KINGS OF LEON: GETTING WITH THE TIMES

Advertisement
By: Andy Tennille

“Earlier today, I drank two Bloody Marys, ate half a dozen oysters and may have just had some of the best sex of my life. And I was wearing a condom! That shit is not fun, so I jumped in the shower afterwards and had a good, long cry.”


Kings of Leon
Caleb Followill‘s self-deprecating confession elicits howling laughs from his brethren in the Kings of Leon. Nearly four years since the release of Youth and Young Manhood, their swaggering debut smeared with grease and bourbon from their family’s Mt. Juliet, Tennessee garage, the Followill boys (brothers Caleb, Nathan, Jared and cousin Matthew) may finally be turning the corner from wide-eyed Holy Roller hillbillies, traveling the world penning songs about partying with celebrities and failed dalliances with eager supermodels, to become seasoned vets who fess up to the wholly un-rock star practice of safe sex.

The bedroom isn’t the only arena in which the Kings have apparently matured. On April 3, the band released Because of the Times, their third studio release with über-producer Ethan Johns (Ray LaMontagne, Ryan Adams and many more) and Nashville songwriter/co-producer Angelo Petraglia. Where the band’s previous albums seemed cut from the cloth of Led Zeppelin, The Kinks and the Rolling Stones mixed with ’70s outlaw country, Because of the Times has a much more modern feel. The sweaty grittiness of Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak has been replaced by more complex compositions featuring soaring guitar leads lifting off from thundering, bedrock drum beats which appear to be directly influenced by the band’s stints on the road supporting arena tours by U2 and Pearl Jam last year.


Kings of Leon
“Charmer” is a Pixies punk rocker, replete with shrieking screeches from Caleb. Lead single “On Call” opens with a cloud of synthy guitar spookiness before dropping into a chugging Sabbath guitar riff. “McFearless” starts with a nasty bass line that feels like the long-lost cousin to Berry Oakley Jr.’s twelve-string assault on “Whipping Post” before Matthew Followill emerges with a racing, repeating guitar line straight from The Edge’s bag o’ tricks. Stronger vocal harmonies are sprinkled liberally on the new set, most notably on the sweet ditty “True Love Way.” “Black Thumbnail” is the most Kings of Leon-esque tune on the album, with Caleb, backed by a lone, jangly guitar, preaching about his “cold, cold heart” before cautioning the band’s detractors that they’re “an ornery cuss.” Their more mature worldview is best represented on the seven-minute “Knocked Up,” where the protagonist rails against public opinion and familial pressure against having a baby out of wedlock. From a band that wrote about a chick’s honeypot on their first album (“Molly’s Chambers”) and premature balding and erectile dysfunction on their second (“Soft”), the Kings’ newfound maturity is pleasantly endearing.

Regardless of the elite company they’ve kept on tour recently – Dylan, Eddie Vedder and Bono – the Followills still have a chip on their shoulder, fashioning themselves as outlaws camped on the periphery of today’s sanitized-for-your-approval commercial rock. Caleb says, “We’ve always been the underdogs and I think we still are compared to a lot of bands that came out around the same time as we did. But, I think some people have wanted us to come out and make a big record and I think that we’ve done it. I think we made a record that’s big and something to be proud of, something that we can build off of in our live shows.”

JamBase: You’ve said the first album was 95-percent about stuff you wanted to do and 5-percent of things you’d actually done, and the second album was all things you guys had experienced over the last couple of years. What then is this new record about?


Kings of Leon
Caleb Followill: We wanted to make a record that was really close to home, like really American. Every vehicle I mention on the record is an American made. It wasn’t something that was conscious. It just came out that way. We made the record at home in Nashville. We’d drive from our own house to the studio, actually slept in our own beds. I just wanted to go back to some good old storytelling. The way we tell stories now is a little more hidden than maybe the first record, but we wanted it to be natural and very anthemic.

