KINGDOM COME: Thank God for rock ‘n’ roll.
They’re like the boys in high school who slouched deep and disinterested into their desks. From across the classroom, you’d cut your eyes over to spy their greasy good looks. The teacher’s voice would burble into Charlie Brown oblivion as you daydreamed about cutting class to smoke cigarettes with them. You envied them for their cool clothes and their long-gone virginities, and when you tried to talk to them, you’d get red in the face. You’d feel like a hopeless dumbass. Still, you’d write Kings of Leon in your notebook, and you’d dot the “I” with a heart.
The Followills—brothers Nathan, Caleb and Jared and first cousin Matthew—were signed to RCA before two of them even knew how to play instruments. RCA liked them for their spindly limbs, severe jawlines, somber eyes.
Nowadays, they sport asymmetrical haircuts and too-tight designer duds; they eat at fancy restaurants and get drunk with hipster celebrities. Followed by rapacious, saucer-eyed groupies, they write songs about hoovering cocaine with Kate Moss, about sex, love and crisscrossing the world in a tour bus. They write about the depression that follows 18 months of drugs, alcohol and abrupt fame.
The KOL bio reads something like a publicist’s wet dream: the brothers were fathered by an alcoholic traveling Pentecostal preacher who’d have the two oldest, Nathan and Caleb, back him and their mother on drums and guitar as they sang hymns in front of various churches. When their parents divorced, the boys moved to Nashville with their mother.
“Me and Caleb were just writing cheesy little country songs for pot money,” says Nathan over the phone. “Sometimes you just had to get up there and sing them, and it got to the point where we realized we weren’t trying to get better at songwriting, we just got better at it. It became about more than just writing something silly with a hook. We realized that the only people that could really sing these songs were us, and that’s when we started focusing on it and got turned on to Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones, and kind of progressed into the band.”
They recruited youngest bro, Jared, now 19, into playing bass. Cousin Matthew had taken only a few guitar lessons, but he was put on lead guitar. Producer Ethan Johns, who’s worked with Ryan Adams and Ben Kweller, helped the band whittle its novice noodling into its first EP, Holy Roller Novocaine . Six months later came Youth and Young Manhood , a genuine rock ‘n’ roll album, but the Kings admit it was full of pretense. Lyrical authenticity would come later.
Over the phone, Nathan Followill’s voice is faint, tinged with an undercurrent of ennui that seems vaguely close to full-on boredom.
“We never really had a chance to grow as a band,” he explains. “There was always somewhere to go. There was this famous person or that famous person. That made us grow up a lot in a short amount of time, but it’s cool. We’re happy where we are right now.”
Success came quickly for the band, and largely in the U.K.
After 18 months of touring to promote Youth , they went home and wrote Aha, Shake Heartbreak , a rock opus that met with spirited critical acclaim. The album accomplishes what rock ‘n’ roll albums are supposed to. It makes people want to smoke cigarettes, drink beer, dance, have sex. It makes people feel cool. It’s eclectic and fearless, the lyrics intrepid and personal. Caleb’s caterwauling turns pretty for the first time. His mouth shapes common words into new and foreign sounds; he even yodels. Behind him, his family pounds out clipped and beautiful sexual rhythms.
“We didn’t want to come out and have our first record sell four million and our second sell four thousand and then disappear,” says Nathan. “We didn’t want to be a flash in the pan. Any band can luck out and release a good first record with the right help, play on their image thing. We would much rather be a band known for our music.” After a pause, he adds, “We’re getting close to four million records, though, if you combine all of them together.”
Soon after, Nathan Followill’s phone disconnects from the reporter’s. She waits on the dead end, but he doesn’t bother calling back. It somehow harks back to high school. That’s fine. She still wants to dot his “I” with her heart.
What: Kings of Leon