“I knew right away there was something special about them,” says Ken Levitan, president of Vector Music and one of the first exec’s to hear the Followills. “They had amazing voices and extremely tight sibling harmonies, but they also had this innocence coupled with an intense drive and big balls – they could walk in anywhere and just sing without instruments.”
Levitan, who now manages the band, shrewdly brought them to Petraglia, a musician, producer and songwriter who had played in a Boston band called the Immortals (he’s also worked with Trisha Yearwood, Kim Richey and Patty Griffin). The first thing Petraglia did was explode the duo’s parochial minds with classic music from the rock canon. This included the Clash’s London Calling, the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, the Band’s Music From Big Pink, and the best of Thin Lizzy, The Velvet Underground and Sly Stone. Thereafter, Petraglia became the band’s unofficial “fifth member.”
“Once we got a publishing deal,” Nathan recalls, “it didn’t take us long to realize we weren’t exactly writing songs that could be pitched or sung – and that’s the whole point of a publishing deal. We decided to just put the music to the songs no one else would cut ourselves.” The band began jamming on Petraglia’s collection of vintage instruments and fleshing out songs. In 2002 Nathan, Caleb and Petraglia played for RCA’s Steve Ralbovsky, playing mostly country songs, but one particular track, a more rock-oriented original called “California Waiting,” grabbed the A&R man. It was an up-tempo burner and showed the boys’ rock potential (and later turned up on the band’s first album).
RCA signed them, but wanted the Kings to pair up with “hip-looking” mercenary musicians. But the brothers had something else in mind: 14-year old Jared, who had never played bass before, and their equally tenderfooted cousin Matthew Followill on lead guitar, who they kidnapped from Mississippi while he was still in high school. Then this ragtag blood-related band hit the woodshed for weeks of intensive rehearsals.
“I always hated country music,” Jared discloses, “and my older brothers used to torture me with it.” For the band’s sake, it’s a good thing he resisted. While the older brothers were getting down to Vern Gosdin, Jared, who is eight years younger than Nathan and grew up less insulated during the early ‘90s, was busy discovering the future – indie rock and the Internet. “I was a Limewire kid,” Jared says, name-checking the popular file-sharing program. “I would go to the All Music Guide site, check out the ‘sounds like’ section of the bands I liked and download all of it. I had 10,000 songs on my account and used to burn weekly playlist CDs for my brothers.” The Pixies Surfer Rosa was a touchstone as were Joy Division and The Cure, but so were more underground indie bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Built to Spill, sounds that would later come to roost in the band’s potpourri of influences.
No one could have predicted the Kings’ 2003 debut, Youth And Young Manhood. The band came out of the gates like badass rock stars, exuding menace and danger and backed by a raw, blistering rock more punk and garage than twang. Caleb’s affected snarl and jumbled words about sex, death, blood and guts sounded nothing like the choirboy he once was, though the intensity and rage he summoned on songs like “Trani” (Velvets, anyone?) or the end of “California Waiting” were otherworldly. Ethan Johns, who produced Ryan Adams and is the son of Led Zeppelin and Who producer Glyn Johns, may have injected some of his own DNA into the recordings.
“I saw them play in the spring of 2003. It was one of their first shows ever,” says Rolling Stone senior editor Austin Scaggs. “They were all really young – Jared was fifteen – and they all had dumb haircuts and their accents were so fucking thick. It seemed like they had just come out of the mountains and entered civilization. There were probably fifty people there, but their sound was amazing. Everyone conveniently called them the Southern Strokes, but I thought they had their own thing. We were all blown away.”
But most of America had yet to discover the Kings. The often-myopic national music press, based primarily out of New York, were more enamored with the bands in their own backyard. The Strokes were cooler and catchier; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were artier; the Rapture more danceable. “We came out at a time when there was this ‘New Rock Revolution’ – whatever the hell that is,” Caleb says. “Everyone was pretty much trying to be louder than each other and party harder than each other. We knew from the beginning that people weren’t going to take us seriously because we were younger and we’re family. So we had to make sure that our songwriting was something that people couldn’t talk about in a negative way.”
The band kept its promise on 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak. Songs like “Slow Night, So Long,” with its counter melodies, lead bass and fragmented chords, or the hypnotic and mellifluous “King Of The Rodeo,” or the high-lonesome feel of “Day Old Blues,” are the sound of a band honing their songcraft and musicianship. Here, too, Caleb actually enunciates (“The Bucket”), demonstrates vocal versatility (check out his field hollering on “Milk”) and puts his vulnerabilities on full display (witness the too-drunk-to-fuck song “Soft”).
While their first two albums had little commercial or critical impact in the U.S., in the United Kingdom it was a different story: From the very beginning the Brits couldn’t get enough of the Kings of Leon’s exotic Pentecostal upbringing, nor could they resist their garage, punk, and roots-rock amalgam. The eye-candy Followill boys became the darlings of the over-heated London music press. NME called Youth And Young Manhood one of the “best debuts of the past 10 years” and the album sold nearly ten times as much abroad as it did domestically. And Aha Shake Heartbreak would debut at Number 3 on the U.K. charts.