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Interview: Pella’s Dave Keuning talks Iowa and outer space for the anniversary of Killers’ classic ‘Sam’s Town’

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Dave Keuning is most comfortable in his element, which is neon. He is taller than a county courthouse and the many curls of pale auburn hair on his head deserve to rest on lush leopard patterns. Keuning plays guitar for the Killers in front of festival crowds the size of Thebes in the fourth century. The Killers have received seven Grammy nominations and sold over 20 million albums. The music is glossy rock and roll with a poppy fluorescence fabricated for thousands of sweaty strangers, densely packed. Neon is the fifth most abundant element in the cosmos, but comprises only 0.0018 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. It is, quite literally, rarefied air.

The City of Pella banned neon signs in 1987. Dave Keuning is from Pella, Iowa.

Keuning grew up in the town of 10,000 and played in the Pella High School jazz band. He majored in music at the University of Iowa before dropping out to move to Las Vegas, where he folded shirts at Banana Republic until he was laid off after 9/11. While unemployed, Keuning placed a “musicians wanted” ad in Las Vegas Weekly and wrote a familiar guitar riff in the closet of his apartment.

Brandon Flowers answered the ad, and that guitar riff became “Mr. Brightside,” a song that has since been certified platinum three times in the United States and twice in the United Kingdom.

Video still of the Killers from Live from the Royal Albert Hall
Video still of the Killers from Live from the Royal Albert Hall

Keuning and the Killers are currently emerging from the chrysalis of classic rock. No longer green, but golden, the band released a greatest hits album, Direct Hits, in 2013, and the year after marked the 10-year anniversary of Hot Fuss, the debut album that featured “Mr. Brightside.”

The Killers celebrate another 10-year anniversary on Sept. 30, this time for Sam’s Town, the band’s sophomore effort. The “Sam’s Town Decennial Extravaganza” is a legitimate spectacle that features a limited vinyl reissue, back-to-back performances at Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall in Las Vegas, and a bus-tour of iconic places in the band’s history.

Before the festivities, Keuning looked back at the fertile topsoil of Iowa and forward to the only place with a higher concentration of neon than Las Vegas:

Space.

The Killers mythology famously starts when Brandon Flowers answered a “musicians wanted” ad you placed in the local newspaper. How much did those ads cost?

They were free.

How many did you place before he answered?

Probably five or six.

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You know, it’s funny because I’m not real good at meeting people and when I moved to Las Vegas, I didn’t know anybody. But it seems like everybody I’ve met, indirectly, is because of that.

When I first moved there, I discovered the little weeklies and I put out an ad for the same type of deal — which was to start a band or join a band or whatever — and this girl called and I was actually in a band with her first. That was the first year-and-a-half of my Vegas experience. Then she became my girlfriend, and then we broke up and that’s when I put out another ad and I met Brandon.

He called and seemed normal, and we were in the same ballpark in music taste.

I know the term “catfish” hadn’t been coined yet, but I’m sure some weirdos answered the ad before you found your frontman.

Yeah, there were some characters. One guy was a nice guy, but just a stoner and an airhead. Another guy was into metal and had strange tattoos. He had lines on his arms — like one-two-three-four and then a line through it for five — and I was like, “What are those numbers? What are you counting?” He was like, “Those are for the dead people I know.” I was like “Oh!”

After you dropped out of school in Iowa and moved across the country to start a rock and roll band, you worked at Banana Republic in an alien city. Were there days when you felt like you’d made a huge mistake and thought about moving back?

I had an adventurous spirit back then and, basically, quit college because I was a music major and didn’t see the point, really. I had worked for about a year in Iowa and I was like, “Is this it? Is this my future?” So, I thought, well, I gotta go somewhere for fun and Vegas was more affordable than New York or L.A., which is where most people dream of moving.

I met that girl after a couple months and got a job right away. My first job was actually at Best Buy. I thought I’d give it a couple months and it wasn’t the end of the world if I moved back.

I probably would’ve moved back if Brandon hadn’t answered that ad. I was at a crossroads at that point. I had gotten laid off from a job because the economy was really bad in Vegas. So, I thought, well, I’ll put out another ad and then maybe move back.

Then I met him and I thought, I want to see where this goes, because we both started writing music right away that I was excited about.

There aren’t rock stars from Pella, Iowa. You’re the only one. What gave you the idea that you could actually make this happen?

