Huck heads to The Killers’ bassist Mark Stoermer’s Nevada home to talk going it alone, life in Las Vegas, and the endless search for creative fulfilment.
Following the release of his third solo record - Filthy Apes and Lions - Huck heads to The Killers’ bassist Mark Stoermer’s Nevada home to talk going it alone, life in Las Vegas, and the endless search for creative fulfilment.
It’s two hours before I’m due to meet musician Mark Stoermer at his Las Vegas home and I’m sat alone on a small patch of grass in the centre of a housing complex, a short walk from the city’s infamous Strip.
A layer of dust has already settled on the lid of the laptop I’m working from. Three kids are sprinting up and down the quiet street, throwing plastic bottles at windows and each other. There are trees, fresh air, and the sun is shining. It feels blissful.
I’d only touched down in Sin City some 18 hours previously, but already escaping the excess just a stone’s throw away feels like a necessity if I’m to think clearly. The night before, I had headed straight out to the casinos, bars and hotels that draw people from across the world to this supposed oasis. It was Thanksgiving night, and those who had made the pilgrimage to the holy grail of hedonism were unapologetic in their rampant pursuit of consumption. The croupiers, bar staff and servers – the people who keep this 24-hour city running – didn’t seem so thrilled by the experience. Most who I spoke to made it clear: this was a city to come to and go from. Those who weren’t tied down with mortgages and families were planning their next move. That day would come when they could afford it.
Mark Stoermer and his bandmates are arguably some of Vegas’ most successful children. The Killers have sold well over 22 million records, headlining stadiums all over the world. So, as I make the 20-minute drive from the city centre to Stoermer’s home, I can’t help but wonder why – unlike his fellow bandmates – he is yet to leave Las Vegas.
It was back in 2002 when Stoermer met with Brandon Flowers, Dave Keuning and Ronnie Vannucci Jr, and agreed to join their band full-time. But in April last year, after working on Wonderful Wonderful – the group’s 2017 album – he informed his bandmates it was time for him to bow out of touring. However, rather than start his life afresh or travel the world using his not insubstantial earnings, Stoermer has spent most of the time in Vegas, working on the release of his third solo record Filthy Apes and Lions.
Pulling up outside an unassuming yellow one-storey house down a quiet cul-de-sac off a busy freeway, it’s obvious that Stoermer’s place isn’t what one might expect from a rockstar. I knock on the door and wait to be greeted, a pile of pumpkins and squashes sat next to the doormat. A minute or so later, Stoermer appears dressed smartly in a shirt, short black trousers and boots with pristine slicked back hair. He shakes my hand and invites me in. He’s tall and slim; his face angular. He speaks quietly as he shows me the array of artefacts that adorn his walls, collected from all corners of the globe. It’s not hard to see why his bandmates nicknamed him the “gentle giant”.
I chat with Stoermer about jet lag for ages. He talks about travelling, sleep patterns and his endless days and nights on tour. He’s sat bolt upright with a pillow behind his back under a canopy in his garden, an adopted rescue cat he found in the bushes meandering between the small swimming pool and our feet.
It’s not that Stoermer is unwelcoming – quite the opposite. He offers me a drink as we settle down to talk. But at the same time, he doesn’t seem overly comfortable, not just about my presence in his home but also – if it’s possible – his own.
Born in Texas, Stoermer moved to Las Vegas aged four, his mother (a nurse) and father (a doctor) taking up jobs in the city that required working long hours. He describes himself as a “latchkey kid”, an insular child who eventually turned to music for comfort and distraction. Stoermer grew up just around the corner from where he lives today – but away from the shining lights of the Strip, there was little in the way of opportunity, especially for children and teenagers.
Without access to a car, Stoermer would wander the streets. He was 14-years-old when he heard the sound of drums coming from the house of a boy he’d made friends with. From then on, he’d play in garage bands as much as he could.
“I think I discovered music because there wasn’t a lot to do,” he reflects. “It’s what pushed me inwards when I was younger, I’d practice the guitar and bass and listen to albums.”
After graduating high school Stoermer signed up to a course at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but dropped out not long after enrolling. “It had to do with anxiety and not being able to sit in a class,” he explains, carefully. “I would be in class and get panic attacks, and not know why or what that was. I just knew something wasn’t right, and it took a while to figure that out.”
Stoermer spent a period isolated and alone, turning to music as form of therapy and place to escape to. A few months later, Stoermer took a part-time gig as a medical courier, a job which allowed him to slowly return to the outside world while also listening to music in the safety and comfort of his car. “It eased me back into the world,” he says. “It was then also I started again to play in bands.”
Up on the Strip, some of the world’s most famous musicians have sky-high billboards emblazoned with their faces: Celine Dion, Elton John and Britney Spears are just some of the stars with residencies here, shows which draw in packed out auditoriums evening after evening. Away from the multi-million dollar casinos and hotels, though, getting a break as a musician can be tough. “Vegas is a place where musicians go to die or retire,” says Stoermer. “Vegas was never a place where you went to make music.”
