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April 21, 2014

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Almost Famous

The untold tale of three men who once were called Killers

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Corlene Byrd

Everything will be alright: Former Killers (from left) Brian Havens, Dell Star and Matt Norcross, April 8, 2010 in the Weekly photo studio.

Beyond the Sun

Watch the former Killers' new bands perform in our studio

Brian Havens breaks off mid-sentence, eyeballing a nearby speaker as a familiar electronic pulse infiltrates the Yard House's classic-rock playlist. Are we human, or are we dancer? the singer is asking, but a more pressing question hovers over Havens in the nippy February air: "Is he heartsick, or is he at peace?" The crooked smile snaking out from his mustached lip appears to provide the answer.

One table over, a pair of blond women seem curious about the shaggy-haired 24-year-old being interviewed on the outdoor deck of the Town Square brewpub. Their faces register recognition as he speaks of playing "Mr. Brightside" with "Brandon" and "Dave," but unless these ladies frequent the Downtown bar scene, it's unlikely they're familiar with Havens himself.

In an alternate reality that might have been ours, however, they'd be crowding him, begging for a photograph, an autograph or a whole lot more. To borrow from another famous pop lyric, it's crazy what he could have had. But then, was it ever really his to have?

***

"Obviously, things could be easier financially," says Dell Star, gazing toward the cement statues and multicolored fountains that dot the quaint backyard of the Spring Valley rental he shares with four strangers. It's midafternoon on a Friday, but Star has time to chill and chat. He's worked in retail for most of his adult life, but right now, he's "between jobs."

"You can't help but feel a little bit of emotion," he says slowly, his big brown eyes magnified further by the lenses of his tortoise-shell frames. "It's kinda like when you break up with a girlfriend. If you just break up because you realize you both need to move on, later on when you see them and they're doing well, you're happy for them, even if you're sad it didn't work out the way you'd envisioned for yourself."

***

As Matt Norcross hammers away at his Pork Pie Percussion custom drum kit inside Trainwrecks, a crowd of about 30 huddles near the bar across the room, pausing from chatter to politely applaud the bearded two-man band. Nine years ago, Norcross played this same room on Decatur at Spring Mountain, back when it was called the Emergency Room Lounge. That night — February 12, 2002 — marked the first public performance by a Las Vegas band called The Killers, so unknown that the host of that night's open-mic showcase introduced them as "Killers," no "The."

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A press shot of the original Killers lineup (clockwise, from left): Norcross, Star, Flowers and Keuning.

Norcross was a Killer in those days. So was Star, and, later, Havens, too. But you won't read about them on The Killers' official website or find them listed in a traditional "former members" section of the band's Wikipedia page. Norcross isn't so much as name-checked in Killers bio Destiny Is Calling Me, even though that book focuses on the band's early history; Star and Havens are visible in several of the photos, but neither is identified or mentioned, save for a brief aside about Havens' pose in one of the shots. And just last week, Killers reps declined the Weekly's request for an interview on the subject.

Yet Norcross, Star and Havens were very much members of The Killers, not some early group that later took on the name. Proof? For one, there's a bootleg recording of the band's May 30, 2002 performance at the Boston — with Star on bass and Havens on drums — which begins with frontman Brandon Flowers announcing, "We're The Killers."

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The current Killers lineup: (from left) Mark Stoermer, Brandon Flowers, Ronnie Vannucci and Dave Keuning.

And though The Killers as the world now knows them — Flowers, guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci — have been The Killers for more than seven years, the group's 2001-2002 salad days were not insignificant. They put the band into frequent live rotation on the Vegas-venue scene. They produced the first significant song, "Mr. Brightside," later a megahit on multiplatinum debut album Hot Fuss. And they began building interest at home and beyond — not least of all from the two musicians who would come to form the permanent rhythm section and help take The Killers to heights higher than any Vegas band has climbed, before or since.

Such successes were faraway dreams when Norcross lost his gig with The Killers in mid-May 2002. "It wasn't like I was Pete Best, like I just got kicked out of The Beatles," he says. "I didn't know the band I was in was destined for greatness. I was like, 'Damn, I just got kicked out of this band; I need to find another band.'"

Ah, yes, Pete Best. It's difficult to consider the ex-Killers without reflecting on Best, the drummer eternally known for losing his job. And yet, for all of history's assumed bitterness and regret, Best has it all over Norcross, Star and Havens in one key respect: Pete Best is an industry unto himself, paid to appear at conventions, frequently asked for his autograph, able to draw a paying audience in any town with his band. All because, well, because he's Pete Best, the guy who just missed out on being a Beatle.

