Brandon Flowers of the Killers is a big Bruce Springsteen fan, and Bruce Springsteen, in turn, is a big Killers fan. Both write majestic and expansive music with hooks and singalong choruses. Naturally, a conversation between the band leaders would prove illuminating, as you can hear on the Letter To You Radio show, which premieres today on Apple Music Hits. The two go deep on songwriting, success, writing for themselves and how a strong mother can ground a rock star from heading down the path to rock ‘n’ roll casualty.
Letter To You Radio is a five-part series featuring Bruce Springsteen in conversation with special guests from all walks of his life, including long time manager Jon Landau and Clive Davis, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, Jon Stewart and E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt.
American Songwriter featured an edited transcript of the second episode with Grohl and Vedder, which you can read here. We’ll also feature tomorrow’s chat with Jon Stewart, which is a revealing dive into the issue of musicians and politics. The weeklong radio series wraps on Friday, the day Springsteen’s Letter To You album is officially released, with Steve Van Zandt and Springsteen discussing the joy of recording the new album with the band all at once, with, as Springsteen reveals, “very, very, very few overdubs.”
Listen live for free and check out all episodes on-demand: apple.co/_SpringsteenRadio.
Brandon Flowers and Bruce Springsteen on ‘Born in the U.S.A.’
Brandon Flowers: In retrospect, I think Nebraska is a super album, it’s just not the kind of super album that Born in the U.S.A. is. I just wonder if you had a hunch or you felt like something was different when you were writing that batch of songs.
Bruce Springsteen: The strange thing was, I wrote them simultaneously. Matter of fact, there are outtakes of Nebraska that are basically Born in the U.S.A. songs, sort of done closer in the style of Nebraska, because I was trying to find out what record or what style was going to fit the music I was writing at the time.
It was a very strange and creative little period of time for me… I almost put them out as a double album. Once I realized that the Nebraska record – as I was trying to rerecord it – I eventually realized that, oh, wait a minute, it already happened when I wasn’t looking, and that I had it and it was done. And then I had about three-quarters or a little less of the Born in the U.S.A. record, and so I was mixing songs and trying to put them together. And then eventually I decided they just needed to be completely separate.
They were just two completely different records, and it was just going to be confusing if I tried to put them together in any one package. But I did for quite a while think of like, well, I guess it’s a double album. I don’t know, you know. And to end up doing sort of those two things at the same time was just a strange thing, but that’s writing for you. You don’t know how and what shape and when different pieces of work are going to come along.
The important thing is, is that I was able at some point to recognize, okay, this is a separate record that has its own aesthetic that I have to respect. And I have to put this out as best as I can. So Nebraska ended up coming out, and not long thereafter, Born in the U.S.A., which just couldn’t have been more opposite. But it was fascinating, because the version of Born in the U.S.A. that I originally wrote is a Nebraska-like version of it. It’s on some outtake records that we did. It was originally basically an acoustic blues, and then I brought the band in one night and we played it two or three times and ended up with the version that’s on the electric record.
Flowers: Two chords. It’s like two chords.
Springsteen: I almost perfected it to one, but I needed that second chord.
Flowers: Embarrassing everybody else out here.
Brandon Flowers and Bruce Springsteen on ‘Tunnel of Love’
Brandon Flowers: Tunnel of Love comes up after Born in the U.S.A.. Did you feel like you had an extra dose of confidence because of the success of Born in the U.S.A., or did you have an inclination to recoil? Some people don’t know what to do with that kind of success.
Bruce Springsteen: I think it’s a combination of things. One is, I said, there’s no sense of me chasing this dog around the track. For what? So I can sell 40 million records or 35 million records? I thought that that was a fruitless effort and one that was going to come to no good.
And it was a reaction to say, okay, that’s enough success for me for a little bit, a little while. I want to reintroduce myself as a songwriter and as an artist. And apart from the band at the time, I think that I was ready for a break from the band.
And if you look and say, well, gee, Nebraska was kind of the first real solo record, Tunnel of Love was certainly the second one. I made it in my little garage apartment, literally me and one other guy. I played all the instruments myself, with very few exceptions. It’s still one of my favorite records, as far as a group of material all coming along at one time. And it has a certain sound to it. Bob Clearmountain did a great job mixing it.
Brandon Flowers on hearing Bruce Springsteen for the first time
Springsteen: I’m curious, when would be the first time you would have heard the Born To Run record? Because you’re a young guy.
