Flick through any of Ronnie Vanucci Jr’s interviews, or spend any amount of time in his company, and it quickly becomes apparent that he really doesn’t take himself very seriously. Auctioning off the chance to share a bubble bath to fans, calling his Big Talk début “horseshit”, and adorning his new record with a crude illustration by a friend of all five members as scantily clad ladies of the night are not exactly are the hallmarks of a man chasing commercial success, but then Vannucci seems completely at ease with playing the (knowing) fool. “If someone wants to think I’m a goof, then I’m fine with that because I kind of am a goof!” he tells me from his home in Sonoma County, California.
Even a conversation about the healthy brunch he’s just enjoyed with his family is ripe for self-deprecation. “I heard that sparkling water isn’t great for the voice, but I mean how much worse could mine get? You’ve heard my voice right?” And so it goes.
It’s easy to imagine Vannucci as the sunny yang to Brandon Flowers’ more guarded, calculating yin in his role as drummer for arena-slaying behemoths The Killers, an escape valve for the tensions created by keeping a juggernaut that size happy and on the road. In fact, Big Talk came about when burnout and stress led to an extended hiatus back in 2010; a restless soul, Vannucci was just two weeks into his first real vacation in years before realising he was bored. “I just thought: ‘Fuck! What am I going to do? I don’t like this.’” The result was 2011’s Big Talk, a swaggering, booze-soaked, saloon-stomp of a record that wore its heart on its sleeve and practically demanded 2am sing-alongs.
His new record, Straight In No Kissin’ is, despite that title, a subtler record – but not by much; there’s still plenty of classic rock and cornball solos and chugging barre chords But it is more polished and rounded, a feature perhaps of it being a true collaboration; having morphed into a genuine five-piece, each member had an equal say, and Vannucci is keen to emphasis the inclusive nature of the sessions. “Nobody is just a hired gun,” he explains. “Everybody had their hands on it, so it really shaped it more.” And despite the cachet and star power of his name, it’s telling that he wants to build the project from the ground up and work at it; when we speak, the album has already been available couple of weeks, but there’s still no plans to tour beyond the USA.
Beneath all the bluster and jokes though, there’s pride; at doing something different, and doing it his own way. It’d be easy for Vannucci to rest on his laurels and keep cashing those Killers’ cheques, but that’s not who he is. A self-confessed “hard worker”, he feeds off the struggles being a new band brings. “It’s nice to kind of ‘crawl’ again,” he says. “To starve a little bit.” We joke about private jets and limos, he tells me that that life isn’t as glamourous as it’s portrayed. He certainly doesn’t value fame or the spotlight, and the image of him in recent press shots – flannel shirts, old jeans, trucker cap, bushy beard – is about as far removed from the gold-lamé-and-feather-epualettes-wearing Flowers as it’s possible to be.
And while the rest of the year has been set aside for Big Talk duties, his other band looms large. Work has already begun on some new material, and although he’s coy about dates and specifics, it seems likely that early 2016 will see them reconvene to embark on album number five. I ask if it’s hard figuring out where to go having played to 90,000 at Wembley Stadium, but he says they don’t dwell on the past. “We need to fucking figure out a way to be better, and we haven’t done it yet.” Big talk for such a successful band I say. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to getting back in and seeing what we can accomplish, you know? I want that.”
DiS: This is your second solo outing. Did you approach it any differently to your début album?
Ronnie Vannucci, Jr: Yeah, there were a few things. The older I get, the more attracted I am to more aggressive sounding music, and I guess the most noticeable thing is that this time it wasn’t just me and Taylor [Milne] making the music; it was me, Taylor, and what we now call the rest of the band. Everybody is in the band now, nobody is just a hired gun. Everybody has invested time, money, and effort into making it a band, and because of that it has everybody's stamp or DNA on it. There’s a noticeable difference.
Was there any one lesson that you took from the first album, or your time with The Killers, that you put into the recording or writing of Straight In No Kissin’? Like, “I need to avoid that trap!” or “I need to do this or that differently”?