But when you're Vegas' answer to Pete Best, minus the fame and fortune that comes with being the Pete Best, just how is the rest of your life supposed to work?

***

Missouri native Matt Norcross had been living in Las Vegas for two and a half years when a "drummer needed" alt-weekly classified caught his eye. Norcross was a Crowes and Petty man himself, but the influences listed — The Cure, Oasis — captured his attention. "At that time, rap-rock and nu-metal were all around, so when I saw a band trying that European sound, I decided to give them a call," he says, and before long, he was standing outside Keuning's apartment behind what was then the Desert Inn hotel, preparing to get his first look at Brandon and Dave. "When they answered the door I wasn't a total freak in a Goatwhore T-shirt, so they must have figured I was okay," Norcross says.

Flowers and Keuning played Norcross a few of their ideas on keyboard and guitar. "It was good. Did I know they would be signing to Island Records in two years? No," he says. "I was just excited to be playing again."

Just like that, the drummer, who had yet to hit a snare in front of the pair, had the gig. "I guess they figured as long as I could keep a beat, I was in. Who knows if I was ever intended to be the long-term drummer?"

Flowers and Keuning were still without a bassist — a problem resolved without leaving the apartment. Star, a St. Louis transplant who had previously tried launching a band with Keuning (Dave on bass, Dell on guitar), had been rooming with Keuning when The Killers started up. "One day Brandon asked if I wanted to play bass," Star remembers. "He said, 'Well, you play guitar, can't you play bass, too?' I was like, why not, I'm not doing anything else, really."

Star had already heard "some good ideas coming out Dave's bedroom," where Flowers and Keuning wrote songs in those early days. "Brandon was a real amazing writer, and Dave was an awesome guitar player," he says. "Brandon would come to practice with ideas, pretty much have the whole song mapped out on the keyboard. I was really impressed, because he was so young [20 at the time], and he was really in tune with music and with writing."

Early rehearsals took place at Norcross' house in the Lakes, and though the drummer classifies the sound at the time as "rough," he's quick to credit Keuning and Flowers for the seriousness of their approach. "Dave and Brandon had their [stuff] together," Norcross says. "They had a plan from the get-go."

Norcross' then-roommate wasn't so sure. "I remember once, he was upstairs while we rehearsed," Norcross says. "And he came down, and I asked what he thought. And he was like, 'Eh, I don't really know about this.' "I guess that's why he's not an A&R rep."

Even before they put their new band onstage, Flowers and Keuning were eager to record, so in the fall of 2001, just a few weeks after coming onboard, Norcross and Star found themselves laying down drum and bass parts at Mike Sak's Kill the Messenger studio in Henderson. Star contributed to two songs, "Replaceable" and "Under the Gun" (the latter of which would be rerecorded for a B-side and eventual inclusion on 2007's Sawdust rarities collection); Norcross played on those and two others, "Desperate" and a catchy number titled "Mr. Brightside."

"We recorded them so quick," Norcross remembers. "When I listen to those demos now — especially "Mr. Brightside" and "Under the Gun" — I cringe, knowing what Vannucci did with them later. But that was seven years ago. I'm a much better drummer now."

The four-song demo's homemade artwork included contact phone numbers for Keuning and Norcross. The cover featured two words: The Killers. Star can recall the exact moment when Flowers first suggested the name, a play on the fictitious band in the video for New Order's "Crystal."

"We were talking about that video," Star says. "And Brandon asked if we'd seen it. I was like, 'Yeah, it's badass.' And he said, 'Can we use it?' And we were all like, 'I don't know ... is it even a good name? It's cool, but are people gonna assume we're a metal band or a hardcore band?' But it was the best name we could come up with. It's good, and it's simple."

***

Flowers and Keuning first played live together in January 2002, as a duo at Café Espresso Roma on Maryland Parkway across from UNLV. Star was there to lend support as Flowers sang in public for the first time in his life. "They got up there and did a couple songs," he remembers. "You could tell Brandon was nervous."

The first full Killers show took place a month later, against the red-brick backdrop of the Emergency Room Lounge. Longtime Killers friend and associate Corlene Byrd, a local musician who later contributed to tracks that would end up on Hot Fuss, second album Sam's Town and Sawdust, was there. So was Norcross' girlfriend (now wife), Linda Marie. The rest of that night's crowd? "Bikers. We were playing indie, '80s-style rock in front of a bunch of bikers," Star says. "We thought we were gonna get our asses kicked, but they liked it. That was kind of reassuring."

