Ronnie Vannucci: Emerges With The Killers

ronnie vannucci

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.

Birth Of A Drummer

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?”

Heroes

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.”

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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.”

ronnie vannucci

Discovering Killers

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.”

Something To Fuss About

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.”

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Vannucci refers back to what his ears were teaching him when he was a young kid, listening to and unconsciously analyzing his parents’ LPs. “You can be interesting, you can be great musicians with really cool lyrics, but if it’s pop or rock music, you’ve got to have a song,” he states. “I think that’s what we’re good at. Brandon has catchy lyrics, David has great melodies, and that’s what separates our band from the rest of the pack.

“It’s also all timing. That label may have a different way of doing things. They may pour all their time and attention into a hip-hop act or another act that’s doing well right now. You’ve just got to have a group of people behind you that like you and believe in you. We owe a lot to Island.”

ronnie vannucci

Ronnie’s 2005 Rig

Drums: Ludwig
1. 24" x 14" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5" Brass Supraphonic or 14" x 6.5" Black Beauty Snare
3. 13" x 9" Tom
4. 16” x 16” Floor Tom

Cymbals: Zildjian “Various Old And New Ks And As”
A. 15" Hi-Hats
B. 22" Sizzle Crash/Ride
C. 24" Ride
D. 20" Crash/Ride

Ronnie Vannucci also uses Pro-Mark sticks and Remo heads.

On The Drums

While everything seems Utopian, Hot Fuss naturally has its share of detractors — Vannucci, for starters. “I’m proud of our record, but as far as drumming is concerned, for me, it leaves a lot to be desired,” he says. “It was basically a demo, nothing was more than two takes. It was the skin of my teeth, you know. Of course, when it’s all mixed, they put all these sound replacements and compressors on there, it loses a lot of its finesse. It’s a mix deal — there are just so many variables, I can’t even narrow it down. If I had to pick a song on Hot Fuss to sum up the entire band, it would be ’Jenny Is A Friend Of Mine.’ It’s got everything that our band represents, with clever musical ideas, kind of dark with a pop sensibility. The bass has got just as much of a hook as the chorus, the spaces were really cleverly thought up, the keyboard line at the end of the last chorus is nice.

“When you see us live, I just think there’s a lot more energy involved. There’s a lot more passion. I think the delivery is better. I kind of like the fact that it’s not always really smooth. As long as it has passion and the connection is made and people see that, I think that’s what’s more important. If they want to hear something that’s perfect, go buy the record — although that’s not perfect.”

With almost nonstop touring being the M.O. since the release of Hot Fuss in 2004, Vannucci has an increasingly better grasp of what he likes to do as a drummer. “You have to do what’s best for a song,” he says. “If a song is going in one direction, I’m not going to cover it up with a fancy drum fill. I won’t overplay, but at the same time, I don’t think the record suffocates me. I won’t let it, because that’s not who I am. I won’t say I didn’t take chances on Hot Fuss. I’ll just say there’s a lot of things that could have been done that might have exposed me as a drummer more, but I might have withheld for the sake of the song. I think any good musician will do that.

“The constant touring has definitely made me a little more concerned with being tight and consistent. We didn’t realize how much Vegas has shaped us as musicians and as a band, but we’re a lot more showy than a lot of bands. I didn’t realize until people started calling us on that stuff, ’Wow, you’re a showy drummer — you play like Max Weinberg!’ That’s how I think people should play! You should have a certain amount of zeal. And when people put two and two together and say we’re from Vegas, looking back I guess we do have a little bit of glitz and glamour, although I wouldn’t expect us to have a white tiger onstage with us anytime soon.”

According to the drummer’s analysis, his signature sound starts with what’s between his legs. “The snare drum is probably the most important part of the drum set,” he points out. “You play it so much, it’s got to sound good, with a certain amount of responsiveness. I like brass drums — there’s such a wide range that you can do with brass. You can play really light with a brass drum or play really heavy, and they’re going to have different sounds, but either way, when brass sings, it’s a really beautiful sound. I also love wood; it just depends on the playing situation.

“I usually like to have my drums ring out like Buddy Rich’s did. I don’t like to sound like I have an entire love seat in my bass drum! But I love the way Matt Chamberlain’s kit sounds on the Fiona Apple records. It sounds like he’s got two pillows in the bass drum, but it fits the song.”

Bigger cymbals, with a wide selection of rides, also figure heavily in Vannucci’s sonic attack. “I also play with large cymbals, including a 24" ride, a 22" sizzle ride on my left, and a 20" crash/ride. I like big cymbals, especially the older cymbals. Those old rides are thin enough to crash on and make a statement but also big enough that you can dance all over them, and they sound like a ride again. You can kind of dig into it — I like to be able to dig into the cymbals, you can actually feel it and connect with it. And a lot of those big cymbals, they don’t really take over, they just give you more to work with, especially because they have so many different spots that you can learn to use for your song. I can get more out of one big-ass cymbal than three crash cymbals — that’s kind of the way I hear things.”

Act Two

Now that The Killers are Official World Rulers, they’re going to have to produce a great second album to retain that title. Vannucci is confident — sort of — that they’ll be able to do just that. “So far so good,” he says of the next recording. “We’ve got probably 30 or 40 ideas out there, which is a nice feeling. I’m still nervous. I want it to be a good second album. We’ve got a lot to live up to, but I’d really be nervous if we didn’t have a lot more in the bucket.

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“We welcome the pressure. It’s every musician’s dream to be successful, and what I mean by successful at the very least is to be recognized for what you do, for your art. I’m not talking about money: I’m talking about being recognized for writing good songs and playing good music. There’s always going to be pressure — because this one was a success, people will always compare the two. Where do you go? Grow up? Remain consistent? Do we have another ’Somebody Told Me’ on the next record? Another ’Mr. Brightside’? I don’t know.”

Whether The Killer’s Record #2 is totally brilliant or sucks, Ronnie Vannucci will definitely deliver the goods on the drums, the only way he knows how. “If you’re playing music, you’ve got to have a fire inside,” he affirms. “You’ve got to have a level of passion, a certain level of talent, and a good balance of technical ability and know-how, but you’ve also got to have the heart. Without the heart, you’re nothing. I can show you a million rudiments, dazzle you with my paradiddles, but if I’ve got no heart behind it, nothing controlling that, nothing making it musical? It’s not worth it. It’s not worth anything to anybody.”

Groove Analysis

The Killers are categorized as neo-wave. I can see the thinking — new wave was 20 years ago, old wave wouldn’t sell to teenagers, so neo-wave was a go. Regardless, they’re a commercial-, radio-, and MTV-friendly band that’s equal parts The Smiths and Oasis with a large dose of The Cure. Ronnie Vannucci slams the skins and crafts some pretty cool parts for this Las Vegas—based band. We chose to write out “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine” simply because it’s a good song with a tasty drum part. Vannucci’s opening cymbal roll leads us into a cool little fill to set up the intro. This funky rock groove uses a couple sixteenth hi-hat notes to lead into beat 4. The little figure he plays at the end of four-bar cycles really grabs your ear. He hits the snare on 4 & a to create an interesting syncopation and answers it with the e & of beat 1 on his bass drum. It’s the sort of little drum figure that adds a lot of rhythmic interest to the feel of this catchy song.

DRUM! Notation Guide

ronnie vannucci