You know, it was kind of focused on making sure that the songs were succinct and that everybody had a voice in shaping them. What I did, because everybody has other bands, is I would make the songs, demo them by myself, and then show the guys around twenty-odd songs. I’d then say: “Hey, what really moves you guys? Which ones would you like to be playing? Would you make any changes to them? Let’s get in a room and see if these make sense.” Often, the songs wouldn’t change too much, but it was just the fact that everybody had their hands on it, it really shaped it more. So it wasn't really that I was focused on avoiding pitfalls or anything like that; I was more excited about playing live with another band in that situation, with the tape rolling.
Whenever someone in a well-known band – apart from when it’s the singer – decides to make a solo album, people are always automatically sceptical or primed to think: “Oh, this is going to be awful” or that it’s some weird vanity project. Why do you think that is?
Um, shit. I don’t know.
Because sometimes it is shit, but sometimes it’s great. People’s automatic reactions are like: “The drummer of the band is making a record, it’s going to be terrible!”
There are so many reasons for that. The singer generally does better because the singer is the figurehead and the mouthpiece of the band usually. It’s very hard to put four people on the front of a magazine, who are they going to put on? The fucking singer! The guy that’s out in the front, you know? It makes sense; it’s easier. The singer has it easier as far as recognition goes, but they also have it harder as well because they don’t have the band behind them, the band that carries them. So, I don’t know. I think it’s just people pulling ingredients out of the cake, and a stick of butter isn’t the same as a cup of sugar, you know? I think everybody is used to the whole cake, and whenever you pull an ingredient out of that and sell it by itself, it’s less appetising.
I enjoy the struggle to be honest – though that’s not to say that being in The Killers is not a struggle, there’s still work involved, and it’s pretty good, but it’s been so glamorous for the last little while. We’ve been staying in great hotels, sold out gigs, we have a great fan base, and while it’s a wonderful thing, it is nice to kind of ‘crawl’ again, you know? To starve a little bit and work a little bit. It’s especially cool for me because I like that struggle, and I’m not on my instrument; my instrument is the drums, so this is all sorts of fun for me because I’m playing fucking guitar and trying to sing! It’s like climbing a different mountain, and I’m enjoying the climb.
I read one review of your début – and it was a positive review by the way – that said your “tongue was so far into your cheek that it was wagging out of your ear!” And I was looking at the Big Talk Wikipedia page, and one of the genres you’re listed under is Comedy Rock. Are you worried that nobody is taking you seriously?
I kind of don’t care at this point. In fact if someone wants to think that I’m a goof, then I’m fine with that because I kind of am a goof! I think there is a lot of seriousness in the songs too, but I’m not trying to build a persona or trying to hide who I am or what I do; it’s pretty exposed. I mean, there’s a lot more to me than eleven songs and a record. I’ve never seen that before, but it could be that half my band is in Tenacious D as well.
I’m sure that’s where part of it comes from.
Yeah. So, you know.
But it must kind of grate a little bit if you put a lot of effort into the writing and the recording and thinking: “I want it it to sound like this and have my friends involved and stuff” and it’s being dismissed almost as just “goofball rock”.
I don’t take it that way, and I don’t have those feelings. Maybe I don’t pay enough attention, but I’ve never gotten those sorts of vibes. Nobody has ever really said that to me, and I really don’t take it too seriously. I mean, I do take my music seriously, but everybody has an opinion; it’s just that some people have a pen, and they are able to put it on the internet or on a page somewhere. I take everything with a grain of salt; I’m not really uppity about it. I figure that if somebody is interested enough to listen to the songs, whether they like it or not, it will disarm them so to speak.
Anyone who is playing that kind of good time, classic rock’n’roll now, even the whole genre, is just treated as a bit of a joke. It just isn’t considered worthy, and dismissed with names like ‘cock rock’ and so on. Do you think that music is becoming a little too serious, studied or po-faced?
