Kings Of Leon, the hardest-partying band of the noughties, have spent the last three years cutting down on the boozing, organising food festivals and fixing their shattered relationships. With seventh album ‘Walls’ ready to go, Mark Beaumont heads to Nashville to hear how the Followills became a family again
“Is the ding-dong in shot?” Caleb Followill sucks on his third beer of a lunchtime photo shoot and adjusts a pair of eye-scorching aquamarine slacks, the better to frame the revered orbs and sceptre of the Kings Of Leon’s crown jewels for the camera. “I’m really milking it.” Before the bottle’s dry, this wayward King is leaping in the air performing karate kicks at the lens and studying each shot, muttering, “Should my eyes look glassier? Maybe I should’ve drunk more last night.”
Ding-dong comprehensively milked, Caleb and his band of brothers (and cousin) settle into the chillout area of their Nashville studio Neon Leon, a converted warehouse strewn with signs of rock’n’roll refinement. The lounge room is racked with fine wines and liquors, a hat-stand covered in wigs and hats speaks of post-jam cross-dressing parties and a neon Michelob sign hangs over the theatre-sized stage area, illuminating a wall-mounted photograph of the band from 2003, back when they were millennial indie rock hopefuls tagged ‘the Southern Strokes’; hick-haired and nostril-deep in their wild youth and cocaine-fuelled young manhood.
Reports of a cleaned-up Kings Of Leon living like Ned Flanders during a particularly pious Lent ever since Caleb had an onstage meltdown in Dallas in 2011 – walking offstage midway through a show and prompting a year-long hiatus that was essential to stop the band disintegrating – have been mildly exaggerated.
“I definitely would not be having beer like this normally,” Caleb insists, flicking cigarette ash onto the carpet and raising a fourth bottle. “We just had a big dinner at my house and I got hungover so I have to drink. But we spend a lot of time sober, which is actually kinda cool.” His drumming brother Nathan cools his well-heeled boots: “Sober to us, though, is like taking a three-day break.”
Laughing, chiding, cracking caps, shooting breezes; Kings Of Leon feel like a family again. All married and all (except bassist Jared) now fathers, the once hardest-partying band of the noughties have spent their downtime since 2013’s sixth album ‘Mechanical Bull’ having Followill clan dinners, smoking under the bleachers at PTA meetings and organising local food festivals with their spouses. “Marriage is great, our wives are great, our girlfriends are great… Our wives’ girlfriends are great…”
KOL are staring down their reinvigorated seventh album ‘Walls’ from the security of some mighty fine livin’. They darn well appreciate it too. Because just five years ago, Kings Of Leon were heading for hell in separate luxury handcarts…
2011, the ‘Come Around Sundown’ tour, anywhere in Europe. The screams of 50,000 festival fans barely faded, the chorus of ‘Sex On Fire’ – the breakthrough hit from 2008’s six-million-selling ‘Only By The Night’ album, which thrust them to the top of festival bills worldwide – still rolling around the departing crowd like acid to his ears, Caleb steps from the main stage at midnight straight into his personal car to the airport.
Climbing into the band’s private jet, bound for the enclave in Italy, London or Majorca that they’re using as a tour hub, he tucks into perfectly plated haute cuisine and flicks through a music magazine to avoid talking to his bandmates. Inside, he comes across a photograph – just another gang of filthy, drug-haired scavengers guzzling burgers in a truck stop in Birmingham, Alabama, guitars on their backs, gunning for glory. The wild salmon pavé turns a little sour in his mouth. “Man, I have so much jealousy and FOMO when I see bands like that,” Caleb admits today. “I’m like,‘Wow, that’s camaraderie; that’s what a band is.’ And we’re f**king eating fancy food on an airplane, y’know? You feel like you’re missing out on something.”
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Let’s backtrack a way down Kings Of Leon’s long and insular road to success. They toured church recitals together as children in the back of their Pentecostal preacher father’s car. They toured incessantly through early band days, drenched in the kind of Led Zeppelin-shaming drugs and debauchery that would see Caleb roaming hotel corridors in naked cocaine stupors. They toured so hard that, by 2010, their family bond had became a strait-jacket, their brotherly love a contractual obligation.
