Kings Of Leon have (just about) survived a decade of excess, fights and dangerous pranks but, as Caleb and Nathan Followill tell Jimi Famurewa, they’re not about to slow down
Caleb Followill is running late. Well, I say running. As he hobbles in and joins his brother, band drummer Nathan, at our table amid the burnished brass and dark oak of a west London hotel bar, he lowers himself into his chair like a pensioner battling a severe case of piles.
Here we go. This is surely the first indicator that I’m meeting a sedate and road-weary new iteration of everyone’s favourite hirsute Southern hellraisers. Propelled by the improbable success of their flammable coitus anthem Sex On Fire, Kings Of Leon (completed by third brother Jared and cousin Matthew) justifiably became the biggest band on the planet, bagging Grammys, multiplatinum sales, supermodel girlfriends and every contraband backstage substance available to them in the process.
Then it all went a bit wrong. There were cancelled tour dates, rumoured rehab stints, fights and an infamous encounter with some incontinent pigeons. But now they’re back with a reinvigorated “youthful” album, Mechanical Bull, and settled lives (three are new dads, all four are now married) furtively returning to the stage. I’m expecting thoughtful introspection. I’m expecting focus. I’m expecting coeliac-friendly snacks and herbal tea.
Or at least I am until Caleb orders a lunchtime glass of champagne and tells me that a drunken incident at a toga party in Greece is to blame for his fragile state. “You’ll notice I keep adjusting my ass because I can hardly sit down,” he says, smiling through that impeccably groomed beard. “I jumped off the top of a boat at 2am in the pitch black and landed on my ass. It was a 30ft drop.”
His brother chuckles and takes a sip of his second vodka and tonic. Meet the all-new Kings Of Leon. Humbled by their experiences and time away? Perhaps. Mellowed out and mature? Not a chance.
You’re just about to release your first album in three years. Does it feel like a comeback?
Nathan: No, I think that everybody just blew the year-long break we took out of proportion. People thought it was worse than we knew it was. We needed a little time off. And the record is a good example of why it was good that we took it.
Did the decision to have a break come before or after you cancelled part of the 2011 tour? Was there a fateful band meeting?
Caleb: At the start of that tour, first of all, it was one of the hottest summers in the history of America. Most of the venues were going to be outdoors in July and August, so we weren’t looking forward to that from the beginning. Then, after the first couple of shows, we were like, “This is going to kill us.” We needed IV bags after every show to pump us full of fluid.
N: It was so hot. And I remember, after the St Louis show, people were saying, “The drummer was so hungover he needed to be hooked up to bags of liquid just to play!”
How severe did it get?
C: My health was pretty bad. You can only go so long with IV bags before every show, steroid shots to get your voice to work and all that stuff. We were just run ragged. Collectively, as a band, that’s where we were at. We were like, “We either take a break now or this might be the last tour we ever do.” It was horrible to cancel the shows, I felt horrible for that. But I’d rather cancel one show and come back 20 times than have that be it.
That said, Jared also famously tweeted that you had “problems... bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade”. Does being in a band with your relatives bring about its own issues?
N: Yeah, I mean, in a band the drummer and the singer might not talk about stuff. But then on the car ride home I’m going to talk to my brother. I think that’s where the brutal honesty comes from. We’re so close and we can all tell when someone is lying. The eyebrow will just go upwards and they’ll be like, “Bullsh*t.” We don’t ever treat each other with kid gloves. This is my brother, so I’ll tell him if he’s p*ssing me off.
C: Sometimes it’s easier for me to talk to them through a song than it is to sit down and say how I feel. So I’ve done that at times.
Would you ever consider recording separately, like The Strokes?
N: What a miserable existence that would be. There’s not enough money or fame in the world…
C: Yeah, I would hang up my cowboy boots long before that.
Have you ever come to blows?
N: Oh man, I remember we had a blow out one night over a girl. She was the last girl in the bar, and me and Caleb had made up in our minds that she was going home with one of us, and it became a competition. Next thing you know me and him start fighting, the girl leaves, we carry on fighting, a security guard gets in between us, he puts his hands on Caleb which gets me all, “Don’t you touch my brother” [laughs]. So then we turn on the security guard, and we have a big photoshoot the next day, and in the photo my glasses are superglued together, Caleb is wearing sunglasses with make-up on underneath – it was just the funniest sh*t. The next day we were like, “What were we even fighting about?”
You’ve both recently become dads, and all the members of the band are now married. Were recording sessions for the new album more sedate?
C: It was pretty relaxed. We had our own spot, so we could bring all of our friends. Sometimes our producer would get a little angry, because we had a certain window of time that we had to work in... but we also had a basketball hoop in there [laughs]. We’re big children really, so we had all kinds of gags and stuff we’d be doing.