I guess I was dumb enough to dream. I don’t know. It does seem pretty crazy to try and the odds are not in your favor. But if you don’t take chances in life then there’s going to be zero chance. You’ve gotta get out there a little bit and get away from the norm of whatever it is that you’re doing, or nothing’s ever going to happen.

To be fair, I think things could’ve happened in Iowa. Certainly, the Killers wouldn’t have formed, but I could’ve gotten in other bands. I’m not saying you can’t start a band in Iowa and make it big because Slipknot proved that wrong. It can be done.

For me, I had explored all of my options in Iowa, so I had to go elsewhere just to try and meet other people.

From what I understand, you used to make gnarly meals of rice and ramen and hot dogs and ketchup to save money. What was your signature dish?

Well, I didn’t have much money. It was ramen noodles and I would put an egg in it and I would buy bags of rice — you can buy a bag of rice for like three bucks — and then I would buy some hot dogs. That was my treat, putting one hot dog on one plate of rice and slicing it up real thin to spread it out. That’s how I was getting by.

Did you ever boil the hot dogs in the same water as the ramen? It gives a cohesive flavor.

I think I have. It’s not a bad trick.

Putting an egg in while it’s boiling is the best trick. It really adds something to it.

I haven’t tried that.

Please, try it. As you’re boiling the ramen, put one egg in there. You don’t have to do anything besides stir it. It totally adds some body to it.

How long after Hot Fuss released in the United States did girls from high school start hitting you up?

I don’t know if they knew how to get ahold of me very well because I wasn’t checking my Facebook or anything. I’m really bad at that stuff. I still am.

I currently have a Facebook that has zero friends. And there’s somebody pretending to be me with all the friends.

Everybody thinks I’m the imposter and that the other one is me.

We’ll set the record straight.

Yeah, set the record straight for me.

Video still from Live from the Royal Albert Hall
Video still from Live from the Royal Albert Hall
How does performing in front of festival crowds larger than your hometown compare to what you dreamt in your bedroom growing up?

It is exactly what I dreamt when I was growing up. That’s always what I daydreamed about.

The only thing before that was in high school. I played in the Pella High jazz band and I played maybe a handful of gigs with some bands. I was really super nervous doing those shows in high school.

It wasn’t until I started playing with the Killers and doing a lot of shows that I got used to it, and now I’m probably more comfortable on stage than doing anything else. It’s like second nature.

It’s weird how I look at the audience. I think I prefer more people than less people. I’m almost more comfortable the more people there is.

In 2008, Rolling Stone said you were saving money to book a trip on Virgin’s first commercial space flight. Is that something you’re still wanting to do?

It’s something I’m still interested in, but Virgin has kept pushing that date back. They said it was going to be 2010, and then ’11, and then ’12, and they still haven’t done it. It’s actually made me a bit nervous about being on the first one. Whenever it happens, I’ll probably let other people do it first for a few years because I don’t want to be the one who blows up.

It’s definitely a dream of mine to go to space. It’s unfortunate how slow the space program is moving. That’s my biggest reason for wanting to live a long life, to see what happens. Will we get to Mars? Will there be a hotel on the moon someday? I don’t know. Stuff like this fascinates me.

It’s moving really slow when you think about how long ago we were on the moon landing and what we’ve done since. I don’t know if we’ll ever come close to what you see in movies.

This wouldn’t be a Dave Keuning interview if I didn’t ask you about the iconic hair. A hundred rock and roll writers have described it in print. But what was your hair like before you had the freedom to grow it out?

When I was in high school, it was just short hair. I guess I was afraid to stand out too much around that time. I dyed my hair blonde once just for fun. It was a phase. When I was able to quit my job as the Killers were getting signed, that’s when I started growing it out.

I was always respectful to my jobs for having short hair. Maybe it’s a Midwest thing. I just felt weird about growing my hair out because I wanted to look good for the boss. But as soon as I could quit, I grew it out because I could do whatever I wanted.

What did your parents have to say about you growing it out?

They got used to it. [Laughs.] My dad would probably enjoy it if I cut my hair. He’d be happy about that, probably.

I’ve gotta ask one more question, for the people back home. You and Kyle Korver are both listed as “Famous Residents” of Pella, Iowa. Who has the better hair?

Oh, man. I don’t know. That’s a trick question. I’d have to say me, but his hair is a totally different deal. His hair looks good.

You know, I root for Kyle. I watch the [Atlanta] Hawks. It’s exciting that we have him in the NBA.


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