Coming out of my cage: The story of an Iowan writing one of this century’s biggest rock songs
Lead singer of 'The Killers' Brandon Flowers talks about why he has decided to take singing lessons, how the band have changed from their earlier records and why rock and roll is now a tough business. (Sept. 25)
Dave Keuning shut himself inside the closet of his Las Vegas apartment when he first strummed a guitar chord that he thought sounded pretty good.
He played the chord on his Epiphone SG, running the guitar through a fuzzbox to give each note a scruffy texture.
He knew he was on to something.
"I just thought I liked the feel of that chord," he said.
So he did what any aspiring guitarist would've done in the early aughts and grabbed his Tascam four-track tape recorder — "I’m terrible with computers,” he said — to cut a demo.
He huddled between his clothes, the best spot in his apartment drown out noise, noodling with the chord. He pieced together parts of a song, layering the demo in guitar ideas.
Keuning emerged from the 5-by-5-foot makeshift studio with the outline of what would become one of his generation's paramount rock songs.
“I was kinda just messing around on this high chord, trying different shapes of it,” Keuning, 42, said. “And it fell into ‘Mr. Brightside.’”
This fall marks 15 years since an independent label first released "Mr. Brightside," a one-verse, three-and-a-half minute tale drenched so heavily in agony that the world still sings as loud today as it did the first time Brandon Flowers bellowed "Let. Me. Go." into a microphone.
Co-written by Keuning, "Mr. Brightside" continues to entrance fans with its story of foreboding told through a timeless high chord.
How did a kid reared in the tulip-and-windmill covered hills of Pella, Iowa, end up in Las Vegas? As lead guitarist in one of this century's most prominent rock 'n' roll outfits?
That started with $40 and a "voracious appetite" for the guitar.
$40, a few chords and a dream
Keuning first put fingers to guitar strings at age 14. He asked for the instrument for Christmas, picking out a “cheapo” model from a Sears catalog — the Amazon of rural America in 1989 — for his parents’ consideration.
But the holidays passed, and he found himself no closer to mastering the day's best riffs.
"I got everything on the list except the guitar,” he said. “I don’t know why my parents didn’t get me it.”
If his parents were subtly thwarting Keuning's attempt to infiltrate rock 'n' roll — “They just always wanted me to have a back-up plan for a real job,” he said — it didn’t stick. Keuning scored a used six string from a classmate for $40.
He immersed himself in Metallica, Aerosmith and AC/DC, the radio giants of his childhood. Intrigued by each's respective sound, he practiced radio's biggest behemoths daily.
And he was fueled by competitive spirit. A school friend, Ross, had been playing longer. Keuning needed to catch up.
"I just couldn’t put it down whenever I got it," he said. "I was so intrigued by it."
It was around the time Keuning began punching power chords that Chris Hopkins, a seasoned regional club player, ran an advertisement in the local newspaper looking for aspiring guitarists to teach. He remembered Keuning as one of the first to answer the ad and the two began tearing through material at a ferocious pace.
They studied song composition — like Metallica’s classic 1991 “Black” album — without weighing down lessons with too much music theory.
“He kind of spoiled me as far as guitar students,” Hopkins said. “He had a voracious appetite for knowledge and licks and whatnot. I’d give him an assignment and he’d come back the next week and he had it digested.”
Keuning studied stagecraft by driving 100-mile round trips to Des Moines, where groups like Fugazi, Smashing Pumpkins and Mudhoney ripped sets in the 1990s at memorable downtown nightclub Hairy Mary’s.
He often slipped into a show alone, watching on stage the way the bassist worked in-step with guitarist or how the drummer communicated with each. Keuning studied how musicians fed off one another, a trait he later learned isn’t shared with most music fans.
“(I'd) just slip in for a couple hours, talk to no one, not buy any drinks and go back home," he said. "I just wanted to see live music.”
Eyes on Sin City
Keuning graduated from Kirkwood Community College before taking a chance at the University of Iowa, where he’d study music.
But his time in Iowa City was short-lived. Keuning neglected classes outside of music and dropped out after a year.
“Even though it was a great school, it was costing me money,” he said. “I wasn’t really taking it seriously. … All I ever wanted to do was play guitar in a band.”
So, he started saving money and set his sights west, on the alluring neon lights of Las Vegas.
Vegas seems an interesting choice for an aspiring musician at the turn of the millennium. Why not the beaten artistic path of New York or Los Angeles?
“It’s not very cool, but it’s the truth," he said.
Each coast may be packed with working musicians, but Keuning knew he’d be so weighed down by the four jobs necessary to pay rent that there’d be no time for songwriting. Las Vegas offered opportunity at a more affordable rate.
Plus, it's close enough to Los Angeles. If opportunity did strike, he could move four hours west with relative ease.
Not to mention, Vegas felt exotic to a 20-something-year-old from Pella.
"It was a lot easier to live and I had more time to work on music," he said.
Keuning worked a few day jobs and kept writing songs. He put out calls for musicians but none stuck until he placed an ad in the Las Vegas Weekly seeking for players influenced by David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis and Radiohead.
Musically, Keuning had graduated from Motley Crue and Aerosmith to 1990s songwriters like Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan, as well as a love for styth pop à la New Order.
An aspiring singer in 2001 named Brandon Flowers liked Kuening’s influences and answered his ad, forming half of the four-piece that would bring the world “Somebody Told Me,” “When We Were Young,” “Human” and, yes, “Mr. Brightside.”
"I never ..."
The first time Kuening met Flowers, the curly-haired Iowan handed a "Brightside" demo to the desert native with a vibrant smile. The two bonded over Keuning's appreciation for the Cure and Flowers' taste in the Smiths and Depeche Mode.