“After a while it’s not like, ‘I’m going to do an interview with my brother’, it’s, ‘I’m going to do an interview with The Drum Player; I’m going to do an interview with The Bass Player,’” says Caleb. “Look at every band that’s still around and classic – you become ‘I’m The Drummer’, ‘I’m The Bass Player’, ‘I’m The Lead Singer’. When you get together it’s never, ‘We are the band’. We lost that, y’know? There were a lot of moments where we weren’t talking. It was like, ‘Man, we’ve become business partners. We haven’t maintained our friendship and our brotherhood, everything that we are.’”
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“Playing bigger shows allowed us the privacy that we needed to stop some of the arguments that we would have by being contained in tiny little buses,” adds Jared. “The bigger we got, we got our own cars and did our own thing and would only see each other for the hour and a half before the show. We went too far in the other direction. If you’re not gonna be friends and family then you can’t really be a band – or we can’t be this band.”
Stir in copious alcohol, ballooning egos and instances of “roid rage” brought on by Caleb having regular steroid injections in his throat to keep his voice alive and you had an atmosphere as volatile as a Donald Trump rally. According to Jared, KOL fought over “the stupidest sh*t… it would literally be over a seat at the bar. You’re just looking for a reason to fight.”
“We had a big moment in Scotland when my ego was out of control,” Caleb confesses. “I almost got in a fight with my manager, me and Nathan got in a fight. That should have been the Dallas moment, when we went, ‘Alright, let’s stop for a second.’ But we kept going and it happened onstage as opposed to in a hotel room where it should’ve happened.”
Caleb walked offstage in Dallas on July 29, 2011, telling the crowd, “I’m gonna go backstage for a second. I’m gonna vomit, I’m gonna drink a beer and I’m gonna come back out here and I’m gonna play three more songs,” never to return. In that moment, the deep-rooted issues that Jared referred to when he tweeted, “There are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade,” were thrust to the fore.
Read more: Kings Of Leon: Their Ten Best Songs
Cancelling all scheduled dates, the band scattered across America. Matthew and Caleb quit drinking for a while, Nathan “quit talking to them when they quit drinking”. Caleb holed up in Nashville with his new wife, model Lily Aldridge, hanging out at his favourite pasta restaurant with a crew of anti-sycophants, to burst his bubble.“I surround myself with people that don’t kiss my ass,” he says. “People that make fun of me. If they saw these pants they’d be like, ‘Jesus Christ, what are you doing?’ And older dudes that’ve been divorced five times. That was important to me, to just be a guy at the poker table that’s playing that ‘I’m gonna go all-in’ kind of deal but this guy’s going, ‘I have more money than Caleb, I’m gonna go all-in too’.”“Who we talking about here?” Jared asks. “Bill Gates?”
Today Caleb looks back at his major public breaking point as a blessing. “I don’t remember most of it. I feel like there was a heat-stroke kind of situation but it was a miracle. It changed the way we do things, made us approach it differently and understand that what we’re doing is great and we’re excited about it, but if you overwork yourself you overwork yourself. It brought a lot out about the band, between us… that was the thing that made us realise [we’d lost our friendship] and gain it back.”
Though you won’t spot them rocking up at a dive bar in a battered Transit anytime soon, that Kings Of Leon camaraderie is back with a vengeance. And with it comes the fire of old; a burning desire to abandon all familiar sounds and practices, tear down their creative walls. Caleb grimaces. “The last album [‘Mechanical Bull’], we were definitely going for it and trying really hard, but we got into a comfort zone that we’ve tried to peel away on this album by not doing it here in the studio, not using the same producer, really challenging ourselves. We wanted to do things where we were scratching our heads going, ‘Holy sh*t, is this right, is this wrong?’” “I feel like we floated through a few albums maybe,” guitarist Matthew agrees. “We went through the paces and just did what we knew worked and it was fine. But there was a definite feeling of, ‘OK, we should make a change.’”
Do you think you’d lost your edge? Caleb squints suspiciously. “Do you? If there was a movie made of our lives, in the last few years we had a lot of edge. Those are the moments in the movie that you’d wanna watch! What we were doing early on was storybook, classic, what a band should be; the drugs and the booze and the girls. Now we consider what we’re doing a little more and if that’s losing your edge… maybe, I dunno. When you look at the bands that still had their edge, most of them, their music is sh*t so it doesn’t f**king matter about the edge.”
