Sometimes a moment comes in a relationship when you know your other half is … vacant. Aloof. Uninterested. And, quite possibly, intimately involved — okay, riding the proverbial hobbyhorse — with someone else. Such is the tale of woe from “Mr. Brightside,” The Killers’ timeless and poignant track about jealousy and mentally visualizing said hobbyhorse riding.
With their Island debut Hot Fuss, the Las Vegas quartet — vocalist-keyboardist Brandon Flowers, guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer, and drummer Ronnie Vannucci — stunned the music world enough to garner two Grammy nominations, and win some serious critical praise from the normally fussy press-types in the UK. Quite a long way from being a professional photographer at the Little Chapel of Flowers, and a classical percussion major at UNLV. Yes, Vannucci was both. Weird.
“My parents were always listening to music,” the 28-year-old Vannucci says of his early years, “so I grew up on a lot of Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, and The Beatles. ’Dream Weaver’ by Gary Wright used to scare the crap out of me. But I grew up on early pop and rock-and-roll music, and then some jazz. And then, Frank Zappa, which probably made me the way I am. That warps little kids real quick. I would go out to the garage and bang on this washer/dryer and refrigerator, getting different sounds, and I’d sing. I’d be out there for hours at a time. I was kind of a weird kid, nothing has changed.”
Well, some things have changed. For one, Vannucci has graduated from Maytag and Kenmore household appliances to Ludwig drums and Zildjian cymbals. Second, he’s developed a keen knack for laying down a spicy part. The verses of “Mr. Brightside” feature a frantic sixteenth-note feel, a feel that wasn’t on the original demos of the song (which were performed by a different drummer).
“As far as the drumming goes,” he explains, “I want to do what’s best for the song. On the demo, ’Mr. Brightside’ was a straight eighth-note song and very, very square. There was an eighth-note arpeggio on the guitar, and then the bass, but the vocals were pushing it. I thought that something needed to match the vocals to help them along, otherwise the band, and the music part, would sound lazy.”
The sixteenth-note groove starts after the first four bars of guitar intro, but for the first eight bars the snare sounds very distant. “What we did is we took two very expensive — I forget what they’re called,” he ponders, “$30,000 condenser microphones, put them in the front of the room, and I think ran it through a Mesa Boogie amp, just to give it kind of a more crusty feel.”
After another eight bars of sixteenths, the song moves into a sloshy eighth-note hi-hat feel for the pre-chorus, right when that two-timing [expletive deleted] starts “touching his chest.” The embellishments are rare, but when the fills are there, especially during different transitions, they’re very musical.
“As a drummer,” Vannucci says, “I think certain songs require you to be more musical, and certain songs require you to be the backbone — ’You’re the tempo guy for this song, just do that.’ ’Mr. Brightside’ is mainly one of those tempo-based songs, the job is to really keep it going. But I can’t help it, when there are changes during the song, you have to be as musical as you can to help accompany that.”
After the first chorus, the verses repeat (with notable breaks on the line “it was only a kiss” — yeah, right), and then Vannucci throws in a feisty fill before the pre-chorus. It all sounds very raw and instinctive, because, well, it is.
“When I think about fills,” he explains, “what I try and do is kind of make it off the cuff and feel as natural as possible. And then if something is not working, or if I need to kind of dig a little deeper, then things become a little more premeditated, a little more thought out. Because sometimes you can play it, it’s magical, and then you just lay it down and it works. Other times, you really think it through and get scientific about it. But I try to make it as organic as possible.
“That actually was one take,” he continues, describing the fill. “I overdubbed the cymbal rolls, and then there’s a sixteenth-note crescendo on the snare drum at the very end, and then I did the ’Won’t Get Fooled Again’ drumbeat over that. I think we did a couple takes of that just so everything would match up correctly.”
“Won’t Get Fooled Again?” You mean the young Killer is a Keith Moon disciple? If you’ve caught the band live, you no doubt have noticed the drummer’s, er, rather voracious flailing. It’s all about the music, and Vannucci doesn’t mind letting it all hang out.
“I did this gig at a church in Las Vegas,” he laughs, remembering an especially early performance, “and had to do a drum solo, and I just stood up. So I’ve been called an idiot basically since I was 16, for just spazzing out on the drums. Drums are a very physical instrument, and I think they should be played with passion. That’s how I look at music. Without trying to be all Zen and everything, it’s very personal, and you can express yourself intimately through it. So I guess if I look like an idiot, as long as it sounds good, and as long as I’m feeling the soul and the passion of the music, I’m fine with being called an idiot.”
Are you coming out of your cage, but doing just fine? Is that so-and-so choking on their alibis? It’s just the price you pay, because destiny is calling you, so open up your eager eyes, and pour your heart into “Mr. Brightside.”