JamBase: Was that decision based on a reaction to the first two records? Did you not feel like you accomplished some of those things on the first two?

Nathan Followill: The first record, we were scared shitless. We didn’t know how to make a record. With the second record, we kind of had an idea what we wanted to do but we still relied on the producer quite a bit. This record was the first one where we went in knowing the sounds we were wantin’, the parts we were wantin’.

Caleb: We weren’t scared this time to play the sounds and use pedals and just really open up and go for it. With Aha Shake Heartbreak, it was all live, so pretty much the only thing the producer can do is tell you to relax and do what you do. So, we’d go in there and do it but the whole time we’d be bitin’ our fingernails wondering what the fuck it sounded like.

JamBase: The new album has a lot of layered sounds on it, more so than the previous two. Is that indicative of the fact that you guys are more comfortable in studio now?


Caleb
Caleb: Yeah, absolutely. The thing is, we’ve been running and hiding from ourselves. We heard other bands layer all these sounds on their records and we thought that it really sucked. They were just putting shit on top of shit. We realized that you don’t have to do that.

Nathan: There’s nothing worse in the world than going to watch a band play live whose record you love and you hear them play only to realize that they overdub 20 instruments on every song. It just sounds so naked up there. So, that was the first thing for us. We wanted big sounds and effects but we didn’t want to put anything on this record that we can’t pull off live. Luckily for us, we had our sound man in there during the recording of the album so he could write down every pedal we used, every effect, every amp, anything and everything we put on the record so that we could play it during a live show. We wanted our live shows with these songs to be as close to the record as you can possibly get.

Caleb: We refuse to go to most concerts because we know what we’re gonna walk into. We’ll be completely disappointed and, as opposed to leaving there saying I like the record better, I’ll leave there saying I don’t even like the record now. It’s like it’s all fake to me.


KOL by Wynn
Nathan: It’s like meeting someone that you admire and when you see how much of an asshole they really are in person you’re like, “Wow, you totally ruined it. I wish I never even met you. I always had this fantasy in my mind that you were this cool, gorgeous super model and you’re a fucking crazy bitch.”

Caleb: Or like seeing some chick on MySpace and then seeing her on the street. It’s like, “Woah, that was some damn good lighting in that picture.”

Nathan: That or she took the picture like twenty pounds ago.

Kinda like reading a book and then going to see the movie and being completely disappointed.

Caleb: That’s why we only watch movies [laughs]. No books for us.

 
I’ll never forget Bono saying, “Man, with the records you guys are making, we’d love to open for you guys one day.

-Caleb

 

Do you see the direction that this new album is taking you as a band – being a little bit more complex and more complicated sonically – as a natural evolution from the first two albums?


Kings of Leon
Nathan: The first two records are pretty live, pretty gritty, pretty dirty. We obviously don’t want to make the same record over and over. We try to challenge ourselves enough to where it’s different but not so much so where people won’t recognize it. Or say that we’re trying to make that huge record that everybody wants [us] to make and it’s not the Kings of Leon. That’s the last thing we want. We’ve got quite a few songs on the new record that you can hear and know immediately that’s us. But, then there are songs that might take three or four listens and then you get it.

Caleb: When we made our first record, we didn’t know what our second record was gonna be. When we made our second record, we didn’t know what our third record was gonna be. I still don’t know what the fuck our next record’s gonna be.

Nathan: Latin polka [laughs].

There are definitely some different tones on this album beyond the layering of sounds. There’s a real looming feeling of sadness and longing almost.


Kings of Leon
Caleb: We love the road. So, we go out on tour, get sick of the road and hate the road, so we go back home. Then we make a record about missing the road. The vibe of this record is almost melancholy. We came home from this great tour of England and went straight into the studio. You love being at home but you’re also wondering what’s going on out there while you’re there. There are songs that are kind of melancholy, but a good melancholy. It’s kinda like when I listen to My Morning Jacket‘s At Dawn. That record sounds so lonesome but they were at home making that record. I guess at home people feel more comfortable to cry.