A VHS recording of that primordial Killers gig still exists. The spectacle is still miles away — a keyboardless Flowers paces awkwardly while the band runs through early numbers "Newsman," "The Future," "Under the Gun" and "Replaceable" — but the band's raw sound is intriguing, standing out from the aggro-saturated Vegas scene of the day. "The Killers sounded almost Iggy Pop-y then," Byrd says. "Melodic, but also jangly and messy, in a good way."

The Killers' second show, March 2, inside Tinoco's Bistro, spawned a strange scene of another kind. "It was a gothy, dark party," Star says. "First, we think we're gonna get our asses kicked by a bunch of bikers; now we're gonna get our asses kicked by a bunch of goth kids. But it was good; again, people seemed to like it."

The Tinoco's show shined an early light, however, on one division within the band: While Flowers, Keuning and Star dressed stylishly, dabbling in facial makeup to boot, Norcross drummed in a football jersey. "We always wanted to play a fashionable style of music and look fashionable, too," Star says. "Matt wasn't really into that."

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Havens drumming at the Junkyard with Flowers and Keuning.

Nevertheless, the four original Killers forged ahead, and appeared to be on a path with real potential by their third performance, March 16 at the Junkyard, a now-defunct venue on Eastern near Sahara. "That show was packed," Byrd remembers. "Word was getting out."

Ten nights later, the band played the old, west-side Boston on a Tuesday night; peril among the bikers and goths might have been imagined, but this time the danger felt real. Sharing the bill: a rap-metal outfit called Cutlass, armed with a screwdriver, a large posse of friends and a desire to switch time slots with The Killers. "We're in the back of the Boston with our gear, and Cutlass starts telling us they're going on before us," Norcross says. Laughs Star, "We almost got in a knife fight over it. Who fights over the second slot?"

By then, Norcross had moved in with Linda Marie, and The Killers were practicing in the couple's home north of Flamingo off Fort Apache. "My fiancée and I parked in the driveway so the band could play in the garage," Norcross says. It wouldn't be long before their cars went back inside.

***

"We did photo sessions, and I don't recall it being like, 'We're The Killers, and Matt go stand over there with this bush in front of your face,'" Norcross says, trying to assess whether he was the odd man out from the start. "It wasn't like we were best buddies, but I wouldn't say we were complete strangers, either. We joked around and BS'd and all that stuff."

Still, Star noticed fissures forming — the music Norcross listened to, the way he looked onstage. "Matt wasn't really into '80s rock, glam rock. With him it was more Southern rock, the Black Crowes," Star says. "And he really wasn't into the fashion part of it. Brandon had a pretty specific idea for how he wanted the band to look. Some of my fondest memories are of Brandon doing Dave's hair and makeup before a show."

Norcross smiles at the notion that his clothing cost him his Killers gig. "I'm just a jeans and T-shirt guy," he says. "And it wasn't like we had band meetings where they said, 'Okay, here's L'Oreal No. 4 for everyone.' If the way I looked was a problem, how hard would it have been for them to say, 'Hey man, could you wear a skinny tie when you're onstage with us?'"

Ultimately, Norcross chalks his ouster from The Killers up to his drumming ability at the time. "I think it truly was that I was a green drummer," he says. Two songs — "Beg Your Pardon" and "Tiny Techno Tease," attempted at engineer Scott Bray's Green Valley home studio in May 2002 — went unfinished, and Norcross can't help wonder if he was partially responsible. "When we were recording, I had trouble locking into a click, so they were probably frustrated with that," he says. "They never really said anything, but I think they wanted a more electronic drum sound, like in a New Order."

And so, after playing his final show — to a tiny crowd, on May 15, 2002 at Tremorz in the UNLV district (also on the bill: Daphne Major, with one Ronnie Vannucci Jr. on drums) — Norcross received word his services were no longer needed. He says he got the news by e-mail, from Keuning. "You're not in the band anymore, basically," he says of the specifics. "We're gonna move on with someone else."

If Norcross was surprised, Star wasn't; not entirely. "I think it just wasn't the right fit," Star says. "Later on, I even thought I wasn't the right fit, and that it wasn't the right fit for me."