“That’s not that it’s easy anywhere,” Stoermer is keen to add. “But there was never a cohesive scene here, and at a time when bands were being signed fairly regularly – each label would be doing ten a year when now you’re likely to get just one – Las Vegas wasn’t the place to be.” Most people looking for a break headed to LA or New York City, Vegas wasn’t a known as a place to make it big. Somehow – thanks to a combination of talent, luck and perseverance – The Killers managed it.
Stoermer was 25-years-old when he officially joined the band. He’d been in another group playing the local circuit when he was handed an earlier incarnation of the band’s demo tape by a friend. On it was an early version of “Mr Brightside”.
“People were listening to their music before we’d seen them play, which was unusual for a local band at that time,” he tells me. “They built some hype, which was smart.” Excited by their sound, Stoermer headed down to a few of their shows. A few months later, he had been signed up full-time.
The band rehearsed five or six days a week, sweating it out in a hot garage for hours at a time for almost a year straight. “In a way, for the Vegas scene, we were a mini supergroup,” Stoermer says. “Ronnie was one of the best drummers in town, on the local level I was pretty good as a bassist.” Skills aside though, the boys were dedicated and hungry. They threw their all at the band despite making next to no money.
The first break came when Braden Merrick, an A&R rep for Warner Bros, found their music online on a site dedicated to unsigned bands in the Las Vegas area. He helped them record a demo, which was eventually picked up by British indie label Lizard King Records. By July 2003, the band were on a one album and two tour deal – though Stoermer decided not to quit his part-time job back in Vegas.
“I guess I didn’t think it was even possible to make it like we did,” suggests Stoermer honestly, when I ask if he ever thought he – or the band – would make it big. “I was never one of those kids who decided what they wanted to do in their heads and then went for it.”
“Sometimes it takes meeting people with a vision to actually make making it possible, and I think Brandon [Flowers] and Dave [Keuning] had that even when I met them,” he continues. “I joined them though because they were making great music, but I didn’t even then think it would go that way. It’s not to say that I wasn’t motivated or wasn’t dedicating all my time to music, I just didn’t have that goal in my head.”
It was only in December 2003, when The Killers had been signed by a major label and promised a two year tour and a five album deal, that Stoermer handed in his notice at the part-time job.
For most musicians, certainly those so young and newly signed, this period of success would have been the most exciting, dream-come-true experience. None of the boys had left North America before flying to England for their first shows, and now the world was being promised to them. Stoermer was excited and grateful, but even back then he had reservations about a life on the road. He compares it to travelling the world in a submarine: you might be going around the world, but it doesn’t feel like it. “You’re in a controlled and closed environment, seeing the same people all the time and then they all move with you.”
“Don’t get me wrong there are much harder things to be doing. I’m very grateful, I learnt a lot and because of the touring I can do what I want now. But it was a challenge for me from the offset.”
As records were released: Hot Fuss, Sam’s Town, Sawdust and Day & Age, Battle Born, the audiences the band attracted grew bigger. Over the course of seven or eight years, the band would have a week off here and there, with very little alone or personal time.
With such a relentless work schedule, the people you surround yourself with become incredibly important, and Stoermer is blunt about the fact The Killers are far from best friends. “From the offset we were very different,” he says, cautiously. “We were four people who came together over music with a common purpose, but with very different personalities. If it wasn’t for the music, we probably wouldn’t hang out together. We weren’t a bunch of great friends who decided to make a band – it was four individuals who got together in the service of music.”
I ask him whether anyone from the band has talked to him about the solo material he has been releasing – whether congratulatory or out of concern that he was drifting from the group. “We never talked about it directly,” he answers. “There were no obvious objections, but also no obvious support. Even in the band I don’t think anyone mentioned it. We never talked about each others solo work too much, certainly now we’re not all together. I don’t know about the other guys and their individual relationships, but it’s how it has been for me.”
In April 2016, Stoermer told the band he would no longer tour with The Killers. He’d been thinking about it since the Battle Born tour back in 2013. While playing Wembley that year, there’d been an accident with the band’s pyrotechnics. An explosion was “10 times louder than usual”, but nobody had warned Stoermer this would be the case. “Everyone else but Brandon and I had earplugs in that night, but he was so far away from the pyros that it didn’t really affect him. I was standing by the explosion and have ringing in my ears really loud ever since. I probably will do forever unless they find a cure for it. You can only try to cope.”
This and ongoing back problems saw Stoermer pull out of the Asia leg of that 2013 tour. The news last year that he’d be taking a more permanent break was unlikely to have come as a great surprise.
