The Killers at Life is Beautiful, 2015 [photo: Erik Kabik]

The Night The Killers Left Las Vegas

A true Sin City story of when we were young

As the third annual Life is Beautiful festival wound down to a close on Sunday night, local Las Vegans were greeted with a surprise, as The Killers — whom weren’t on the bill — joined their lead singer Brandon Flowers for a portion of what was supposed to be a “solo” performance. It was the kind of revelation that wasn’t immediately obvious from looking at the festival’s line-up, but was once it happened before the audience’s eyes. That’s because — as many Sin City dwellers will tell you — The Killers are an incredibly down-to-earth band. Ask any 30-something around town and surely they’ll tell you which Killer they know, which Killer they ran into at Champagne’s Cafe the other night, or at least how many degrees of separation they are from a Killer. While to the rest of the world The Killers may be this untouchable, larger than life, globe-trotting rock band, for many of us locals they are still our high school friends.

“I go all the time. I kind of do what I always did in Vegas. Go to all the same places,” Killers bassist Mark Stoermer tells me, when asked if he would still eat at local restaurant Cafe Rio, or if he only opts for higher-end spots.

The Icehouse Lounge, DTLV

Their surprise performance at Life is Beautiful was very much in character with the way that they’ve always done things, even before the flashing lights and multi-platinum selling albums. Case in point was a fateful party on the night of January 23rd, 2004, which took place at a downtown Las Vegas bar called The Icehouse Lounge. Its design was based on an early 1900s era industrial ice house, which was actually once located a few blocks away. Local party promoter DJ John Doe had popularized the venue with his “funky soul dance party,” The Get Back, that was happening there twice a month, which incidentally celebrates its 13th anniversary this week. He had the idea to expand the party with a second themed night called Burning Down the House, instead opting for a evening of “80s.Newave.Synthpop.Muzik,” which would happen every fourth Friday of the month.

Enlisting another promoter named Ryan Pardey along with myself, our DJ sets were made up of tracks from breaking new electroclash bands and the finer parts of the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtrack. In other words, heavy on The Rapture, with minimal dosages of Kajagoogoo. The night of January 23rd, 2004, The Killers would perform an unbilled show attached to Burning Down the House, just after signing a stateside deal with Island Def Jam. Having just come off of a short stint of indie gigs in the U.K. — where they were buzzing off of Zane Lowe’s spins of “Mr. Brightside” on BBC Radio 1 and an endorsement from NME — the band would simultaneously perform their last show as local civilians and their first show as rock stars, to a close knit crowd of Vegas fans, friends and family.

A Hot Fuss

Prior to that, The Killers were just that promising local band that admittedly went through a few lineup changes before ultimately settling into their groove. They had amassed a fanbase locally by playing at a transgender bar called Sasha’s, located adjacent from the Hard Rock Hotel on a one-way street affectionately known in the local gay community as “the fruit loop.” Ryan Pardey was hosting a night called TRASH, building up a local following by “just playing good music” in his DJ sets, spinning cuts from the likes of Morrissey and The Cure. His day job was working as owner and operator of Scaryland Parkway indie coffee shop Cafe Espresso Roma.

“My friend Manny approached me when I was running Roma, like ‘You want to DJ this night at Sasha’s?’ They were doing a drag show there, so there were a lot of transgender people. We had a few drifting through there on our night; that was the built-in clientele. But overwhelmingly, it was hot indie chicks,” Ryan Pardey tells Cuepoint. “I wanted to do something in an edgy club and what ended up happening was a three-to-one girl-to-guy ratio.”

Ryan had booked The Killers previously at Cafe Roma, where unenthused locals were unknowingly sitting in the presence of greatness. Or future greatness, at least.

“People were drinking coffee and reading the newspaper while The Killers played at Roma. Everyone was too cool for school and not paying attention to them when they played. That song ‘Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll’ was about Roma, basically,” says Ryan of the international Hot Fuss bonus track. “Their first performance there was when Brandon [Flowers] and Dave [Keuning] came to Roma, but back then they had a revolving door of people. They just weren’t very good then. They became a great band when Ronnie [Vannucci] and Mark joined. That’s when they finally became a cohesive unit. What Ronnie did — he was the discipline — and Mark was just a solid musician. He’s also just so solid as a human being altogether. They never had that before. They developed that rhythm section and they were really able to play.”

“That was kind of a magical time, because it was when we were getting tight as the four piece that is this version of The Killers, which became the main line up. As Vegas people know, Dave and Brandon started the band with two other guys,” Mark Stoermer told Cuepoint. “Once me and Ronnie joined the band, it changed. Once we started recording a new record, they ditched a lot of their old songs. We started writing together, it was around that time that we were finding this line-up and having some new songs.”

Once Pardey had developed a solid following for his DJ gigs at Sasha’s, the band took notice, asking if they could hop on the bill. In a strange turn of events, he had more of a draw as a local DJ than they did as a band.

