Kings Of Leon : Thy Kingdom Come



Tennessee country boys turned stadium-rock icons Kings Of Leon have come a long way since their early days. Kings of Leon biographer Joel McIver looks back at their heady rise to glory…

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It all started innocently enough: in fact, excruciatingly so. The four Followills are made up of three Oklahoma and Tennessee-born brothers – Caleb (guitar/vocals), Jared (bass) and Nathan (drums) – and their cousin Matthew (guitar). For the first three boys at least, childhood was a bizarre experience. The sons of travelling United Pentacostal preacher Leon Followill, the trio moved from town to town across America’s southern states for several years, helping their father to set up his sermons and playing along with him as he addressed the congregations. Like a rock’n’roll band made up of Christian teenagers, the three boys would come into your town, spend quality time with the local girls and then head on out of there in a cloud of dust. The musician’s life was practically bred into them.


“He was a big deal,” said the band’s frontman Caleb about his father. “He was in the upper echelon. When we walked into a church, everyone knew it. We sort of had this rock lifestyle before we became a band. It was good for meeting girls: we had our pick of the litter. The only thing is, we couldn’t do too much. Mostly kissing. But it taught us how to kiss, man. To this day, girls think I’m a great kisser…” 


Later on, when he was a touring musician, eldest brother Nathan said: “Growing up, me, Caleb and Jared, our life was eerily similar to the life we lead now. We’d pull into a town on the Monday, set up shop, have three, maybe four services, then we’d break everything down, stick everything into the trunk of the car and drive on to the next town. I did that for 15 years of my life, so now we come and do this and we pull the bus into the town, play a show, maybe get a hotel, if not hop on the bus, drive to the next town.” 


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As soon as they were old enough, Caleb and Nathan moved to Nashville and formed a band, the Followill Brothers. As their strictly religious childhood had left them uneducated about rock music, they played a form of amped-up country that soon caught the eye of a New York-based manager, Ken Levitan, who scored them a meeting with major label RCA. The suits at the label ummed and aahed and said that while they liked the two brothers’ music, they really needed to be a full band. With typical ballsiness, Caleb and Nathan immediately persuaded 15-year-old Jared and their 17-year-old cousin Matthew to drop out of high school and come to Nashville to be in the group, named Kings Of Leon after their father. Levitan decided to launch the new act in the UK, traditionally a more welcoming territory for new bands than the indifferent USA. 


This is where the Kings’ story gets a little crazy. After years of strict adherence to Christian sobriety and forebearance, the four Followills embraced all the vices London had to offer from the moment they set foot in the city. A sold-out show at the legendary Electric Ballroom – attended by Sadie Frost, Stella McCartney and other tabloid-friendly females – was the Kings’ opening statement, and it soon became clear that a significant proportion of the British female population was ready and willing to remove their clothes for the Followills. 


“Basically everybody just wanted to shag them,” remembered the band’s first press officer, Jamie Woolgar. “That was the bottom line. It was chaos. I remember they wanted to go to the London nightclub, Trash. I remember going into the club and the doors flinging open – and basically a sea of women coming towards us! They’d been given a spot in the VIP area, and I pushed them in there, with all these women running towards me – and at that point I said, ‘I’ll see you all tomorrow!’ and ran up the stairs and out of the club. I left them to their wicked ways.”


The extent of the Kings’ partying became the stuff of legend during their 2009 UK tour. Nathan was quoted as saying, “Jared and Matt were only 15 and 17 – it was just crazy! I’m looking at my 15-year-old brother and he’s got a 21-year-old girl travelling around with him. One of the perks of being in this band is that 80 percent of our crowd is girls. We’re super-competitive so, after a show, if your girl’s prettier than my girl, I’m gonna try to take your girl from you.” 


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The band rapidly grew tired of this way of life, fortunately. As Nathan explained, “Sure it was fun for us to make out with supermodels and get shit-faced every night, and it kept us in the papers for a little bit of time. But a lot of bands think that they have to be out there being stupid, and it’s a form of insecurity because their music isn’t good enough to hold people’s attention. So they have to smoke crack, play with baby mice and put it on Youtube. Not naming any names, of course… [The media are] always going to write horrible stuff about you. Everyone loves ‘rock’n’roll’, you know? And everyone loves to put people with greasy hair and beards on the cover, but it’s about the band, really, and how good you are.” 


