Kings Of Leon
Caleb Followill – circa 2008
“It’s in the story / It’s where you come from / The sons and daughters / In all their glory” – ‘Radioactive’ (Caleb Followill, Nathan Followill, Jared Followill, Matthew Followill)
In the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll was branded ‘the Devil’s music.’ It was seen as something that corrupted good, wholesome kids. That’s all ancient history by the time U.S. rock band Kings Of Leon form in 1999. Yet few acts in rock’s history so strongly embody the conflict between God and the Devil as this band. Are any of these religious concepts relevant to playing guitars and thumping drums? Decide for yourself.
The history of Kings Of Leon revolves around three brothers and their cousin. The brothers are Ivan Nathan Followill (born 26 June 1979), Anthony Caleb Followill (born 14 January 1982) and Michael Jared Followill (born 20 November 1986). Their cousin, Cameron Matthew Followill (born 10 September 1984), is older than only the youngest of the brothers. Professionally, the quartet all use their middle names, so from this point, they will be referred to as Nathan, Caleb, Jared and Matthew.
The boys’ grandfather, Leon Followill, is from Talahina, Oklahoma. Nathan, Caleb and Jared are the sons of Ivan Leon Followill and his wife, Betty-Ann. Ivan Followill is a preacher in the Pentecostal Church. He travels around, preaching at ‘churches and tent revivals throughout Oklahoma and the Deep South’ of the United States. Except for a five-year stay in Jackson, Tennessee, the family is itinerant throughout the boys’ youth. Nathan is born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Caleb and Jared are both born in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Their mother home schools the boys for the most part, though, when circumstances permit, they attend small schools. Naturally, the youngsters attend their father’s services and are ‘occasionally enlisted to bang on some drums.’
“It was great, one of the best times of my life,” testifies Caleb Followill in reference to his travels with his father, the preacher. “I thought I was gonna follow in his footsteps,” he adds. Still, as the kids of a Pentecostal man of God, the Followills are not allowed to watch television or to listen to music of any sort other than, as Caleb puts it, “Jesus music.” Rock ‘n’ roll is well out of bounds. Cousin Matthew, who is raised in the same faith, notes “The religion we was in, [rock music] was kind of forbidden.”
Everything changes in 1997. That year, Ivan Leon Followill resigns from the church and divorces his wife, Betty-Ann. Understandably, this greatly impacts upon their children. ”I just started questioning everything,” Caleb claims. Yet the kids are also freed from the prohibition against popular music. Caleb says the first such song he hears is on the radio when he is a passenger in his uncle’s car. Listening to ‘Crimson And Clover’, a 1968 hit by Tommy James And The Shondells, young Caleb exclaims “What is that?!” He also has a revelation: “I knew that I wanted to make music.” He is set on a different path. “It inspired me to write songs,” he says of the life-changing moment.
It doesn’t happen straight away. “We were painting houses in Oklahoma,” Caleb Followill explains. Feeling bored and unfulfilled, he seriously considers signing up for military service. But “something said ‘write a song’,” and Caleb yields to this inner voice. Caleb and elder brother Nathan relocate to Nashville, Tennessee. There, they ‘embrace the rock music and lifestyle they have previously been denied.’ “We definitely did our fair share of partying and debauchery,” Nathan admits. The Followills also work on their songwriting and meet Angelo Petraglia, another aspiring tunesmith, with whom they will have a lengthy association. Nathan and Caleb play in clubs, with Nathan shaking a tambourine while Caleb plucks an acoustic guitar. Caleb says, “In the beginning, we [Caleb and Nathan] wrote songs together, and if he was writing a song, he’d sing, and vice versa.” With tongue-in-cheek, Caleb explains how he came to be lead vocalist: “I just went to him and said…’I’ll do it. I’ll be the singer. I’ll take all the girls and all the drugs. I don’t want to, but I will.’”