***

Brian Havens was stocking cds inside the Forum Shops' Virgin Megastore the day Brandon Flowers heard him tapping a pen on the floor. "We started talking about bands we liked, and he asked, 'Do you play music?' He said, 'I've got a band, and we're looking for a drummer,' and he gave me his number," Havens says. "I've dreamt about that moment over the years. It's like a movie, and the pen tapping the ground sounds like a heartbeat."

Just 16 at the time, Havens already had some life experience. He'd written songs and scripted lofty rock 'n' roll fantasies with his older brother, Johnny; he'd dropped out of Durango High as a sophomore, taken a two-month "soul journey" up the West Coast and devoted time to Wings of Love, a humanitarian organization run by his mother. What hadn't he done? Perform in public, save for a lark at one high-school assembly with Johnny and a buddy.

Just as Norcross had, Havens met Flowers and Keuning at the latter's apartment. He left with a copy of The Strokes' Is This It — "They said, 'This is what we're going for, only better" — and a clear sense that he'd signed on for something special. "It was magic and I knew it," Havens says. "From the first time we played together it was clear that it was good. The it factor was completely there."

The Killers brought their rehearsals to Havens' house in the Lakes ("People who were over at our place still tell stories about seeing The Killers rehearse," Havens says). Havens had less than a month to prepare for his first show; he was given a live recording — with Norcross on drums — as a reference. "All of a sudden, I was playing with amazing musicians," he says. "Certain things would just go over my head."

And the band dynamic? To Havens, it just felt right. "I remember one day I was working, and Brandon came into the store. We had a show that night, and I said, 'What are we gonna do until then?' He said, 'You know, buddy stuff.' It was an intro into a lot of things for me as far as what a band really is and what it means to have that circle."

Havens played his first show with The Killers at the Boston on March 30, 2002. He keeps a videotape of the performance in a shoebox in his closet, bringing it out to reminisce every now and then. "I was incredibly nervous, sweating so much it was hard to hold onto the sticks," he says, watching young versions of himself, Flowers, Star and a blond-haired Keuning launch into opener "Japanese Soldier," a hypnotic, downtempo number with a long Cure-like instrumental intro. "I remember thinking, just let the songs breathe; it's not about the new drummer coming out with a 20-minute drum solo."

Next up that night, Havens' first live stab at "Mr. Brightside," followed mostly by tunes that have been lost to time: the propulsive "I've Got This Feeling," a moody instrumental called "007," a synthy ballad that might have had the working title "I Think I'm Falling Apart" and the Lennonesque "Humor Me," which Havens remembers as Keuning's favorite among the early material.

"If you listen to when Matt was in the band and when Brian was in the band, you can hear a difference," Star says. "Brian was more experimental, and with him we sounded a little darker. He was really young, but he was good. I thought, if he's drumming like this at 16, he's gonna be really awesome."

The video recording of that show, shot by Byrd, stays fixed on The Killers and their friends in the Boston's parking lot afterwards; it captures one moment with a local musician who would figure prominently in the band's future: Mark Stoermer, then-bassist for The Negative Ponies. Judging from that night's performance, however, you'd be hard-pressed to guess The Killers would shed half their lineup by the end of the year.

***

Even those who saw The Killers during the spring and summer of 2002 probably have no idea a guy named Brian Havens played in the band. When a 16-year-old joins up with musicians calling themselves Tavian Go (Keuning, for a time), Dell Star (real name: Dell Neal; he'd switched over to Star — his grandma's maiden name — before joining The Killers) and Brandon Flowers (his actual name; seriously), the kid is gonna want a stage name, too. And so Brian Havens somehow became Buss Bradley. "I had a concept: a bus ... like, ride the bus ... be spontaneous ... with two S's to give it more flair ... and Bradley just sounded good with it," he laughs. "It was pretty [expletive] whimsical."

The Star/Havens rhythm-sectioned Killers gigged consistently around town — Gameworks, the Junkyard, Crown & Anchor. The band opened for Hot Hot Heat at Café Roma. One night at the Junkyard, Havens bumped into Dave Hawkins, singer for Vegas band Psychic Radio. "He says I totally blew him off," Havens says.

Though few took note of it at the time, those Killers also played the band's first out-of-town show, taking the stage at LA's Gig on Melrose on Father's Day 2002 (billed on the marquee as "The Killer").

