Kings Of Leon: Return Of The Prodigal Sons

American rock band Kings of Leon

It is late September and brothers Nathan, Caleb and Jared Followill and their cousin Matthew Followill are en route to play a make-up gig at St. Louis’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. Their last show here, in late July, didn’t go exactly as planned. In fact, if VH1 were to ever produce another vacuous music countdown program titled something like “The Most Bizarre and Embarrassing Rock Concerts of All-Time,” the Kings of Leon’s last performance here would top the list. But don’t blame the band; blame a flock of incontinent pigeons that, during their live performance, bombarded the group with a fusillade of bird turd.

Jared, the bassist and youngest Followill, got it the worst and by the third song, “Taper Jean Girl,” had walked off stage. “Thankfully it didn’t get in my mouth,” says Jared, debunking erroneous media reports. “But it got awfully close.”

“When I saw the story on the CNN ticker,” Nathan, the oldest Followill, says kidding around, “I knew we had finally found success in America. But now every time someone googles ‘The Kings of Leon,’ the words ‘pigeon shit’ are always going to come up.”

There are good reasons why the Kings of Leon can now laugh off this avian poo episode: For one thing, over the last two years, the Nashville-based quartet have accomplished more than most bands will in a lifetime. The astronomical success of their 2008 album Only By The Night is, in this age of illegal music pilfering, a near-extinct commodity: a certified blockbuster by an American rock and roll band. It sold a jaw-dropping six million copies and earned four Grammys, including one for Record of the Year for the ubiquitous angst anthem “Use Somebody,” and another for the throbbing sing-along “Sex on Fire.”

The Kings of Leon have much deeper doo-doo they could potentially step in. Tonight’s make-up show in St. Louis marks the last stop of a successful summer tour playing to roughly 20,000 fans a night. The next date colored in red on the band’s iPhone calendar app is October 19th and just over three weeks away. It’s not a concert date, but the street date for Come Around Sundown, the band’s fifth full-length studio album. And right now there is a rather large, anxiety-inducing (and exceedingly assonant) question hanging over the band: How in the hell will the Followills follow-up?

They will do a few minor cosmetic things like change up the production process and leave the creature comforts of Blackbird Studios in their hometown of Nashville for a big time New York facility. Their usually intensive pre-production process will be cut back and the collaborative jam-it-out songwriting process will leave Caleb writing lyrics on the fly in the studio. “I didn’t write any lyrics,” says Caleb, during his recent interview at Next BIG Nashville. “I just went in and said stuff at the top of my head. We would just make up songs as we went. I wouldn’t suggest anyone do it… but it did work.”

But the real answer to how this relatively young band will handle the pressure of following up the biggest album of their career lies deeper. It’s in the tangled strands of the Followills’ shared DNA, hidden in the subcutaneous recesses of their collective psyches.

The Kings of Leon’s family history is a perfectly formed rock and roll legend, like Robert Johnson at the crossroads or Jimmy Page’s black magic sorcery. But the Kings’ story is pure Americana, a Southern Gothic Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner bildungsroman – with one glaring exception: it is all true. The utter disbelief their story engenders prompted one British publication to offer the Kings free genetic testing to prove their fraternal bloodlines.

The story begins with a dark maroon 1988 Oldsmobile. In the driver’s seat is an itinerant Pentecostal preacher named Ivan Leon Followill. He has a gift: the ability to rain fire and brimstone upon the faithful, bringing them to their knees and tears. Sitting shotgun is Betty Ann, Ivan’s piano-playing, gospel-singing wife. Splayed across the backseat is the eldest son Nathan, middle boy Caleb, and Jared, usually asleep on the floorboards. The Pontiac racks up miles upon miles, crisscrossing the Deep South and beyond from Louisiana church services to Mississippi tent revivals to holy-roller confabs in Sooner country.

