Kings Of Leon: “We’re happy and we love each other”

Nearly 20 years since ‘Youth & Young Manhood’, the Followills are back with a more grown-up sound. But, they insist, there’s still plenty to be pissed off about

The last 12 months have robbed so many people of so much – plans, hopes, ideas frozen in a moment defined by panic – but, somehow, four men from Nashville seem to have gained more than most. The last 20 years had barely let Kings Of Leon come up for air, spinning between raucous recording sessions, high-octane tours and parties. Wouldn’t you seize the chance to recentre yourself and put things on pause for a little bit, if you could?

And so NME finds the band today, taking stock of the quiet few months just passed and the material they’ve been itching to give the world since before it all started; funnier, calmer, more optimistic and confident than ever. The once-moody young men who lived to spit and scream into a microphone are no more. Some artists responded to the screech-and-halt state of the world by creating new music, but Kings Of Leon had already finished their eighth album – so they decided to make the most of it and take a year off. “We’re probably more excited than we normally would be,” Caleb tells us over the phone from Nashville, “because we’ve been sitting on a secret for a little while”.

NME Cover 2021 Kings of Leon
Credit: Nyk Allen

The strangeness of the pandemic seems to have bolstered the Followill clan – frontman Caleb, his brothers Nathan and Jared on drums and bass respectively, their cousin Matthew on guitar – in surprising ways. Their new album, ‘When You See Yourself’, finds the band reinvigorated, excited and grateful to be making music for the first time in what feels like a lifetime. Then again, 18 years since their debut album, they’ve certainly lived more than a few different ones.

Nathan, at 41 the eldest Followill and ostensible father figure of the band, says Kings Of Leon are “a lot more youthful on this record” and explains on a separate phone call: “That’s a result of being well-rested and being confident in the studio.” After recording 2016’s ‘WALLS’ in LA, they returned to Nashville’s Blackbird Studios in Nashville, having made their hugely successful third, fourth and fifth albums there. Here they embarked on their longest studio stint to date, working for 10 months throughout 2019 and into 2020.

“There was no constraint getting this record done by a certain time,” Nathan says. “And we had such amazing memories from Blackbird; it was so familiar to us. I think that level of comfort came out on the record.”

NME Cover 2021 Kings of Leon
Kings Of Leon on the cover of NME

The comfort hasn’t bred complacency: ‘When You See Yourself’ is a rich, soulful record, connecting with the feverish vigor of the band’s first albums as much as the mournful wisdom acquired over two decades on the road. “When you’re making your eighth record, you’ve probably used all your tricks at some point,” admits Nathan.

The result is more synths, more fun, more challenging material intertwined with the riffs and rhythms long-time fans keep returning to. Lively stories about cowboys (‘The Bandit’) and happy endings (‘Fairytale’) sit alongside confessionals about getting clean (‘Supermarket’) and holding onto fleeting romance (‘Golden Restless Age’). There’s Kings Of Leon’s best attempt at funk on ‘Stormy Weather’ and their most political statement in ‘Claire And Eddie,’ which warns the listener of the growing threat of climate change. It’s the result of more “democratic” songwriting, Nathan says, with youngest Followill brother Jared, in particular, contributing a huge amount lyrically. The album also telegraphs a more open-hearted, collaborative approach for Caleb as a writer, who usually works alone.

“When you’re a young man and you’re the frontman of a band, there’s an ego that comes along with that,” he says. “I feel like I’m getting to a point where that side of me is no longer there.”

NME Cover 2021 Kings of Leon
Credit: Matthew Followill

It was a different story back in 2003, when Kings Of Leon’s ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ won them the hearts of fans across the UK; NME called the record “one of the best debut albums of the last 10 years” upon release. 2004 follow-up ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ featured some of the band’s most beloved hits – ‘The Bucket’, ‘King Of The Rodeo’ – while album three, 2007’s ‘Because Of The Times’, saw them become a little darker, more angst-ridden. Yet it was 2008’s ‘Only By The Night’ that launched the Followills into the stratosphere – and specifically into the US, as they finally broke through to their homeland with mammoth single ‘Use Somebody’ and the ubiquitous ‘Sex On Fire’.

As pressure and tensions grew, their sound wavered on the next two albums: 2010’s ‘Come Around Sundown’ and its subsequent world tour saw the band exhaust themselves in the studio and snap in person when the world took notice. There was the Reading and Leeds shows in 2009 when the band scorned a “frozen” crowd and the St Louis gig abandoned in 2010 because pigeons were “shitting in Jared’s mouth”, as they memorably put it. A year later, Caleb walked shambolically offstage in Dallas to have a beer and never returned. They admitted themselves that 2013’s ‘Mechanical Bull’ was written under “pressure”.