Nathan: [At Dawn] didn’t leave our CD player for probably five months. It was just one of those records where every song reminds you of five different things. You experienced every single emotion on pretty much every one of those songs. You felt happy, sad, lonely, loved, whatever. It’s so amazing. It’s a feel good record but yet there are songs that’ll rip your heart out. But, you don’t mind that your heart’s being ripped out because it feels so good, so natural. It pretty much hit on all cylinders on that record and that was very influential in our headspace for our new album.


Nathan & Caleb
We weren’t raised listening to the music that everybody else was raised listening to. So, when we hear something that we’ve never really heard before, it hits us in a totally different way. Most bands hear a record and can name you five bands that it sounds just like. We don’t have that luxury, or maybe that curse. If something moves us, then shit, it’s hitting a spot that’s never been hit before. We can’t compare it to another feeling we’ve had or another record we’ve heard or another song or another band. We respond to the way it makes us feel right then. It’s very natural.

The band is huge over in the UK and Europe but not as much in the States. Is it hard for you guys to come home and be less famous in your home country than you are overseas?

Nathan: At first, it kinda bothered us a little bit. You go from such a huge high over there and not being able to go anywhere without a security guard to coming here and the only person that recognizes you in the airport is your mom. At first, we thought that was kinda shitty but it’s pretty good to get to take a break when you get home. It doesn’t bother us that much. We really didn’t set out to conquer the world. We’re just trying to conquer one city at a time, and I think we’ve got about 13 cities now. We’re on our way.

One of the things you guys have done over the last year is open for U2. How was that experience? How did it affect the band?


Matt
Caleb: Going out with U2 really opened our eyes. Hearing their songs – song after song after song after song – and seeing them play every night in these huge arenas, it was just amazing that every one of the songs sounds so good. We wanted to make a record where it would come across playing in arenas that big. That was one of our goals for this record, to make a big sounding record that would sound good in a club in front of 200 people or in Madison Square Garden.

Nathan: U2 was a very big part of our headspace going into this [new] album. That tour is where we tapped into some of the layered sounds and effects. They opened our eyes to new guitar sounds and vocal effects. They were definitely very influential, not only musically but they kind of mentored us. Touring with them was great.

Caleb: By the end of the tour, we all had our own U2 nicknames. Matt’s nickname is now “The Curve.” Nathan had a beard so we called him “Hairy Mullin Junior.” Jared was “Jaydam Clayton.” And I was “Wino.”

How’d you get the gig?

Caleb: We did some TV show or something like that with them in the UK. We finished our set and someone came over and said the band would like to meet you. We walked in the back and there was a line of people on both sides of the room and we’re like, “Fuck this shit.” But the folks who brought us told us to come on, and they walked us through everyone to this little room. We were sitting there by ourselves looking at the door but didn’t realize there was a door behind us, too. The door behind us opened and all four band members and a woman with drinks walks in. They sat there with us for a few minutes and talked about our music. They knew a shit load about our music. To be honest, they knew a lot more about us than we knew about them at that point. We were just floored. I’ll never forget Bono saying, “Man, with the records you guys are making, we’d love to open for you guys one day.” We all laughed our asses off and then three weeks later we got the call that they wanted us to open for them.

Tell me a little bit about your songwriting process.


Caleb
Caleb: It goes in different ways. Every now and then I’ll sit down with a guitar and be like, “I got a song, guys. Here it is.” For the most part, it starts with one person at either a soundcheck playing a riff or a drum beat or a bass line. As soon as that happens, we all kind of smile and play along with it and realize it’s getting somewhere. After that, we’ll chug it out for ten soundchecks in a row. I’ll be doing dummy lyrics and making people laugh and shit. Once I realize it’s getting close, I’ll sit down and write the real lyrics and try to tie it all together. Then we’ll go back and try to write a bridge and shit like that. Hell, half the time I don’t even tell them the lyrics. I just go in there and record them. They ask me what I said, and I’m like, “You can’t hear what I’m saying? Well, that’s good ’cause I’m talking about you.”