The boys, who were partially home schooled by Betty Ann, were deprived of (or perhaps liberated from) secular sinner culture – no Beatles or Dylan, no Biggie Smalls or Metallica; no Saved By The Bell or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But within this vacuum-sealed religious bubble, where even short pants were deemed sinful, the boys somehow managed to thrive. “Preachers in the Christian communities are like rock stars,” Angelo Petraglia, the boys’ longtime collaborator and producer, explains. And the Followill boys didn’t hesitate to use their elevated status to rejoice in the gifts of the sacrament with the young maidens of Christendom.

But more importantly, at least for our purposes, the roots of the Kings of Leon’s music and performing are inextricably bound up in the church. “Religious and secular music come from the same place,” says Jared, “from the black churches of the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s where the music of our churches came from and where rock and roll comes from.”

“Caleb was always the best singer in church,” says Nathan. “If the choir ever needed a guy to sing a verse he was always the man for the job. Once I realized how good a singer he was, I took over the drums.” Nathan, at the tender age of eight, began backing his parents on gospel staples like “Jesus On The Mainline” and “You’ve Got To Move.”

The boys poured heart and soul into the music of the church, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. “If the first four or five songs before the preacher started preaching were really good,” Jared explains, “we could have something called a ‘blow-out.’ A blow-out is when people start screaming and shouting and getting so into the music that my dad wouldn’t get to preach and we wouldn’t have the alter-call. Instead we would have an hour-long shout-fest with music and get dinner earlier.”

The boys would request songs like “Power Filled With The Spirit” because they knew it would result in a blow-out. “It would be like a half day at school,” Nathan enthuses, “and the church would turn into a juke joint with people breaking out dances and getting down to gospel music. And then we could go get pizza before the Methodists.”

While a Pentecostal church service and a rock show are ostensibly very different events, the two have more in common than might initially meet the eye. For one thing, they are both performance-based. For another, “the show” can radically transform lives in profound ways, inspiring exultant feelings of redemption and salvation (though these days you are more apt to read the testifying on Twitter or Facebook). Speaking in tongues, snake handling, euphoric trances – all things one could easily find at a Kings’ Bonnaroo set. “It’s all tapping into that part of your brain that’s taking you to a different level,” says Jared, “especially when you see people jumping up and down and crying at our shows. You could take a film of a church audience where we come from and take a film of our audiences – minus the Kings of Leon t-shirts – and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.” That’s certainly true for the Kings now, but for a long while it didn’t look like the Kings would or could ever exist.

The Followill family lore has been greatly romanticized, as it probably should be, but in truth it wasn’t always a fundamentalist version of The Brady Bunch. At times, the family slept in their car or on a floor. Jared recalls constantly fighting as the perennial new kid in town. Their father reportedly struggled with firewater, had a run in with the law (allegedly trying to make a citizen’s arrest on a cop) and finally, in 1997, his marriage to Betty Ann collapsed. The boys stayed with their mother in Jackson, Tennessee. Caleb dropped out of high school and worked construction; Nathan began pursuing a sports training degree at Freed-Hardeman University, a Christian school in Henderson, Tennessee; and Jared, who was seven years younger, was just starting junior high.

The entrance ramp to the road of runaway success often begins with some random, inexplicable moment. These mysterious events are impossible to plan or predict and may take years before their significance is fully realized. It can be sheer happenstance or, as Ivan might have deemed it, the hand of an almighty mucky muck. Whatever the reason, it would eventually lead the Followill boys from the tedium of the work-a-day world and sports training degrees to a different kind of promise land: one with multi-platinum albums, Grammys and even matrimony. (Last year, Nathan married the talented singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin, and Caleb recently became engaged to Lily Aldridge, the stunning Victoria’s Secret model.)