I don’t know; it could be. The trouble with musicians…well, it’s not really the musicians so much, it’s more the media taking it to this otherworldly place almost where people are taken so seriously and regarded as geniuses. The word “genius” is so misused and overused. I don’t know; there is a lot of cockiness and a lot of seriousness out there, and I’ve never, ever enjoyed being a part of that club. Because this is my own thing, it has very much got my attitude on it and my attitude is that I really don’t give a shit about over sensationalising something; I would much rather be discovered twenty years from now than be shoved down the throats of people who don’t want to fucking know about me.
I do think that things are maybe taken a little too seriously. I think that people need to lighten up and learn how to enjoy themselves a little more, and that’s what I’m trying to do; let’s just enjoy it. I still take some things seriously; I’m a hard worker. I like to work. I’m working tonight on a Killers song and I’m flying in my bass player, John – because he is an engineer, and he helped engineer the record – to help me do something tonight. I’m always working, and I take my job seriously, but as far as the media goes and that sensationalism, and that over-glorified sense of self, it’s just not something I will ever be interested in. I’ve never been interested in it.
It’s almost like, unless you go and make a record in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, or you write songs about your dead cat, you can’t be critically acclaimed anymore.
Yeah. I mean, who knows? You have to play the game at some point. That’s the reason I’m doing interviews; I’m happy that somebody wants to talk about that because it’s not always that way. But I’m also pressing vinyl, CD’s, and tapes, I’m getting products out there, so I take it someone’s listening. But I also want to have fun with it, and not go up my own ass with it.
Some people look at themselves in the mirror, and they’re rich and they go: “I’m a genius!” And that’s their vitamin for the day. I look in the mirror, and I’m like: “I need to work harder!” (Laughs) “This is getting too fucking comfortable!”
Looking in the mirror and saying “Yeah. I’m important. I matter!” is the slippery slope to God only knows where.
I see it happening; you know who it’s happening to. There are a lot of people out there.
There’s an interesting line in ‘All My Lovin’ that goes: “Why be paying my dues when I’m used to stealing the show?” That sounds like a reference to, as you were saying, climbing the mountain again, and coming back from the sold-out tours, playing the arenas and stadiums with The Killers. Is that a fair interpretation of that lyric?
Yeah. The song is about falling out of love, so it’s a love song, but it’s about falling out of love. But yeah, it does have that sentiment about it, it’s about the climb. If it’s a successful climb, or the climb on a ladder of a relationship; that’s kind of what it is meant for.
Is it easy to put down the sticks and pick up the guitar and put yourself into songwriter and frontman mode. Is that an easy transition or do you have to be like: “Ok, I have to get my head around it again!”
It’s hard at first, but it seems natural now. Even when I’m playing the drums, I’m not thinking about the drums; I think about the song and how I can make it better somehow. But as far as coming off a tour, when I started to write Straight In No Kissin’ there was a little bit of a struggle there, but there always is. When you plan on making a record, half those songs that you made kind of go away; they just disappear because you just end up in the zone. You end up either re-doing them or scrapping them, so there’s a break in period. It’s usually two or three months for me, and then I get on a kind of bullet train to mediocrity as far as songwriting goes! But I think the more I keep at it, the better I feel about it, and it’s easier for me to navigate the twists and turns of being able to construct a song and pay attention to lyrics. On this record I was a little more attentive as far as the lyrics go; I think I was a little more focused.
I was reading the interview you did with NME, and I saw that you described your first album as ‘horseshit!’, which you then retracted and said it was ‘half horseshit.' In a couple of years, do you think you’ll be as equally as scathing about this one?
Oh probably! It’s just that thing where you’re stoked on your current effort, you know? You’re just kind of loving it. I don’t know where I was coming from with that; I actually listened back to the first song, and I didn’t think it was too bad. It sounds really good, and I thought: “Damn, it sounds amazing!” I just hadn’t listened to it in awhile, so it was fun just to go back. I listened to it last week, and I thought: “Yeah! This does fucking sound pretty good!” And I wanted to compare it to what the new one is.
Looking at your Pledge music page, some of the VIP experiences that you offer the fans a chance to buy are pretty out there. How did you come up with some of them?
