Dave Keuning is back with The Killers and has a new solo album: ‘It’s the best of both worlds’
A San Diego resident, the veteran musician performed his first-ever solo gig here at The Casbah in 2019
Dave Keuning is not the only rock star who spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown working on a new solo album. But he may be the only rock star who can credit the pandemic for reuniting him with their band — in his case, The Killers, whose worldwide album sales between 2001 and last year exceed 28 million.
Keuning stepped away from The Killers in 2017 because of touring burnout, creative differences, a desire to spend more time with his family in San Diego, and what he calls “a hundred small reasons.” The sobering irony that a historic global disease led to his reunion with The Killers is not lost on him.
“I think the pandemic kind of bought me some time,” Keuning said, speaking recently from his home in San Diego’s North County.
“The Killers had to postpone a tour, which kind of brought us back together in a way. Because they probably would have toured without me, and I would have waited for that tour to be over before we talked about doing something. So, they decided to make another record — instead of touring — and asked me to be part of it, and I said: ‘Sure.’
“The pandemic was terrible in so many ways, for so many people, but I can’t complain. Because it forced everyone to slow down. My new record got written mostly during the pandemic, and I got back together (with The Killers).”
Keuning’s accomplished new album, “A Mild Case of Everything,” will be released Friday. The follow-up to his 2019 solo debut, “Prismism,” it was recorded almost entirely in the basement studio of his Encinitas-area home.
In a far-ranging interview, Keuning discussed an array of topics. They included: his latest album; his recent return to The Killers after a three-year hiatus; the pros and cons of stardom; why he needed surgery for a deviated septum 15 years ago; and what — or, more specifically, who — inspired his scathing song “No One is Calling You a Liar,” a standout number from his new album.
“There are certainly a lot of liars to go around!” said Keuning, who (at least in song) is usually apolitical.
“But Donald Trump has to be in the Hall of Fame of liars. I have some friends and family members who are Republicans, and I want to get along with them. I just can’t understand why they believe anything he says. ... But I’d like to move on past that. He’s gone, and I just wish everybody got along. ... I don’t want to make any enemies with anybody who wants to believe him.”
An aural labor of love
Released on Keuning’s own record label, Pretty Faithful, “A Mild Case of Everything” is — apart from a few drum parts — a one-man affair. It documents his growth as a singer, songwriter, arranger, producer, guitarist, keyboardist, bassist and drummer.
“Most of the time, recording is a separate thing than playing live,” Keuning noted. “The goal is to make the record as good as you can, even if it means adding extra things. This time, with ‘A Mild Case of Everything,’ I thought: ‘How am I going to play this live?’
“I wanted to have more things that were fun to sing live, with better choruses. Because, for so long, I had focused on song structures, guitar parts and how I can contribute those things to The Killers. ... This time, I wanted the songs to be fun to play live.
“And I wanted to have a San Diego gig confirmed in time to mention in this interview, but I don’t yet. I have to get my (solo) band in to practice — and there are a lot of Killers gigs being planned out. But I’d like to do a San Diego solo gig as well, hopefully, by the end of the year.”
A quintessential labor of love, “A Mild Case of Everything” was carefully constructed by Keuning, whose only deadlines were self-imposed. The album’s 16 songs — 17 on the vinyl version — are attentively sequenced in an order that creates a musical and emotional arc best appreciated by hearing them all in one sitting.
Alas, that may be a quaintly outdated approach. The digital music age enables — and encourages — listeners to select individual songs, rather than hear and absorb an album in its entirety.
Consequently, a generation that grew up with music streaming from a cloud may not discover that Keuning’s ambitious nearly nine-minute song, the intricately constructed “Don’t Poke the Bear,” is immediately followed by his new album’s shortest number, the 75-second-long “We All Go Home.” And they may miss hearing the lilting, Beatles-esque flavor on such deep album cuts as “Peace and Love,” or the Celtic-tinged guitar lines on “What Do Ya Want From Me” and the album-concluding “Shake Well.”
“People like me are on the endangered species list,” Keuning acknowledged.
“I still appreciate making and listening to a whole album, but I don’t know how many people there are like me. ... I spent a lot of time on the order of the songs on my new album, and I had several different song orders. So, for the listener who does listen to the whole album, I think it will flow really nice. But I was expecting people who will pick and choose, which is why I chose to have 16 or 17 songs, instead of 10 or 12.”
That Keuning, 45, wants his second solo album to be enjoyed in its totality is not surprising.
But the fact that he has released two solo albums in the past two years is almost shocking, at least based on what he told the Union-Tribune in a 2015 interview. It was conducted to preview The Killers’ performance at the debut edition of the KAABOO Del Mar festival, which was held just a few miles south of his North County home.
A reluctant solo artist?
“Every time I start working on (new) material, I come to the conclusion I’d rather have it used in The Killers than a solo project (that) probably no one will ever hear,” Keuning said in his 2015 interview.
“I understand that, sometimes, it’s healthy to do a solo project, even if only 100 people hear it, because you get it out of your system. I do have a backlog of hundreds of songs. But I don’t feel any urgency to put out a solo album.
“Certainly, I’m more excited in making Killers’ music, which we are getting ready to do, by the way. If only one of my ideas gets used on a Killers’ album, that will be heard by many times more people than a solo album.”
“I completely forgot about that interview, but it is still pretty accurate and that sounds like me,” Keuning said. “What happened after that is that I took a break from touring and had the time to do a solo album. And I liked it.
“I like having the ability to finish songs and do whatever I want, not out of ego, not out of I finally get to call all the shots, but more like a kid in a candy shop who gets to do whatever he wants. I can play keyboards, do a (guitar) tapping solo and can pick whatever I want to do. If I want a nine-minute song or a 16-song album, whatever I want, it’s fine and lets me get a lot of these ideas out. It’s not just ideas I recorded on my phone that will never be heard.”
