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.

GW If a band member quit, would Kings of Leon continue?

CALEB Depends on if it were me or not. [laughs]

MATTHEW I don’t know—it may be. I mean, if I quit, they could probably find another guitar player and become a really boring band, and then…you know…fail. [laughs]

CALEB Obviously, I’d continue making music, and I’m sure everyone else would too. But yeah, it’d be weird to be up there onstage with a different person. I don’t know if we’d have the same chemistry. There’s just something about being onstage with your blood—that’s something special. What we have, the combination of people—and maybe it’s because we’re family, I don’t know—it’s giving us the chance to be extraordinary.

GW How do you go about the process of songwriting? Do you sit around on a couch and play guitar? Do you watch films or read books to get inspired?

CALEB It depends. Some songs I mess around with for a few days or weeks, and then I show ’em to the guys. Other times, songs just pop up out of nowhere. I do have one rule, though: I don’t write lyrics until we’re ready to record. I like to do a kind of recap of my life, see what’s going on. The words are fresher that way.

MATTHEW Sometimes one of my guitar licks will inspire a song. “Use Somebody” started out that way. There’s a bunch of ’em. It’s weird: Jared will come up with a bass line, or I’ll have a part, and we’ll work out the music. Sometimes there’s a lot of guitar parts to wade through, but it usually starts out with one person and everybody will start adding to it.

GW Caleb, as a guitarist, you’ve stuck with your Gibson ES-325 for many years. What do you like so much about it?

CALEB I don’t know. The guitar was just made for me. It’s crazy, because now that we’re playing these big places, I’ll have issues with the sound, and I’ll start to think, Well, maybe if I do this differently, or maybe I’ll try that… So I’ll put on a new guitar and it’ll sound full and rich, but the second I play one of our songs with it, it doesn’t sound like Kings of Leon. The 325, though, that guitar sounds like us. It’s got everything.

When I got it, it was in mint condition, and now it’s showing a lot of wear and tear. There’s a hole in the body near the pick guard from my strumming. I worry about it. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep it. I have a few backup guitars, but the 325 is what gives me the sound, you know?

GW Matthew, you seem to favor a few different guitars.

MATTHEW Yeah. When I first moved to Nashville [Matthew grew up in Mississippi] and hooked up with the rest of the guys, I bought a Les Paul and a Marshall. That was the rock thing to do, right? But it didn’t work for me; it was just too loud. Then I kept going through different guitars and amps until I found combinations that worked for me. I like these Ampeg Reverb Rocket amps and hollowbody guitars. I used an Epiphone Sheraton for a long time, and now I use a Gibson Elite. Gibsons just give me the sound I want. And amp-wise, I’m more a fan of smaller amps turned up loud than big amps turned up halfway. You’ve gotta get the full grit of the amp, you know?

GW Speaking of sound, you guys have evolved rather quickly from your first album. You started out as a tight, gritty rock and roll band, and now your albums are more expansive, sonically and structurally.

CALEB We always try to do something different, and the songs we’re writing right now, they sound different from anything we’ve done before. Some songs are driving rock and roll and some things sound like…I don’t know, Radiohead almost. For me, the hard part is making these songs make sense as a whole. Diversity is great, but you’ve got to make it sound…complete.

MATTHEW I hear my guitar sounds changing a bit. I’ve been using more pedals and delays. The Edge was probably an influence on me. I remember when we were on tour with U2 in 2005, I went up onstage and looked at his rig—he’s got a crazy setup. More and more, I like opening up the guitar sound. I don’t want to sound, you know, “ordinary.” I like playing around with crazy sounds, like in the song “Closer,” I’m literally singing—screaming—into my guitar pickups. That stuff is so cool to do.

GW I’m hearing you play some slide on the record, too.

MATTHEW I’ve always played a little slide. You know, you grab a beer bottle and just let ’er rip. But I think I’m doing it more and more now in a proper manner. I’m nowhere near where I want to be. It’s such an art form, being an awesome slide player. I listen to people like Ry Cooder, and he’s just the best, you know?

GW Do you have any kind of set routine as far as practicing?

MATTHEW Nah. If I have a couple drinks I’ll pick up a guitar and practice. But really, it’s rehearsals and soundchecks when I practice and come up with stuff. I’ll show up about 20 minutes early and find stuff. When I’m at home, I’m totally chilling, not doing anything to do with music or anything.

GW Caleb, I know you’re a big fan of country music. Do you see the day when you might make a straight country album?

CALEB Absolutely. I think I will before I die. I don’t know if it’ll be Kings of Leon on it, but I’ll definitely have Nathan drumming on it. The other guys, they don’t have the same love of whisky and trouble like I do. [laughs] In fact, I have a country song written, and it’s one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever come up with. It’s one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard.

GW You guys have worked pretty steadily since you started issuing records. Do you foresee any kind of extended break soon?

CALEB Well, I do feel that we’ve earned a break. And our women, they’d definitely like it if we took some time off. [laughs] But it’s hard, you know? We’re on the verge of going down in history as one of our generation’s great bands.

GW What does that feel like? To know that you could go down as one of the greats?

CALEB I don’t think anybody could put any more pressure on us than we do ourselves. We wake up every day and whenever we walk into a venue, our goal is to make every concert better than the one before. The same with albums. Plus, we’re surrounded by family, which means we get complete honesty. I can’t write a bad song and not have people tell me that. [laughs]

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