When the backstory of The Killers is told, UNLV almost always gets a mention. Entertainment writers can't seem to resist the idea that one of today's most successful new rock bands used to steal onto the drummer's college campus to rehearse.
That was 2002, when Ronnie Vannucci was still a music major, studying classical percussion and trying to strike sparks with this new band he'd joined. When he sold his house, they lost his garage as a practice space. So Vannucci figured a way for them to slip into Alta Ham Fine Arts building after hours.
He confirms the tale now with a touch of justification. "I was a student," he says. "I was basically practicing."
Clearly, the practice paid off. Since their debut album, Hot Fuss, came out in 2004, The Killers have zoomed from obscurity to ubiquity on the strength of hits like "Somebody Told Me" and "Mr. Brightside." Their sound picks up where some of the most enduring bands of the 1980s left off, adding a layer of alternative rock to the synth pop cultivated by The Cure, The Smiths, and Duran Duran.
Music critics and fans alike have showered them with accolades for over a year now, proclaiming The Killers rookies of the year and predicting nothing but great things ahead. It can be hard for a newly christened celebrity to leave that adulation behind when it's time to take up with real life again, but Vannucci, 29, says normal is necessary. "When I get home, the first thing I do is kiss the wife and mow the lawn."
After two dizzying years of conquering the music world, the band's four members returned to Las Vegas last fall to work on their sophomore album. Daily rehearsals and writing sessions -- now totally legit, in a local recording studio -- are the routine, and expectations are high.
"A lot has fallen onto our shoulders," Vannucci said. "It isn't like before, when we just had all this time to make the first record. Now we need to put our nose to the grindstone a little more."
He said that pressure -- not the Spin magazine cover, not the MTV Video Music Award -- is what finally convinced him that The Killers had made it. No longer juggling band practice with school and shifts as a photographer at the Little Chapel of the Flowers, he's living as a musician first and foremost, just as he'd always hoped.
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Vannucci said he began turning everything into a percussion instrument about the time he started school. "I was kind of a weird kid, banging on the washer and dryer in the garage and singing to myself," he said. "My parents figured they'd better get me some drums before I ruined all their appliances."
Vannucci started private lessons as a child but took a break from them after a couple of years. In high school, his outlook changed and he took up formal study again while starting to play in local bands. "I decided I wanted to be really, really good," he said.
When it came time for college, he scored a partial scholarship to Boston's renowned Berklee College of Music, with the chance to earn a full ride through an audition. But his lack of chart-reading skills showed through and held him back.
Vannucci mapped out what seemed like a safer route. He decided to stay in Las Vegas, major in biology at UNLV, and play in a band when he could. His plan was practical -- and short-lived. About the same time, he caught a rare concert by Tom Waits with a stage full of marimba players. Vannucci, who was listening to a lot of classical music at the time, was in awe.
"In your early 20s, you start to realize who you are a little bit. And I said I didn't think I would be happy doing anything other than music," he said. With that, it was goodbye biology.
Studying classical percussion did more than teach him technical skills, Vannucci said -- it required him to learn a variety of instruments and develop a discerning ear. "It's different from just beating the drums in a rock band. I think I'm a more musical player because of it."
Dean Gronemeier, music professor and associate dean of the College of Fine Arts, has followed Vannucci's career from the start. "A lot of rock drummers don't have a musical understanding of melodies, harmonies, and form that comes with training," he says. "You can really hear that come out in the band. They have great hooks, catchy tunes -- there's a lot on the ball with them."
Vannucci was "inches away" from finishing his degree when The Killers took off. He hasn't given up on getting it done, although he can't say when that may be.
As the band shapes its sophomore effort, Vannucci said he thinks all members have grown as songwriters. He's pleased that the new songs have a more classic sound, but knows there's a risk in changing too much too soon. "I don't know if we'll be writing another 'Somebody Told Me,'" he said. "It's scary because a lot of the newer fans kind of cling to that a bit."
And even though they've been blessed by MTV and packaged for the young hipster market, Vannucci said he's gratified to see fans of all ages at their shows.
"In Texas, there were some 60-year-old dudes who have seen the history of rock 'n' roll, and they're buying into our crap," he says, astonished but flattered. "If we're striking with those guys, it's probably the highest compliment."