- 19 Dec 16
The Followill family had some curveballs in store for interviewer Olaf Tyaransen during a highly charged interview back in October.
Curveballs are fairly commonplace in rock journalism, and my Kings Of Leon interview wasn’t especially easy for two reasons. Firstly, I wasn’t informed that the plan had been changed until I arrived at Dublin Airport at some unseemly hour for the flight to London: I had been supposed to be interviewing frontman Caleb Followill, but apparently a schedule-conflicting radio interview had come up. Instead I’d now be talking to Mathew and Nathan.
“Is that a problem?” asked the record company PR. It wasn’t a huge one, but at least half of my intended questions were suddenly null and void. Fortunately, I had the flight to think up some new ones.
The second problem was that, its lead single aside, I hadn’t actually heard their new album WALLS. I wound up pacing around a boardroom in The Savoy listening to it on their assistant’s phone. Matt and Nathan arrived into the room just as the final song faded out. So I didn’t have too many questions about the new songs.
Thankfully, they’re an easygoing and talkative pair and the conversation flowed smoothly…
Royal Family Values: An Interview with Kings of Leon
“Have we ever trashed a hotel room?” muses Nathan Followill, the inadvertent grin on his bearded visage immediately answering Hot Press’ question. “I mean… yeah!! Definitely in the early days, me and Caleb fought a lot. The rooms that the fights used to be in were definitely the worst because the lamps would be broken, the TV would be tipped over and stuff.”
The presumably priceless chandelier hanging overhead aside, there’s regrettably little to destroy in this particular room. It’s a scorching September afternoon in central London, and I’m sitting with the highly affable Kings of Leon sticksman and his slightly more guarded guitarist cousin Matthew at the northern end of a lengthy oak table in a plush boardroom in The Savoy Hotel.
First opening its doors in the 1880s, it’s a legendarily luxurious establishment that’s truly fit for a king. And also obviously suited to the various needs and whims of the four Kings of Leon, American rock royalty who have just jetted in from Germany last night, having headlined at Lollapalooza in Berlin. They’re currently doing a day of press in London to be followed by an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland tomorrow evening.
The other two Followills – lead singer Caleb and bassist Jared (Matt’s brothers) – are somewhere across town in a radio station. In advance of the October 14 release of KOL’s seventh studio album, WALLS (an acronym for We All Like Love Songs), the family quartet are getting a bit of their European promo done before heading back to the US.
“We started doing radio stuff at 8:30 this morning so we’re running,” Nathan explains, as a blonde assistant delivers vodka and tonics. “I mean, it’s long days for sure, but it’s necessary. Without promo then it’s pointless to really put a record out. But I think we’re all excited about the album right now. I don’t mind talking about it, you know? I kind of have that feeling.” He laughs and shrugs. “Two years from now….maybe not.”
At least their surroundings are comfortable. While Nathan had a more stable upbringing, Matt and his brothers famously grew up as the sons of Leon Followill, a travelling United Pentecostal evangelist, spending their formative years travelling around the Deep South in a purple 1988 Oldsmobile, decamping wherever and whenever their father was scheduled to preach. Except for a five-year stretch when they settled in Jackson, Tennessee, they more or less grew up living the motel life. The Savoy is certainly an upgrade…
“Yeah, we like nice hotels,” Matt admits. “It’s little things like that, you spend a little bit more money to keep you that much more sane when you have to be out for so long.”
“And the majority of the hotels we stay in, you stay in because your manager has a relationship with that hotel,” Nathan adds. “Or your manager has a friend who’s the manager of another band and, ‘Hey, we stayed in the Savoy last time we were in London and loved it, you guys should try it out’.
“So like we have our favourite hotels around the world that we prefer to stay in, but for the most part we stay wherever they book us, and of course there’s a certain level of hotels that we enjoy staying at just for the amenities of something as silly as 24-hour room service. We’re lucky enough to stay in these hotels. But now there’s like Air B&B and stuff, you know, people rent their houses out now so we may start doing that.”
But enough talk about their accommodation, and onto the business at hand…
Their seventh studio album since the release of 2003 debut Youth & Young Manhood, Walls is the follow-up to 2013’s Grammy-nominated Mechanical Bull. Your correspondent has literally only just heard the new album once, played through headphones on a PA’s phone before the two cousins arrived. Although they enlisted Markus Dravs to produce (his previous clients include Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Bjork and Arcade Fire), it’s not a million miles away from the anthemic stadium rock stylings of previous KOL albums. Which at least means that it won’t prove a disappointment for their legions of fans (who’ve collectively bought 18 million albums and 24 million singles worldwide over the last 13 years).
