After nearly two decades as the founding member and guitarist with The Killers, Dave Keuning was burnt out from touring and wanting to spend more time with his teenage son. At home, he took hundreds of voice memos that he stockpiled over the past 10 years on the road and transformed them into a batch of songs. Following recording sessions in his San Diego home studio, with Keuning playing nearly every instrument and singing lead for the first time, he released 14 of those tracks on his solo debut, Prismism. In support of the new set, Keuning will be back on the bus, as well, with a run of dates in the Western U.S. and Canada kicking off in February. Additionally, he’ll continue his partnership with PledgeMusic to offer fans unique merchandise and experiences including his guitars and jackets worn on tours with The Killers, a Skype session, and even his 1979 Trans AM. () Keuning spoke to us from his home in San Diego a week ahead of the album’s release, discussing the motivations for making an album, leading a band, and the taking the vocal plunge.
Most people know you as the guitarist for The Killers, but you have always been a songwriter. Is that how you found yourself with all these songs and decided to make a record?
It’s a happy accident. I had so many songs that weren’t being used. I just couldn’t sit still anymore. I tried to get some of them on past Killers records. There is a whole variety of reasons why they didn’t make it; the wrong style, or whatever. It was high time, and I didn’t want these to never be heard. I wanted to make the album to have them available. I’m really glad I did. And, I have so many more songs in me. Life is short. Hopefully, I’ll still get a few out with The Killers. I don’t want people to jump to the wrong conclusion. Even if I did give three or four to The Killers I’d still have an album’s worth to put out.
When you are working on a song, when do you decide what it is: a song for you or for the band?
Probably somewhere in the middle, (or) towards the beginning, I’ll get a feel. I usually never write with the intent of it being a song for The Killers or whatever. I just go out and mess around until I find something cool, and then I work on it. For this record it was all for myself. In the past it would be hoping it was for The Killers. One thing I wished I’d done more with The Killers was have an acoustic song with Brandon singing. There’s not very much of that. So, this is my outlet for that. I also didn’t play much keyboard with The Killers. This is my outlet for that, as well.
I noticed many of the songs begin with an isolated instrument for a few bars- a guitar riff, a keyboard pad, a drum pattern- and then the rest of the instrumentation comes in. Like, with the Prince-style guitar that opens “If You Say So.” Is this intentional or coincidental?
I think it was coincidental. I hadn’t thought of that until you pointed it out. Maybe I do that a lot, I guess. It wasn’t intentional. When it’s a guitar riff, it’s nice to get to hear it by itself. Then everything else comes in and it gets bigger. Like, a “Start Me Up” approach.
There certainly is an arranger’s touch to the instrumentation and the parts. There’s a lot of drama in these songs.
I like dynamics. I like to build. Some of it was just second-nature. But, I guess because I’ve done so many albums in the past, I know what mixing can do to a song. Things can get lost. There were some cool keyboard sounds that I liked hearing by themselves, just for a little bit.
What’s your relationship to the music of the 1980s? I noticed in “The Queen’s Finest” you lyrically reference 1989. I can’t help but wonder if a lot of this album is a stylistic nod to that decade?
I grew up throughout the 1980s. All that music is what made me like music in the first place. I love Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Billy Joel. In the late ‘80s I got into hard rock: Guns N Roses; AC/DC. I feel like there is so much great music that came from that decade. In the subsequent decades we can’t say we had that many bands. So many great songs. And, a bigness to those songs; everything sounds great. I’m not going to say I tried to (sound) ‘80s because I wasn’t trying. I was aware some of it was sounding ‘80s and I never flinched. I’m fine with that. That’s who I am.
And then those two acoustics songs seem lo-fi, alt ‘90s, in stark contrast.
I didn’t have a problem with it. I guess there was some intent for contrast. I have a lot of unused acoustic songs that I’d like to record. I enjoy making bare-bones acoustic ballads, so I guess there can be room for two or three on an album. Short and sweet.
Were those acoustic songs ever given any consideration to be bigger sonically like the rest of the record?
I know “Gimme Your Heart” I wanted to be a little smaller. “Hope and Safety” kind of evolved. It was originally going to be a little smaller.
I imagine that’s a perk of this solo album. You get to make creative decisions like that without compromise.
I indulged it. Though, I don’t want people to think I really wanted to go solo so that I could call all the shots. I went solo, and then I had to call all of the shots. There’s no one else there. I found that feeling freeing and very comfortable. I don’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing.
Are you a solo artist now and for the foreseeable future?
I’ll definitely be making songs as Keuning for a long time to come. I named it my last name because I wanted it to look and feel like a band name. That’s how I see this myself- more like a band. Everything is open after that. I could do things with The Killers again. I could do things with a whole other band, just play guitar. All are possibilities. I’m open to anything. This is the easiest one for me as I do most of the recording from home. If I’m writing a song I just go out there (to my studio) and throw it on. Any other idea requires coordinating band members and getting together.
And you have a band for live shows?
I have four guys I’ll use for shows. They’re from San Diego or near Los Angeles. Things are going well with them so far. I hope we’ll continue to be friends on the road. (Laughs.)
Do you like being a bandleader?
It has its pros and cons. Sometimes it’s like being a boss and you just want to be like everyone else. But, of course, everyone looks at me like I’m the boss. I try to keep things easy-going but every once in a while I want something done a certain way. I hope I don’t come across too harsh.
When you were making this album, did you think about how Killers fans would respond to it?
I hope they like it. But, I hope that anyone likes it. I had to be myself, first. This is the kind of music I like to make. This is fun for me. I didn’t make it for any one audience. I just tried to make it the best I could.
Did you ever consciously shy away from anything that sounded too much like The Killers?
I never worried about that. I feel like there is so much of my music that isn’t like The Killers. I never worried about it sounding like any other band. I wanted to see where the song went.
Singing all the songs goes a long way to establishing your own style and sound. Do you have any hesitancy in deciding to sing?
I did have doubts for sure. I started making demos, and there were just too many times with me, the computer, and the microphone right there. And they needed vocals. One day I thought I’d give it a try. And, I didn’t like the results. I didn’t like the way my voice sounded. I gave up at that point. But my wife and a couple of others told me to keep trying. I had to get used to my range and personality as a singer. After about a month I came to the conclusion that it’ll be much easier the rest of my life if I am the singer, at least, for Keuning. I’m glad I arrived at this place. My only regret is that I didn’t do it a lot sooner. Better late than never, I guess.