That pivotal from-nothing-to-something moment came out of nowhere. “Caleb always knew he wanted to be a performer of some sort,” Nathan says. “He was always a jokester, the class clown. When he was little all he wanted to do was be on Saturday Night Live. He would do Chris Farley imitations or whoever was funny at the time. As he got older, he talked more about becoming a musician. One weekend I came home from college to check on everybody and knowing all this about Caleb I said to him, ‘Let’s go write some songs’ and he was like, ‘Okay.’ There was no need for instruments – we just sang. We started writing these really cheesy songs based around melodies we heard in our heads.”

At the time, Nathan says, they were listening to a lot of country music by the likes of Vern Gosdin, Shenandoah, Diamond Rio, Keith Whitley and Vince Gill. Caleb has described the first song they wrote as a “shitty-ass country song.” No matter the song’s particular merits, the fact is a small throwaway composition became a catalyst. And the brothers fully dedicated themselves to music, spending untold hours writing and performing songs.

Soon after, Betty Ann remarried and relocated with her boys to Nashville. Their new stepdad broke down in tears upon first hearing the boys sing and agreed to help finance their demo. Now living in Music City, the Followills could immerse themselves in the town’s popular pastime: hitting the music publishing or record deal jackpot. Going under the sobriquet The Followill Brothers, Nathan and Caleb were a country-singing a capella duo performing at open mics and the famed Bluebird Café while shopping themselves around town.

“I knew right away there was something special about them,” says Ken Levitan, president of Vector Music and one of the first exec’s to hear the Followills. “They had amazing voices and extremely tight sibling harmonies, but they also had this innocence coupled with an intense drive and big balls – they could walk in anywhere and just sing without instruments.”

Levitan, who now manages the band, shrewdly brought them to Petraglia, a musician, producer and songwriter who had played in a Boston band called the Immortals (he’s also worked with Trisha Yearwood, Kim Richey and Patty Griffin). The first thing Petraglia did was explode the duo’s parochial minds with classic music from the rock canon. This included the Clash’s London Calling, the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, the Band’s Music From Big Pink, and the best of Thin Lizzy, The Velvet Underground and Sly Stone. Thereafter, Petraglia became the band’s unofficial “fifth member.”

“Once we got a publishing deal,” Nathan recalls, “it didn’t take us long to realize we weren’t exactly writing songs that could be pitched or sung – and that’s the whole point of a publishing deal. We decided to just put the music to the songs no one else would cut ourselves.” The band began jamming on Petraglia’s collection of vintage instruments and fleshing out songs. In 2002 Nathan, Caleb and Petraglia played for RCA’s Steve Ralbovsky, playing mostly country songs, but one particular track, a more rock-oriented original called “California Waiting,” grabbed the A&R man. It was an up-tempo burner and showed the boys’ rock potential (and later turned up on the band’s first album).

RCA signed them, but wanted the Kings to pair up with “hip-looking” mercenary musicians. But the brothers had something else in mind: 14-year old Jared, who had never played bass before, and their equally tenderfooted cousin Matthew Followill on lead guitar, who they kidnapped from Mississippi while he was still in high school. Then this ragtag blood-related band hit the woodshed for weeks of intensive rehearsals.

“I always hated country music,” Jared discloses, “and my older brothers used to torture me with it.” For the band’s sake, it’s a good thing he resisted. While the older brothers were getting down to Vern Gosdin, Jared, who is eight years younger than Nathan and grew up less insulated during the early ‘90s, was busy discovering the future – indie rock and the Internet. “I was a Limewire kid,” Jared says, name-checking the popular file-sharing program. “I would go to the All Music Guide site, check out the ‘sounds like’ section of the bands I liked and download all of it. I had 10,000 songs on my account and used to burn weekly playlist CDs for my brothers.” The Pixies Surfer Rosa was a touchstone as were Joy Division and The Cure, but so were more underground indie bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Built to Spill, sounds that would later come to roost in the band’s potpourri of influences.