In 1999 Nathan and Caleb Followill decide to call their act Kings Of Leon. It is said that ‘the group is named for their grandfather, Leon.’ Given that the boys all use their middle names professionally, it is also possible that the group is named for their father Ivan Leon Followill – though that leaves out their cousin, Matthew. As for why they are the Kings Of Leon rather than the Sons (or Grandsons) Of Leon, it can only be theorised that it sounds a bit grander and more regal.
By 2002, Nathan and Caleb Followill attract the attentions of a number of record labels. They choose to sign with RCA. Their new sponsors attempt to put together a band for the siblings, but are rebuffed. “Our little brother and our cousin are gonna be in the band,” Caleb reports. At this point, Jared is still in High School and is not a musician. Regardless, his elder brothers buy him a bass guitar and convince the 16 year old to join them. Cousin Matthew was born in Oklahoma City, but is now residing in Mississippi. He learned to play the guitar when he was 10. Jared contacts Matthew and tells him to come down to Tennessee. “And I didn’t come back,” Matthew says with a smile. Caleb jestingly refers to it as a ‘kidnapping.’ Kings Of Leon now consist of: Caleb Followill (vocals, guitar), Matthew Followill (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Jared Followill (bass, keyboards, vocals) and Nathan Followill (drums, vocals).
The Kings Of Leon rehearse and write songs in the basement of the Tennessee home of Betty-Ann Followill, their mother (or, in Matthew’s case, aunt). Officially, the songs by Kings Of Leon are written by the group as a whole. Unofficially, it seems like Caleb Followill is the main songwriter. The other members may contribute ideas or pen the occasional tune, but the bulk of the task falls to Caleb. “I always knew that whatever it was I did, I wanted people to see it and respect it,” he states. Yet Caleb is also the biggest culprit when it comes to ‘partying and debauchery.’ All of the boys revel in the new freedom afforded them but “I’m usually the one that’s getting put in line,” admits Caleb. And the one who attends to that chore is usually Nathan. Not only is he the eldest of the family but his hours pounding the drum kit have given him a physique like a brick out-house. His bearishness is leavened by the fact that he is the only one in the band to wear spectacles. This makes him look more studious and less threatening. By contrast, Jared, the baby of the group, is the prettiest one, though young Matthew is not far behind, hampered only by being a bit more shy and scruffy. Actually, the band as whole has a pretty scruffy appearance at first, being all ‘long hair, moustaches and tight-fitting denim.’
The sound produced by Kings Of Leon is a high-energy, raw-boned version of rock. It is rather home-spun and a touch of country never seems far away, but the overriding characteristic is a kind of shaggy, loud, aggressive noise. Over time, the group experiments with adding more space and depth to the arrangements, but it is still unmistakably hard rock.
Kings Of Leon’s first release is the EP ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’ on 18 February 2003. This effort contains five songs: ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’, ‘Wasted Time’, ‘California Waiting’, ‘Wicker Chair’ and ‘Andrea’. At this early stage, all the songwriting credits are given to the combined trio of Nathan Followill, Caleb Followill and their friend Angelo Petraglia. The two younger boys are still learning their craft. Angelo Petraglia also produces the disc. The EP earns them ‘a significant amount of exposure’ and the band is hustled back into the recording studio to work on a full-length album.
“We were six songs in [to the album] when [the record company said] ‘You have to go to the U.K.’,” recalls Caleb Followill. The boys dutifully comply and are pleased and surprised to hear themselves on the radio in Great Britain. Mind you, the surroundings are less than salubrious as they find themselves playing in a venue, ‘The White Horse’, that is a strip club by day. All in all though, this unexpected attention far from home gives the band a fillip.