"The place was beautiful, the sound was so good. It just sucked nobody was there," says Havens, who slept the whole way out in the back seat of Star's car. Keuning drove a rental minivan with Flowers, Byrd and the band's equipment inside. "We went up and down the street trying to get people to go to the show," Star says. "It didn't work." One Las Vegan who did attend: Charles Earland, a loyal friend who'd been trying hard to funnel The Killers' music to folks in the music business.

Midway through Havens' tenure, The Killers moved practice spots yet again, to an office complex at Sandhill and Desert Inn; Havens' mother knew the property manager, and got the band the space for free.

Havens wasn't much for makeup, but he wasn't unwilling to try. "One night Brandon came up to me with the eyeliner and said, 'At least let me put three dots on your cheek,'" Havens laughs. "So I wore three dots at that show."

Despite the bond he felt with The Killers, however, Havens felt torn — between his new band and his lifelong dream, of making it as a musician alongside his brother Johnny. "He'd come to our shows, and every time I'd look into the crowd and see him, my heart would sink because he wasn't up there with me," Havens says. Brian and Johnny still jammed frequently and wrote songs together, and Havens says that tugged on his commitment to The Killers. "I had every opportunity to commit myself to the group, but I didn't," he says. "I wasn't into it enough and they saw it, they felt it, and I'd go to sleep every night knowing that they knew it.

"I knew what the band required, and I never did it."

By the time he did, it was too late. "I finally decided, there's an opportunity here and I'm [expletive] going for it, and I called Dave to say, 'I'm in,'" Havens says. "But even as I told Dave that, I could tell something was wrong. And lo and behold, Ronnie's already been playing with them."

Was Havens hurt? "Oh yeah, especially because I'd just decided I was ready. So to get shot down like that ...," he trails off. "But I've never lied and said it was some awful separation. In that same conversation, I told Dave I understood and wished the guys the best. They needed to move on. If they hadn't done it, they would have been cowards."

***

Vannucci, a mainstay on the Vegas scene with bands like Attaboy Skip, Expert on October and Romance Fantasy, began practicing with Flowers, Keuning and Star in late summer 2002. "He'd seen us play a few times, and I think he started to see the potential," Star says. "I think Brandon and Dave started to feel like, 'Well, if he's interested, we've got to have him.'"

Star, however, never played a show with Vannucci. He says he'd started to feel "at odds" with The Killers' musical direction even before Havens' exit, and began to sense "something was missing. I'd moved out of Dave's apartment after we'd started the band, so I wasn't around him as much. I was just at a point where I wasn't even sure if I even wanted to be in a band, or maybe I wanted to be in a different kind of band," Star says. "I wasn't sure I wanted to go too pop."

Did Vannucci's arrival affect his mood? "I like him as a person, but we didn't click too well musically," Star concedes. "I knew he was really trained, and I was still really new to the bass, so I was probably a little bit intimidated by that."

Mostly, though, Star says his decision to drop out of the group stemmed from non-music-related issues in his life. "Personally, it was just a bad time for me," he says. "I was really struggling."

Star's speech slows as he recounts the phone call that changed his life. "I was working as a lab tech at Southern Nevada Optical; I remember it was a slow day and I was pacing back and forth, trying to decide if I should make the call," he says. "I finally called Dave and told him I just didn't think it was gonna work out any longer. I told him I was just really stressed out — from personal life, from being in the band — and that I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown. He said, 'I don't want you to be in bad health because of the band, but are you sure you've made up your mind?' And I said, 'Yeah, I just don't think I can do it.' It was a really disappointing day for me."

And with that, Dell Star became the only person ever to quit The Killers.

***

In the wake of Star's departure, the Killers played shows with a couple of fill-in bassists, taking the stage for a few shows with a woman named Aly Unna, today a member of local punk outfit The Objex. Through it all, they kept one eye on Stoermer, and by November they had their man. The next year, the Flowers/Keuning/Stoermer/Vannucci lineup signed with Lizard King Records in the U.K., and then Island Records stateside. They played Coachella in May and released Hot Fuss in June. The rest, well, that story is easily found.

And Norcross, Havens and Star? Their contributions have largely been lost to history, a fact that still bothers Byrd. "A lot of people make it seem like when Ronnie and Mark joined the band, they saved the day, but The Killers were a good band before that, with a loyal following in town," she says, queuing up a videotape of an early Crown & Anchor performance, in front of a packed house, as evidence.