Flowers: It would have been on a classic rock radio station in Las Vegas, and I knew the voice and I knew this image, probably because of the success of Born in the U.S.A.. It was so ubiquitous and humongous, and so I was just aware of who you were. My ears kind of perked up. I knew this voice and I started to gravitate towards it and do a little research. And in a lot of ways, the success of something like Born in the U.S.A. was a gateway for me into your other stuff.
Springsteen: Were you a young musician at the time?
Flowers: Yeah. I was in a transitional phase. We were coming off the heels of our first record, and I was very influenced by a lot of British music. And all of a sudden, this new sound started coming into my heart, and you were leading the way for that, yeah.
Springsteen: That’s fascinating, because I heard your first record. My son, Evan, heard it first, and he was a huge fan and played it for me when it initially came out. And of course, it had all the great, great material and great sounding record. But it was quite a transition from the writing style from the first album to the second album. Particularly after you’ve had huge success with your first record.
Flowers: That’s right. We had a lot of faith in those songs. We sort of did a 180. People were calling us the best British band to ever come from America and things like that. And I was thinking, what does this say about me? Who am I?
And then all of a sudden, we wanted to explore our roots, and so people like you and Tom Petty and Jackson Browne started coming into view and realizing, oh, there’s this other way to represent who we are and I can identify with these people more than I can somebody from Manchester. We threw a lot of people for a loop, but it ended up becoming a real blessing for us and something that I could anchor to.
Springsteen: The level you’ve been able to take your songwriting, whether it was through that particular moment or what, really was pretty amazing. By following that particular path, it really transformed everything that you did after that.
Flowers: Well, we owe a lot to you.
Springsteen: Hey, my pleasure.
Bruce Springsteen on his mother’s influence
Flowers: This one’s close to my heart. There’s no shortage of stories about rock and roll casualties or people, especially men, abusing their fame. Born in the U.S.A. sold over 30 million records. But true to the Springsteen way, you remain an outlier from typical rock and roll pitfalls. And I just wanted to say in front of the world, I want to thank you for that. As a fan, it’s something I admire about you, but as a performer and a fellow gardener, it’s something that I aspire to. And I wonder, where does all this character and righteousness come from that you’ve got?
Springsteen: Mama. My mom. Actually, I’m not joking. I do have to salute. My mother was just upright and straight on, and that was how she lived her life. She just worked every day, and she was not a complainer. And her life was not easy, and yet she found the joy in it in a way that is indescribable.
My mother today is 94, 95 years old, and she has had Alzheimer’s for 10 years. And if I go and see her, she is smiles and her arms are reaching out to hold you and she wants to kiss you. That elemental life force remains in her, even after battling the terrible disease for the past decade. She is just something else, and I think I picked up a lot about living through simply the way that she lived her life.
Bruce Springsteen and Brandon Flowers on writing albums for themselves
Springsteen: I’ve operated on the idea of like, I would make a Born in the U.S.A. or something, and then I sort of withdraw and I make a record that is taking a bit of a smaller approach towards what I want to do, not creatively, but where I want to go, certainly commercially. As far as that goes, I’d make a Ghost of Tom Joad or a Devils and Dust or Tunnel of Love or Nebraska. I find I need to make those records to make my other records. I get to clear the cupboards of all different kinds of music that I want to make, all different types of songs that I have around that I want to record, that may or may not suit the band, or I may just need to go in and make noise by myself for a while.
At the end of the day, it’s kept the relationships fresh and healthy. When we got into the studio to do Letter to You, we cut it, three hours of song in five days, playing the way that we played in 1973 or ’74. Just everybody playing at once, and we kept all the live vocals, and it was just the band was like another life. It had another life shot into it.
Flowers: Yeah, it was funny. When I first made a solo record, it wasn’t because I had something different laying around or that I wanted to get out of my system. It sort of came from a couple of the guys wanting to take a break, and I just have this relentless thing with the songs and going back and writing. And so I just had these songs. It was nice. It was a nice bit of respite from the big shows and playing in theaters and a different group of guys. I found I really enjoyed it. And then I made another one later on, but yeah, my allegiance lies mostly to The Killers. Yeah.
Springsteen: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s a hell of a band. Recently when I caught you, it may have been Glastonbury. The band was so good. You guys have developed such an incredible live show.
Flowers: Thank you. Our second album, the critics were really hard on, and something happened, a switch got flipped. When we went out on stage, I was going to show everyone that bought a ticket and anybody that was there to review the gig, that these songs were better than what they were being written about. And we just got so strong on that tour, so part of our identity became putting on a good show, and that’s been something that’s now something that we cling to.
Springsteen: It’s material that plays so well live. That’s really fortunate. It’s just music that wants to play to a big field with 90,000 people screaming, screaming back at you. There’s an art to it. Well done. Well done, my friend.