Kings of Leon have been living what drummer Nathan Followill calls “two lives” in recent years.
When the Nashville, Tenn.,-based family band — three brothers and a cousin — was in the U.K., where it had 15 charting singles and headlined arenas, “our security guys would have to walk with us ’cause people wouldn’t leave us alone and it was just crazy,” says Followill. Coming home, however, was a different story.
“We’d get off the plane at the airport and the only person that knew us was our mom, who was there to pick us up,” he recalls with a laugh.
That’s all changed during the past year, however. Kings of Leon’s fourth album, “Only By Night,” went platinum. Its first single, “Sex on Fire,” won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance By a Duo or Group; its follow-up, “Use Somebody,” went Top 5.
And, Followill acknowledges, the group was relieved.
“We’d almost given up on the idea of ever being big, especially in America,” says Followill, 30. “Then this record comes along and a song with the words ‘sex’ and ‘fire’ in it turns everything around. Who would have known?”
Ultimately, it’s just another chapter in a story that’s been out of the ordinary from the beginning.
Followill and his brothers — singer-guitarist Caleb and bassist Jared — have been playing some form of music together all their lives. The sons of traveling Pentecostal preacher Ivan “Leon” Followill — and the grandsons of another preacher, also named Leon, hence the band name — the brothers were often called upon to play instruments and sing at his services and revivals around the South.
“We knew it was a different kind of upbringing,” acknowledges Jared Followill, 22. “Looking back, we think it’s kind of cool that we did that. We’re not ashamed or anything. It’s something that makes us unique. We don’t feel like we were held back from anything in the world.”
That includes music. While the Followill’s mother, Betty-Ann, “never wanted us to listen to rock ’n’ roll” according to Jared, their father would play it on the radio when she wasn’t in the car, favoring “old rock stations” and acts such as Bob Dylan, The Band, Neil Young and Tom Petty. The brothers’ own tastes eventually expanded, especially after their parents divorced and the boys moved to Nashville with their mother.
“I went through a Cure stage,” Jared recalls, “and then I heard the Pixies, who really changed my life. It was just so different from anything else. They did exactly what they wanted. They didn’t care about anything but (the music) the wanted to make.”
Nathan and Caleb were the original members of the band, signing a recording contract as a duo with RCA records in the early 2000s. When the label suggested they put together a full band, they recruited Jared, who was only 16 at the time and had to be taught to play bass, and cousin Matthew Followill on lead guitar. “This is the first band any of us were ever in,” notes Nathan. “Most bands play together five or six years before they ever get a record deal. We formed because we got a record deal.”
Familiarity breeds a bit of contempt, however. “Sure, we get in fistfights every once in awhile, just like all brothers,” Jared acknowledges. “We argue a lot, but it’s nothing we can’t get over. We’ve been so close our whole life — physically close, in our car together. We’ve been our only friends at points. So, yeah, we’re used to arguing. We learned to get over it and get on with it.”
An initial EP, “Holy Roller Novocaine,” came out in February 2003 and generated a buzz for Kings Of Leon’s first full-length album, “Youth and Young Manhood,” six months later. A certain success came quickly; Rolling Stone magazine gave the album four out of five stars, while Britain’s New Musical Express dubbed it “one of the best debut albums of the last 10 years.”
“We never expected that,” Jared says of the press raves. “When people called and told us they were saying that stuff, we were like, ‘Really?’ We didn’t know what to say about it. It’s cool. We’re glad people like us, but we’re not trying to be the top bad or anything like that. We’re just making music we want to hear.”
Kings Of Leon’s general notoriety, if not its sales level at home, grew over two more albums and tours opening for U2, Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam. And while the disparity in popularity levels seemed strange, Nathan Followill sees a benefit to it.
“I think it actually helped us in the sense that we never got tired of it,” he explains. “We always looked forward to going to the U.K. and Europe because we were huge over there, but we also looked forward to coming home because there was a certain level of anonymity.
“And it kept us hungry and humble. It’s kind of hard to be cocky or get a big head when you come home and nobody knows who the hell you are. It definitely kept the fire under our butts. But everything happens for a reason, and we’re really enjoying where we’re at right now.”
The Followills also chuckle when they talk about the reaction some of their long-time fans have had to the group’s more recent spate of success. In fact, Nathan identifies “three kinds of fans now” — those who only know “Sex on Fire,” those who were turned onto the band by that song and have gone back to pick up the rest of the catalog and then “those die-hard fans that refuse to cheer or sing on ‘Sex on Fire’ just to show us they’re not fans just because of that song.
“There were these two girls at our show in Vegas,” Followill recalls, “and they sat there and honestly just crossed their arms and were shaking their heads back and forth and refusing to sing when we got to (‘Sex on Fire’) but then sang every word to every other song the rest of the night. It was pretty funny.
“I’ve gotten a couple of farewell e-mails from fans saying it was a good run but we’re to the point where they have to share us with too many people who don’t like us for the ‘right’ reasons. But those same people sent me e-mails two months later acting like nothing happened and they’re back on the bandwagon.
“If everyone likes you, it wouldn’t be any fun, so it’s good to have that variety in there.”
Kings Of Leon certainly isn’t about to stop, in any event. The group is planning to release a live DVD filmed at London’s O2 arena in July but is even more excited about a remix album that will feature the group’s songs revised by the likes of Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Mark Ronson, Kenna, Lykke Li and others.
“It’s neat to have these people who we would’ve jumped at the chance to work with ourselves ... coming to us before we even get a chance to ask them,” Followill says. “It’s amazing to hear your song played by these people who are so creative. Most of the time, it takes me two or three listens to even wrap my head around, ‘Oh man, that’s our song ... ’ ”
The success of “Only By Night” has kept Kings Of Leon on the road for nearly a year-and-a-half. But while the group craves a rest, it’s already started to work on fresh material, mostly created at pre-concert sound checks, which Followill — who’s scheduled to get married in November — describes as “is all over the place. There’s stuff that sounds like Radiohead. There’s stuff that sounds like Thin Lizzy. There’s stuff that sounds like The Band.
“We’re pretty much to the point now where ... we can be experimental and try stuff we would’ve been scared to death to try on the first couple of records. Now we find ourselves being a little more adventurous.”
And the presence of that material, he says, will likely bring the four Followills back together to make music sooner rather than later.
“At the end of every record cycle,” the drummer notes, “we’re like, ‘Dude, we’re taking a year off.’ We get home and after two weeks of sitting on our ass we’re like, ‘Y’all wanna rehearse or something?’ and that gets the creative juices flowing and leads to writing and before you know it, we’re back at it.
“That’s OK, though. I’d hate to get to get to the point where we don’t want to do it, y’know?”
Kings of Leon and Glasvegas perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 22) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $46. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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