“The band’s reaction was surprisingly good, they seemed understanding,” Stoermer explains. “I told them I wanted to do other things like finish my education and to make music. If the right thing comes around I’ll do [something on the same scale as the Killers], and by right thing I mean short term projects or in the studio.”
I ask if he’ll ever record or tour again with The Killers.
“It’s too soon to tell, I don’t want to try and predict what might happen two years from now. They’ll be on the road for the next two years now for sure. Then we can revisit it.”
What’s most striking about Stoermer’s approach to making music as a solo artist is his unapologetic lack of ambition, not in terms of quality, but commercial success. His first solo record – Another Life – was written mostly while on the road with The Killers. Dark Arts, and the newly released Filthy Apes and Lions worked on more from his Nevada home. Each was released on his own small label, St August records. On Spotify, one track from Dark Arts has 95,000 plays, the lead track on the new album is close to 30,000. The rest barely register at the 1,000 mark.
“I never wrote lyrics and I never sang with The Killers,” Stoermer says, when asked why he wrote his first solo material. “It was an experiment to see if I could grow as a musician and writer… It was about proving to myself I could complete this thing, whether or not it was successful was never a goal for me.”
By self-releasing his work, Stoermer has complete control over his musical creations. He says that it gives him the power to take down the work if ever decides that’s what he wants to do. “With Another Life, I did try and approach a few labels a couple of times but nobody was too interested and I wasn’t trying too hard,” Stoermer says. “I wanted to do it on my terms. I guess it was a lack of interest and a lack of willingness to try.”
Each track on the new record tells a story, many inspired by Stoermer’s studies in art history. He uses tempo changes – a rarely employed musical device in popular music – to heighten the drama in the sound. The title track, “Filthy Apes and Lions”, is both haunting and seductive – the soundtrack to a romantic fairground circus subsumed by decay.
“I feel good about this creative body of work that I have made and feel proud of,” he says. “Maybe people will discover it retrospectively, or not.” He takes a long pause. “It’s possible if I had the right thing and the right time I might push it more, but right now the goal isn’t ambition in the traditional sense for me of having a massive new career.”
Stoermer had made plans to finally leave Las Vegas last year. Not for a holiday or to tour, or even to spend time at his property in the Bay Area in Northern California, but to finish his studies at college either in London or at NYU. He hit 40 this year, and for a while felt it might be time to scope out what life might be like living away from the town he’s grown up in. He says back problems stopped him taking up the various university offers. He says with his commitments to working on his label, leaving would be inconvenient. He says he just got sidetracked. He says he might still leave Vegas one day.
“I’m not necessarily committed to staying in Vegas, that was never my plan,” he says, half-convincingly. “I know I could live anywhere else in the world, but I’m always drawn back here.” Stoermer himself doesn’t seem to be sure why he’s still here. “I’ve even mostly grown apart from friends from the old days,” he adds a moment later, lost in thought.
Since bowing out from touring he’s been spending more and more time at home. Stoermer played with The Killers at their secret Glastonbury set this summer, and has been working through online university courses and a record with friend and Bombay Heavy singer David Hopkins. Before I know it, we’ve talked Trump (“another level of absurdity”), playing the White House, and the pros and cons of doing a Masters in the UK. We’ve been together for well over 90 minutes when I notice the time, my flight back to Los Angeles edging closer.
Mark Stoermer’s life has been one spent constantly searching for artistic fulfilment. Commercial success, fame and fortune didn’t provide it, but I’m left unsure whether studying and writing music for himself has helped him on that path. “I don’t know about that,” he says. “I feel I have a certain amount of freedom because of being fortunate with the band. Fulfilled though? No, and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think you ever want to feel like you’re done.”
Las Vegas is a city isolated the middle of a dry and barren desert. It’s a place that sticks out from its surroundings, a place known for its wealth and its fame. But away from the Strip, it’s quiet, unassuming, almost willingly unremarkable. It’s a description that could similarly apply to the man sat opposite me.
It’s a place that has been kind to Mark Stoermer. It’s the city he grew up in, the city that has provided him with success and security. Before we meet, I can’t help but feel confused as to why Stoermer hasn’t ventured away from his home town, but as we say goodbye it becomes clear. This quiet suburban street could be anywhere in the world, but to Stoermer it offers comfort. Years spent on the road, not at all times happy, has made this part of town a constant in what has been a life of isolation, constant travelling and unparalleled success.
With my bag packed up, a car waiting outside, I ask Stoermer what’s next – what he’ll do with his new found freedom.
“I don’t know, I’m taking everything one step at a time. I feel I could get better as a musician. I want to learn a language. I want to be healthier both mentally and physically. I want to study.” He doesn’t seem certain.
It’s almost reassuring that even a member of one of the world’s most successful rock bands is still struggling to work out what success and fulfilment looks like, I think. It sort of takes the pressure off the rest of us.
Mark Stoermer’s Filthy Apes and Lions is on sale now.