‘Youth And Young Manhood’ (2003) (US no. 113, UK no. 3, AUS no. 46) is the exuberant debut album by Kings Of Leon. Three of the songs from the EP – ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’, ‘Wasted Time’ (UK no. 51) and ‘California Waiting’ (UK no. 61) – are rerecorded for this set. Again the compositions are credited to Nathan Followill, Caleb Followill and Angelo Petraglia. In this case, production duties are shared by Petraglia and Ethan Johns, the duo who will perform these roles for the first three albums by Kings Of Leon. The album is launched by the barnstorming ‘Red Morning Light’. The more thoughtful ‘Trani’ wins praise from Bob Dylan, one of rock’s greatest songwriters, when Kings Of Leon later tour as a support act for Dylan. ‘Spiral Staircase’ features a helter skelter rhythm and the lyrics “Spiral staircase / Going down / Paint your body / Red and brown.” “She’s got your pistol,” is the warning in ‘Molly’s Chambers’ (UK no. 23), a tale of “A wife that’s naked in the night / And looking for some play / Just another girl who wants to rule the world.” Hand claps and an organ accompany the vaguely sinister closing number: “Don’t you worry, baby, you won’t feel a thing / Holy roller novocaine.” A hidden extra track at the end is ‘Talahina Sky’, a nod to the birthplace of their grandfather, where “Weeds grow high on a broken train track.”
Note: All the albums by Kings Of Leon have titles consisting of five syllables.
The second album, ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ (2004) (US no. 55, UK no. 3, AUS no. 25) is like the hangover following a drinking binge. There are regrets, guilt and confusion – but also a spirited desire to do it all over again. With this set, the songwriting duties are, for the first time, officially attributed to the four members of the band. The pulsing ‘King Of The Rodeo’ (UK no. 41) urges “Let the good times roll.” ‘Bucket’ (UK no. 16) is built on a spray of guitar notes that slows for the refrain. The title is derived from a line in the second verse: “You kick the bucket and I’ll swing my legs.” ‘Soft’ is one of the band’s funniest songs with its yelping dismay at…well, a certain male failing: “I’m passed out in your garden / I’m in, I can’t get off, so soft / I’d pop myself in your body / I’d come into your party, but I’m soft.” ‘Four Kicks’ (UK no. 24) is a supremely aggressive piece with a harshly metallic riff and the boast, “We’ll take to the yard like a cockfight / Four kicks, who’s strutting now?”
‘Because Of The Times’ (2007) (US no. 25, UK no. 1, AUS no. 4) introduces a ‘darker, expansive’ sound. It also begins the practice of opening each album with a more atmospheric, experimental track. In this case, it is the epic (7:10) ‘Knocked Up’. The song builds up slowly over strange guitar squeaks. “She’s gonna have my baby,” says the narrator, but the expectant father admits to being “Always mad and usually drunk, but I love her like no other.” As if to make up for the demands of the opener, the second track finds Kings Of Leon at their most explosive. In ‘Charmer’ (UK no. 85), Caleb Followill screams like he just sat on a tack. “She’s such a charmer oh no, oh no / Born / In West Virginia oh no / Married / To the preacher oh no / Why she’s always looking at me,” he despairs. ‘On Call’ (UK no. 18) is the band’s most carefully considered composition to date. The arrangement is strong, tense and tight. A fog of synthesisers dissolves to the throb of Jared’s bass, as he displays new mastery of his assigned instrument. Matthew’s lead guitar brushes past like a speeding train while Nathan’s drums maintain a locomotive clatter. “If you’d call me now, baby, I’d come a running,” swears Caleb, “I’m on call to be there.”
Up to this point, Kings Of Leon have been successful in the United Kingdom and other foreign territories but the distinctively American band remain comparatively unknown in the United States. “The thing that keeps us humble is living in Nashville where the real stars play country music [not rock ‘n’ roll],” shrugs Caleb Followill.
