Dave Keuning’s guitar story begins where a lot of guitar stories begin: with the monolithic chug of Smoke on the Water. As a teenager in Iowa he sat in a circle with some friends as a Sears catalogue Harmony was passed back and forth in search of its unmistakable riff. “We couldn’t play, at all,” he remembers today, reached over Zoom at his home in San Diego. “I waited patiently, and when it was my turn I did not want to let that go.”
- READ MORE: The Killers’ Dave Keuning details his favourite guitar parts on new solo LP, A Mild Case Of Everything
Back then Keuning was your classic aspiring rocker. He’d graduated from Michael Jackson and Billy Joel to Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe and AC/DC, with a little bit of the Stones on the side. After convincing his buddy to sell him the Sears guitar for 40 bucks he worked non-stop at learning how to play the thing, developing a riff-based style that could be transposed from the worlds of Joe Perry and Mick Mars and Angus Young to something more outwardly pop.
As guitarist for the Killers, Keuning would use this blend of influences to underpin some of the biggest records of the past two decades. His playing – hyper-melodic and showier than it first appears – became a key current in the band, rolling alongside the star wattage and stadium-shaking hooks of vocalist Brandon Flowers. Keuning’s new solo record, A Mild Case of Everything, drills down into each element of his sound, pulling out synthy threads alongside strutting Cars-style power-pop and guitar workouts that sit neatly alongside the solo work of Television’s Richard Lloyd.
“I want to have fun with it, but I also want the songs to be good,” he says. “I really didn’t want it to be a record where people would listen to it out of sympathy because they’re my friends or whatever. I want them to nod and be surprised like, ‘Oh, this is actually good!’ That’s what my goal was. Since I’m calling all the shots with this I can play as much guitar as I want, and do some solos. I did my first tapping solo on No One is Calling You a Liar, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Kinda a little 80s fantasy. I was happy to work it into more of a pop song, where it doesn’t necessarily belong. I don’t think some people even know what it is.”
That tapping solo might feel like a little detail, but it says a lot about what Keuning is trying to achieve here. The track is a loping synth-pop number that hinges on a chorus containing a kernel of truth. “There’s just so much fire burning through my brain,” Keuning sings, and it’s easy to view A Mild Case of Everything and his 2019 solo bow Prismism as a chance to use that fire in a way that feels creatively satisfying on a more personal level. “I have quite a large supply of little ideas,” Keuning says, referencing the bank of voice memos that he consulted for the LP’s riffs.
The formula behind the record, then, is a surplus of material multiplied by time to assemble the songs on his own terms. But the time element is a thorny one on paper. Keuning decided to step back from touring with the Killers in 2017, around the release of their Wonderful Wonderful album, and subsequently sat out the recording of its follow up, the synth-driven heartland rock juggernaut Imploding the Mirage. Earlier this year he returned to the studio with the group, but in the meantime he has hunkered down to finesse an enjoyably woolly record that’s better suited to a dude with empty days reaching into the distance than fuel for a well-oiled rock show.
“Some people might be wondering why I did this, because it would seem loco,” he says. “One, I didn’t quit the Killers to do this. I just have a lot of leftover ideas. I don’t want to say it’s for fun, because I take it very seriously and it’s something I’m going to do probably for the rest of my life. But I have a lot of extra songs and between the other members of the Killers we all have a lot of ideas. This I have control over. If I really like a song I’m going to see it to the end.”
“I guess in an unfortunate way I have more time to be creative at home,” he adds, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve been saving a lot of these ideas for possible Killers records, and I’ve worked on a couple [of Killers songs] recently. I think for a while it was just non-stop touring, then recording, then touring, then recording. When I wasn’t touring I was just soaking up what little time I had to be home. I feel like I’ve got a little more time to write.”
Another challenge presented by going solo was writing for his voice rather than Flowers’. If Keuning’s fretwork has launched a million wedding parties in the past two decades, his voice has had to go from adversary to grudging ally in a much shorter space of time. A Mild Case of Everything is home to a more developed performance, and on songs such as The Fountain he finds a droll, understated melodicism to match his snaking lead lines.
“I was very uncomfortable the first time around,” he admits. “I almost gave up a couple times. The reason I didn’t was because there was no one else around. I was like, ‘Well…’ This is really about my songs and wanting to finish them, so I just stepped up to the mic. I had to force myself to do it. I was a lot more comfortable this time. I think playing a few shows really helped. No one really said anything bad about my vocals, which I guess was my worst fear. I kinda know what I can do a little bit more. At first, I didn’t know what I was capable of singing.”