What sort of things?
C: Like, if you picked something up we’d put a fire-cracker underneath it, so it would pop.
N: It was so loud one time that a sound engineer had to go to hospital to have his ear checked [laughs]. Thankfully, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
So it was at that whoopee-cushion-at-the-mixing-desk level?
C: We had a mouse on a string that we’d hide in coffee cups...
N: ...and those jelly beans that were a horrible flavour.
C: And every 10 minutes we’d try to get someone to use a pen with a shock on the end. I would say our first record was the only one where we went in there and were like, “Sh*t. We’re on someone else’s time, we gotta get to work.” Was it Only By The Night when we played wall ball? Every single night. The producers would have to come outside and beg us to come in and record. They’d be like, “Guys can we please get something?” We were recording tracks in between games, as opposed to playing games in between tracks [laughs]. But, you know, it keeps it loose. It was fun.
It definitely seems to go against this vision of you as a serious band…
N: Outside of the whole partying thing, that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about us. We’ve always been goofing off, but now I think we’re more comfortable in our own skin.
C: Also, once you have a kid, that’s the only thing that really matters. Once that happens you realise that you’re fortunate to wake up every day, put on a guitar with your brothers, play music and have people who actually enjoy what you’re doing. We’re the luckiest guys in the world.
N: What makes people think that we’re serious is that, on stage, we’re all business. There’ll be things people in the crowd can’t hear, but we’re perfectionists.
Speaking of crowd reaction, we saw that a guy completely stripped off at a recent UK gig...
N: The Birmingham sausage.
C: The funniest thing was his friend holding him up, with his hand right up his ass [laughs].
N: We were all tweeting him like, “Birmingham sausage man. That was awesome. You’ve got to come have a beer with us tomorrow night.” We got him backstage.
Dare I ask how you verified it was him? It was quite a blurry photo...
N: [Laughs] Oh there were 20 guys claiming to be him, so we had to have them all drop trou. “No. No. Definitely not. Yep, that’s him!”
Do incidents like that not throw you off?
N: Oh, that threw us off [laughs]. Luckily, though, the whole crowd was just looking at him and not looking at us.
C: And it happened during Sex On Fire, so I could walk away from the mic and let the crowd sing.
That song has totally gained a life of its own. Has there ever been a time when you’ve considered not playing it?
C: Yeah, quickly. I would say two years back it was definitely a thing where we’d play some of our deeper-cut songs – all sorts of old rarities – and people would all go and get a beer or take a p*ss. Then Sex On Fire would happen and we were just like, “Aargh!” I’ve come to terms with it. Playing that song – it’s like a pat on the back to think, you know, we created it, and no matter where we go it always gets that reaction.
N: Plus, it’s fun to watch the ants marching back from the bathroom. I mean, as soon as that song is over you see people just bee-lining for the exits. And it’s like, “OK. You just paid your £40 for one song, that’s fine.”
Did any part of you come to resent breaking into that chart-topping, platinum-selling sphere and the attention it brought?
N: Yeah, where every action you make has a reaction. You do keep your guard up a little more, it’s almost like you lose some of your innocence. When you go from being a band to being a brand, that’s when it changes – whether you want it to or not. It can all go south and one tweet can start a whole sh*tstorm, an avalanche.
It’s been more than a decade since you released your first album. What do you think now when you look back at that early stuff?
C: I hear some of our early stuff and I like it. But I think it was a little forced, the way that I was singing. Because I truly didn’t want the listener to understand what I was saying...
N: Mission accomplished on the first two albums [laughs]. There are songs that I sing back-up on where I still have no idea what he’s singing, to be honest with you.
And do you look back fondly at the years with the beards, braces and tiny T-shirts?
C: Some of it’s a little embarrassing, but I do miss the hair. I’m kind of going backwards with that now. I have a little case that I pack all of my old shirts in...
N: I pulled one of mine out the other day and my daughter cannot even wear it.
C: My wife, who’s a skinny woman, put on my sweater the other day and it came to here [indicates point above bellybutton]. She was like, “You didn’t used to wear this.” I said, “I wore that sweater every day for a whole tour.”
Any other notable pieces of memorabilia you’ve kept?
C: My wife was like, “You remember these?” and she pulled out some tiny bikini underwear. The first night I got with her, I took my pants off and I had on bikini underwear, and she laughed. I was like, “What the f*ck are you laughing at?” She said, “Do you really wear those?” and I said, “Yeah.” But now I don’t get to wear them. I’ve elected to go with no underwear.
Kings Of Leon’s new album Mechanical Bull will be released on 23 September
(Images: David Venni @ Red Represents/Rex/PA)