On a recent lunch date with Ronnie Vannucci Jr., the drummer for the greatest rock band ever to emerge from the Vegas desert, I arrive early and pick a gunfighter booth in a dark corner of an old downtown tamale joint called Doña María. The booth is private, away from the lunch-hour clank, and tape-recorder friendly. Vannucci swings open the door, spots me and immediately changes the plan. Before I know it, he has re-sequestered us to the biggest, best-lit table in the center of the restaurant. Along the way, he cracks a goofy joke to a table full of Metro cops about refusing “to go down without a fight.” Finally, before we start talking, he gets the waitress to turn down a cloying norteño ballad.
Nobody in here recognizes him. So, it’s definitely not fame that gets him what he wants; he’s so smooth you feel like it was your idea all along. He’s the poster boy for effortless poise.
The story of the Killers would have been a footnote in local music history if not for Ronnie Vannucci. As much as women (and men) swoon at the coiffed image and sensual voice of front man Brandon Flowers, it is the powerhouse skinsman who gives the four-man band its propulsive signature, its vibrant dance-rock foundation.
It was Vannucci who discovered the Killers struggling and failing to play the easiest three-chord Depeche Mode cover in a shitty all-ages club on Maryland Parkway called Tremorz. He’d just finished drumming for opening act Daphne Major when the Killers awkwardly took the stage. The near-empty dance floor was on the verge of collapse, and Flowers had unknowingly stepped on the microphone cord, ripping it away and continuing to sing without amplification while looking with confusion at the soundman. At that moment, in 2002, the band was a mascara-wearing joke, a bad Duran Duran imitation in a town where nü-metal dominated.
But Vannucci saw something no one else could—potential. He liked the band’s jagged edges, its refusal to roll down the middle of the road. He put his UNLV bachelor’s degree on hold and dragged the Killers into the woodshed of a campus practice room to razor-sharpen their sonic edge.
“Pre-Ronnie, the Killers were too raw,” says Vic Moya, who managed Tremorz and was a witness to the band’s train wreck of a live debut. “With Ronnie behind the kit, it was a night-and-day transformation. He gave the Killers confidence and a rhythmic energy. You have to credit him for figuring out how to do that.” He became more than a percussive engine for the Killers; he was a source of inspiration and creativity—the idiosyncratic Killer, the outgoing goof, the guy who cracks jokes and lightens the mood when things get too serious. Still, they call it a drum throne, and in Vannucci’s case it fits. He serves as Flowers and Co.’s jester, but he is really the subtle king, the silent shot-caller, the invisible firestarter.
In January 2010, after selling 18 million albums in nine years, the band decided to take a break. For the first time in years, Vannucci had time on his hands. So, as Flowers was releasing what would become a hit solo album, Flamingo, Vannucci came out from behind the kit to start his own project, Big Talk. This month, he finds himself out front for the first time, guitar strapped on his shoulder, singing songs he’s written on his own.
The job called for a whole new kind of confidence, a next-level swagger. And from the looks of things here, smack in the middle of Doña Maria, Ronnie’s just about ready.
Vannucci, 35, has come a long way from his humble origins. The son of a bartender and cocktail waitress, he was playing drums at 7 and performing in Strip lounges at 10, a Vegas prodigy if there ever was one. In high school and college, throughout the mid to late ’90s, he drummed in the ska group Attaboy Skip and the brilliant yet flamed-out alt-rock outfit Expert on October. He matured with the Killers—and now he’s spent months in his basement, pushing himself to new heights.
People like me—the Vegas gearheads, the music nerds who hang out in guitar shops arguing Van Halen over Van Hagar—have known for a while that Vannucci was up to something. Ever since the Killers announced their hiatus, Vannucci began showing up at Guitar Center at Town Square and buying serious axes—a vintage 1966 Rickenbacker 335 Fireglo, for instance—which suggested that he had a plan.
But like the Tom Waits song goes: “What’s he building in there?” No one knew. Not even Ronnie, at first. “When I went into this, I didn’t have an objective other than creating music,” he says. “There were no plans to release an album.”
You don’t hear about many drummers developing solo projects. But Ronnie’s no ordinary drummer.
