Coming up in Las Vegas, the Killers learned a trick or two from the casinos, like not having any clocks on their studio walls. They have spent the past year here working weekdays, noon to midnight, on their upcoming LP, Battle Born, and it’s still not done. “It’s living up to its title,” says drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr., sitting in the control room about a mile from the Strip. “This is our difficult fourth record.”
After touring and recording nonstop from 2004 to 2010, the Killers took a year off to focus on side projects. “It was like being in training,” says frontman Brandon Flowers. “I was keeping myself not just occupied, but ready.” To better prepare himself for the Killers’ return, he even took singing lessons. Flowers seems nervous as he says this, his right leg vibrating like a jackhammer. “We haven’t done interviews in a while,” he adds apologetically.
The band has brought in multiple A-list producers since reconvening – including Brendan O’Brien, Steve Lillywhite, Daniel Lanois, Björk collaborator Damian Taylor and dance-music maven Stuart Price. “It’s a little bit our fault,” Flowers says. “We thought we would wait to see what the album was before we pulled the trigger on who we wanted.” Adds Vannucci, “We’re not used to splitting up our brains like that.”
Yet for all the different hands on the soundboard, Battle Born always sounds like the Killers. “We write a very particular type of song when we get together,” Flowers says. “So many people try to find something wrong with it, but I’m not embarrassed by it.” Highlights like “Heart of a Girl,” “Flesh and Bone” and “Carry Me Home” follow a familiar template – beginning slowly before exploding in a glitter bomb of guitars and huge vocals.
Another standout track, “Runaways,” is a galloping arenaready cut that dates back to the night of a bad gig in Santa Barbara, California, in 2009. Frustrated by the apathy of the crowd, the band returned to its tour bus to work on the tune. Vannucci remembers, “We were like, ‘Fuck that show, this song is great!'”
The Killers suffered a tragedy in late April, when saxophonist Tommy Marth, who played on their past two albums and joined them on tour, committed suicide. “He was a crazy motherfucker, but in a great way,” Vannucci says. “He would joke about serious stuff, but always throw it into the comic realm. Nobody ever said, ‘Tom, you OK, dude?’ We wrote a new song a couple of weeks ago, and we were thinking about having him come in to play on that, but it never happened.”
Battle Born (which is also what the Killers named their studio) takes its title from an unofficial nickname for their home state. “In a sense, all Americans are battle-born,” Flowers says. “Our ancestors came here for something better.”
For now, the band is still grinding away toward a tentative fall release date. “It gets harder as you get older,” adds the singer, who turns 31 this month. “You want to put in the same effort, and find the same focus you had when you knew you didn’t want to work at the casino anymore. We’re working it out.”
This story is from the June 7th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.