“Going into this record, I think we made it a point to not put any pressure,” Nathan explains. “I really don’t feel any pressure. It’s our last record on our record deal for one so I think not so much pressure. I think the unknown -- what’s going to happen beyond, and ‘can we make a good seventh album?’ -- is kind of the only pressure we put ourselves under. We’ve kind of established ourselves everywhere on every other aspect so, yeah, I think we did. I think our fans will be happy.”
They recorded WALLS in Los Angeles. “We like to mix it up,” Nathan explains. “We did the first two in LA, the next three in Nashville, one in New York, then one in Nashville and then one in LA.”
They all have homes in Nashville, which made it less appealing to record in this time around. “Nashville still has that small town feeling,” Matt says, “but it’s actually a bigger city nowadays – and it’s still growing. I’ll be driving down the road and I’ll be like, ‘When did that massive building get built?’ It’s crazy. But Nashville, recording there, you have every instrument you could ever imagine literally a snap of a finger away, so that’s one of the good things about Nashville.
“It’s Music City so they have tons of amazing studios, but also it’s the place where we live. We wanted to go somewhere different and maybe see new things and be inspired by new things. Being away somewhere like LA makes you stay on things constantly instead of, ‘Oh, we can take the day off’ or whatever. You’re always working, so that’s positive.”
Most of KOL’s previous albums were produced by long-term collaborator Angelo Petraglia. Why did they opt for Markus Dravs on this outing?
“Well, Markus is an awesome guy,” Nathan enthuses. “We have friends in other bands that had worked with him before, and once we brought up his name, every one of them were like, ‘He’ll push you. His methods are, he gets the most out of you for sure – you’ll get frustrated at times, but just trust the process. Because at the end of it, you’re going to be very happy with it.’
“So we had that in the back of our minds the whole entire record. When we finished the album and listened to it, we were like, ‘Okay, now I see why he was pushing for this over that’, and it all made sense.”
Did things ever get heated in the studio?
“Between us and him? Yeah, totally. Normally it wasn’t too crazy, but yeah there were moments. I don’t think anybody ever stormed out. I mean, he got pneumonia in the first week of making the record. To be far from home when you feel like shit, that’s not easy. But I talk to him at least once a week now, he’s a super awesome guy. We came out on the other side for the better.”
Kings of Leon have just released the first cut from WALLS, called ‘Waste A Moment’. It’s trademark KOL – all crisp guitar riffs, passionate vocals and vivid storytelling lyrics: “All the way from Waco to WE-Ho with a rabbit on her chain/ Drove a little slick car to tend bar with the static on her brain/ She’s a little burner, burner, gonna throw you to the flame/ Little ticking time bomb, time bomb, gonna blow us all away.”
While the frontman handles most of the words, the songs are all collaborative efforts. “For the most part, Caleb writes the lyrics,” Nathan explains. “Early on me and him would write quite a bit, and then he started writing more lyrics. But I’d say this record is the most we’ve all – as a band – been involved with. Not just lyrically, either. For example, Matt brought three guitar riffs into the studio that he’d been playing for a while that I loved, and they became songs.
“One he had been playing for four or five years, and this is the record it just happened to go on. So this was definitely the most collective effort we’ve made as a band. And that’s why our head space is so positive right now. We feel great because we all contributed, and you know… it’s our baby.”
Markus Dravs is famous for ruthlessly killing his studio charges, often jettisoning whole chunks of songs and melodies.
“Yeah, he did a bit of that,” Matt chuckles. “I think we had one song that Caleb wrote ten verses for, and we ended up keeping two or something like that.”
There’s a long, slightly flummoxed, pause when they’re asked if they can thematically summarise the album.
“Phew, man, that’s tough,” says Nathan, pursing his lips and straightening his hat. “I don’t even know where to start. It’s hard for us because we had a press day in Berlin as well, and we did like fourteen interviews, and they got to hear the music as well. They were split right down the middle. Half the people said, ‘Ah, it’s youthful, and the energy is there.’ Then the other half would be like, ‘It sounds so mature, seems like you guys have grown up now.’”
Well, music journalists are a notoriously fickle bunch.
“Yeah!” he laughs. “So we left there kind of thinking, ‘Well, shit, what do they think about it?’”
Matt takes a sip of vodka and chimes in. “I think we just wanted to try make a great record that had a timeless feel. I’ve heard a few people say, and I really like this, that it feels like they’ve heard the songs before, but not specifically. It has a feel of maybe a classic song or something like that.
