Kings of Leon: The Billboard Cover Story

Kings of Leon
Dan Winters

The Followill family band embark on what could be a career-defining album cycle

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

As another oppressive Tennessee summer begins to give way to fall, Kings of Leon are in the early stages of turning up their own heat as they shuffle about the comfortable confines of their studio, checking smartphones, twiddling knobs, listening to rehearsal playbacks.

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Dubbed Neon Leon, the studio is a gray, nondescript building located next to a construction equipment business in a semi-sketchy area just south of downtown Nashville. Surely by design, passers-by would have no inkling of what goes on inside these tastefully decorated walls, where in the previous months the band labored on its own construction project. That job is done: Mechanical Bull, its sixth album on RCA, bows Sept. 24.

The stakes are higher than usual, a fact not lost on brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill and their cousin Matthew Followill. That's particularly true in the United States, where the band's 2011 tour, already plagued by injury and a notorious pigeon-shit incident, ended badly, to put it mildly. A ragged July show in Dallas was shut down when singer Caleb left the stage vowing to vomit, drink a beer and come back out to play three more songs. He did not return.

The remaining U.S. dates were canceled, and band member tweets alternated between apologies and hints of conflicts. The media had a field day, but the group did honor remaining commitments for the year in Canada, South Africa and Australia, a move reported with less fervor. Instead, ominous talk of a hiatus followed, and the future of Kings of Leon seemed to hang in the balance.

Caleb sighs-but doesn't bristle-when the topic is broached. "I don't know. I just had a bad day, I guess," he says with only a hint of a smile. "We'd been playing outdoor venues that were 105 degrees. We were exhausted, my voice was nonexistent. I was doing everything I could to get by."

For the first time since the group distinguished itself as a globally significant rock band capable of crossing over mega-hits and moving millions of albums, Kings of Leon got smacked around a bit. The rock press had long shown the group love, and the celebrity weeklies took note when Caleb began dating (and eventually married) model Lily Aldridge. Perhaps the turn of the tide was inevitable. "It was just our time to step away for a second," Caleb says. "We had oversaturated the market with Kings of Leon for so long that it was starting to take a toll on us."

As it turned out, the singer did have serious vocal issues, according to Ken Levitan, who manages the band with Andy Mendelsohn at Vector Management. "The reality is Caleb was having real problems with his throat," Levitan says. "Was he drinking a bit? Yeah. He was trying to get through the shows. That's partially why he was drinking. But [the tour cancellation] was really a blessing in disguise, because that's how we found out about the issues with his throat. He couldn't talk for two weeks, and the doctor said, 'You're not allowed to sing.' That's the story that didn't get out there."

As it turns out, the band only took a few months off before hunkering down on the songs that became Mechanical Bull. But that work was out of the public eye. "It amazed me how, taking even that small of a break, people were already writing us off," says drummer Nathan, the band's eldest member at 35. "I was getting condolence texts from friends: 'I'm sorry you broke up, man. Keep your head up, it will all work out.' I was laughing so hard, because none of us ever thought it was over."

The band members didn't help matters with their own tweets after the Dallas incident ("I know you guys aren't stupid. I can't lie. There are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade," Jared wrote), and it's clear even now there was tension. "We had a little spat," guitarist Matthew says, "but we were talking a couple days later. We fight. That's normal."

"Brothers fight. You're going to get that," says Levitan, who has worked with the Followills since they were teenagers. "Sometimes the media can run with it, people make a lot of assumptions, and it becomes like a game of telephone."

Beyond illuminating Caleb's now-resolved throat problem, the Dallas meltdown, and the way it landed, served one other purpose: It "showed us how quickly people can write you off," Nathan says. And that "cleared our heads enough to make us appreciate what we get to do."

Mechanical Bull is the work of a clear-headed, focused band. Nathan calls it an "unofficial greatest hits" for the way it melds the best elements from a decade of evolution. It's also an assessment of sorts. "If we hadn't taken that break, it would have been a forced album, something that we just put out there," Caleb says. "Because, like I say, we were exhausted. We were spent."

It was a full decade of relentless album/tour/album/tour cycles that took Kings of Leon from youth to young manhood, as the title of their first record puts it. But, as adults, couldn't they say no when the workload became too heavy? "Things are done so far in advance," Nathan says. "I could feel fine right now, and they've already got shows planned into the end of next year. So you're saying 'yes' to all this stuff, but then six months down the road, when you are playing Chicago for a second time, you're like, 'How in the hell does this happen? We're not machines. They can't just keep putting this on us. We didn't sign off on that.' And they will be like, 'Actually, remember that meeting we had two-and-a-half years ago and we mentioned San Francisco?'"

"After the fifth bottle of wine," Caleb interjects. "You can always tell when they're going to unload stuff on you when they order a nice bottle of wine at dinner. It's like, 'Oooo-K, here we go.'"