“I grew up dreaming about this rock-star stuff,” he tells me. “The dream came true, and now music has become even more integral to my life, like a food group. It felt odd for me to take a break. Normally for me, music-making is more collaborative, so this was a real challenge. You could say the genesis for this record was boredom.”
Creative ambition had a little to do with it, too. Vannucci likes putting the musical parts together and making them add up to more than their sum. In addition to the Killers, he helped launch Neon Trees. So he’s no neophyte band-builder. But this time, as he groomed his own project, he needed a little help from his friends.
Rather than assemble a supergroup of peers or “go solo” like Flowers, he enlisted old pal and guitarist Taylor Milne (from Expert on October). Milne, a dental technician by day, was Vannucci’s only confidante and collaborator, the guy who’d help him express his own musical ideas.
Starting in August, they spent months in each other’s musical company inside the Killers’ Battle Born recording studio on Valley View and Oakey refining and expanding Vannucci’s home demo recordings.
“Taylor is incredibly inventive,” says Ryan McIlvane, guitarist for indie-rock band Minor Suns, who has known Milne since grade school. “He approaches melody within a song in a way that I totally envy. Taylor’s perspective is for the good of a song, yet he’s the definition of creativity. He’s the perfect match for Ronnie. If Ronnie has any doubts about his own abilities as a guitarist, Taylor is there to cover and pick up the slack.”
“I hate to say it, but I was really surprised at just how strong Ronnie’s ideas were,” says Milne, laughing. “Probably because drummers don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that’s what he means by keeping it on the down-low. I was just impressed at how he’d keep playing me these 30-second clips of riffs and melodies he’d archived. He’d record this stuff in restaurants, the shower, wherever, on his phone using the voice-memo thing. It was a treasure trove.” •••
We are in Vannucci’s old Range Rover a few days after our Doña Maria lunch. I’m riding shotgun; Ronnie’s calling the shots. We’re on our way to check out Battle Born, and the Killer is being modest.
“This is a pop record,” Vannucci tells me. “Every song has a chorus. ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus, please.’ But I think that’s also a function of how limited I am on other instruments. I majored in music, so I know my scales and all that. But when it comes down to it, I’m a competent rhythm guitarist at best.”
Was he intimidated, I ask, by Flowers’ solo record? “What?” he says, almost offended by the question. “Dude, I played drums on that record. There’s no competition between us. I’m not competitive like that. I share in the joy. I was at his rehearsals, at his first show, because I love it. He’s turned into a really great songwriter. In many ways, I owe the Big Talk record to him, to all the Killers.”
A minute later, though, he admits: “Yeah, I was listening to Flamingo yesterday, and I was like, ‘Man, I should just throw away my record and forget about all this.’”
Vannucci is no stranger to the songwriting process. He contributed ideas to Killers songs from the very beginning, but only after Flowers and Co. provided the basic musical framework. With Big Talk, though, he had to fashion the skeleton of each song himself and then continue to build from there. He had dozens of ideas. It was like throwing darts at a map as to which ones they’d work on. Some songs fell flat, others never left the petri dish, while still others crumbled into dust.
He credits Milne for helping the best of the ideas grow and flourish. “Taylor reinvigorated the material. I didn’t have the confidence initially, but he helped me to stop caring, to stop being paralyzed. He made me realize I could make this happen. He was in my corner the whole time saying, ‘Dude, you can do this.’”
Even after Taylor’s infusion, Vannucci found himself “down a rabbit hole.” He’d come a long way but had lost objectivity. That’s when he turned to his old friend Matt Sharp, the Rentals front man and ex-Weezer bassist.
“I sent him my demos with a request that I needed someone who’s not afraid to voice his opinion,” Vannucci says. “He listened, liked what he heard, came down for a week and played bass on a few tracks.” Sharp suggested bringing in [The Strokes producer] Joe Chicarelli.
Vannucci asked Sharp who else Chicarelli had worked with.
“Well,” Sharp said, “Zappa.”
That was all it took. Vannucci is a huge Frank Zappa fan, and he immediately e-mailed Chicarelli a few tracks. The response came right away: Chicarelli liked what he’d heard.
Chicarelli was exactly what Vannucci needed. He wasn’t afraid to say “What the fuck are you talking about?” one moment and “That’s really great” the next.
