just parties and girls and all that; it’s a lot of hard work if you’re going to keep this up.’ You have to find inspiration. You’re either going to accept it or kind of fade away.

“I’m grateful that we persevered and pushed ourselves, ” he continues. “This creative life that we’ve been lucky enough to live, it all started back with ‘Mr. Brightside.’ ”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter and @jbracelin76 on Instagram

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