Caleb added that the rock’n’roll industry actively encourages high levels of self-indulgence: “I’d wake up at four o’clock on the bus, just sweating, and we’d get up, go to soundcheck, go straight from there to dinner – because you have to eat a couple of hours before the show, or you’ll hurl – and me and Nathan would drink at least a bottle of wine at dinner, if not more. Then we’d go back to the venue, start shaving and stuff for the show, drink a bottle of wine while we’re waiting, drink a bottle of wine onstage and, as soon as we get offstage, start doing coke and tequila shots. And this was all night long. You wake up the next day and it’s four o’clock and you think, ‘Man, I’m not going to do anything today’…”


Three albums were released over a four-year period before the Followills reined in their excesses. The debut album Youth And Young Manhood (2003), the follow-up Aha Shake Heartbreak (’04) and even the third release, Because Of The Times (’07) paid homage to their Southern roots and drew acclaim from the international media in droves. However, it was only when the group rethought their lifestyles and began to write a different kind of music that truly huge success – of the magnitude we now associate with them – came their way.


Only By The Night (2008) was the album that propelled the Kings into the rock stratosphere. Perhaps because they’d toured stadiums in support of Bob Dylan, U2 and Pearl Jam (readers may also recall Australian shows with the Strokes), the band had formed an appreciation for songs with wide parameters that filled giant arenas. Two singles, ‘Sex On Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’, became one of the last decade’s most essential songs, energising crowds wherever they were played – although more than a few critics bewailed the Followills’ supposed abandonment of their country roots.


One reason for the new songs’ accessibility may have been that Caleb wrote them while he was heavily medicated on prescription painkillers after he’d injured his shoulder in a fight with Nathan, requiring surgery. “Caleb’s always been double-jointed,” remembered Jared, “and it got to the point where his shoulder kept popping out all the time because the tendons were worn down. He went a whole year and a half where his shoulder would pop out five or six times a day. He couldn’t swim, he couldn’t ride a rollercoaster – all the things we liked doing.” 



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“My arm would come out of its socket,” added Caleb. “It got to where it was just popping out. I’d wake up at three in the morning, drunk in a hotel room, and my shoulder would be out and my security guard would have to pop it back in.”


This didn’t stop Nathan punching his brother, though. “We were really drunk,” recalled Caleb regretfully, “and one of us said something really deep and hurtful, and that was it. Our assistant shuffled people out the door when he knew it was about to go down, and once the house cleared, it was like they let two dogs off their chains – we went crazy. Just a good old Wednesday night in Nashville…”


Once the pain meds kicked in, the songs flowed easily. Nathan remembered: “Caleb would call me, saying, ‘Dude, you gotta come over and check out this song I wrote’. I would go over, listen, and say, ‘OK, cool, when did you write that? It’s amazing’. He’s like, ‘I have no idea. I just woke up and my songbook was open. I guess I wrote it last night’. They’d put him on Vicodin and he was like a vegetable.” 


Caleb went on: “They were pretty serious meds. The prescription said I should take a lot more than I was taking, but I just couldn’t do it. It was too much. But whenever I was taking them, I felt good. As soon as I started to come down, I was supposed to take another. After a while, I felt trapped. There was nothing to do and everything was kind of boring, so I’d just write songs and, in the process, I really expanded my mind.” 


The rest is history. Having established a place in the world’s consciousness with ‘Sex On Fire’, the Kings released a fifth album Come Around Sundown and continue to dominate the international rock scene. Sure, there have been signs of fragility: Caleb smashed a guitar after a lukewarm festival show in the UK in 2009, and rumours have circulated of disagreements over finances within the band. Then, of course, there was Pigeongate: a show in St. Louis in 2010 at which the band walked off stage in the wake of a treacherous pigeon unloading on Jared’s face from above the stage. But airbrnoe saboteurs aside, the Followills' follow-up stadium tour only served to re-emphasise their popularity and reinforce the band's rising reputation as one of the greatest live musical forces on the planet.



Joel McIver


Joel McIver’s KOL biography Rock’N’Roll Mercenaries is out now.

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