“Joe had a clear vision about how to make each song grow from the demo. The vocals in ‘Getaways’ are the ones I recorded in my basement that we ended up keeping. But Joe helped to make the process grow and fit the needs of each song.”
Layers grew upon layers in the studio; Vannucci and the Big Talk team pushed themselves to make the songs richer, more evocative. “We didn’t even play as a band until after the record was done, which is different than what I’ve done in the past,” Milne says. “I wouldn’t have come up with these sounds in a live setting, like going from clean chorus to a tremolo to a phased-out, distorted run. It’s difficult to physically step on that many pedals! But I love the challenge of it. Ronnie does, too; otherwise he wouldn’t be putting himself up front like this.”
When production was done, Vannucci spent a month in England mixing the record with Alan Moulder, who produced the Killers’ Sam’s Town. It was as if Vannucci was coming full circle.
“The process reminded me of Expert on October in that way,” says Milne, who calls Big Talk a reunion of sorts. (Expert bassist and touring Killers member Ted Sablay even popped in to play bass on a few tracks.) “It was just a fun record to make, and we did what we wanted. We didn’t try to make something that sounded like this or that. We treated every song as its own unique thing.”
Meanwhile, Vannucci was completing his degree, taking courses in math and world literature. He graduated from UNLV this spring with a bachelor’s degree in recital concentration (not an unusual major for someone who plans to perform for a living). For a while, the rock star was like many college kids, balancing an education with being in a band.
“It felt like unfinished business, like something that needed to be capped off,” he says. “I was so close that it didn’t make sense to abandon that goal.”
“Why was it a goal?” I ask. “Rock stars don’t need degrees.”
“Getting an education and learning about music theory and technique helped to make me the musician I am today,” he says. “Otherwise I’d be just another caveman banging the drums. Plenty of those guys around.”
We pull up to Battle Born and Vannucci gives me a quick tour of what is, essentially, your average recording studio. I’m not disappointed, though, because this was the delivery room for an album that, while I don’t admit this to the drummer, sounds better to my ears than the last Killers record. I do share the delivery-room metaphor, though.
“It sure felt like a birthing,” Vannucci says. “It also felt like a buddy-action flick in which Taylor came in here and got things done.”
Vannucci picks up an empty beer bottle and drops it into a garbage can. The buddies had some good times during this creative gestation. The album comes out July 19 (see sidebar), but several songs already have made their way across the Internet. They’ve been well received, and although Vannucci’s now back in action with the post-hiatus Killers, fans are already talking about the next Big Talk record.
Vannucci is always happy behind the skins, but now he knows he can step out front and make something special, too.
“I made it this far,” he shrugs. “I think I can pull it off.”
On July 19, the world will hear Big Talk’s self-titled debut album (released by Vannucci’s label Little Oil and distributed by Epitaph). Here’s a sneak preview from writer Jarret Keene:
When you consider that Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. didn’t start singing until last September, it’s remarkable how good Big Talk’s debut sounds, how varied and dynamic. An album highlight (and a cool nod to classic rock) is the Wings-like baroque-pop opus “The Next One Living,” a richly orchestrated half-ballad, half-rocker that sounds like the missing hit from Band on the Run. First single “Getaways,” a driving slab of New Wave, harkens back to the early Killers’ attack and shows off Vannucci’s knack for crafting melodic hooks and constructing a traditional pop song. The jaunty yet melancholy alt-country tune “No Whiskey”—I can feel the flood coming on/Girl, you know I ain’t coming home—sketches an individual taking a lonely path, one that leads to a higher plane, or to damnation. That song, like many on Big Talk’s debut, offers a character striving to find his own voice in shaky circumstances. Maybe it’s a metaphor for Vannucci’s large ambition; maybe it’s nothing. Either way, Vannucci’s band busts out the ideal summer rock disc.
The lineup: Ronnie Vannucci on vocals and guitar; Taylor Milne on guitar; Alex Stopa on drums; Tyson Henrie on bass; and John Spiker on keyboards, guitar and background vocals.
Live debut: 9 p.m. (doors 8 p.m.) July 20 at the Hard Rock Café on the Strip. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 day of, 733-7625, BigTalkMusic.com.