Norcross remembers the night he heard The Killers had signed with Island. "My wife and I were leaving a Social Distortion gig at the Joint, and we were listening to [Xtreme radio show] 'It Hurts When I Pee,' and they said, 'Here's the new song from Vegas' newest signed band,'" Norcross says. "I was like, what the [expletive]? It was a pure hit to the stomach, like, son of a bitch, that could have been us."

But the ex-Killers' tale really isn't one of regret, nor is it steeped in bitterness. All three speak comfortably and confidently about their pasts, probably because each is satisfied with his present.

Norcross works as a sound man at MGM Grand, a job he's held for 11 years; for the past three he's been stationed at the Hollywood Theatre, working performances by the likes of David Copperfield, Tom Jones and Drew Carey. Matt and Linda Marie, an attorney, are still very much together, living in the home they own in the southwest part of town — with their 4-year-old daughter. Looking at his child keeps everything in perspective for Norcross.

"It would have been nice to do the whole rock-star thing, but if I would have been the one who got signed, I would have been on the road forever," he says. "Would I have had my daughter? I probably would have missed that, and that definitely wouldn't have been worth it for me."

After The Killers, Norcross played in a pop-rock band called Vandelay Industries, later known as Now That We're Famous. The trio toured the Southwest, released three EPs and attracted the attention of LA producer Loren Israel before running its course.

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Leaving Springfield's Norcross (left) and Brent Kessler perform.

In 2006, Norcross and singer/guitarist Brent "B.K." Kessler launched current project Leaving Springfield, a two-piece with a sunny sound best described as pop-punk for grown-ups. Where Vandelay Industries worked the ex-Killer angle for a while, Leaving Springfield — apart from one slyly inserted Kessler lyric, "I know they'll never see the Mr. Brightside of me" — doesn't publicize the connection. "With Leaving Springfield, it never occurred to me to bring it up," Norcross says. "I didn't want to be known as the guy that was in The Killers."

Despite their relatively quiet reception at Trainwrecks, he and Kessler smile their way through a dozen uptempo tunes sprinkled with jokey banter. These days, Norcross' aspirations are more modest. "The money and all that would be great, but it's not like I'm working at a convenience store with a Killers tattoo on my arm, going, 'Remember when ...' I'm not eating ramen five nights a week. I've got a good job. I've got my family. And I'm extremely happy with Leaving Springfield. Playing Glastonbury or the Mandalay Bay Events Center would be great, but I don't look at it like, man, I wish I was playing those places with The Killers. I wish I was playing them with Leaving Springfield."

Besides, Norcross points out, it's not like he missed by a whisker. "People might say, 'Man, you came this close,' but I never came this close," Norcross says. "The last show I played with The Killers was to six people."

***

After Havens' Killers experience ended, he strapped on a guitar for his next project, the rootsy Lion's Muse, which also featured his then-girlfriend, singer-songwriter Denae Pacillas. The duo moved to Portland for a time, then returned. Havens became more curious about songwriting, penning, among others, the six-minute song, "You Will Always Be Remembered," honoring U.S. military veterans in conjunction with his mother's Rose of Love tribute foundation. And he put together a band to play his new material, the short-lived Secret Public, featuring, yes, his brother Johnny on guitar.

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Havens, drumming behind Lazystars' vocalist Dave Hawkins.

Then in 2008, Havens hooked up with an old acquaintance — Dave Hawkins, the ex-leader of Psychic Radio — and began jamming. Those sessions evolved into a band, The Lazystars, a melodic rock outfit that remains in the forefront of the Downtown scene today.

Havens, who works at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf inside the Palms, dreams of a day when The Lazystars might experience Killers-level success. But, he insists, he never fantasizes about still being in his first band. "The Killers was a great opportunity for me to learn about myself and about taking responsibility" says Havens, a free spirit who might get called hippie if he didn't prefer white V-necks to tie-dyed tees. "I take responsibility for what I've done and what I haven't done, and I can only hope people are inspired."

Above all, Havens says, he doesn't dwell on what might have been, because he's convinced it never actually could have. "I truly believe The Killers were able to be successful because of the four people they have," he says. "It was never for me to go to the end with them."

***

Star did some soul searching in the months after he left The Killers. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep pursuing a traditional rock band or do something more experimental," he says. In 2004, he made up his mind, signing on as the bassist for Transit, a Vegas band with a sound more in line with personal influences like Radiohead and Coldplay. The group played some shows and recorded a demo, but dissolved after about a year.

