The brothers Followill on getting back in the studio and out on the road with Kings of Leon
“We weren’t really allowed to watch television,” says Jared Followill, late into our conversation. “We didn’t have TVs or things like that. With us, when it got dark you just went to bed.”
The Followill boys’ storied past – rambling through the deep south in a van driven by their preacher father, pitching up from one Pentecostal congregation to the next – anchored Kings of Leon with a rock-solid authenticity money can’t buy. It was part of the package served up to the public when 2003’s Youth & Young Manhood made the Tennessee natives the hairy darlings of the UK’s rock circuit. It was, therefore, rather delightful to hear these Southern Gothic trappings described with such candour first-hand.
I’m meeting Caleb and Jared Followill in the Savoy in London, a city where they have turned heads for some time. The band’s homespun, son-of-a-preacherman narrative wasn’t hurt by breakout tunes such as Molly’s
Chambers and Four Kicks, hooky belters that seemed to have the old-timey brio of an altogether distant era.
Their rootsy, ageless appeal was centred on Caleb’s seductive, sling-blade drawl and propulsive, bluesy riffs, which sounded like they had been trapped in a whiskey bottle and hidden in the dirt, waiting decade after decade to be unearthed, wiped down on a leather waistcoat and unleashed upon a thirsty public.
For their first few albums, Kings of Leon charted that strange course trod by American bands who become huge in the UK and Ireland while remaining relatively obscure at home. Their experience was perhaps a degree more pronounced than that of Scissor Sisters, but thankfully many notches short of the dreaded status of ludicrous mid-1990s pantomime yanks, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals.
All of this changed in 2008, when Only By The Night’s unapologetic stadium rock catapulted the band into global mega-stardom. This time is defined, both for the band and most people with ears, by the preposterous success of their syntactically suspect super-hit Sex on Fire, a track that transcended mere popularity and crossed over into full ubiqui- ty. Having spoken of having lost something in the ensuing years, the band took a hiatus after 2013’s Mechanical Bull. So how do they approach coming back together after a few years away?
“We all usually come in with a few things,” says Caleb. “Although, when you get back in there, kicking a few ideas around, your first ideas seem really great, and then after you’ve done a whole bunch of them, you look back and realise they were actually garbage. You can’t even believe you liked it.”
“And it wasn’t so long, anyway,” corrects Jared. “Our last album came out in 2013 and then we toured that for 18 months or so. For the eight or 10 months after that where it seemed that we were ‘off’, we would do a show once every couple of months, so we’d have to get in and play and rehearse in that time. And then we write for about six months before the recording started. So, in those years, we really didn’t get a ton of time.”
“There is also something about that sense of normalcy and being home that is awesome,” says Caleb, “but there’s times when you feel like you miss that craziness being on the road, doing shit and being scared every night, that kind of stuff. You miss that. You need that in your life.”
The craziness he refers to here seems explicitly intended as that of performance, rather than the more megalomaniacal affectations of your typical rock stars, now stowed in preference for the
There’s times when you feel like you miss that craziness being on the road, doing shit and being scared every night, that kind of stuff. You miss that. You need that in your life
illicit thrills of jelly worms and bottled water. The Followills of 2016 are a distinctly un-showy clan: calm, polite and ostensibly relaxed into the rhythms of marriage and family life.
But do they worry that all this anti-rock heresy could engender complacency?
“We had kinda gotten into a really comfortable place,” admits Jared, “making albums and doing it in the same spot, with the same people for a really long time. We didn’t necessarily think we had to move studios or producers, but it felt like the time to make that jump, because it does risk getting a bit boring.”
Fire brand producer
In an effort to prevent rot setting in, the band enlisted the services of Markus Dravs, the firebrand producer whose take-no-prisoners attitude is, depending on who you ask, either famous or notorious, but certainly not boring.
“He just seemed like a really good choice, and he’s a very challenging producer,” says Jared.
Is that challenging with a capital C? I ask. “ALL CAPS,” comes Jared’s immediate reply.
“It’s a tough decision for him to be in too, though,” says Caleb in conciliation. “He’s walking into a room with three brothers and a cousin, and all of our crew are either related to us or have been with us forever. So he’s this one man walking into a room and he’s like, ‘How do I tell these guys I don’t like this song and this one’s better?’ ”
“He got over that pretty quickly, though,” Jared adds, throwing a sceptical smirk at his brother.
Dravs, noted for helping to craft the sounds of Brian Eno, Björk and Arcade Fire, is also known for deploying the kind of in-your-face directness that has become folk history within rock circles. Coldplay memorably likened his presence to that of “a big cat prowling around the room; a heavyweight boxer with a paintbrush” when he was helping to produce Mylo Xyloto, and just last year he threw Mumford and Sons out of his studio on being told that the band didn’t own their own gear.
“There were definitely some, let’s say, heated exchanges,” Caleb says with a smile. “But we were all there for the same reason; to make the best album we could.”
“The hardest thing was getting Markus to let us do anything at all,” Jared says with a laugh. “He was listening to Revolver by the Beatles, so everything was bare. We had a buddy who toured with us and, while we were writing, he’d be tinkering around on the keyboard and Markus did not want him involved at all.
“He just wanted it to be real, natural, broken down. If I needed a pedal, it meant that the bass didn’t sound good or the bassline itself wasn’t good. He was very organic. Anything that you hear that’s weird took a lot of convincing; a lot of teeth-pulling had to happen.”
Exotic and playful
But Walls isn’t as stripped-back and austere as you might imagine, with notable detours into more exotic and playful fare.
Around The World glances toward the jangly, high-life pop of late-period Vampire Weekend, while Muchacho boasts both those dreaded pedal FX and, in one of the album’s most unexpected moments, a particularly memorable whistle solo from Caleb.
“At first, when I was singing that, when it got to the solo, it was more like humming. So I did end up whistling it. But that was one of those songs where he was like ‘let’s do it’. Muchacho was the last song that was written on the album, and we went in to record that without him ever having heard it. That was one time he said, ‘Look, you seem passionate about it, let’s do it’.”
This passion doesn’t appear to have greatly dimmed and, before leaving, I note that they’re not doing too badly after 16 years and seven albums.
“I think our family bond is what’s kept us together,” says Caleb with disarming sincerity. “We do love what we do. It doesn’t matter how long I think I want to set the guitar down and not write or play or anything, it’s just a matter of time before it walks back; there’s no one else that we’ve ever played with or anyone else we would want to play with.”
So there’s no hope of Caleb bringing out a solo polka album coming out any time soon?
“Well,” he says, with a laugh, “I can’t tell you that in front of him, can I?”
Walls is out on October 14th on RCA
Kings on track ‘It felt like the time to make that jump, because it does risk getting a bit boring’