‘Only By The Night’ (2008) (US no. 4, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) is a game-changer. It is the most focussed album produced by Kings Of Leon and their greatest achievement. Angelo Petraglia remains as co-producer, but now works with Jacquire King. ‘Closer’ is the album’s opening statement. Caleb Followill sings of being “Stranded in this spooky town,” amidst synthesiser blips and haunting moans. “And it’s coming closer,” he utters with dread. ‘Crawl’ (UK no. 125, AUS no. 70) is equally challenging with its massively distorted bass / synthesiser over which the guitars riff. “You better learn to crawl / Before I walk away,” Caleb asserts. He goes on to paint a portrait of “The crucified U.S.A.” and continues with the religious imagery “As the prophecy unfolds / Oh, hell is really on its way.” The inferno may await but there is still time for ‘Sex On Fire’ (US no. 56, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1), the band’s best song. “I kind of wrote it when I was drunk,” Caleb says sheepishly. This ‘hyperactive’ song sports a fantastic riff and teases with a mention of “Head while I’m driving.” “It was kind of a joke, a funny song,” Caleb says while also proclaiming “I thought it would be a big song.” Laughing at the thought of hundreds of men in the audience singing along, telling him his “Sex is on fire”, he asserts, “I have more fun playing that song.” ‘Sex On Fire’ is written by Caleb following a debilitating shoulder injury. The reason the notes for the song are so high up on the guitar neck is that is as far as he can reach at the time. The same limitation applies to the next single from the album, ‘Use Somebody’ (US no. 4, UK no.2, AUS no. 2). This is a semi-ballad, a big arena rock number couched in backing vocal choruses of “Oh-whoa”: “I been roaming around / Always looking down at what I see / You know that I could use somebody / Someone like you.” Kings Of Leon announce a desire to “Dance all night” in ‘Manhattan’ (UK no. 149, AUS no. 38), a track replete with ricocheting drums and a pinball rhythm. The aching ‘Revelry’ (UK no. 29, AUS no. 21) finds Caleb “With the fire in my bones / And the sweet taste of kerosene.” The album also includes the clockwork chords and chugging rhythm of ‘Notion’ (US no. 99, UK no. 107, AUS no. 46).
‘Only By The Night’ is the third biggest-selling album in Great Britain for 2008. It does even better in Australia where it is 2008’s top-selling release. During their tour of Australia, Kings Of Leon take time out to appear at Sound Relief on 14 March 2009, a charity concert featuring many Australian bands, to raise funds for victims of bushfires in the State of Victoria and floods in the State of Queensland. As well as their, by now, customary overseas commercial success, with ‘Only By The Night’ Kings Of Leon have their greatest sales yet in the U.S.A,
Despite their evident good fortune, things are not all rosy for Kings Of Leon. Caleb Followill begins referring to his destructive alter ego as ‘The Rooster’, as if it is a separate entity responsible for his more extreme behaviour. The band’s higher profile disturbs him. “They say we’re sell-outs,” he grumbles.
On 14 November 2009 Kings Of Leon drummer Nathan Followill marries fellow recording artist Jessie Braylin. Nathan and Jessie go on to have a daughter, Violet Marlowe (born in 2013). In the same month, November 2009, guitarist Matthew Followill marries Johanna Bennett. She is a U.K. songwriter who fronts her own band, Totalizer. Johanna Bennett is the ex-girlfriend of Alex Turner (from U.K. band The Arctic Monkeys). Matthew and Johanna go on to have a son, Knox Cameron Patrick (born in 2011).)
The fifth album by Kings Of Leon, ‘Come Around Sundown’ (2010) (US no. 2, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1), is a compromise. The elder half of the band, Nathan and Caleb Followill, want to do something less commercial. They want to reconnect with their original fanbase, those who perhaps think the band has become too pop-oriented. The younger half of the band, Jared and Matthew Followill, fear Caleb is planning to self-sabotage the act and alienate their newer fans and wider audience. Additionally, Matthew if becoming weary of the band’s demanding touring schedule. Perversely, the album begins with a song called ‘The End’, the album’s exploratory piece. It’s a pained epic with overarching guitars. The first single, ‘Radioactive’ (US no. 37, UK no. 7, AUS no. 19), quotes the title of a gospel song in its opening line: “When the roll is called up yonder.” It is a pseudo gospel song for Kings Of Leon, like an urgent call to baptism. “It’s in the water / It’s where you come from,” hollers the vocalist as though he is preaching one of his Pappy’s sermons. The second single, ‘Pyro’ (UK no. 69, AUS no. 77), “is about burning everything that stands in the way,” Caleb explains. “Now they are calling the fire brigade,” he sings, before noting that “Little shaking babies / And drunkards all agree / Once the show gets started / It’s bound to be a sight to see.” One of the album’s more successful tracks is ‘Back Down South’ (UK no. 182). This finally gives full rein to the band’s country music impulses and, while it may be at odds with the group’s public image, it works better than some of the more obvious rock songs. ‘Pickup Truck’ seems to reinforce Caleb’s reputation as someone mad, bad and dangerous to know. The disc is again produced by Angelo Petraglia and Jacquire King.