“You can say we’ve broken up to get some of that Oasis steam going” – Caleb

Yet 2016’s ‘WALLS’ exuded fresh energy and benefitted from a new producer in Coldplay and Arcade Fire knob-twiddler Markus Dravs. Dravs returned to produce ‘When You See Yourself’, which feels like a continuation of the band’s second wind. Nathan insists that, despite the ups and downs you’d expect from four relatives living such intermeshed lives over the past 20 years, Kings Of Leon as we find them today are “one big happy family”.

“That’s a fact,” Caleb adds. “We’re all at a point now where we’re happy and we love each other. We make each other better at what we do.” The frontman, who’s friendly but seems a little wary about talking to a journalist about matters of the heart, adds with a grin, “You can say we’ve broken up if you want, so you can get some of that Oasis steam going.”

Since the start of 2021, Kings Of Leon have been teasing their new album by speaking directly with fans. In January, they sent out merch packages to 10 super-fans around the world; each contained the full lyrics to ‘When You See Yourself’’s lively first single ‘The Bandit’. On New Year’s Eve, Jared posted four tweets in succession which, when reading the first word of each one, spelled out the album’s title; he seemed giddy with holiday cheer. There’s nothing unusual about seeing a band interact with their audience online, but it’s curious to see Kings at it. After all, they’re the homeschooled rock’n’roll bad boys from Tennessee who spent years frowning behind their shaggy haircuts. What changed?

NME Cover 2021 Kings of Leon
Credit: Matthew Followill

The answer is perhaps that this veteran band still has a young audience, full of new fans as well as those who’ve been with them from the start. “That’s as good a compliment as you can get when you see the younger generations connecting with your music,” Caleb says. “It’s very humbling, especially when it’s not the goal – we don’t go into the process thinking we need to listen to what the kids are listening to nowadays. I saw a young woman saying her dad was so excited to sit down and listen to the new record with her. It’s amazing to have several generations feeding off the same thing.”

Nathan, too, is keenly aware of this new demographic awaiting the record, but tries not to put too much emphasis on it: “For me to not get depressed, I try not to think that [our young fans are] closer to my daughter’s age than to mine.”

All four members of Kings Of Leon – once the quintessential party band – are fathers, their children now old enough to understand what their dads do for a living. Caleb says his daughter is “about to be nine,” and adds: “Every now and then she’ll play something I’m very proud of her for – like ‘Informer’ by [Canadian singer] Snow. That was a big hit when I was in the fifth grade. But we’re still a few years away from getting her into our catalogue.”

“I just can’t wait for our first festival back. That’ll be a good day” – Nathan

Jared and Nathan have daughters, too, and the latter say this has led him to reassess some of the cliches often associated with rock’n’roll hedonism: “It hits home a lot harder, being the father of a daughter.” While music’s #MeToo moment has perhaps still not quite arrived, it’s also true that, in 2021, bad behaviour – especially that of male musicians – is no longer shrugged off in the way it once was. “A lot of stuff has gone on for a long time, and people weren’t punished for it,” Caleb says. “I feel terrible that it has happened for so long.”

Has this shift in attitudes, often expressed through social media, led to think differently of his own previous experiences? “No one’s perfect, obviously,” he says. “I’m surely not perfect. But moving forward I think everyone realises that this shit doesn’t fly anymore. And it never should have.” Yet the frontman is also wary of so-called ‘cancel culture’, whereby genuine transgressions can be conflated with, for example, a poor choice of words.

“I also feel bad that nowadays people’s careers are ending right and left,” he says. “Everyone has had a bit of a spotlight pointed on them, even if it’s just you doing it to yourself… I think everyone is probably walking around a little nervous right now. Not necessarily because of things you’ve done in the past, but just because every time you open your mouth, you never know if someone’s going to change the words and try to take you down. It’s a different climate out there, for sure.”

NME Cover 2021 Kings of Leon
Credit: Nyk Allen

Clearly, this is a different, more mature band than the one who broke through with ‘Sex On Fire’, which Caleb called “terrible” in the past. How does he feel about that song now?

“There comes a point when you can either be proud of what you’ve accomplished or you can still sit back and be sour over it,” he says. “My sour side was never because of the music itself, it was because I thought we should have gotten that kind of recognition earlier on in our career.” Of the huge success of ‘Only By The Night’, he adds: “When lighting strikes, it strikes. There’s no way you can recreate it or bottle it up. Without that album, who knows if we’d still be making records today.”

There’s a poignant tribute to that era on the fittingly titled ‘When You See Yourself’. The mellow, introspective ‘Supermarket’ was actually born in 2008, and Caleb debuted a stripped-back acoustic version of the track on Instagram last year (it was called ‘Going Nowhere’ at the time). “The version I played for so many years wasn’t necessarily something the guys wanted on the album,” he explains. “But I’ve found myself returning to it a lot. It was initially something to tide our fans over, but then everything stopped, and that’s when we realised it could actually be important – and it made sense, when you look at what’s going on right now.”