Some of the best songs on his new solo album, most notably “Bad Instincts” and “Worlds on Fire,” sound like potential Killers hits. Does he agree?
“I certainly wonder about that,” said Keuning, the co-writer of such Killers staples as “Mr. Brightside,” “Human” and “When You Were Young.”
“I think, maybe, they could have been hits for The Killers. It’s hard for me to know.”
Did he offer any of the songs on his new album to The Killers for the band’s consideration?
“I did show ‘Worlds on Fire’ to The Killers,” Keuning said. “I showed most of these songs to them, in one form or another. It’s hard to know if I should have shown them to the band one more time than I did.
“But I don’t like to be in a position of having to convince people to like my stuff. If they don’t like it, I don’t want to fight over it. If they don’t like it, or can’t connect with it, or don’t think it fits on the album — even if they do like it — I kind of move on from there. I guess that, with some of these songs, I’ll never know.
“But it’s not too late for me to rework some of these songs and put them on a Killers record. Maybe some listeners will pick up on it, or not, but they are still my chord changes.”
The release of the band’s fully completed seventh studio album was pushed back by the COVID-19 shutdown. Recording sessions have been underway in Los Angeles and Las Vegas for an eighth Killers album by Keuning, singer-songwriter Brandon Flowers, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr., all of whom are fully vaccinated. On Wednesday, the band released a new song, “Dustland,” that features vocals by Flowers and Bruce Springsteen, a key inspiration for The Killers.
Down San Diego way
Keuning chuckled when asked to cite the non-musical advantages of living in San Diego.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that,” he said. “The weather is better, and it is easier to go for a walk. Funnily enough, the biggest difference is probably the air. I still love Vegas and I consider spending more time there someday or living there fulltime.
“But I grew up in Idaho. And when we started The Killers in Las Vegas, I didn’t realize how much it was going to affect my nose. Because of the dryness and dust, I had to have surgery for a deviated septum 15 years ago. And every time I’m in Vegas, I start sneezing after two or three minutes. If you live there, you get used to it.”
Keuning’s extended hiatus from The Killers has allowed him to be a full-time dad in San Diego to his son, Kyler, now 15.
“Being a father was a big part of it,” Keuning said of his decision to step away from the band in 2017. “But everyone is looking for one giant reason I left the band — and it’s kind of like a hundred small reasons that had led me to decide I couldn’t do it, including my own fatigue of being on the road.
“I don’t think people understand it, but you’re just constantly going from one town to the next, and it was hard. I like being in my own bed. It’s hard to have any relationships (on tour). I don’t do drugs, but I certainly understand why a lot of these past musicians have.
“Because you go crazy and don’t know what to do with your time and all the emotions you’re going through. And you certainly have enough stuff around you to enable (drug-taking). So, I wanted to live normally for a little bit.”
Keuning performed on The Killers’ disappointing 2017 album, “Wonderful Wonderful,” but was not included in its publicity photos. When the band toured in 2018 and 2019, two hired hands filled in for him. He did not contribute at all to The Killers’ 2020 album, “Exploding the Mirage,” and the group’s other members have acknowledged they struggled without him.
His absence confused some fans. They wondered why Keuning would step away from a band that far exceeded his dreams of musical success, fame and fortune.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “This is what I always dreamed about, and we achieved all those dreams. I did four world tours with The Killers, each one about two years long ... and that wore me down.
“It took almost as long, or at least a year, to make an album with The Killers. ... I just wished there were ways to get things a little more balanced, with more moderation, and that’s probably the biggest challenge: the schedule.
“There’s no getting around that schedule: how much recording to do; how much promotional time; how much touring; all those things. Because that’s what you’re required to do, regardless of whether you are the lead singer, the lead songwriter, or whatever it is you do in the band.”
He paused to weigh his words.
“A lot of people don’t understand it and think I have no right to complain, so I get it,” Keuning continued.
“But when you’re the one doing it, it is hard to force yourself to go on tour. The No. 1 thing I miss is the shows and the fans and the interaction. But I don’t miss the other 22 hours when you are not on stage and are away from home each day.
“I really don’t love traveling anymore. And I don’t miss looking outside an airplane window, or a bus, or a car on the way to a hotel, or a van on the way to the concert.”
And now that he is a solo artist and back with The Killers again?
“I don’t think I’ll stop making solo music anytime soon,” Keuning said. “But I am writing and recording again with The Killers and trying to give them as many musical ideas and options as I can. I’m looking at it as it’s the best of both worlds.”
Dave Keuning at a glance
Born: David Brent Keuning, March 28,1976, in Pella, Iowa.
First musical influences: Metallica, AC/DC and Aerosmith.
Subsequent musical influences: David Bowie, The Cure, Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead.
First groups: The Pella High School Jazz Band and the Christian rock band Pickle.
Education: Kirkwood Community College and the University of Iowa, where he was a music major but dropped out after a year and moved to Las Vegas.
First single: The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” was released in the United Kingdom on Sept. 29, 2003.
First album: The Killers’ “Hot Fuss” (2004).
First U.S. No. 1 Album: The Killers’ “Wonderful Wonderful”
Grammy nominations: Seven, all with The Killers.
Solo albums: “Prismism” (2019), “A Mild Case of Everything” (2021)
Last day job: “I worked in retail at Best Buy, but my last job was at Banana Republic in Las Vegas. I would come in at 6 in the morning to fold clothes, a lot of times after I had played a club gig with The Killers the night before. Folding clothes at 6 in the morning for several hours is about one of the most mind-numbing things you can do.”
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