With the lead track of the band’s first new record in four years, Kings of Leon front man, Caleb Followill, asks a simple but meaningful question—“One more night, will you stay here?” It’s a lovely query for a pop song from a popular band. But the idea carries with it more significance than just that. Over the band’s prodigious and prolific history, they have asked much of their fans along the way, including to withstand a four-year layover between the newest LP, When You See Yourself, and the band’s 2016 release, Walls. But fans of the group, both stalwart and casual, will likely feel pleased with the highly anticipated 11-track project—set for release in March. With its first refrain, Kings of Leon have offered an open door, a reconnection after what might have felt like a lifetime away. But what would you expect from a band so rooted in the messiness and brilliance of triumph?
“It truly feels like I’ve had multiple lives at this point,” bassist Jared Followill tells American Songwriter. “From childhood to the early band days and then to where I am right now. I feel truly lucky. It feels like everything happened for a reason.”
That opening track, “When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away,” shares its name with the album’s title, When You See Yourself. It’s a phrase that points to ideas of identity, truth and action. It also summons up a sense of vulnerability, curiosity and hopefulness. “One more night, we’ll be safe here,” Caleb offers on the song. The concept of safety for a band, which has been around the world hundreds of times, is perhaps a new and welcomed idea. After so much exposure, confinement can even feel friendly. And it’s these themes, and more, that were discussed amongst the band members as they crafted and created the songs for the new LP. The process seemed to especially crystalize with that making of the opening track. The band worked over what the song meant, what Caleb’s lyrics pointed to and how they might relate to the core of their collective. They looked in the mirror, metaphorically and literally.
“I think with all our stuff,” Jared says, “we hit on something, then we all interpret it in our own ways. Then we connect somewhere in the middle. For me, I’m dealing with getting older. I don’t like the way I look. I hate seeing myself in photos. I like the thought of being mysterious, that’s why a lot of our photos are a little blurry.”
Caleb says he remembers recording the opening song and singing improvised lines and ideas into the microphone over the ethereal music. He saw how they began to raise the eyebrows of his band mates, which, now two decades into their careers, is no small creative feat.
“From the beginning of this album,” Caleb says. “We had a very open conversation about style and looking at the things we’ve done in the past and saying we don’t want to do that again —be that musically, being too glossy or too shiny. When we were talking about the album title, there were a bunch of things we were kicking around. When we got to the end of the song, that’s when I came up with those lines. After I came back into the [mixing] booth from singing them, I noticed everyone saying, ‘That’s good, I think we should make that the title!’”
The process to make When You See Yourself, the band says, was not a perfunctory one. In fact, there was a lot of excited energy in the studio and during the writing and recording process. In many ways, Caleb says, that started with and is summed up by Jared’s bass earworm playing. Jared, who came later in life to the instrument, says he remembers the early days with the band in their mom’s basement. Kings of Leon, which is comprised of brothers Caleb, Jared and Nathan and cousin Matthew, spent hours each day and days on end working and writing music together before any whiff of fame and fortune. In those moments, Jared says he was just trying to keep up and learn how to play bass in the group. Today, his offerings are some of the most distinct and grounding on the new record.
“If you listen to the album,” Caleb says, “there isn’t a single bass line that isn’t very well thought out and very catchy. It serves a huge purpose. I feel like that’s one thing we made sure of on the record, to not do something just to do it. If we were going to do something, we wanted to make it great.”
Standout tracks on the new LP include the driving, propulsive song, “The Bandit,” and the bubbly-yet-heartfelt, “100,000 People.” In the weeks leading up to the album’s release, the band has unveiled snippets of songs, lyrics, acoustic videos and other teases along the way for fans to whet their appetites before the eventual spring release of the full LP. The band wanted to build up anticipation after they was forced to shelve the songs during the uncertain months in 2020— with the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic and the acknowledgement of civil unrest around the world. But there came a point when the band couldn’t sit on their hands anymore.
“A lot of that was probably us being so antsy,” Jared says. “Pushing people that work with us on these kinds of things, saying, ‘Please, let’s release something!’ When we made the video for ‘The Bandit,’ that was pre-pandemic. We have just been itching for people to hear it.”
That the band, which has been making music together since 1999, before their 2003 debut album, Youth & Young Manhood, is still “itching” to release new music today, some twenty years into the game, is a testament to the passion that bonds the members to their creative endeavors. The group, born out of a family deeply rooted in the United Pentecostal Church, learned early on about the power of emotions when reaching a crowd. They saw it in the congregations and tent revivals that made up so much of their early lives. Later, the guys got together in earnest to build a project around Caleb’s singing ability and skill at wowing a crowd with song. “It probably chose him more than him choosing it,” says Jared of his brothers’ talent. Kings of Leon found success in the mid-2000s, first in the U.K. and then in the U.S. Caleb, who first realized he wanted to sing after hearing the song, “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James, in his uncle’s car one day, has gone on to lead a group that’s made big waves in the business.
“I think I had a little bit of the music bug early on,” Caleb says. “I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what it was. I think we all looked at each other and said, ‘Wait, this could be more than making music.’ We could get out of the small town feeling that we have and maybe we could see our music video on MTV.”
Over the years, there have been ups and downs for the band. For example, the members have welcomed newfound relationships with cleaner, healthier living, which helped offer clarity and renewed vigor to their careers. Not being consumed with where the next drink might come from tends to offer a crisper outlook and better motivation. Today, with the band’s millions of fans following their every move, Kings of Leon is poised to bring new work to the table. It’s been twenty years since those basement days and yet the fervency behind the group’s collective creativity has never been keener, hotter or clearer. To make music, for the group, is to progress in life.
“It’s such a vehicle,” Jared says. “Music really can transport you in the simplest of ways.”
“It reminds you of a certain time and different places,” Caleb says. “Music has marked history. To see that four guys from Tennessee can go and pretty much play a concert anywhere in the world and we’ll have fans there—I never imagined that would happen. Music brings people together. It’s awesome to be a part of that.”