To shake up their sound and make music they were “nervous about”, KOL ditched plans to record album seven in the mansion house they bought next door to their studio and returned to LA, where they recorded their early albums. “We had some magic in LA,” Caleb says, and with producer Markus Dravs pressing them to put classic Nashville songwriting before effects pedals and discard anything that sounded like Kings Of Leon, they found some again.
‘Walls’ isn’t just the sound of KOL breaching their tried-and-tested musical barriers and spilling into the realms of Talking Heads, Arcade Fire and Joy Division. It’s a revealing exposé of darker psychical seams than Caleb has felt comfortable mining before. At its lightest, night-driving first single ‘Waste A Moment’ is the story of a waitress and her roguish Texan lover hitting LA drunk on the Hollywood dream. ‘Conversation Piece’ is a ‘No Surprises’-style “birthday song” Caleb wrote for his wife, who long dreamed of moving to California but changed her mind after living there during the making of the album. At its darkest, ‘Over’ dissects Caleb’s issues with drink, drugs and fame through the eyes of a pap-hounded rock star hanging himself in the garden of his LA mansion; a song he was worried about writing in case, like some previous lyrics, it became a prophecy.
“A lot of these songs I hold back what I say because sometimes it comes to pass, sometimes it happens,” Caleb says, like some horror movie curse victim. “But the band told me, ‘Say whatever you want to say, don’t worry about what’s going to happen in the future’. So ‘Over’ is a very dark song. There’s this beautiful tree in the backyard of this house we were renting and there were a lot of paparazzi involved; not really for me, it’s more for my wife – she gets a lot of that. The paparazzi; it’s all about that and the moment when you give it all up. I’ve never considered [suicide], but I’ve always written it very well. ‘California Waiting’ and songs like that, they’re all about the moment when someone just gives in and says, ‘That’s it for me, I’m out.’”
Death is writ large on ‘Walls’. The fiery new wave ‘Find Me’, inspired by Lily being convinced her LA hotel was haunted, is about someone falling in love with the ghost that’s stalking them (is there a word for that? “Yeah, ‘sexy’,” says Caleb), while ‘Muchacho’ is a Lynchian rumba eulogy to Caleb’s “favourite friend of all” and an early KOL associate, who recently died from cancer. The entire album, in fact, is a tribute to his influence on the band. “He was a very challenging guy,” says Jared. “He would come on the road with us and be involved in setlists and he wanted us to try new things and keep us on our toes. His passing was a big part of why we challenged ourselves.”
Clearly upset, Caleb cracks another beer and paces the room. “What we’ve done with this album is everything he’s been trying to get us to do for 10 years, from the way that we approached everything. He was there for everything but when that happened we all really connected with what he actually wanted.”
The Kings of 2003 gaze down upon us from the wall, blissfully unaware of the trials and triumphs to come, lost in their own world of hirsute hedonism. Is it true that you used to fly celebrities from around Europe to Mediterranean villas for Bacchanalian drug orgies?Caleb almost gags on his beer, cackling. “That’s awesome! Just print that, that sounds awesome! We used to fly Donald Trump into orgies, great.”
The memory gates flood open. Nathan recalls being left behind at the Grand Canyon. Jared remembers accidentally finding himself at a meth party in Phoenix – “We were trying to play it cool but going, ‘F**k this, we’re leaving because they might try to fight us.’” They all reminisce about their first ever private jet, “a propeller plane that almost crashed”. Jared: “It was the scariest flight of our entire lives.” Caleb: “When we landed, I threw up on the runway.” Matthew: “I kissed the tarmac.” Did anyone shout, ‘Get me a better private plane!’? Jared: “I say that every flight.”
A family again, back at the peak of their collective powers, chewing the fat, shooting the breeze, milking their ding-dongs. NME points to the photo: what would you say to those guys? Caleb sighs. “Keep on keeping on. Man, they f**king look awesome.”Nathan: “Buy real estate.”Matthew nods. “I’d give them a few things to bet on. But maybe don’t change anything – it’s just too scary. You gotta have the bad stuff to get the good.” Hell knows, Kings Of Leon will drink to that.