“I really like when people say that, because I get that vibe as well. I’m just so over the moon proud of it. I can’t wait for it to come out and for people to hear it. I want to know. I want that confirmation of, ‘Oh, this really is a good album and it’s not just in my head.’ You never know until you hear from the fans.”
Since Youth & Young Manhood, KOL have released a string of successful albums: Aha Shake Heartbreak (2004), Because of the Times (2007), Only By the Night (2008), Come Around Sundown (2010) and Mechanical Bull (2013). Amongst other prestigious accolades, the multi-platinum rockers have also garnered seven Grammy nominations (three wins), three NME Awards, two Brit Awards and one Juno Award.
However, their winning streak hasn’t always been consistent.
“Any time we have a record that sells a lot, and we have a couple of big singles and win Grammys or whatever, I think the record after that is hard,” reflects Nathan. “It’s so easy to over-push yourself because you want to, if not beat it, at least match it. So I think that was the first time we ever experienced that feeling of, ‘Oh shit, it’s not only us putting pressure on ourselves to make the best record possible. You’ve also got the label who want to keep the train rolling.’ I’d say the record after Come Around Sundown was probably the first one where we were like, I don’t want to say pressured to make a record – but, you know, you had to follow up the previous ones.”
Matt: “I mean, yeah, on paper we didn’t deliver on Come Around Sundown, but artistically it was a great album. It’s a totally fine album.”
Nathan: “If people look back ten years from now, they’ll say, ‘It wasn’t its time.’ It doesn’t really have hit songs, which is fine; that’s not where we were at. But we’ve never been the type of band to be like, ‘Okay, these are our two smash hits on this record, now let’s just put filler.’ We try to make albums.
“Our goal when we go into the studio is our finished product,” he continues, enthusiastically. “I want you to be able to roll down your windows, go for a drive, and not skip one single song. That’s my idea of success. You know, tons of records sold, that’s great, awesome. Awards, that stuff’s great as well, but the true grit of your album is for someone to love it as a whole and not just go, ‘Okay, I’m going to go on iTunes and see what the two most downloaded songs are.’”
Is a hit song like ‘Sex On Fire’ a bit of a millstone around your necks, then?
“No, that was a great thing to happen for us!” Matt protests. “And yeah, we stand behind any song that we made. The live show, even if you’re a fan of our earlier stuff and you come to our show just to watch that, when that song comes around it’s just fun. It’s the fun song, you know, we have never taken it too seriously.”
He takes a sip of his drink and smiles. “And I love it because it’s the last song of the set, usually.”
Their biggest radio hit to date, ‘Sex on Fire’ featured on 2008’s Grammy-winning Only By The Night. Its follow-up Come Around Sundown came around two years later and sold badly in comparison. In July 2011, at a disastrous and widely reported Dallas show during the tour to promote that album, Caleb was obviously completely out of his head. “I’m gonna go backstage and I’m gonna vomit,” he told the crowd. “I’m gonna drink a beer and I’m gonna come back out and play three more songs.”
He staggered offstage and simply never returned. Kings Of Leon were forced to cancel the remaining 26 dates of the tour. The band returned with a new album two years later, but rumours of a permanent split were rife at the time. So what happened?
“We just kind of over-worked,” Nathan recalls, after a pause. “We had to take a little break or whatever, because when we were younger, it would be album, tour, album – and it was nonstop for almost ten years. I think we did three records in six years or less, something like that, because we did two back-to-back. I think one came out and then the next year the next one came out, and then we took a year and then the next one came out. So we were definitely due a break.”
Although he denied having been reduced to rehab, Caleb somehow sorted himself out. It was obviously a tough time, and something of a rock ‘n’ roll cliché, but in hindsight not the worst thing that could have happened to the band.
“The way the break came about probably wasn’t the storybook way we would have wanted,” says Nathan. “But it was a blessing in disguise for me. I became a father and I became a better husband. We’d never really been able to live our lives as anyone other than Kings Of Leon. And so that break, we all just kind of spread to the four corners of the Earth. For the first time in my life, I put down some roots. It was like, ‘Okay, this is why I work so hard, because I want to take care of these two people in my life. This is the reason I travel so much.’
“It gave everything meaning, and if we had we not taken that break, I think we would have totally imploded.”
Kings Of Leon are all relatively close in age – Nathan is the eldest at 37, while Caleb is 34, Matt 32 and Jared 29. Did the Followills’ family bond help or hinder the healing? “I think the thing about family is, you argue a lot easier, but you get over shit a lot easier, too,” replies Nathan. “I mean, if me and Matt got in a huge fistfight right now, it wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, the drummer and the guitar player just got in a huge fight!’ It’d be like, ‘Two cousins just got in a fight’, or ‘Two brothers just got in a fight’. That’s not unheard of.”