“One night I had [DJ] John Doe on the bill, but Ronnie asked if they could play a show that weekend. The big show was the night this dude from American came, a few record labels came. But Rob Stevenson from Island Def Jam was there, so they asked me if they could play that show. They brought in their own sound system for that one as well,” says Pardey. “One of the reasons that wanted to do it at Sasha’s because I was already packing that room every weekend. It was obviously a Killers friendly crowd. I was drawing more of a crowd than they were at that point at the party, so they wanted to make sure it was a slam dunk. So they did and I remember it was packed to the gills.”

Take regular, sweltering 100+ degree Las Vegas summers and combine that with a small, filled-to-capacity room with a mixture of sweaty scenesters and drag queens and the picture begins to paint itself.

“Dave was wearing his fur coat, I couldn’t believe it, it was so ridiculous, some big furry jacket. It was obviously 100 degrees inside and it was hot outside. Then I remember the room just clearing out right after, with John Doe just DJing the set for absolutely nobody,” says Pardey. “I thought I was doing John a solid, like ‘Alright man, I’m putting you on at prime time when the crowd should be ready.’ But it was such a climax that it was too hot to stay in there. It was suffocating.”

“Super, super hot, jam-packed. Ryan had me come in to DJ after them. And it was so hot and sweaty in there, that as soon as the band was done with their set, everyone went outside and I played for an empty room. It was so hot,” says Doe, corroborating Ryan’s tale.

“It was also an exciting thing to play in Vegas [at Sasha’s] because — I don’t even know if it was even legal — but it was 18 and up. That never really happened in Vegas. Other cities like San Francisco had that kind of thing, but in Vegas that was special to be able to get college kids into a bar, basically to watch a band,” Stoermer continues. “That kind of made it more exciting because it wasn’t exactly all ages. We were drawing pretty decent crowds for a local band — 100, 200 people — which made the place packed. It was hot and sweaty, but we had some good shows there as the band was kind of spiraling upwards.”

Midnight Show

Once the band had built their buzz in the U.K. with a pair of indie singles on Lizard King Records for “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me,” the stateside deal with Island Def Jam soon followed.

“We got signed in about July 2003 to the U.K. indie label and then we went and did one short run in London of four days in September, followed by a full on tour in November of 2003. But we weren’t signed in America until somewhere between there and October 2003,” remembers Stoermer.

The Killers, 2004

Word had spread around the local scene like wildfire that The Killers had signed a major record deal. During that period, most conversations with your fellow Vegas friends would start out with the sentence, “So, how about The Killers, huh….?” They were the major league sports team that our city never had.

After returning from their late 2003 U.K. stint, we had somehow locked The Killers in for a performance at Burning Down the House. That night they would perform for their hometown and then head back out to the U.K. the very next day. It was sort of a transitional period for the band — at least in the eyes of locals — because it was at this moment they began to go from “promising” to “flourishing.”

“I just remember it was a really good night. It was a good mix of having indie or rock fans, and then still having DJs playing cool things. There was different music downstairs then there was upstairs. We were still essentially on the local club level in Vegas, but it was already starting to happen in the U.K. and we were doing full-blown tours,” says Stoermer.

“I don’t know if we paid them anything. I want to say the label paid for the sound rental,” says John Doe. “If we paid them, it wasn’t much. We had, what, maybe 300 or 400 people there? It wasn’t crazy crowded.”

“Yeah, a lot of the people were Vannucci fans and Flowers fans. Probably a lot of friends and family because it was very celebratory,” says Pardey.

“It was a lot of friends and local regulars that would go to things like The Get Back or local shows; that’s the kind of audience we were getting. It was still kind of at that level, but big for a local band in Vegas, because not many local bands at that point were drawing more than 200 people,” says Stoermer. “It was an exciting time when we still hadn’t broke and gotten to that level. It was a transitional moment, it was the first time that we came back and there was a different level of expectation of production.”

That expectation may have actually worked against the band that night at the Icehouse, whom were possibly trying to match the level of production showcased during their U.K. tour locally at the Icehouse Lounge. Pushing the low-budget dive bar’s power to the max, the sound and lights in the venue would give out every few minutes, prompting an article by then Las Vegas City Life scribe Jarret Keene with the headline reading: Killers’ sound system craps out. “No wonder DJ John Doe walked around all night with his jaw clenched,” he wrote.

“I was over at the fuckin’ breaker board all night, I kept flicking the breakers back when they’d blow. They weren’t wired for sound at The Icehouse. The band brought this lighting rig and all this shit,” says Doe in his usual cantankerous tone. “I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t know about all this,’ and sure enough it was blown. Eventually they killed their light rig and then it was good. The lights were sending it overboard.”

