The broth­ers Followill on get­ting back in the stu­dio and out on the road with Kings of Leon

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

“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.

Flam­ing lips

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’

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