What’s the worst physical fight you’ve had amongst yourselves?
Nathan unleashes another sly grin. “Actually, the biggest fight me and Caleb ever got in was in Dublin!”
Oh, do tell… “
Let’s just say it was me and Caleb at the bar,” he says, “and there was only one girl left, and neither of us was going home alone. Our poor security guard got in between us, trying to stop it, and he was so beat up! We had a big photo shoot the next day, and a lot of people don’t even know it, but on the photo-shoot Caleb was wearing make-up – he had a bit of a shiner. Also, my glasses had been super-glued from where he had hit me and broke ‘em, and our poor security guard had a lump on top of his head. Just to top it all off, he had a black eye that was bleeding. It was a good one.”
Who got the girl?
"Nobody!” guffaws Nathan. “At the end of it we were like, ‘Wait, where’s the girl at?’ and they were like, ‘She left.’ We were going, ‘What the fuck were we even fighting for, this is so stupid!’ It’s crazy the things that happen when you’re young.”
Will you be coming to Ireland on the tour?
“Absolutely!” he says, thumping the table. “One million percent, yes!”
Matt: “A big yes, for sure. It’s going to be next year, because we’ll do promo and then we’ll take time to actually plan the tour. We’ll probably start in late January, but yeah we’ll definitely hit Ireland. Absolutely always!”
Nathan: “I’ve got to come back because I still have my certificate for the perfect Guinness pourer from the factory, so I want to see if I’ve still got the touch.”
The blonde PA reappears to signal to wrap things up. Given the troubling times that we’re in, Hot Press couldn’t possibly depart without asking about the US presidential election race.
“Honestly, my head’s buried under a pillow somewhere,” Nathan sighs. “I don’t even know what’s going on, I don’t even keep up. It’s just one of those things where everyday something new comes out where this one did this illegal, or this one said this horrible thing. Every day I’m going, ‘They just shot themselves in the foot, they’re out of the race’, and then their ratings will go up.
“And then the next one will have some legal problem come out, and it’s like, ‘Oh well, they’re definitely done’ – and then their ratings will go up as well. They’re providing so much entertainment for the rest of the world. Like Saturday Night Live – oh my god, this has to be the best season ever for them. These politicians are literally writing the skits for them. They don’t even have to make shit up, they can just repeat verbatim what the candidates are saying and it’s like, ‘There’s no way that is real!’ The scary thing is, one of them has to be our president. So it’s like, shit, I don’t know, we’re just going to cross our fingers and hold our breath and see how it turns out.”
Despite their Southern country roots, Kings of Leon have never been a particularly political band.
“I mean people do that,” observes Matt. “People put politics into their art, and that’s cool for them, but we never felt like that was something that we needed to say. I would say ‘Crawl’ is the only song we’ve ever written that was remotely close to being political. That was really down to the line, ‘The reds and the whites and abused’.”
Nathan: “I think we had written that song because we had just come from doing a press tour in France, and George W [Bush] had just gotten elected for a second time. So the press, all day, wasn’t about the music, wasn’t about the tour. When we left there, Caleb was like, ‘Holy shit, dude, it’s insane how everyone’s so obsessed with the political side of things!’ And we had never really been a band to touch on that, so that’s where ‘Crawl’ came from. But that’s the only time we’ve ever allowed politics to come into our work.
“And some bands do that, some lead singers like to stand on a soap box and say their beliefs. And you know, freedom of speech, more power to them, but I don’t think we’re ever the type of band that would use the stage as our platform. We’re pretty private.”
What’s the best thing about being a King Of Leon?
Nathan Followill manfully slaps his cousin on the shoulder: “Getting to hang out with this handsome guy every day!”
Matt: “I don’t know, we’re just so lucky to be doing what we’re doing, still, after all this time. We’re still making records, and touring, still alive – no one’s been to jail, no one’s overdosed, no one’s dead.”
Nathan: “The best part, jeez, to get to live the life that we would pay to live, and we get paid to do it. Like, that in itself is pretty amazing for us.”
What’s the worst thing?
“Having to look at this ugly guy every day!” Nathan laughs, slapping Matt’s shoulder again. “Nah, the worst part; being away from your family. I mean you ask us that ten years ago, the worst part we’d say is having to go home. But, you know, it changes drastically.” WALLS is released on RCA on October 14.