When Keuning left Iowa for Las Vegas 20-odd years ago, it was a sort of half-measure. He couldn’t afford Los Angeles, but he sure as hell wasn’t kicking around closer to home in bands that didn’t quite cut it anymore. He dropped out of school, three years into a music major that felt like it was leading to a teaching career he didn’t want, and hit the road with his Ibanez Destroyer, a red mid-90s Strat and an Epiphone SG riding shotgun. Eighteen months later his ad for bandmates was met with a response from Flowers. “We were both getting out of relationships at the same time,” he remembers. “We had a lot of time on our hands to start bands.”
At their first rehearsal Keuning handed his new friend a four track demo cassette that featured the bare bones of Mr. Brightside, the Killers’ first single and a song that, along with going double platinum in the States, has spent more than five years on the UK singles chart. “The very next practice he came back and he had all the lyrics of what is pretty much sung today,” Keuning says. “I was like, ‘That’s really good!’ Obviously, it was really good. When the chorus came in we were both so excited for it – we had this good song, and we were off and running.”
From this point onwards Keuning’s Destroyer, which he bought from an old bandmate for $400, continued to play a major role. It underpinned the first Killers record, Hot Fuss, and has continued to be a reliable workhorse in the studio, but a few years back he relented and, not wanting to lose his friend to a tour-related mishap, invested in a series of Gibson Explorers to serve as understudies. “One of them sounded really, really good and that became my main axe for live and quite a bit of recording,” he says.
But on A Mild Case of Everything, Keuning branched out a little, turning to a stacked collection that allowed him to bring a few different personalities to the party. “I have a Yamaha Revstar that I used a lot more this time,” he says. “It has a unique tone. I have a lot of Gibsons and a lot of Fenders. The 335, I used a lot. It’s got a great clean sound. I have some Telecasters I used on a lot of stuff. But I wanted a different flavour from Fender or Gibson so I thought I’d give the Yamaha a shot. I like the pickups on it.”
Touring as a solo artist has presented one gear-related issue: space to fit his amps on stage. Having headlined Glastonbury and played stadiums around the globe with the Killers, Keuning is rarely one to worry about floor space. But with his go-to Fender HotRod Deville joined out there by a Fender Mustang and a Roland Jazz Chorus on his first tour under his own steam, it got a little tight at times. “I felt bad on these small stages when I’d want all three amps out there,” he admits. “But it allows me to sound pretty big, especially if I had the clean going on at the same time as another sound.
“I try to have less pedals on my solo thing. With the Killers we have them all in a rack. There were quite a few slowly added over the years because one part would have a specific sound, and we wanted to duplicate that live as best we can. The Killers have a pretty good system to not lose signal. I know Billy Corgan doesn’t have many pedals because he doesn’t want to lose signal and that’s something I’m struggling with. I do notice the difference. This time I just went with a tuner, a volume pedal, a lead pedal, a distortion and a whammy, because that’s not easily duplicated.”
Back in the saddle
Of course, hopes are riding high that Keuning will soon be suiting up in megadomes and sports venues again. It was back in January that the Killers posted studio footage to Instagram with Keuning present and correct in the room. The group appears to be working at a feverish pace, with August’s seventh album Pressure Machine, a series of character studies based around Flowers’ hometown of Nephi, Utah, set to be followed in short order by another chapter in their story. “It just felt good to be back involved again,” Keuning says.
“I’ve been asked why I didn’t do [the last record] but the recording was probably just as time consuming as the touring, if not more so for …Mirage. It was usually Utah or Vegas and I couldn’t do it with what I had going on. This was like a new beginning for this album, because of COVID, so I just happened to be back and played guitar, helped write a couple of chord changes here and there on songs. That album isn’t even out yet and we’re planning on writing for the one after it, which I think will be our eighth record. We’re already working on that.”
While Keuning describes the unfamiliar dislocation of missing sessions for Imploding the Mirage as “out of sight out of mind” to a certain extent, the response to his hiatus did needle him at times, even if he got it on one level as a music fan in his own right.
“It’s frustrating, but I understand some of it,” he says. “With my favourite bands I always wanted every band member to be in the band forever.
“The only thing I don’t like is that some people perceive me in a certain way, like I would complain, or that I’m ungrateful. Of course I’m grateful. I’d be crazy not to be. It’s a very complicated backstory, but it’s also being put between a rock and a hard place as far as a schedule [goes]. Saying no, or they can’t do it, or doing part of it, we all had different desires for how much we can do without going crazy. Our thresholds are all different. It’s not a typical way bands are done, but I guess every situation is unique.”
Dave Keuning’s A Mild Case of Everything is out now through Pretty Faithful Records.