Picture this uncomfortable situation. You’re in the checkout line of your local wholesale giant Costco, buying some beer, frozen pizza, a Flintstones-huge bag of chips, maybe even one of those $1.49 hot-dog-and-soda lunch deals that are pretty irresistible after a full morning of walking through that minotaur maze. But here’s the snag—hasn’t your membership expired? Didn’t you recently receive a notification to that effect in the mail? And worse, isn’t your bank account running-on-fumes low this week? You couldn’t afford that renewal fee if they hit you with it at the register. But they don’t. The gracious clerk winks and whispers to you that it’s past time to renew, but they’ll let you slide until your next visit. And you walk out happy, sort of, but simultaneously embarrassed and floating in a surreal am-I-In-or-am-I-out limbo. You’re just glad you scored that pizza for dinner tonight.
That, in microcosm, is how Dave Keuning has been feeling every single day for the past couple of years. Only without any rewarding mozzarella and pepperoni waiting at the end of the line. The monolithic Costco, of course, standing as a metaphor for the guitarist’s longtime employers, Las Vegas supergroup The Killers. Was his card still valid with vocalist Brandon Flowers—or the Costco manager that can reset his account in one magnanimous gesture—after he simply stopped flying in to Nevada from his native San Diego for the recording of the group’s last 2017 album Wonderful Wonderful, then announced he’d be sitting out its attendant tour, as well. Does he remain a Killer at heart after all that drama? He’s seriously not sure.
But all Keuning, 42, could do was earn extracurricular credit with his first solo set Prismism, released last Friday, on which he plays almost every instrument and sings all his own lyrics in a dark, clinical drone that’s almost Pet Shop Boy-precise. It’s also the First Truly Great Rock Album of 2019. Billing himself as just Keuning, the artist finally mustered the courage to step out of the shadows in glitzy, ’80s-thumping fashion, on the Cars-cheeky “Boat Accident,” a New Order-bubbly “I Ruined You,” an OMD-plush “Hope & Safety,” the Thompson Twins-funky “The Night,” and a Scandal-chiming anthem called “Pretty Faithful.” He gave himself permission to let his New Wave freak flag fly, he explains: “That was one important thing to me—to not worry about what style was happening. This is a mistake that every record company makes, from the ’50s ’til now—they chase trends around and it never works out. All people care about is quality.”
From the get-go, Keuning was something of an odd man out in The Killers. He always had flowing, Musketeer-length locks, and usually sported a classy dinner jacket. But when his six-string starts urgently chugging, pulling at its reins as on Wonderful’s picture-perfect single “Run For Cover,” he’s positively untouchable. Compliment him on his kinetic spark—and how The Killers are so much more than the sum of their parts—and he demurs, almost recoils. ‘For that album, I was flying back and forth a lot,” he recalls. “And that’s kind of why I’m not in the picture—I didn’t actually finish the album, after a year and a half. And around the time I thought I could still come back in for it, all of a sudden it was just done one day. I was like, ‘Oh.’” Flowers was lyrically dealing with a serious family illness, and his somber, pensive processionals weren’t exactly powerchord tinder for Keuning. And as more of his own sprightly song submissions were turned down, resentment grew.
“And I have to be very clear that there’s a fine line between complaining and just explaining how it was,” adds Keuning. “Brandon writes a lot of songs and so do the other guys, so sometimes it’s just hard to get your songs in. So there’s a certain part of you that’s secretly disappointed. But you don’t want to say it out loud to your bandmates, like, ‘Why didn’t you guys like my song?’ My thought process was always, ‘Well, maybe it’ll go on the next album,’ or, ‘Maybe I’ll use it some day.’” Left to his own devices in San Diego, and just spending time with his teenage son Kyler, Keuning suddenly saw the big picture. “And I’m not getting any younger, was the bottom line. I could not wait any longer to do my solo album.”
Once he let it of the gate, “Prismism” galloped along. Keuning collected hundreds of musical voice memos from three different iPhones and began demoing tracks in his garage studio. The initial idea was to recruit an outside vocalist to handle the material—he was that dissatisfied with his singing voice. “So when my songs had nothing left to record but the vocals, I thought, ‘Okay — maybe I’ll get this guy to sing. But no, he’s not available. And this other guy lives out of town…Dang it, the computer’s here, the microphone is here. These songs need vocals!” One chum he tried out gave him some tough love. “He liked all my stuff, but he just straight up told me, ‘This is your song. You should be the one singing it.” So I was finally like, ‘Well, I guess so.’ And now my decision to sing has freed me up for the rest of my life—having the ability to finish my own music is something I’ll always enjoy.”
At first, composing lyrics felt like assigned homework. Keuning really struggled with them. Then he realized that if he put his instrumentals on and turned them up, he says, “and things started jumping, and lyrically what came out of me just came out. Some of it is about my life, and there’s other stuff that’s fictional. But a lot of it I just can’t explain.”
Now, the axeman is hoping Flowers—who has issued two adventurous solo records himself — hears all the heart and soul that went into ‘Primism” and stamps his Killers Costco card as Renewed. Maybe they can even sit down and hash it out over a couple of tasty Polish dogs. “But I found out something from having all this free time,” he concludes. “I still have so much more in me. And regardless of how many people come out to my shows, I am always gonna have that in me. So wanting to write and put stuff out? That will never go away.”