"I was so happy to meet someone like that," he said.
The would-be bandmates shared a distaste for modern radio rock.
"Our common link was we didn’t really like what was happening at the time, and we both liked '80s music," Keuning said. “We were on the same page there and started creating things.”
The singer returned a few nights later with lyrics to Keuning’s demo.
One verse, repeated twice, the chorus and an outro — each bleeding with heartache, jealousy and a cry of inescapable infidelity to echo through a generation.
“He was in a little bit of pain at that time,” Keuning said. “That’s what came flowing out of him.”
'Reminiscent of a somber Duran Duran’
Drummer Ronnie Vannucci and bassist Mark Stoermer rounded out the Killers. The band began gigging the Vegas circuit, self-releasing a demo featuring “Brightside.”
“A lot of people maybe around Vegas have (that) somewhere," Keuning said.
The band gained attention from the coasts. Warner Bros. invited the Killers to a showcase, but Kuening said the label passed because the group wasn’t tight enough live.
“I remember them saying they didn’t think Brandon was good looking enough,” Keuning said, with a laugh. “That’s too bad. I know there (were) uglier singers out there.”
The Killers recorded most of “Brightside” prior to the Warner Bros showcase, he said, during a weekend trip to a San Francisco Bay-area studio.
The San Francisco tracks were intended as demos to court record labels, but most of what the band tracked evolved into the song that’s been streamed 500 million times on Spotify.
“We did go back and add … some keyboards, some vocals and toyed with the drums," Keuning said. "But 90 percent of that song was recorded in those demo sessions.”
Warner wasn’t alone in passing. Another label passed. And another. Until the group struck a deal with now-defunct British independent Lizard King Records.
“Mr. Brightside” was released as a single on Sept. 29, 2003, in the United Kingdom. The Killers supported the song on a British tour, playing clubs in small cities like Lincoln and Bath, Keuning said.
The song enthralled British press. "Brightside" debuted on Zane Lowe’s BBC Radio 1 show. A 2004 review reads: “The Killers' debut is a scintillating marriage of ascending and fluttering guitars, entwined with the sort of choral-elevation these days typified by a Strokes single, '80s synths elsewhere curiously reminiscent of a somber Duran Duran.”
Overseas success earned the Killers a deal with Island Records, the major label still home to the group in 2018. The debut full-length, “Hot Fuss,” was released in 2004, including a rerelease of “Mr. Brightside” as a single.
The album, deemed by Rolling Stone to be one of the 100 greatest debuts of all time, sold millions and went Platinum in America, the United Kingdom and parts of Europe. “Mr. Brightside” peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard singles chart in 2005 and earned the group a Grammy Award nomination.
A 'Brightside' generation
This band was born in a “transitional period for rock,” said Stephen Thompson, an NPR Music editor. Alternative radio had moved on from nu-metal, turning to a more sensitive, emotional storytelling, which the Killers captured on its debut.
“Mr. Brightside" delivers a one-two punch of both being “all up in your feelings,” Thompson said, and a timeless roll-down-the-car-windows jam.
“There’s something very primal and simple about it that hooks you in," Thompson said.
The song’s entered a space that transcends era or trend. It's baked into modern culture the same way “Seven Nation Army” dominates sports stadiums or “Don’t Stop Believin’” blares in every small-town bar.
Alex Mac, ALT 106.3 radio personality, first heard the song in seventh grade. It clung to him through high school and college. Now he spins it regularly on Iowa airwaves.
“So many people have been through that exact scenario,” Mac said. “It comes on at the bar (and) you remember that person who didn’t like you back.”
The Killers’ synth-laden post-punk audacity stormed across late-night network TV in 2004 and ‘05. Leno, Letterman, Conan — each audience got a taste of Vegas' newest neon-bathed stars.
“I was blown away we were playing David Letterman, who we used to sit around and watch every night when I was in high school and college," Keuning said.
15 years in England
England embraced the Killers first and still adores the band today.
The British Phonographic Industry ranked “Mr. Brightside” as the most-streamed rock song in the United Kingdom in 2017, 14 years after its release.
The Millennial generation’s anthem made headlines again earlier this year for notching more than 200 consecutive weeks on the United Kingdom’s singles chart. The song’s longevity comes boosted by streams, explained Gennaro Castaldo, communications director for the British Phonographic Industry.
Fans who once purchased a CD and played “Hot Fuss” on repeat now stream the song on Spotify or YouTube, lofting it back on the charts. The digital re-invigoration, combined with the song’s broadcast at festivals, sporting events and pub crawls ensures it’s “constantly around us,” Castaldo said.
“It isn’t too far away when you want to ... pick a song that wants to lift you,” Castaldo said.
Nearly two decades since leaving Pella, Keuning lives in Southern California, where he’s a father to a teenage son. He unveiled last year a touring hiatus from the Killers, but still remains a member of the group.
He's modestly pleased with the towering track he helped create.
“I’m just certainly proud that guitar riff grew into a song that’s still around and enjoyed," Keuning said.
And the band continues to churn hits. Last year the Killers scored its first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with its fifth studio album, “Wonderful, Wonderful.”
But, there’s still nothing quite like hearing “Coming out of my cage …” for the first time.
“The way that chorus felt good the first time I played still feels good when I play it live or hear it on the radio,” Keuning said.
“I think it feels good for everyone else, too.”
So, About That Time…, a series from the Register’s Matthew Leimkuehler, highlights Iowa’s obscure and overlooked musical moments. Have a story you’d like to share? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8358.
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