Well, a lot of them just started out as jokes obviously and in true fashion, I just take the joke as far as it can go. I basically ended up committing to it, we ended up all just sitting around a fire or whatever, be it a figurative fire or a literal fire with some whiskey and saying: “Ok, well let’s figure it out, what do other people do? They give signed CD’s or a t-shirt bundle or whatever, let's do something fucking crazy! Let’s rent a Lamborghini, or Kones [guitarist John Konesky] can give someone a haircut, or take them shopping in a 4x4! Just something totally fucking atypical!” I liked that, everybody in the band liked that, and we just took it a step further and offered a bath.
That was the stand out one.
Yeah, and somebody bought it! Somebody in England.
There was only one?
Only one. We were going to open it up to more, but I was surprised how long it took to go.
The person who bought it, have they nominated which band member they want to have a bath with and was it you?
They did. I got stuck with the duty.
Is it a girl or a guy?
I think it’s a girl, but I’m not sure.
You should probably check that out.
It’s going to get weird anyway, it doesn't matter to me. (Laughs)
So is this person going to fly over to LA and have a bubble bath with you?
Um, we’re still working that out. There’s a slight chance that we’re going to be doing some shows over there so if that’s the case, as they are in England, we will just have to do it in a very public place. We kind of want to make a thing out of it and we have some ideas; I don’t want to give it all away, but we want to do something with that whole experience.
It’s curious that you haven’t yet worked out whether it’s a guy or a girl…
To be honest, I don’t care. It’s going to be so awkward and weird, I’m just going to get in there and get it over with. Hopefully, it’s a cash deal!
Are you regretting it already?
(Laughs) No. No regrets!
You mentioned some shows, and I know you’ve already done some around LA and the States, but are you going to take it out on the road for the rest of the year? Are there plans to hit Europe or the UK?
I don’t know, it’s very hard to assemble the troops. Everyone is in different bands and busy doing other things, and we knew that going into it. But, there may be some sort of tour that we’ll embark upon, but nothing huge, just a few shows here and there. It’s hard because The Killers are ramping up again and we’re working on songs now, so it might just be a short-lived live experience. We might just end up making records only. That’s a bad business move.
Is that not just part of releasing a record when you think: “Yeah, we’re going to release something, and naturally part of that is that we’re going to play some shows.” Or was that more of afterthought, like: “Oh shit, people are trying to book us, what the fuck do we do now?”
Well, that’s just it. I don’t really think the call is that big to book us. We can go and do a tour in England and up in Ireland and Scotland, and we could also do parts of Europe I’m sure, but it’s just got to make sense with getting everybody over there. Touring is expensive!
I can imagine.
In a lot of ways, you’d actually end up losing money by going over there. This is regarded as being a new band, and so you’ve got to do the ‘new band boogie’, and sort of eat shit for a year or two until you start getting paying gigs that actually at least even you out and put you in good standing with your own chequebook.
When you’re playing, is it a different kind of nervousness, standing out front with a guitar in front of a mic stand instead of sitting at the back behind the drums? It must be quite a contrast.
It is, but it’s not nearly as interesting as I thought it was going to be. I’ve come to the realisation that a performance is always the ‘stage boogie’; it doesn’t matter whether I’m sitting behind the drums or whether I’ve got a guitar strapped on and a microphone in front of me. It ends up feeling very similar. Obviously, I’m still more comfortable behind a drum set, but it’s not all that dissimilar. I thought I would get some sort of weird stage fright, and I would just be catatonic in front of a bunch of people, not knowing what to do or say. It’s weird having a microphone sometimes, but it’s also a lot of fun, and that’s why I’m doing it really, just to enjoy myself and to exercise or keep busy. I mean, I guess the whole impetus for doing this thing is because The Killers as a band, we need breaks once in a while, otherwise we would just go crazy. But this works for me, and it doesn’t take as long; we were working on a Killers record last year, but the whole genesis for the Big Talk idea was based on boredom and experimentation. I write with the Killers but, I don’t bring in the full… I like the collaborative effort. I like when the lightning strikes and you have this moment where there’s this event where shit really starts to come together and boom! You’ve got a song on your lap.
That’s the magic that makes bands, isn’t it?