“I remember that the sound system went down and we were possibly a little frustrated about that,” says Stoermer. “But it was still an exciting time and we were in this whirlwind constantly doing things, leaving the next day back to the U.K.”

The lights and sound flickered in and out as the budding band performed a handful of future hits like “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me.” They even debuted “Andy, You’re a Star” during the set. Nevertheless, the crowd didn’t seem to care about the power issues. The band adapted and they well…killed. They would play one more show at the Icehouse a month later on February 27th, 2004, which doubled as an Island Def Jam showcase and a 25th birthday party for Ryan Pardey.

“That was the first time we ever played ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’. It was one of the songs that we didn’t do until we went in the studio and we played it for the first time live there,” says Stoermer. “After that show at the Icehouse, we continued to go back to the U.K. and things were kind of taking off…. The next time we played Vegas was for the Carson Daly Show at the Hard Rock and our album was out.”

Andy, You’re a Star

After that night, The Killers would jet off to the U.K. for a few more shows and by March would hire Ryan Pardey as their tour manager, a gig that would last through their second album, Sam’s Town in 2007. He’d earn the nickname “The Captain” and go on to record two Christmas songs with the band, playing a Santa Claus character. (“We’re supposed to start working on a third Christmas song together pretty soon,” he reveals.) Ryan reminisces on those early tour days fondly.

“We were in a van, there was six of us in the van. I was doing most of the driving, we were loading the gear and setting it up. Playing clubs of 200 or 300, and then in New York 500–600. But it wasn’t the Killers’ crowd, it was stellastar*’s, whom they were opening for, and had a minor indie hit called ‘My Cocoa’,” says Pardey. “It was six week tour, it started in March and ended in April, and the Killers weren’t that good. Brandon was very stiff on stage, so was Mark, but they started developing showmanship. It wasn’t until they got to Seattle, around 2 weeks before Coachella, that “Somebody Told Me” came out, and I noticed as we came down the west coast, the crowds were growing. But they weren’t growing for stellastar*….”

With “Somebody Told Me” exploding in the U.S., The Killers would revisit their buzzy U.K. debut single, “Mr. Brightside,” shooting a new video for it and that’s when “things got huge.”

“I had this feeling, that once this line-up got together — and I had played in other local bands for years and never really thought that way — but I thought this could be on the radio. This could at least tour and get us a record deal and last maybe three to five years, maybe do two or three records. But I didn’t know how big,” recounts Stoermer. “If anything, I thought it would at least be a moderately successful indie band, which is a big step being in Vegas, where no one had really achieved that, possibly. But I was thinking maybe this will sell 50,000 records and we’ll have one song that people know maybe and we’ll tour. But I did have a feeling that it could at least be a career when we were in the garage.”

By June 2004, The Killer’s debut album Hot Fuss was in stores, propelled by the strength of this pair of massive hit singles. In time, the album would go on to sell over seven million copies worldwide and it earned five Grammy nominations. It helped bring awareness to a larger movement that was occurring in indie rock at the time, despite their more polished approach.

“I think we were possibly following in the footsteps of The Strokes and Interpol, but in a more accessible, a little more obviously poppy way. We were definitely influenced by those bands that were happening at that time in the early 2000s,” Stoermer reveals. “There was almost this revival of indie rock and rock & roll in general after a lull of bands in the mid to late 90s. I think things like The Strokes and Interpol gave us hope for something like us to possibly get signed around that time, and also had an influence too even on the music.”

“We were eating McDonalds, staying in Motel 6s. We weren’t sleeping on floors, but we were a family unit. Brandon being Mormon was very big on family dinners and things like that. We did everything together; we were together 24 hours a day, all of us,” says Pardey of his early days touring with the band. “By the time we got to San Diego, everyone was there for the Killers. They brought out the large choir at Coachella and after that performance, that’s when things started to really change.”

Ironically enough, frontman Brandon Flowers once stated that his favorite lyric on the entirety of Hot Fuss is “these changes ain’t changing me” on “All These Things That I’ve Done.”

“In general, we’re all the same people, I guess. You can’t deny that it’s changed us in some ways, but in a way that you can’t help for it to change you. Just through the experiences; and, everybody changes over ten years,” says Stoermer. “Other than that, I think we’re not that different than we were then. I don’t know how it works with other bands but no one has turned into a completely different person, I don’t think.”

And that sentiment is what makes The Killers’ surprise appearance at Life is Beautiful so “on-brand,” if you will. Just as they did their unpaid, word-of-mouth show at the Icehouse after just signing with one of the biggest record labels in the world, they showed up at Life is Beautiful to support their frontman’s solo performance for their city. It’s hardly surprising given what we know about this band, any one of them whom you might run into at various local spots on any given weekend.

“It kind of felt like for a second that we were the hometown heroes and in an organic, genuine kind of way,” Mark says humbly, almost not recognizing that that is exactly what they are.

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