“Bad behaviour in music doesn’t fly anymore. And it never should have” – Caleb

I’ll never be whole again / Until I get clean,” Caleb sings on the track, “hoping the sun comes shinin’ through”. These past confessions about picking up the pieces, paired with an abiding faith in the future, give a bittersweet flavour to one of the album’s most defiant, rewarding songs. But that’s not the only reflective moment on the record. Dynamic, fearless ballad ‘A Wave’ begins with the lines, “Oh wave crash down on me / until I’m whole again,” Caleb’s stark vocals set against melancholy keys, before a jubilant rush of percussion and wailing riffs kicks in.

Does that high-energy feel necessary to communicate such vulnerable lyrics? “It definitely helps if there’s not a sad violin playing,” the frontman says. “A lot of beautiful, revealing songs are actually upbeat and you have to think beyond the melody to actually listen to what’s being said.”

NME Cover 2021 Kings of Leon
Credit: Matthew Followill

Furious melodies and boisterous lyrics used to be what set Kings Of Leon apart from the pack – just look at 2003’s ballsy ‘Molly’s Chambers’, which finds Caleb flirting with “just another girl that wants to rule the world” who happens to be “white, bare naked in the night”. But now, the band are using their candour to look at themselves in the mirror.

“There comes a point in your life where singing about certain things is just kind of goofy,” Caleb says. “It doesn’t have to be about pretty girls; it doesn’t have to be simple rhyme patterns. We know a lot of people would love us to come out with long hair and moustaches, to be the guys from ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ again, but we’re a different band now. There’s always going to be those fun pop song moments reminiscing about youth, but for the most part you have to write from your heart.”

Caleb, who is married to the model Lily Aldridge, adds with a laugh: “I don’t have a bunch of pretty girls hanging around the house – I’m an old married man now. Well, I’ve got the two most beautiful girls in the house: my wife and daughter. It’s not as fun to write about a lot of the stuff I used to, because then they might turn around and go, ‘What do you mean there, dad…?’”

“I’m getting to a point where my egotistical side is no longer there” – Caleb

The singer honours his domestic dream on romantic album closer ‘Fairytale’, looking out on his past life from behind the curtains. The track is the most wistful the Kings have ever been, as he whispers: “Everybody wants a little piece of my time / Keep it all the rage and they’ll stand in line” over graceful violins. Here is a man who seems to be actively enjoying growing older. On the title track, too, he reckons with the glamorous lifestyle fading from view: “The pleasures of this life I’m told / Will spit you out in the middle of the road,” he sings, before asking for just “one more night” of stillness, of peace.

“We definitely love our personal life,” says Nathan. “I don’t think any of us will ever feel down that we’re not in the spotlight enough.”

This feeling is potent on the inquisitive ‘Time In Disguise’, as Caleb asks if, alone at a crowded party, he’s “a man or a masked machine”, and wonders if this is “a world I belong to or just a shade of light”. Of the whirlwind of the bad old days, he tells NME: “When you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to realise because everything is happening very quickly. The fact that it’s not happening right now is pretty welcome. I’m happy to not have a microphone in my hand right now, because I think it’s time for everyone to just reflect and listen, to not talk so much.”

NME Cover 2021 Kings of Leon
Credit: Matthew Followill

And yet the new album’s ‘Claire And Eddie’ finds him warning that the “fire’s gonna rage, if people don’t change”. A few months after Kings Of Leon had written the song, wildfires ravaged Australia and in the Pacific Northwest of America. “It’s weird how that happens,” the frontman says of the eerie prescience of his songwriting. “It’s happened before.” Is he more willing now to actively engage with current affairs than he was in the past? “Any time I have something to say somewhat politically, it’s never a political issue in my mind,” he explains. “It’s just you growing as a human and going, ‘This means more to me than it did when I was a young guy just cruising around the world having a good time.’”

He adds: “But I never want anyone to think that with our music, if it gets to a political point, I’m here to wag my finger in someone’s face. I’m never here to say, ‘I know the truth and you don’t’. We’re all just trying to figure this thing out together.”

NME Cover 2021 Kings of Leon
Credit: Nyk Allen

Kings Of Leon are happy in their skin, thankful for one another and – most importantly – desperate to get back out there. Caleb says of the lonely last 12 months: “You can get really nervous and paranoid and overthink stuff. ‘Oh, man, do we still have it? When we finally do get back together, is it going to be an uphill battle?’ But it really is like riding a bike. We met up last week and we all fell right back into place. And we all just looked at each other and said, ‘I’m ready to get the fuck out of here’.”

As much as the Followills love their families, they were born on the road and long to jump back in. “All the time that we spent out there, we didn’t realize exactly what we were missing,” the frontman explains. “I want to go out there and live to the fullest, and really drink it in and enjoy every moment of it this time. And hopefully, we’ll still be saying that 20 years from now.”

Nathan, too, is ready to take to the stage again – but he doesn’t want to do it alone. “I love to see the full gamut – parents bringing their kids to shows, for it become a generational thing. I just can’t wait for our first festival back, to look sideways and see all of our kids over there rocking out. That’ll be a good day.”

Kings Of Leon’s ‘When You See Yourself’ is out now