I like that a lot! When everybody said back in 2010: “Hey, let’s take a break and have a year off or something!” at the time it seemed like a really good idea, but two weeks into it, it just seemed like: “Fuck, what am I going to do? I need to get a new hobby or something! I don’t like this.” So, I just ended up making new songs to completion. It was so fun, and the process was so fun, that I wanted to do it again and I knew that we were going to take another little break, so I thought: “Fuck it, let’s do this with a band.” I wanted that collaborative effort, and I wanted to do that dance, you know? I wanted a band, with another drummer, a bass player, and other brains involved. So, that’s sort of the whole reason.
You mentioned that you were working on a Killers song. Are there concrete plans in place, or a potential to reconvene at some point and do stuff?
Not really. There’s a kind of loose plan to get some stuff going in the next few months. Just little by little we’re working on things and getting some ideas together, it’s just a case of trying to keep it fresh and keeping it in our minds. We don’t have to be in the same room right now; we can be in our own corners and work like that for a little while to keep the burners happening, you know? It's more just to keep the blood circulating.
I know that with The Killers it’s very collaborative; it’s not like one person does everything and the others turn up and do their parts. You’re coming from the classic rock type of tradition, while Brandon’s got the whole of pop thing going on; it’s quite an interesting mix to mesh that together, to reach consensus, and go: “Well, this is what that song needs to be.”
Yeah, I think that’s what is good about the Killers, that everybody is attacking it from different angles. Nobody’s really sharing. Some of us get along with each other, but everybody has got such different brains and I think that is a big reason why it works because you’ve got one guy who has a very pragmatic approach to things, one guy is the analytical guy, the other guy is focused on what the people want, and the other guy says: “Come on, let’s give it some muscle. This isn’t moving me enough.” And those roles kind of change.
Are you generally the muscle guy?
I guess in a way. Sometimes, yeah. But not all the time! That’s not to say that the guys are short of… they’re all different. It just depends on the songs, you know? And how people gravitate towards those songs.
Reading between the lines in a lot of interviews that you and Brandon have done, it seems very much like you two are: “Right, let’s get on, let’s do more. Let’s do another album and keep at it.” Whereas Dave and Mark are pushing for taking a breather and taking stock. Does it sometimes get a bit frustrating because you feel like you are losing time?
Sure. Oh yeah. Totally. But fuck, you’ve got to realise that it’s not just one guy, you know? It’s four equal parts and you’ve got to pay attention because if one guy, or one part of the machine, is wearing out, then you have to make sure that that part is tended to. Otherwise, the machine doesn’t run. And I get it too, it’s hard sometimes. I have equal parts frustration in understanding it, but the older I get, the more understanding I am of it. But I do have my moments of pure rage and frustration just because I have such a huge energy level, and I need to stay busy to make me happy.
I’ve done interviews with people before, and they’ll come off tour and say: “Yeah, I’m really tired, I need a break. It’s been draining because we’ve been on the road for nine months” But then after two weeks it's: “Ok, now I’m bored! I’ve sat at home, read the newspaper and drank some nice coffee, what’s next? I’m ready to go again so, let’s do it!”
And I believe those guys feel that pinch, you know? There’s evidence of that. It’s just making sure that we do the right things at the right times. It’s a bit of a game to play really, and it’s an interesting thing, the psychology of being in the band is very interesting.
When you’re at that point, where you are essentially one of the world's biggest bands, do you ever have that moment where you go: “Shit, where do we go from here?” Bono has talked about this through the history of U2, and Noel Gallager talked about it when Oasis were just ridiculously massive, and they had that moment where they think: “Well, what am I supposed to do next? Where is there to go when you are at the top of the tree?” Do you ever have that feeling, consciously?
No, I don’t. That’s why I’m never satisfied. It’s like, we haven’t got to the top of the fucking tree or the mountain. We need to fucking figure out a way to be better, and we haven’t done it yet. There’s a lot of ground to be covered and a lot of things to do; if the band were to die right now, I would not be happy with having what we’ve done on our epitaph. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but we have a distance left to run.