No one could have predicted the Kings’ 2003 debut, Youth And Young Manhood. The band came out of the gates like badass rock stars, exuding menace and danger and backed by a raw, blistering rock more punk and garage than twang. Caleb’s affected snarl and jumbled words about sex, death, blood and guts sounded nothing like the choirboy he once was, though the intensity and rage he summoned on songs like “Trani” (Velvets, anyone?) or the end of “California Waiting” were otherworldly. Ethan Johns, who produced Ryan Adams and is the son of Led Zeppelin and Who producer Glyn Johns, may have injected some of his own DNA into the recordings.

“I saw them play in the spring of 2003. It was one of their first shows ever,” says Rolling Stone senior editor Austin Scaggs. “They were all really young – Jared was fifteen – and they all had dumb haircuts and their accents were so fucking thick. It seemed like they had just come out of the mountains and entered civilization. There were probably fifty people there, but their sound was amazing. Everyone conveniently called them the Southern Strokes, but I thought they had their own thing. We were all blown away.”

But most of America had yet to discover the Kings. The often-myopic national music press, based primarily out of New York, were more enamored with the bands in their own backyard. The Strokes were cooler and catchier; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were artier; the Rapture more danceable. “We came out at a time when there was this ‘New Rock Revolution’ – whatever the hell that is,” Caleb says. “Everyone was pretty much trying to be louder than each other and party harder than each other. We knew from the beginning that people weren’t going to take us seriously because we were younger and we’re family. So we had to make sure that our songwriting was something that people couldn’t talk about in a negative way.”

The band kept its promise on 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak. Songs like “Slow Night, So Long,” with its counter melodies, lead bass and fragmented chords, or the hypnotic and mellifluous “King Of The Rodeo,” or the high-lonesome feel of “Day Old Blues,” are the sound of a band honing their songcraft and musicianship. Here, too, Caleb actually enunciates (“The Bucket”), demonstrates vocal versatility (check out his field hollering on “Milk”) and puts his vulnerabilities on full display (witness the too-drunk-to-fuck song “Soft”).

While their first two albums had little commercial or critical impact in the U.S., in the United Kingdom it was a different story: From the very beginning the Brits couldn’t get enough of the Kings of Leon’s exotic Pentecostal upbringing, nor could they resist their garage, punk, and roots-rock amalgam. The eye-candy Followill boys became the darlings of the over-heated London music press. NME called Youth And Young Manhood one of the “best debuts of the past 10 years” and the album sold nearly ten times as much abroad as it did domestically. And Aha Shake Heartbreak would debut at Number 3 on the U.K. charts.

The Kings have always approached songwriting as a collaborative process. On Youth And Young Manhood, Caleb, Nathan and Petraglia were credited with writing all the songs, but that’s not exactly how it was done. “No one has ever written a bass part for me,” says Jared of the band’s writing process. “Everyone writes their own part that comes from a music idea someone’s discovered and that eventually spawns a song.”

The biggest boost to the Kings’ slowly percolating stateside career, however, was their live show, which was hastened by landing the opening slot on U2’s 2005 Vertigo Tour. Suddenly the band went from club land obscurity to venues like Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center. This was soon followed by a tour with Pearl Jam and later opening for a guy named Bob Dylan.

“One of the most awesome things for me was being able to tour with Pearl Jam,” Caleb says. “When I was 14, they were my favorite band. And touring with Dylan, to get his stamp of approval, you can’t buy that, ever.” Dylan told the band he really liked their song “Trani.”

2007’s Because Of The Times suggests the Followills paid rapt attention to the headlining bands. The epic, sweeping guitar parts on “Knocked Up” and “On Call” sound as if Matthew swiped the Edge’s effect pedals, and Caleb’s voice sounded more Vedder-esque while increasingly dispensing the odd inflections. The album shot to Number 1 in the UK and went Top 25 here, but it in no way presaged what would happen a year later.

