Ronnie Vannucci Jr. discusses the band’s songwriting process, their inability to escape Las Vegas, and the new album
Back in September, The Killers released Wonderful Wonderful, their first album in five years. Filled with empathy, compassion, and some tongue-and-cheek nods to their early days, the LP became the band’s first to top the Billboard 200 album chart.
On the record, the band digs into their Las Vegas roots, while trying to figure out what it means to be a man in the modern world. Their willingness not to take themselves too seriously and to deliver an honest depiction of their own youthful swagger is what makes Wonderful Wonderful stand out amongst an already impressive catalog filled with hits.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. to discuss the band’s songwriting process, their inability to escape Las Vegas, and the new album.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you just released your new album, Wonderful Wonderful. Now that the dust has had some time to settle and you’ve already seen where it has charted, how is the mood in camp? Are you guys excited still?
Ronnie Vannucci Jr.: Yeah, we’re really excited. We start the actual tour next week and we are excited for this… we’ve been playing a lot of festivals and not really our own shows and so we’ve just had to be crowd pleasing and now Brandon and I are looking forward to donning the emotional arc of the record.
CF: For sure. Festival shows are somewhat like, “Play the hits”…
RV: Yeah, you have to sort of consider that not everybody is there to see you, and you’ve got to sort of play the hits.
CF: This was your first record in five years. What made you decide this was the time to come back?
RV: I think it’s a combination of… it took so long because some of our guys needed a bit of a break, well Mark and Brandon needed a break [laughs], and it just took a long time. Brandon and I and Mark all did records ourselves. Before that happened we did a best of record and then we compiled another Christmas record and did touring for both, and not to mention touring nearly two years just for Battle Born, so it didn’t feel like we were sort of staying as still as the paper reads. I think we were pretty busy.
Another reason is that it just takes time. How do you figure out how you’re going to… what are you going to do that’s different that’s still you and still has some kind of value? Where do you go? Thinking about that and writing songs and kind of figuring that all out, it is a bit more of, there is a bit more fishing involved than just going into the garage. Sometimes when we do that it sounds like, you know, a 70’s band. So we needed time to experiment and flex different muscles. We needed to figure out where we were going and where it felt right to end up.
CF: Well it turned out very successfully. You guys had your first ever number one album…
RV: Yeah, that’s crazy.
CF: What were your expectations when you came into the studio? Anything like this?
RV: No. We just wanted to do something that was good, that we knew was good. I think there was a certain time where we were just like… there was a bit of a leap of faith involved where we just knew it was more important for us to do something that was good and honest and that we were satisfied with, rather than hook up with the most popular producer at the time to make it sound like a radio hit.
It’s so funny though, a lot of the songs, some of our biggest songs have been so… they’re not joke songs, but they’re more lighthearted. “Somebody Told Me” was a bit of a lighthearted kind of jab that kept our light bill paid for a long time. And “The Man” was sort of the same thing, where it came from a bit more of an adult standpoint. We were a bit more aware, lyrically, of where we arrived versus where we’ve been, so we felt like we could talk s*** about the kind of person Brandon was, specifically, when he was 22, 23 years old. It was funny. It was lighthearted and it’s funny what that song has done. It’s a fun song. We had a lot of fun making it. We certainly put as much work into it as we’ve done with the other songs, but with a little more of a fun process than the other ones.
CF: I was wondering if you could take us through a bit of your songwriting process? Because, as you were saying, all of you guys are so busy outside of the band, just getting you guys together has to be tough. Where does it begin?
RV: Honestly, I think every song is a little different. Brandon has certainly had more of a – pleasantly by the way – a presence in the songwriting. He has just turned into an idea man. He’s just got it. And when somebody has that energy and you’re able to tap into that energy, the goal is to get to the top of the mountain. The goal isn’t trying to show the other band members how many songs you can write to or something like that. For me, it was like, “Oh, this is great. I love what he is doing.” I’m able to collaborate almost easier when there is no sort of ego, so it wasn’t an ego-driven thing, he just had more ideas than anybody else. So a lot of times we will start like that for a record.
“The Man” was a complete fluke. That was a different thing. Actually that was me and Jacknife fooling around in the studio with loops, and we came up with that. And then Brandon had an idea for a song called “The Man” that was a little different than what we were working on, and we just put those lyrics to this groove and Brandon put a chorus on it, made a better chorus. It’s all different. It’s always a little different. There are some songs that are born out of jams, that’s fun, and some that are pre-prepared.
CF: Speaking of that moment when you and Jacknife were just messing around, and Brandon had a different song, was there a moment when everything seemed to come together and you knew this was the direction you wanted to go with the record?
RV: I’ve said this before, but I think the song that gave us some sort of heel [laughs] or some sort of leg, some sort of standing apparatus, some sort of structure, was “Rut”. When we got to that song, when we were figuring that one out, I feel like we all arrived at like, “Ok, this feels like the right move,” both lyrically and musically.
CF: Vegas seems to be a theme throughout the entire album, as it has before. It’s your hometown and the band’s hometown as well. How does the landscape affects your creative process?
RV: In this scenario, yes, and I think Vegas was a co-star in the narrative through this record. I think if we would have been in another town, perhaps with the same kind of walls and personal roadblocks, I think it would have been the same thing, maybe. It’s impossible to tell. As I’m saying that, I’m thinking maybe it wouldn’t be. I definitely think even though it was a good co-star, good narrative, I definitely think, like it or not, Vegas has its hooks in us and that kind of life has left this sort of indelible mark that we can’t really take away.
CF: The artist in today’s world seems more vocal than ever. How do you view the voice of the artist in 2017?
RV: I think everybody gets into the music for different reasons. Some people want to use it as a soapbox or a megaphone for their own voice or cause. Some people want to use it as a cloak and dagger scenario where they want to escape. It’s the only way they can sort of level out or achieve some personal balance through writing songs. I think everybody is different. Everybody gets into it for a different reason. And I respect everybody’s plight, or malady in some cases. What’s popular now is popular now, but there’s a whole, if you sort of zoom out 50 years, I think everybody sort of comes into music from different avenues, different roads, and we’re able to pour a song out for different reasons.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
RV: Once in a while, we’ll do these meet and greets and maybe a sick kid or person and they are sick in bed in the hospital or something like that and they are feeling lousy and they just listen to music. TV is too boring, it’s not an enough of an escape, and they just close their eyes and listen to music. And sometimes people are listening to our band and although not in a millions years would I say it’s why I got into music, being able to sort of help in any way, whether it be the morning drive or somebody with an illness, whenever you’re able to connect with somebody else and get to a point where that’s helping, you feel more rewarded than you’ve ever felt.
I feel very rewarded that I was part of some sort of scenario that made somebody’s life enriched somehow. That’s pretty good. That’s not why I’m in music, but that is the most rewarding, and that’s different than, “Hey, I really like your band.” I’m sure maybe somebody who just doesn’t want to be chatty about it, maybe somebody just saying, “You really helped me out,” that’s nice. That has real value.