Destroying great young talent is supposed to be the forte of major labels today, as opposed to developing it like they did in some Golden Era gone by. Anyone who heard The Killers’ electrifying debut, Hot Fuss, on mega-label Island Records probably would have sworn that they were destined for the typical big-record-company screw-job: These guys were just too good to get the support they deserved.
But every once in a while, the majors make interesting bands a priority instead of a tax write-off, and fortunately for hectic drummer Ronnie Vannucci, his group The Killers are just such an act. Only three years after crystallizing in the super-heated desert town of Las Vegas, The Killers have emerged as intriguing pop songwriters who just happen to be worldwide. As you may be able to tell from the abbreviated timeframe, this is a band that was confident about succeeding from the very start.
“The Killers ... when did I know that was something special? I guess when we got into a room together for the first time,” the 29-year-old Vannucci muses. “They needed some help, but you could see that there was some magic. We hit it off as friends first — they just needed a drummer that could hang, you know? I told them, ’Look, if we’re going to do this, let’s really do this.’
“I was jaded being in bands where there was always one guy not really into it, bringing everyone down. I said, ’Let’s not waste anybody’s time.’ We all had that mindset: We’re going to rule the world. This was our mindset and mentality, in the garage every single day, learning how to play together, writing songs. And we’re still in that garage.”
The rehearsal space may remain the same, but the glam-looking, indie-sounding rock band’s reach has extended far beyond even their wild ambitions. Hot Fuss has garnered sales of more than four million albums worldwide, it has been on the Billboard 200 album chart for well over a year, the video for the darkly energetic “Mr. Brightside” is everywhere always, and the song “Somebody Told Me” earned a Grammy nomination. Not bad for four guys who haven’t even known each other that long.
Vannucci plays with a spontaneous, high-strung style that establishes the drums as a voice in their own right, not just a backing beat. For Vannucci, who was actually born in Las Vegas instead of gravitating there, the starting point was a kit his parents purchased at a garage sale when he was a tender seven years old. “I just got right up on that thing and started doing it,” he recalls. “That’s when they thought, ’Let’s get him some building blocks, make sure he gets some rudiments down along with some piano lessons.’ I wish I did piano more, but as soon as I sat down to a keyboard I thought, ’This is wussy. Give me some drums.’”
Growing up in a household where he was exposed early to the sounds of icons like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and Steely Dan, Vannucci may have been a noisy kid, but he also was learning how to listen. “I never looked at drums as pure beating on stuff,” he says. “I was always just into music. The way I was able to express myself was just playing with my hands and feet because it was easier than playing the piano. I listen to drummers, of course, because I’m always trying to listen to what people are doing, but I think what got me first was listening to music — listening to everything: to how the vocals would carry something or how you’d hear the counter-melody clearer than the melody.
“I actually didn’t exercise my brain again that way until I majored in music [studying classical percussion at University of Las Vegas (UNLV)]. When I was little, I listened to music and how it made me feel. I never listened to lyrics, just the sound of the lyric, the inflections that the voice made. It hasn’t been until recently that I was listening to words and what they mean, which just opened a whole other can of worms. That makes it even better: If someone has something important to say in a cool new way, that’s something I realize now is important. I’m still learning, you know?”
Growing up in Vegas — the land of flash, big bands, and top-flight musicians who could nail covers — gave Vannucci his own particular set of influences as his drumming neurons hardened. “When I was first attracted to drummers, it wasn’t Tommy Lee,” he explains. “It was people like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and all those dope drummers. They were smiling, chewing gum, and still kicking everyone’s ass, swinging like crazy. I never lost my love for that, but of course, as I got older, I got more into classic rock, Stewart Copeland.
“My parents played me Hendrix, and no one else [in Vegas] was listening to Mitch Mitchell. That guy is one of the best drummers on the planet. He was — and still is — amazing. Hendrix was playing blues, you know, which had a lot of emotion. In order to move that music, you need to be able to articulate. Mitchell had this delivery that was just unlike anything I’d ever heard before. He swung the hell out of something that needed it, needed to swing. It needed to have this heaviness and this lightness to it. It was all completely necessary. I thought he was just the perfect combination of a jazz and rock drummer, like Bonham was.”