On 12 May 2011 Caleb Followill marries Lily Aldridge, a model for the lingerie manufacturers Victoria’s Secret. The couple’s daughter, Dixie Pearl, is born on 21 June 2011.
On 27 July 2011 Caleb Followill has a troubling moment onstage in Dallas, Texas. He ‘appears to be heavily intoxicated and slurs incomprehensibly between songs, often rambling about nothing. He then leaves the stage, claiming he is going to vomit, drink a beer and play three more songs. He never returns [to the stage] causing the rest of the band to apologise to the crowd and end the concert abruptly.’
On 29 September 2012 Kings Of Leon bassist Jared Followill marries U.S. model Martha Patterson.
‘Mechanical Bull’ (2013) (US no. 2, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1), produced by Angelo Petraglia, is perhaps the most uneven album by Kings Of Leon. It contains some really excellent work. At the lower end, it is not so much bad as just ordinary in comparison to the disc’s better moments. The sprightly ‘Supersoaker’ (US no. 106, UK no. 32, AUS no. 43) is the pilot single and it finds Caleb Followill claiming, “I don’t mind sentimental girls at times.” The sun-dappled ‘Wait For Me’ (US no. 101, UK no. 31) is also a single. The highlight may be ‘Don’t Matter’, an out-of-control speeding train of rock power wherein Caleb advises, “I could f*** or I could fight / It don’t matter to me.” ‘Family Tree’ has a funky groove and an enjoyably daft chant: “I am your family tree / I know your A to Z / This is a secret proposition, lay your hands on me.” ‘Rock City’ somehow manages to be both laid-back and hard rocking. It’s this sort of in-built contradiction that makes ‘Mechanical Bull’ confounding, but interesting.
‘Walls’ (2016) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 3) is produced by Markus Dravs. Although the title of this album seems to break the run of five syllable album titles for Kings Of Leon, the inner sleeve of the album shows that ‘Walls’ is actually an acronym for ‘We Are Like Love Songs’ – which has five syllables. However this is not reflected at all in the lyrics for the album’s title track, ‘Walls’. Like ‘Mechanical Bull’, ‘Walls’ is a divided album. Around half of the album is crowd-pleasing fan fare while the other half of the contents consists of newer, more experimental stuff. ‘Waste A Moment’ (UK no. 45, AUS no. 81) is big sounding arena rock. Similarly, ‘Reverend’ looks for a big chorus, though the title may be a nod to the band’s religious roots. ‘Over’ is reputedly written about vocalist Caleb Followill’s alcohol addiction (the band cancelled a number of shows in 2011 so Caleb could sort himself out). On the face of it though, ‘Over’ just appears to be a plea for a love affair not to end. Admittedly, Caleb’s vocals on the third verse of ‘Over’ may be the most desperate he’s ever committed to disc. Rounding out the familiar-sounding contingent are the staccato ‘Around The World’ (with some jumpy bass from Jared Followill) and the pounding and questing ‘Wild’. Turning to the more experimental songs, there is the album’s most impressive track, ‘Find Me’. It is flat-out, raw and showcases some great guitar fireworks. ‘Find Me’ is said to be inspired by a ghostly experience Caleb’s wife Lily Aldridge had at a Los Angeles hotel – but, like ‘Over’, it’s hard to see that simply from the lyrics. ‘Muchacho’ is as mariachi as can be in a cute kind of way. ‘Conversation Piece’ has a vulnerable air and spidery chiming guitars. ‘Eyes On You’ is jangly with some prominent bass-playing from Jared Followill. The album closes with the piano-based ballad ‘Walls’ (UK no. 97, AUS no. 95). The keyboards are played by Liam O’Neil who actually plays on every track though on all the other songs his contribution is so subtle (or mixed so far back) as to be almost imperceptible. Kings Of Leon is definitely still a guitar band.
