Caleb Followill is feeling inspired these days. “Lately, during sound check, it’s hard to get us off the stage,” says Kings of Leon’s frontman with a hint of awe. “We’re constantly trying to make each other smile, and we only make each other smile when we’re doing something right.” Speaking on the phone from Poole, England (the Kings have become very popular in the U.K.), the shaggy singer admits that getting attention has never been their problem. It’s getting people to hear the music that’s been hard.
“I think at first people liked our story, our looks…pretty much all the wrong reasons for liking a band,” he muses. “They saw what we looked like and where we were from and wanted to jump all over it. But then they found out that we were actually a pretty good band.”
Actually, Kings of Leon are a pretty great band. To start with, they rock. Hard. It might be genetic. As the story goes, KOL was formed when brothers Nathan, Jared and Caleb Followill left a sheltered life on the road with their father, a traveling preacher, and got their first real whiff of pop culture. They hooked up with their cousin Matthew, grew their beards really long and adopted the gospel of rock & roll.
“We came out at a time when it was this ‘New Rock Revolution,’ whatever the hell that is,” says Caleb. “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 that seriously because we were younger, and we were family. So we had to make sure that our songwriting was something that people couldn’t talk about in a negative way.”
They called their first record Youth and Young Manhood. Like all great debuts, it contained a fully formed lyrical and musical world-the album’s slices of Southern living and creepy short stories all seem specific to a certain time and place. As novelist Dave Eggers wrote, “Kings of Leon are two-door muscle cars and Piggly Wigglies and racist uncles and upholstery that stinks of smoke.”
With their latest album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, the band has found fresh subject matter in the whirlwind changes celebrity has brought them. Endless touring and answering questions about their beards began to sour them (they’ve since shaved them off), but it gave them a mission. “We were really tired of what people thought Kings of Leon were about,” says Caleb. “So when we got home, it all just poured out of us. We wanted to write a record that was very personal and very emotional. We’ve always had this thing with the press, with people wanting to get in too deep, and wanting to know about the things they shouldn’t know about. So we said ‘fuck it, if that’s what you want, we’re going to give it to you, as honestly as we can’…although it’s probably not something my mom’s gonna want to read, or my grandma’s gonna want to hear me saying.”
Caleb, 22, writes most the lyrics for the band, and he’s aware of their importance. “From day one, that’s the one thing we wanted to have that other bands didn’t have. You can’t just be loud…actually you can if you give all your songs to commercials and shit, like a lot of people do.” Granted, you can’t always make out what he’s saying, due to Caleb’s honey-and-whiskey-slurred voice-and yet, this never dulls the impact of the songs. After all, the purest rock and roll statement is “gabba gabba hey.” “I never really expect people to understand what I’m saying,” he admits. “I know the way I phrase certain things, people aren’t necessarily going to get it. We included the lyrics to Heartbreak in the CD, because on the last record, people would try to guess what we were saying and they’d make us sound like idiots.”
The Kings have been on the road for much of the last two years, and it was quite a different road than the one they’d traveled with their father. “When we made the first record, we were these guys living in the middle of nowhere,” Caleb explains. “We hadn’t seen everything that we’ve seen now. So we wrote a lot of songs about wishful thinking, things that we were longing for. With this album, we didn’t have to turn to anyone outside of ourselves. There are songs about each and every one of us. When you live in each other’s hair for two years, it’s easy to know everyone’s ups and the downs.”
He runs down the songs, and it’s clear he means what he says.
“Razz is about Jared, the bass player, just pissing me off. The music itself is tight and claustrophobic, like too much time spent on the bus. ‘Slow Nights, So Long’ is about being in Spain and seeing a beautiful girl who was into my little brother, and not into me, so I decided to get drunk and write a song about it. And ‘Milk’ was a song about a girl I was dating while we were in L.A. recording. That’s really the first relationship song I’ve ever written.”
The hangdog yodel of “Day Old Blues,” with its line “Girls are gonna love the way I toss my hair/Boys are gonna hate the way I seem,” took all of 20 minutes to write. “The rest of the guys had decided to go shopping, and I was sitting on the hotel balcony with my guitar. I was thinking about my mom a lot, and I just started playing and singing. When they got back I was crying. I’ve never cried while writing a song, and I’ve never written a song that quickly.”
Before there were Spanish girls to write about, Kings of Leon were just a dream shared between Caleb and Nathan. By 1995, Caleb had dropped out of school and was doing construction work, and Nathan was still in high school. “One day, just for the hell of it, we decided to sit down and write a song,” says Caleb. “It was a really, really bad song, I’m sure.” One of the first things he recalls writing on guitar was Youth’s “Molly’s Chambers.” “I picked it up and went dong, dong, dong, dong. I remember looking at my little brother and saying, ‘Man, don’t you think kids would like that?'”
When their mom was offered a job in Nashville, they were asked to choose between moving with her or painting houses with dad in Oklahoma. They chose the former. “We went there and started meeting people, getting a buzz going, and people were starting to talk about us.” The two brothers began working with Nashville songwriter/producer/musician Angelo, who they felt an immediate kinship with. “We had similar backgrounds-he had done the religious thing and had seen a lot. He started turning us on to different guitar sounds and old records. He became our guy. We weren’t scared or ashamed of anything around him.” With Angelo’s help, the brothers assembled the songs for their first record. Angelo gets a co-writing credit on each one, which has caused confusion among British fans who’ve never heard of him. “Who is the mysterious Svengali behind Kings of Leon?” one clueless chat-room visitor asks. The Followills soon landed a publishing deal, at which point it was time to find some bandmates. Of course, they didn’t look very far.
BeforeYouth was released, Caleb found the idea of having his lyrics under “the microscope” daunting. “You’re never gonna be confident about it…you’re always gonna expect to fall on your face, but you keep working through it,” he says. “Eventually, you’re either gonna know that you’re bad, or the people around you are gonna convince you that you’re good.”
Now that they have two albums under their belt, the future for KOL is an open book. “I think we touched on something the other day that no band has really touched on, which immediately gave me chill bumps,” says Caleb. “And I think I saw a vision of where Kings of Leon are going next. If we can do it, we’re gonna skip ahead a few generations.” Asked where he sees his band in five years, he’s quick to answer. “We’ve worked really hard and some of the guys want to rest a little and get somewhat of a normal life going. Maybe we’ll have pretty girlfriends. Hopefully we won’t be writing songs about the same girl over and over again.”