Heavily influenced by Mitchell, Vannucci’s often free-form approach can take him into dangerous places live — an excursion he believes should come with the territory behind the drum throne. “When you’re a drummer, playing stuff like that, you’re butt-naked. You can’t cover it up with a cool face and looking good. There’s a certain amount of style and flash, but if people are looking for it, man, they can find it. I look like a goddamn spaz when I play, but I’m trying to make that connection. I’m not worried about what suit I’m wearing; I’m more worried about how the music is being translated.
“You’ve got to allow yourself that vulnerability. I think that’s the great thing about drummers: the lessons, the rudiments, the chops, the flam paradiddles can be spot on, but when you’re playing drums, you can tell when there’s no heart in it. Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, and Keith Moon — I haven’t seen other drummers have heart like that. Billy Martin’s got it, he’s amazing. Art Blakey had it. All those great drummers. It’s difficult to show when you cross over to pop music; at least, I find it difficult for me to show it because it raises the question, ’How much do you want to play for the song?’ It’s difficult.”
For Vannucci, finding the ideal songs to play for meant finding his fellow Killers out in Casinoland. Vocalist/keyboardist Brandon Flowers had refused to move to L.A. with his previous synth-pop band but had linked up with guitarist David Keuning when Keuning’s local paper ad named his beloved Oasis as a musical influence. Bassist Mark Stoermer got in on the fun as he was making runs as a medical courier toting blood, urine, and assorted limbs — all they needed was the right drummer instead of the wrong ones they started out with. Vannucci finally crossed paths with them when another band he was filling in with shared a bill with The Killers. Each entity was impressed with the other, but it took a minute for things to come together.
“I was going to UNLV and studying music,” Vannucci recalls. “We started running into each other. They said they were looking for a drummer, but I wasn’t interested in joining — I was interested in finishing school. It was a ’no thanks’ type of thing, but then they gave me this demo they made with their old drummer, and I just fell in love with the tunes. I thought, ’I can really make this better.’ I was mulling it over when me and my girlfriend were on a road trip. She convinced me, and she later became my wife.”
The year was 2002, and the next move was for the foursome to start writing songs for hours on end in that aforementioned garage, where the temperature sometimes hit 120 degrees. With the right personnel in place, The Killers had a fast flow toward creating the fascinating-lyric-frenetic-vocal-jagged-guitar-undulating-bass-hyper-driving-rhythm-packed songs that would grace Hot Fuss. With all that going for them, the desired world domination came pretty darn easy.
“It wasn’t very hard,” confirms a cocky Vannucci of his band’s path to getting a record deal. “Nothing was a concerted effort, really. We said, ’Look, we’re all into this. That’s it.’ It was all action. We’d play some funky clubs and get the hairy eyeball: ’These guys are wearing mascara!’ We were a cocky band, and people were taking notice of it. We had that energy that Ziggy Stardust had, and people were blown away by it. They’d never seen anything like it. Everyone was green, and we were like this burst of energy, this fiery ball, and people like that.”
A few curious labels started to come and check The Killers out but promptly withdrew, saying the band wouldn’t be anything. The band, naturally, shrugged the denials off and kept right on working. “This guy who later became our manager hooked us up with a guy in Berkeley, California with Pro Tools and a drum room in his house,” says Vannucci, “and we started making demos which actually became Hot Fuss. So we were in [the garage] playing ’Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine’ and ’Mr. Brightside,’ then three days later we’d say, ’We’ll go up to Berkeley, lay these down, and see what comes out.’ These songs were really young at the time, and we just kind of built them up.”
While not exactly a lo-fi recording like The Strokes’ Is This It?, Hot Fuss is a snapshot of a band just on the first edges of self-discovery, those precious moments when they understand their songs are great and everyone seems to have finally memorized their parts. With a half-proper recording under their belt, the band released “Mr. Brightside” on the London indie label Lizard King to high critical praise, then attacked higher-profile shows in the U.K. and New York City with more outrageous glam bravado than ever. This time around, they had their pick of the A&R litter. “We did these showcases, and more and more people were intrigued,” Vannucci says. “Out in New York City, all these record company people were looking at the next record company guy saying, ’Who’s gonna pull the trigger?’ Once one of them believed in it, they all did. We ended up signing with Island, and we’ve been on the road ever since.”
If that makes it sound like getting a record deal is no sweat, Vannucci agrees that that’s definitely the case, as long as one key thing is in place. “You’ve got to have a good band and good songs. People are always talking about needing luck to get a record deal. I think it’s easy to get a record deal. What isn’t easy is selling records. Anyone can sign you for five cents, but will your music grow legs and do something? That’s the hard part.
“We just believed in ourselves. That’s what a lot of record companies are looking for — someone with self-sufficiency, who doesn’t care about getting a record deal. We wanted to rule the world and be an important band and be recognized for that. If people wanted to take part, cool, and if not, it wasn’t going to rain on our parade. We would have done it anyway. We just happened to get a record company that signed us and believed in us.”