Kings Of Leon were raised in an environment where rock music was ‘forbidden’. The father of three of the four members was a preacher. In the ‘thank you’ lists in their album notes, God was always first on the list. They often wore crosses or crucifixes. They selflessly performed at charity gigs like Sound Relief. Songs like ‘Crawl’ and ‘Radioactive’ are peppered with religious imagery. On the other hand, the foursome earned a good income from playing this ‘forbidden’ music. They did ‘their fair share of partying and debauchery.’ Caleb Followill referred to this alter ego, ‘The Rooster’ and, evidently, turned up too drunk to play on 27 July 2011. Were these excesses the result of having been denied rock music in their formative years? Would they have been less inclined to overindulge had they been more gradually exposed to and acclimatised to ‘the rock lifestyle’? It’s difficult to know. What is clear though in the music and lives of the members of Kings Of Leon is the age old conflict between what could be termed God and the Devil continues unabated. Kings Of Leon were responsible for the ‘resurrection and reinvention of Dixie-styled rock ‘n’ roll.’ Their ‘early music was an upbeat blend of Southern rock and blues influences, but it…gradually expanded over the years to include a variety of genres and a more alternative, arena rock sound.’
- wikipedia.org as at 15 April 2013, 1 January 2014, 7 January 2017
- ‘Access All Areas’ (Palladia music television network) (9 July 2011)
- ‘The Hour’ (Canadian television program) (11 November 2008)
- ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine, 2009 Caleb Followill interview on ninemsn.com.au
- allmusic.com, ‘Kings Of Leon’ by Andrew Leahy as at 3 May 2013
- blog.villagvoice.com (22 September 2008)
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 301
- lyricsfreak.com as at 4 May 2013
- ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine, rollingstone.com (15 April 2009)
- whosdatedwho.com as at 7 January 2017
- feelnumb.com – Kings Of Leon = A Collection of Really Hot Wives’ by ‘Raul’ (25 October 2014)
- google search as at 7 January 2017 [Matthew & Johanna’s wedding date]
- ‘Uncut’ magazine (November 2010)
- ‘Daily Mail’ (U.K. newspaper) (dailymail.co.uk) 22 June 2012, 20 August 2012
- ‘Walls’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (RCA Records, 2016) p. 3, 10
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘Street Regal’ by Kathy McCabe (22 September 2016) p. 36
Song lyrics copyright as follows: 2003: Followill Music (ASCAP), Martha Street Music (ASCAP), 1609 Songs (ASCAP), Music of Windswept (ASCAP), Universal-PolyGram International Inc., Green Wagon Music (ASCAP); 2004: Followill Music (ASCAP), Martha Street Music (ASCAP), 1609 Songs (ASCAP), Music of Windswept (ASCAP), Universal-PolyGram International Publishing Inc., Green Wagon Music (ASCAP), McFearless Music (BMI), Coffee, Tea or Me Publishing (BMI); 2007-2008: Music of Windswept (ASCAP) and Bug Music (BMI), Songs of Combustion Music (ASCAP), Martha Street Music (ASCAP), Followill Music (ASCAP), McFearless Music (BMI), Coffee, Tea or Me Publishing (BMI). 2010-2013: Pistola Publishing (ASCAP), Sinderella’s Glass Slipper Publishing (ASCAP), McFearless Music (BMI), Coffee, Tea or Me Publishing (BMI) administered by Bug obo Silent But Violent Publishing, LLC.
Last revised 13 January 2017