Kings of Leon: Southern Men
Originally published in Guitar World, September 2009
With Only by the Night, a southern change comes at last as Kings of Leon take their rock in a new direction.
"Change is a hard deal for a lot of people to swallow,” drawls 27-year-old Caleb Followill, Kings of Leon’s laidback, laconic and much-adored front man and rhythm guitarist.
Sitting in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he sips some midday coffee (“I’ll do my drinking later tonight”) and expands on his thoughts: “People want you to stay as you are. They want your fourth record to be just like your first. They get nervous when you change your haircut or tamper with your sound. But we had to evolve. We don’t wanna be this little cult band. Our hunger is bigger than that. Our destiny is larger than that. We want the world. I don’t think that’s a bad dream to chase.”
Eschewing coffee, Caleb’s cousin Matthew, 24, who plays lead guitar in the Followill family-run organization (which includes Caleb’s brothers Jared, 22, on bass and Nathan, 29, on drums), pops open a strange combination of Coke and a Heineken, lights up a Marlboro, and agrees: “Believe me, we’ve worked our butts off to make it this far. And the only way we could do it was by not sticking to one kind of sound or formula.
“Our first few records did just fine and they got us a lot of attention, but the only way that this could be happening”—he waves his hand, indicating the expensive hotel room and, by extension, the arena just a few blocks away that will be jam-packed in just a few hours—“was by making songs that connect with the masses. If you want to call that being a sell-out, well, shit, that’s your right. But I know in my heart we’re not.”
He blows out a stream of smoke and chuckles. “So there.”
With their latest album Only by the Night, the Nashville-based Kings of Leon are indeed selling out—arenas in the U.S. and stadiums in the U.K. and Australia. And if you ask them, it’s their destiny. Grandiose radio hits such as “Sex on Fire” and “Closer” mix seamlessly with the kind of dirty southern rock in which the Followills have traded ever since their first release, 2003’s Youth and Young Manhood. Matthew says, “I listen to those songs and they sound like us. Nobody can tell me that we’re going pop or we’re too commercial. Hell, Lynyrd Skynyrd got played on the radio back in the day. They stayed true to their roots, and they got played on the radio. Why can’t we?”
The Followills know a thing or two about staying true to one’s roots. Throughout their childhood, Caleb, Nathan and Jared spent years on the road following their Pentecostal minister father, Ivan, as he preached his way through the Bible Belt. Yet they seem fully aware that they’re on the precipice of realizing the dreams that they dared to imagine, and they make no apologies for the band they are now and the band they might yet become. “Who in their right mind forms a band with the goal of being totally average?” Caleb asks rhetorically. “That would just be foolish.”
GUITAR WORLD Kings of Leon are a family band—you’ve got three brothers and one cousin. Does that make it harder to be a band? Are your arguments more intense than in other groups? I think of bands like Oasis and the Kinks—bands that are well known for their combustible relationships.
CALEB FOLLOWILL They might be more intense, but then I’ve never been in another band, so I don’t know. [laughs]
MATTHEW FOLLOWILL I’ve never seen any of the guys in a fight with somebody who wasn’t a family member. I mean, we haven’t had a good fight in a while, but when we do, it’s pretty intense. It makes everybody feel uncomfortable. There’s a lot of yelling and stuff. It gets to the point where you’re like, “Oh, come on already. Somebody hit somebody so we can just get this over with!” [laughs]
CALEB Anytime you have a sibling fight, it cuts a little deeper. Then if you add to that the egos of being in a band, obviously it’s gonna get a little hairy. But we’re pretty blessed to be in the situation we’re in, and we’re appreciative of what we have. We’re not going to mess that up.