Nathan: You can always tell when it’s gonna be a good one because we’ll all walk around humming the same melody for two or three days straight.

Caleb: “The Runner” off the new album was like that. It hits really close to home.

Tell me about it. Why does it have that sad and melancholy feel?

Caleb: I had done something really stupid on tour a while back – been drunk and an asshole and pissed off the whole band like I do sometimes. Our equipment was all set up for our soundcheck and it was like an hour until we were supposed to do it. I just went up there with a guitar and I started playing this riff and all the security workers that were in there kind of turned around and looked at me. I started singing, “Our time as we go, we know our time will change. I talked to Jesus, Jesus says I’m okay.” As soon as I sang that, I got chill bumps and everyone in the band gave me the look. It was kind of like me forgiving myself ’cause I knew it’d be a couple of days ’til they all talked to me. It was one of the first songs I’ve written where I actually talk about Jesus, but it’s not religious. The song is about being centered. It’s about being a son of a bitch and really having issues being the center of attention. That’s why I think that song’s so special. It’s kind of like a song for every man. We have a lot of people that work with us that are Jewish. They don’t believe the way we believe in Jesus but they walk around and the only thing they sing is “I talked to Jesus.” It’s one of those real ballsy lines to say in a rock & roll band.

 
We really didn’t set out to conquer the world. We’re just trying to conquer one city at a time, and I think we’ve got about 13 cities now. We’re on our way.

-Nathan

 

You’ve worked with Ethan and Angelo on all three records. Tell me a little bit about their roles, how they differ and how you guys interact with them.


Nathan in the Studio
Caleb: From a production standpoint, Ethan is like the stern father and Angelo’s like the mother. You can always pull the wool over your mom’s eyes. So, they compliment each other well. Ethan’s more behind the board and Angelo’s out there with us, strapping on the guitars and saying, “That doesn’t work but maybe if you try this.” Or, he’ll just sit there, watch you and say, “You’re on the right track. That’s the way to go.” Angelo is the voice of reason and the shoulder to lean on for us. He’s been there from the very beginning, man. We’re like his kids. He believes in us and he fights for us. It was always kind of a stiff situation between them until now. Now they’re buddy-buddy. They have turned into one of the great production duos. Whether or not they know it, they just compliment each other so well.

Nathan: It’s almost like they HAD to work together in the past. On this record, they were both looking forward to it.

You talked a bit about your history with Angelo. How did that relationship start?

Nathan: Nashville. We wanted to do some songwriting for pot money and called this number. They thought Angelo would work well with us, so we went and met with him.

Caleb: Before we ever wrote with Angelo, we hung out with him and got to know him some. From the very beginning, he got it. He used to be religious just like us. He was a Holy Ghost guy. Instead of trying to chug out some bullshit song for some bullshit country artist, we sat there and listened to records and hit it off so well. Angelo is a big part of what we do. He’s a sweetheart, just a helluva guy.

Nathan, tell me about Caleb as a frontman and singer.


Caleb
Nathan: He’s great. He’s cool. He’s open to pretty much anything. He has a lot of responsibility. I couldn’t keep it up all day, every day like he does. The crowd wasn’t that big last night and it was the best show we played on the whole tour so far. A lot of that has to do with Caleb. He’s got the right amount of cockiness, the right amount of friendliness. He’s not a big talker, likes to let you do the talking. It’s kind of weird to talk about him as a lead singer ’cause he’s my brother. All those things I hate about him as a brother might be the things I like about him as a singer.

Caleb, tell me about Matthew as a guitarist.

Caleb: Well, as a person he’s pretty shy. He’s not as confident as he should be. He’s one of the better musicians in the band. He can fucking rip on the guitar. The thing is, he’ll play something really cool but think it’s stupid. So, he’ll come up with something else and something else again. He just doesn’t have the confidence. But man, when he gets onstage, wow. Have you ever seen his legs? When both his knees bend, he’s fixin’ to wail, man. He’s fixin’ to get into it.

