WHILE PREPPING FOR MY SIT-DOWN WITH THE Killers’ Dave Keuning by perusing previous exposés on the Las Vegas-based pop quartet, I began to notice a remarkable trend. It seems most every music journalist who interviews a Killer (including those from other guitar magazines) is rather keen to point out the trendy Vegas Strip nightspot, swanky hotel bar, or bigcity hipster hangout where the conversation is taking place. I’m guessing this is because the Killers have arguably become the “it” band among rock’s cognoscenti since their 2004 debut Hot Fuss’ unique blend of ’80s-style synthpop anthems and post-punk grit resonated strongly with both the music press and a mass audience. Factor in a headlining turn at the Glastonbury Festival, an appearance on the hit television series The O.C., the artistically ambitious yet commercially viable sophomore effort Sam’s Town, various Grammy nominations and Brit Awards victories, and frontman/keyboardist Brandon Flowers’ Bono-like charisma with the media, and you begin to understand why the Killers rank pretty high on the “see-and-beseen” scene.
But lest we allow hype to supersede inventive musicianship and great songwriting, I cordially invite GP readers to turn to page 142 of the January 2008 issue and have a go at Keuning’s digit-distending, string-skipping intro to the Killers’ breakthrough hit, “Mr. Brightside.” To my ears that lick, along with much of Keuning’s textural pop proclivity on the band’s 2008 CD Day and Age and recently released DVD Live from Royal Albert Hall, has its stylistic antecedent in the approach of Police guitarist Andy Summers. Like Summers, Keuning is a schooled 6-stringer. He played in his high school jazz ensemble, majored in music while in college, and used to practice sight-reading daily, employing his chops and formal knowledge in a search for new creative vistas—and cool new chord shapes—while remaining within what is essentially a Top-40 format.
Forget about cruising down Las Vegas Boulevard. The hippest thing about hanging out with Dave Keuning was the fact that throughout our entire interview his guitar never left his hands as he either subconsciously ran scales by rote while ruminating on an answer, or actively demonstrated the finer points of his compositional approach.
Day and Age is probably the least guitar-heavy record the Killers have made. How did you go about claiming sonic space for yourself alongside Brandon Flowers’ keyboards?
This album isn’t perceived as much of a guitar record, but there are all these ambient guitar sounds that our producer Stuart Price had me do, like this [plays droning D octave shape]. Then maybe on another track he’d have me play something else, like this [plays a sparse, double-stop lick in D major). And a few times he just hit the record button and said, “Surprise me.” Later he mixed these tracks together and sort of buried them in the final mix. Also, a lot of sounds that people might think are keyboards are actually guitar.
Like the hypnotic palm-muted opening lick to “Human”?
Yes. That’s actually me playing the whole way through. After our initial meeting with Stuart to discuss the possibility of him producing Day and Age, Brandon and I went back to his studio that very night. Brandon had the basic chords to “Human” and laid them down on keyboard. Stuart works fast, so he was already putting together drum samples for us to play over. Then, I came up with what I call that kind of “sideways” guitar part. He had a Yamaha acoustic-electric lying around, so I just went for it. That’s actually the take you hear on the album. Our manager thought it was a looped synth part when he first heard it.
Did you use a lot of different guitars to record Day and Age?
I used a Gibson ES-335 for most of the sessions. On previous records we had tuned the guitars down a half-step to Eb [Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb, low to high], but on this one we were mostly in standard tuning, and my 335 is the guitar that I keep in standard tuning live. That’s a nylon-string on “I Can’t Say,” and the prechorus of “Spaceman.” I prefer the sound of a nylon-string to a steel-string. Live, I thought of putting the acoustic guitar on the stand, but I opted to just play the parts on electric, at least for now.
What do you feel is the most unique or unusual thing about your playing?
I’m certainly not the only modern guitarist who does this, but one thing I try to do is avoid power chords and straight barre chords. I’m always looking for unusual voicings, and I try to be as inventive as I can without over-thinking it. I’ve actually noticed quite a few wrong versions of my guitar parts making the rounds as tablature and sheet music. “When You Were Young,” for example, is not this [plays F, Gm, Am and C as a 6th-string-root barre chord progression up the neck]. It’s this [plays a similar progression, re-voicing the chords with a sliding grip that has his thumb playing the root note, and the third and fourth fingers covering the 5th and octave on the A and D strings respectively, and the first string throughout.)
What guitar part on the new album are you most proud of?
I’m pretty psyched about the “Losing Touch” solo, largely because the other band members reacted so positively to it. I did that solo on a practice take running through a DigiTech Whammy pedal and the other guys said, “That’s it! That’s the one. You are not redoing it.” I did have to go back and relearn it to play it live, though.
Has your rig gotten bigger as you’ve searched for new sounds?
I don’t think I use too many unusual sounds or have that big of a rig, but I suppose that is changing. I’ve been a Fender Hot Rod DeVille guy since Hot Fuss. There are other amps I could use but I’m comfortable with the DeVille and know how to make it sound good. On some songs I will mix it up with Hiwatts for a heavier sound. Most of my pedals go out to all of my amps, but the chorus only runs to the DeVille for clean tones. I use an Ibanez Analog Delay and a Boss Digital Delay for ambience on soaring lead stuff. I don’t know if it’s out of laziness or what, but they stay on the same settings the whole show.
This current tour is the first tour where I’m using a MIDI controller to switch patches instead of doing the pedalboard dance and turning three different things on and off at once.
Sometimes you can get good sounds just by keeping it simple, though. Awhile back we had to play through a makeshift practice rig because our main stuff was already on the road waiting for us at the venue. I had a delay with a different setting that produced a really good reverb sound, and I wound up incorporating that sound on our most recent Live from Abbey Road session.
You did a well-received Live from Abbey Road acoustic session back in 2006. I’m guessing you’re going electric this time around?
Yes. For this one it’s us playing electric along with a 20-piece string orchestra. In the arrangement of “Human,” the strings are playing my guitar line.
You’ve stated that much of Day and Age was written by exchanging Logic Pro demos via e-mail. Do you guys ever jam live or in the studio?
“Losing Touch” came out of a jam, and “Goodnight, Travel Well” started around this little guitar idea that I had and kept building off of. Eventually that riff got dropped from the song completely, but it served as the initial spark. Live, we extend the beginning of “Joyride,” and “Spaceman” has an extra minute or so of guitar soloing. Had we played the song before recording, it probably would’ve wound up on the record that way. I don’t think too many bands write new material on the road and work it into the set anymore. I guess because audiences no longer have the patience to listen to things they’re not familiar with.
Are there other guitar styles you explore—or would like to explore—outside the scope of the Killers’ music?
No, not really. I suppose that whenever a kid is learning guitar he wants to be the next Angus Young—and that’s what I wanted to be, too, initially—but not every song is going to be built around long solos and “Thunderstruck”- style intros. I loved Billy Joel’s music growing up and that didn’t have a lot of guitar in it. I’m very happy just playing for the song. If there’s a great song, you shouldn’t ruin it by stepping all over the melody.
What I like about being in the Killers is that we can explore a lot of different styles but still keep our sound, so I’m always challenged. For me, the paradigm of a band that retains its signature sound but is still stylistically diverse is Queen, as opposed to, say—and I mean this with all due respect— the Ramones, where it’s the same basic formula over and over again.