The Killers: How We Wrote ‘Mr. Brightside’
Brandon Flowers looks back on how a real-life breakup inspired a triumph of song
“Who would have thought betrayal would sound so good?” the Killers’ Brandon Flowers asks with a laugh while reflecting on his band’s pulsing breakthrough single, “Mr. Brightside.” “I still remember the hairs on my arm standing up when I heard our demo for the first time.”
It’s been 15 years since the group put out the track, a pining declaration of a broken heart as Flowers sees his ex with another guy. The Killers’ very first release, “Mr. Brightside” was more like a panic attack than a pop tune, and the acrimony paid off. The song went to Number 10 in both the U.S. and the U.K. and has since been certified double platinum here and triple platinum in Great Britain.
Flowers wrote the lyrics at the end of his first serious relationship, when he was 19 or 20. He was living in a room he rented from his sister for $200 a month at the time, and inspiration just struck him. “I actually would have written it out on notebook paper with a pen,” he says, sounding wistful about the past. “I wasn’t writing on a cell phone yet. You don’t write with pen and paper anymore.”
He met guitarist Dave Keuning around this time, who had already written what would become the track’s music, and the pair used a robotic drum machine to record a crude demo of the song, which they released years later on the Direct Hits compilation. It was then that the structure took shape. “I hadn’t written a second verse, so I just sang it again,” Flowers says of the tune’s repetitiveness. “I changed a couple of words and there’s a little bit of a different emphasis in the second verse, but that was just sort of procrastination. Sometimes it works out, I guess.” The recording is grimy, and Flowers nearly screams during the verses, but it shows the raw emotion they were working with.
Flowers drew inspiration for the vocal line from David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” and all these years later demonstrates how the two songs have a similar cadence, singing Bowie’s lyrics, “And I’m phoning a cab, ’cause my stomach feels small/There’s a taste in my mouth but it’s no taste at all.” “I was obsessed with Hunky Dory when I was 19,” he says. “There’s an urgency to that, and it felt like he meant business, so I was like, ‘All right, I want to do that.’” But when he sang it, he tried to emulate another artist associated with Bowie: Iggy Pop. “If you listen to the Lust for Life record, Iggy does a monotone delivery on ‘Sweet Sixteen,’ and I was trying to sound like that,” Flowers says. “It’s just that I have a sweeter voice than Iggy, and I was a kid, so it came out the way it did.”
Eventually Flowers and Keuning found other musicians to play with, including drummer Matt Norcross, who was the first to give the song a proper beat. The drums opened the song up for the duo. “[Matt] had the drums set up in his living room, and we still didn’t have a bass player yet, so I would just hold down the bass, and I remember we just crashed through it,” the singer says. “It was amazing. It was a cathartic song. I didn’t know if that’s what everybody felt who was in a band.”
Eventually, the Killers’ lineup fell into place with bassist Mark Stoermer and Norcross’ replacement, Ronnie Vannucci Jr., and the band was ready to record what would become their breakthrough LP, Hot Fuss. “We had a lot of songs in the early days, and I think ‘Mr. Brightside’ was the first song that we had finished writing,” Flowers recalls. “Then [the Strokes’] Is This It came out and we realized that the bar had been raised.” He laughs. “We threw away everything we had except for ‘Mr. Brightside’ and kept writing and finished Hot Fuss.
The band knew they had a hit on their hands when they played the song at England’s Glastonbury festival. The band had been playing a lot and the song had taken off on radio in U.K. They were playing the fest’s John Peel tent and when they came to that song, “it went off,” according to Flowers. “It looked like footage of the Sex Pistols,” he beams.
Since then, he’s heard the song everywhere from casinos to grocery stores, and college football team the Michigan Wolverines even began using it at their games. Although Flowers is surprised by the way the song took off, he completely understands its effect. “There’s an anthemic quality in the pre-choruses, and we learned a lot about things like that from listening to Oasis,” he says. “You can really hear those influences seeping in on Hot Fuss and the way we set up the chorus on ‘Somebody Told Me’ or ‘Mr. Brightside.’ I think the anthemic quality is me trying to beat [Oasis’] ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ or ‘Where the Streets Have No Name.’” Flowers pauses and laughs. “It’s insane to think that’s what I was thinking about at the time, but that’s what I was thinking about.”