Then in 2006, Star bumped into a figure from his past: Charles Earland, a regular at early Killers shows, including the first LA gig. "I ran into Charles one night at Beauty Bar, and he said he and his brother were putting a band together," Star says. "When I went over and heard what they were doing, I was like, 'This is it, what I've been looking for; I'm back in action.'"

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Lips Like Morphine perform at Feelgoods.

That band — Lips Like Morphine — isn't totally dissimilar from The Killers in sound; it's fun and dancey and new wave-y in places. But it's also more forceful, due mostly to Earland's vocals, more rock than pop. "If we can get out there in the world, I think we have a lot of potential," Star assesses.

This time, Star says, he's relishing the adventure. "I enjoy this band a lot more than I did The Killers," he says. "I enjoy the music that we're making more, and I feel like I have a really strong connection with the band I'm in now."

If he had it do over again, would he quit The Killers? "I would. I don't regret making the call. I don't regret not being in The Killers," he says. "It just felt like — and still feels like — it just needed to be done. I felt like they needed to move on and I needed to move on. A lot of times, when you're in a situation, you don't understand what you're feeling. But now, I kind of understand why I was at a crossroads, why I had to get out of the band."

***

Star still sees Keuning now and again, when The Killers are home between touring cycles. "If he's gonna be at the Beauty Bar, I'll stop by and hang out," Star says. "I went over to his condo before they recorded [third album] Day & Age, and Dave played me some ideas he had on his computer." When Star worked at the Guess store in the Forum Shops, he'd bump into Flowers and future wife Tana from time to time.

In October 2008, Star and Havens were both in the crowd for The Killers' performance at the House of Blues. "I don't know if I love the direction on the new album, but I thought the show was good," Star says. Havens calls the performance "inspirational. It was brilliant — the roar of the crowd, the tightness of the band. Dave Hawkins and I were in the crowd, thinking, 'We're capable of doing this, too.'"

Norcross last saw Flowers and Keuning at 2004's Austin City Limits festival; he and his wife watched The Killers' set, then caught up with them in a record tent afterwards.

In 2005, Norcross was contacted by Killers representatives about the possibility of including the demo version of "Mr. Brightside" — on which he'd originally drummed — in a collector's edition of Hot Fuss. "They came to me with an offer, and we went back and forth with a couple of negotiations," Norcross says. "It didn't go well, and the deal fell through." Soon after, Flowers was quoted by MTV.com saying his band's original drummer was claiming he'd written "Mr. Brightside" and "trying to sue" The Killers.

Norcross denies the accusation. "I sure as hell never sued them. I never filed a lawsuit," he says, and a check of federal and local legal filings confirms that much. "I also never claimed that I wrote 'Mr. Brightside.' I worked on 'Mr. Brightside,' but the song was there when they came to me. There were no drums to it, so I put my drum parts on it and gave them my input. I guess I just wanted a little bit more credit for what I had done."

Ultimately, the demo version went unused. "The whole thing really got blown out of proportion," Norcross says. "It could have been handled a lot better."

Havens bumped into Flowers and Keuning near Red Square inside Mandalay Bay before a 2004 Killers' House of Blues show. "Buss!" Flowers called out, upon seeing his former bandmate.

***

Click to enlarge photo

(From left) Norcross, Star and Havens

It's a Tuesday night in March, and Lips Like Morphine has a small but loud crowd grooving on the third floor of the Hard Rock Cafe. How many folks here realize the well-dressed bassist at stage left spent a year of his life in what would become one of the biggest bands on earth? That's of no concern to Dell Star, who grins as he bounces in place during closing number "Just a Face." "If I'm gonna play in a band, I'm gonna try to take over the world with it," he says. "I felt that way with The Killers, and I feel that way with my band now."

To hear Havens talk, his Killers days were like some out-of-body experience — to hell with others' assumptions about the way he's supposed to feel. "It's easy to regret, but I really don't. I'm proud of my boys. They deserve it," he says. "The last time I talked to Dave [Keuning] he was in Paris, and I said, 'All right, man, I'll see you at the top.' Because I will be there. Maybe I'm just telling myself that, but I truly believe it."

Norcross admits a pang of could-have-been hits him once in a while. "There are times when I go, damn, here I am playing on a weeknight to people who don't care," he says. "But everything happens for a reason. If you look at all three of us, we're all still in bands. It's a shame that didn't work out for us, but that hasn't stopped any of us from doing what we love."

— Originally published in Las Vegas Weekly

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