An album like Only By The Night comes around only a few times in a generation: a crossover rock record that transcends circumscribed notions of genres, radio formats, and the supposed end of the music industry as we know it. The album launched the Kings of Leon into the rarefied strata of international superstardom only a handful of acts – U2, Coldplay, Green Day and Radiohead – ever achieve. On Only By The Night the band suddenly sounded arena-ready. The songs are more epic, anthemic and atmospheric. The group is more musically in lockstep than ever before, but still leave enough room for Caleb’s warm soul-growl to soar. The first single, the pulsating “Sex On Fire,” went to Number 1 on the rock charts and won a Grammy, but it wasn’t until the second single that the Kings became a household name.

Without Richard Gere and Debra Winger, however, “Use Somebody” might never have happened. Like so much of the Kings repertoire, the song started out as a jam during soundcheck – this time before a show in Scotland. The night before, the band had been drinking and fighting (a Kings of Leon pastime) when Caleb began riffing on the campy but classic pop confection, “Up Where We Belong,” from The Officer And A Gentleman soundtrack (originally performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes). The band sped it up and Caleb added reconciling lyrics. The band knew the song was something special, but for Caleb, who is over-sensitive to the rather specious concept of “selling out,” it took some convincing to put tracks like “Use Somebody” and “Sex On Fire” on the album.

“I knew ‘Use Somebody’ had a message that people could relate to,” says Caleb, “but ‘Sex On Fire’ was meant to be a funny song. When people suggested it for a single, we said, ‘Okay, then it can’t be on the record.’ Then a dude from the record company flew in and literally got down on his hands and knees and said, ‘Trust me, We’re gonna make this a single.’ It did a lot of big things and I still can’t believe it.”

No matter how many years spent struggling, no band is ever really prepared for the multitude of what-the-fuck moments that come with superstardom. It’s not just playing sold-out arenas across the globe and playing to legions of screaming fans, it’s a thousand surreal experiences. Things like playing ping-pong backstage with Prince Harry or playing a private party with Prince, with Jay-Z and Ringo there. How does a band prepare for such things and not let the pressure interfere with recording their next album?

“We knew we didn’t want to go into the studio and make five ‘Sex on Fire’s and five ‘Use Somebody’s, Nathan says about Come Around Sundown, the new Kings record. “We never had the pressure on us before of making a record after the success of the previous album. But after making five albums, we have a certain way of doing things, and we weren’t going to change that.” The notion of “selling-out” or pandering or radically changing their sound never even crossed the band’s world-wise minds.

Come Around Sundown is a more subtle, mature and complex-sounding album than past recordings, devoid of the arena-ready anthems on the last album. Gone too are the crash and brash and mush-mouthed vocals of earlier recordings. In their place are solid songwriting, subtle textures and moods, and Caleb’s golden croon, which has never sounded better.

The first single “Radioactive” came out in late September and debuted on the Hot 100. It’s a catchy, mid-tempo blue-eyed soul song with a gospel-inflected chorus on which Caleb’s controlled baritone sounds surprisingly similar to Bruce Springsteen. Interestingly enough, two of the album’s best sounding tracks – “Back Down South” and “Pickup Truck” – are country-rock ballads, more “Sweet Melissa” then “Use Somebody.”

“We thought recording in New York City, we’d take on the sounds of our surroundings, but it made us sound more like we were from Nashville,” Caleb has said. “I don’t think we could have written a song like ‘Back Down South’ if we were back in Nashville surrounded by a million country songwriters. We probably never would have put fiddle on the record.” Nothing like absence to make the heart grow fonder.

Nashville is where, finally, the band will go back to after tonight’s make-up gig here in St. Louis. The crowd goes berserk when the Kings take the stage and play the first few fuzzed-out notes of “Crawl” from Only By The Night. There will be no mention of birds or turds or congregational blow-outs or sleeping in cars or superstardom or all the pressure they’re under, just a rock band with intent and focus on rocking the masses.

Kings Of Leon: Return Of The Prodigal Sons
Andy Gensler
American Songwriter