He’s the outsider – we’re three brothers, he’s the cousin. He’s quiet and stays in the background but when he goes up there and plays he takes it to another level. Matthew has always had great opinions. We’ll end up leaving a song off the record that later on we looked back and regretted and Matthew was the one pulling for it. He’s got a great sense of style as far as music goes.

I had the sense his addition to the band upped the ante as far as the music you guys were going to be playing. Is that a pretty fair assessment?


Kings of Leon
Caleb: Absolutely, absolutely. Matthew and Jared don’t have great timing. Me and Nathan do. Of course, Nathan’s a drummer and when my dad was a preacher, I was the backup drummer, so I’m a drummer too. Nathan and me keep the beats and the rhythms. Jared solos on the bass and Matthew, he solos and makes sounds. Because of that Nathan and me get to have a ball with them. We get to play around. They’ll start playing something and me and Nathan will flip the beat. Jared and Matthew will get confused and we’re just like, “Trust us.” That’s how a lot of the songs come together. We’re playing beats against them.

Tell me a little bit about Jared as a bass player. He’s not your typical bass player. He plays more like a lead guitarist.

Nathan: He’s 19 years old and is already this good.

Caleb: He’s a fucking madman. You better not print this shit ’cause he’s already cocky as hell [laughs].

Nathan: He could go down as one of the baddest bass players [ever].


Jared by Jeremy Jones
Caleb: He doesn’t love being on the road. He doesn’t love what he does. He loves having a vehicle, a house and a pretty girlfriend. But, that little motherfucker, man, if he keeps at it, if we don’t drive him crazy or if he doesn’t get too big for his britches, he’ll end up going down as one of the great ones.

Since I put Nathan on the spot, I’ve got to put you on the spot, too. Tell me about Nathan as a drummer.

Caleb: I call myself a drummer but Nathan’s a fuckin’ drummer. We go on the road with a lot of drummers who can play a lot of hard stuff and Nathan’s right up there with them. For this record especially, he brought the songs such a new life. Me and Nathan have the most fun together. We watch each other. If one of us wants to get fucked up before a show, we both get fucked up. There is no him or me with us. If he knows I’m doing something without him, he just gets pissed, and likewise with me.

You opened for Bob Dylan on this past tour. That’s a long road between your first gig in England at a strip club in High Wickleman to opening for Dylan. What were your thoughts when you found out you were gonna open for him?


Kings of Leon
Caleb: I was and am a huge Dylan fan. For me, it used to be like, “How do you try to learn to do what he does? How do you try to beat that?” Then, the other night, it really hit me. He was up there and every line was insane. He’s a fucking poet, whether or not he can still hit those notes or sing it the same. He knows the words he writes down should be heard. It’s an honor to play with him. I got to meet him a few nights ago. I was walking up to my bus and he was walking in front of me. I didn’t think nothing about it. He went to his bus. A few minutes later, I came off our bus and I was singing, “Christmas time is coming, Christmas time is coming.” I looked up and he was standing there with his bodyguard looking at me. “Hey,” he said, so I said hey back. He was just like, “Good to see you” and held out his hand to shake mine. Softest hands on any person I’ve ever met [laughs].

What’s the significance of the album title?

Caleb: It’s kind of an excuse. No matter the success, no matter the failure, whatever. Because of the Times. It was actually a church conference that we used to go to every year as kids.

Nathan: Aren’t they gonna sue us or something?

Caleb: Oh, we’ll be all right. If they’re real Christians, they won’t sue us [laughs]. Anyway, this conference was only for preachers and their kids. No common folk. But, [the title is] an excuse more than anything. Why did it work? Why didn’t it work? Why did you change your look? Because of the times.

JamBase | California
Go See Live Music!