NASHVILLE — Watch Nathan Followill breeze into his local Nashville watering hole, and it’s obvious that he’s well known and well liked by the crew at McCabe’s Pub. Clad in sweats and a Yankees cap, the Kings of Leon drummer comes off more as cool local guy than international rock star
Nothing in this manner indicates that his Nashville-based rock band’s fourth album is finally making the Kings as big in the United States as they have been in Europe since 2004, when the group had back-to-back No. 1 singles in the United Kingdom According to the band’s label, RCA, “Only by the Night” has sold almost 3 million copies worldwide, going platinum in Canada, Australia, South Africa and Belgium and multiplatinum in the United Kingdom.
Until now, that kind of success has eluded Kings of Leon at home — the band’s three previous albums never broke the 300,000 mark — but that’s beginning to change. So far “Only by the Night” has sold 397,000 in the States, according to Nielsen SoundScan And the band won a Grammy for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals for their single “Sex On Fire.”
The band — brothers Nathan, Caleb and Jared and their cousin Matthew — has a well-documented back story. But the Followills’ childhood of traveling with their Pentecostal preacher father didn’t resonate at home as it did in Europe.
“Over there, we stepped off the plane and they were amazed we had socks and shoes, had all of our teeth and didn’t have our tongues stuck in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s,” Followill says.
In retrospect, Followill reckons, the story has helped more than it has hurt. “Nobody believed it,” he says with a laugh. “They thought some publicist spawned this whole story, (that) they stuck us in with (producer) Angelo (Petraglia and) he wrote all our songs for us. We actually had a publication in Europe that brought swabs to an interview — they wanted DNA, didn’t believe we were all related. My idea was to take the swabs and get samples from a black fan, a little person, a Japanese fan and a woman and send them back. They’d get the results and say, ‘See, they’re not related.'”
Although the band’s U.S. growth was slow, it was also steady, which suits Followill fine. “We had friends in bands that came out and sold 4 million records in their debut, and that’s amazing,” he says. “Then they come back and sell 3 million on their second and it’s considered a failure. The bar gets set so high, you have so much pressure to replicate what was so successful about the other one, which kind of sticks them in a rut.”
But Followill’s days of going to a bar without being mobbed are numbered.
By his own estimation, he has spent only a few months at home in the four years he’s lived in the West Nashville neighborhood, a testament to the Kings’ nonstop touring and recording since debuting with the album ” Youth and Young Manhood” The band has played live in a wide range of configurations: opening for U2 in arenas, playing secondary stages at festivals, headlining their own club, theater and arena shows and topping the bill at the largest outdoor events in the world.
The band’s first U.S. arena tour, announced earlier this month, will keep the Followills far from McCabe’s Pub for a while. Before the year is up, the band will headline arenas in Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe headline a number of large festivals and make another run through U.S. arenas.
Recently Kings of Leon marked a career milestone by selling out New York’s Madison Square Garden for the first time. “It was cool to see we had that many fans,” Followill says, “especially considering we never really had a hit.”
BROTHERS IN ARMS
The band’s genesis wasn’t auspicious, to say the least. “Jared had never picked up a bass, Caleb had never picked up a guitar, Matt had taken two guitar lessons” Followill says.
So what made them think they could pull this off?
“Boredom. Stupidity,” Followill says. “When we signed the deal (with RCA, as singers) it was just me and Caleb. The label said, ‘We’re gonna put you a band together,’ and we were like, ‘We don’t want to be Evan & Jaron. We’re gonna buy our little brother a bass, he’s a freshman in high school. Caleb will teach himself to play guitar. Our cousin played guitar when he was 10. I’ll play the drums, I played in church when I was little.’ They said, ‘All right, we’ll come down in one month and see you guys.'”
Armed with a Led Zeppelin boxed set, “we kidnapped our cousin from Mississippi, told his mom he was coming for the week and just never let him go home,” Followill says. “We locked ourselves in the basement with an ounce of marijuana and literally spent a month down there. My mom would bring us food down. And at the end of that month the label people came and we had ‘ Molly’s Chambers’ ‘ California Waiting’ ‘Wicker Chair’ and ‘ Holy Roller Novocain.'”
Followill says he considers the Kings fortunate “to get a record deal where the label was willing to grow with us, let us take our bruises and figure out the kind of band we were and the band we wanted to be.”
When touring the world early in their career, oldest brother Nathan pretty much assumed the father role for the band. “I definitely worried the most,” he says. “I mean, that was my 14-year-old brother; we’re in Hamburg, Germany, and he’s out with God knows who. Now it’s definitely democratic. Every decision we make, we all four sit down and talk about it.”
Caleb Followill calls the new album “the least cringe-worthy album that we’ve made. I’m pretty proud of these last two records we’ve made; maybe there’s a little more professionalism than previous records. Maybe it’s because we’re stronger musicians and I feel as though I’m a stronger songwriter. I just didn’t want to be the weak link.”
Once again tapping Petraglia as producer, Kings of Leon took an unusual approach to their studio work for the new set.
“We spent six weeks doing this record, and out of the six weeks the most we spent was two hours (recording) in one day,” Caleb says. “We’d drink and play wall ball. Most people would record, then reward themselves by taking a break. We play wall ball and reward ourselves by going in and recording.”
If the Kings can’t play a song live, it doesn’t make the album.
“There’s nothing worse in the world than having a record you love and going to watch that band play and they’ve either got two guys on keyboards behind a curtain, they’re playing to tracks or they don’t have that and the song sounds empty,” Nathan Followill says. “We’ve got a couple songs on (the new) record that have keyboard parts, so our cousin, Nacho, is our stage manager and we have him play keyboards on a couple of songs. We make sure people can see him. We’re not trying to be the Wizard of Oz.”