Some bands develop over time; they spend their lives immersed in music, soaking up a range of influences that end up infecting every part of their being. And then there’s the Kings of Leon, a band whose look and backstory was so incredibly attractive that they had to, basically, invent themselves on the spot. Brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill grew up all over the southern states of America with their travelling Pentecostal preacher father Ivan Leon. When, in the mid-90s, Followill Sr’s drinking got out of control their parents split and the boys moved in with their mother Betty Ann at her house in Lebanon, Tennessee.
Nathan and Caleb, already thinking about making music for a living, were impressed one day by a stranger’s story of how he earned $500 a time writing “shitty” country songs. “We thought, ‘We could write shitty country songs!’” Nathan recalled later. In 2001 the pair met the hugely successful Nashville-based manager Ken Levitan who looks after Emmylou Harris and Lynyrd Skynyrd who put them in touch with songwriter and producer Angelo Petraglia. It is at this moment that the Kings of Leon are really born. Six months later Nathan and Caleb were singing for record label executives in a conference room in New York. Very, very soon after, they were signed – by the same A&R man who signed the Strokes – and the pair were dispatched back to Tennessee to create a band – quicksmart! – and make a record. One of the first things they did was persuade Jared to pick up a bass and learn how to play it. He had a month and he was 15 years old…
In the beginning
The boy’s father Ivan had grown up listening to 70s rock monsters like Led Zeppelin, Bad Company and Thin Lizzy, but all that was off the map when he became a minister. As children the boys weren’t allowed to listen to rock and roll, but for reasons best known to him – and The Lord, presumably – oldies were OK, so there was a lot of Beach Boys and Ronettes on those long, long car journeys. Jared has said his musical life really began when a friend in his Spanish class gave him a copy of The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. “That changed the way I thought about music,” he said in 2011.
Youths in young manhood
By the time Nathan and Caleb were serious about putting a band together, Jared was wrapped up in New Order and U2 and was feeding his elder brothers music like Joy Division, Olivia Tremor Control, Clinic’s 2000 album Internal Wrangler, The Cure, Talking Heads, The Lemonheads, Built To Spill and At The Drive-In. “The only reason I got in this band in the first place was my mix-tape abilities,” he said in 2008.
The Followill’s childhood was soundtracked largely by Gospel and a bit of country (“the more stripped down the better” according to Caleb), so it took Petraglia to introduce them to all those classic bands they’d missed like the Rolling Stones, The Clash and the Velvet Underground. Their debut EP, Holy Roller Novocaine (produced by Ryan Adams and Counting Crows chap Ethan Johns) tapped the garage-rock fury of label-mates The Strokes and are-they-aren’t-they-related White Stripes.
Here we go
As the band took off – initially in Europe – it was their own heroes who came to see them or took them out on the road. Bob Dylan expressed a love for Trani, Mick Jagger came to see them at an early London show, while Bono, Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders, Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, Lars Ulrich from Metallica and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page were all on the guest list. The underground was now fully overground. “We’re not Ozzy Osbourne,” Jared Followill said in the winter of 2010, “we’re a pop band.”