The four Followills are now husbands and some are fathers, and the maturity that comes with that will likely be a difference-maker this time around. "In the early days, it was a pissing contest between bands to see who could go out and get the craziest," Caleb says. "Now we're a little more fortunate, we travel a little more comfortably. When we play a show, most of the time we get on an airplane and go to whatever town we're hubbing out of, and we're up at 6:30 in the morning with our kid. So you pick and choose when you're going to let your hair down."

NEXT PAGE: BECOMING KINGS

The story of Kings of Leon is surely one of the strangest in rock'n'roll-a story that would seem the fabrication of an inspired publicist had it not all been roundly validated, most prominently in the 2011 "warts and all" rock documentary "Talihina Sky." The brothers Followill were raised on the move, led by their itinerant Pentecostal preacher father Ivan, sheltered from the devil's power chords and immersed in their church's own vigorous, give-it-up-for-God musicality. When Ivan fell from grace and the boys settled in Nashville with their mother Betty-Ann, they embraced rock music and everything that goes with it. These boys knew how to sing, by God, and Caleb and Nathan walked into Levitan's office 13 years ago, sent in that direction by music attorney Kent Marcus.

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Levitan had a publishing company at the time and signed the brothers to a publishing deal and, eventually, a recording contract with RCA. "We got the deal for them as a duo initially, and we were going to build a band around them," Levitan recalls, adding that it was the older brothers' idea to round out the band with family. "Jared was 13 or 14 at the time, and they had a cousin [Matthew] that played guitar, and they just started developing very naturally."

In retrospect, Levitan's master stroke was bringing in songwriter Angelo Petraglia to work with the fledgling songwriters. Petraglia has now produced all six of the band's albums, a collaboration that has yielded global album sales of more than 16.5 million, according to RCA. But dreams of arena rock were far away when Petraglia first met Nathan and Caleb.

"They had this kind of Everly Brothers sibling harmony thing that turned me on, and they just had this natural rhythm," says Petraglia, a native New Yorker by way of Boston. "Jared didn't even play bass when I met him. They said, 'We want Jared in the band,' and I said, 'Is he any good?' They said, 'Well, he doesn't play.' So I took him down to Mars Music and we bought a bass. That was the charm of the Kings: They wanted their brother in the band, and now he's one of my favorite bass players."

So, armed with a "bag of weed and a Led Zeppelin boxed set," as Nathan put it in one Billboard interview, the Kings went to school. "They were so freewheeling and open," Petraglia says. "They'd been exposed to so much church music, but they hadn't been exposed to much rock'n'roll, so we got into Beggars Banquet, Exile on Main Street and London Calling, and they soaked up classic records."

What the Kings of Leon lacked in musicianship they made up for in sheer rock'n'roll abandon, and when Youth & Young Manhood emerged in 2003, the band charmed critics and fans alike, especially in the United Kingdom, where the group's back story and power-charged rock were enthusiastically embraced. Breaking in the United Kingdom and Europe was no accident, Levitan says.

"The whole thing started when everybody changed at the label," he says. "Clive Davis was coming in and we didn't think he would get it, so we went over to Europe and hired a publicist and thought, 'This thing could work very, very well.' And it did. We built there first, and they worked very hard. And they lived hard."

Indeed, Caleb's raspy vocals and lyrics bespoke all the decadence that rock'n'roll had ever promised as the band charged through its first three albums, moving to the arena and even stadium level overseas while still playing large clubs and theaters stateside. Each of the group's first three albums sold in the 500,000 range in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, as its sound evolved into more textured sonics without sacrificing the urgency of the band's earlier work.

Then, suddenly, the American masses took hold with the release of Only by the Night in 2008, an unqualified global smash that yielded the crossover hits "Use Somebody" and "Sex on Fire," picking up four Grammy Awards and selling 2.3 million records in the States. Kings of Leon graduated from the tents to the main stage at Bonnaroo and other U.S. fests, and began headlining arenas and amphitheaters, finally, in North America by 2009.

The global fans helped keep the band signed to RCA, and the label's patience paid off when America caught on. Still, "if all we had was our American sales ... we'd probably have gotten dropped," Jared says. "I guarantee there was a meeting after the third album: 'Are we going to give them one more chance?' Then Only by the Night came out, and there's one dude in the office saying, 'I'm a genius.'"

RCA president/COO Tom Corson believes the band was solid at RCA with or without the crossover hits. "They always sold some albums [stateside]-it wasn't like they didn't have any success," he says. "You don't just look at sales when you're looking at artists, you look at everything around them. Yes, the international side of things was hugely important to their development and allowed a lot of funding and support to happen over here, but long term they would have stuck with them from day one until now."

Recorded in New York (a "claustrophobic" experience, Nathan says), follow-up Come Around Sundown didn't achieve the success of Only by the Night, yet still sold 732,000 U.S. copies. In retrospect, it seems pop hits were an anomaly for this rock band.

"The label-everybody-has pop expectations when you hit a certain level," Levitan says, "but they're not Miley Cyrus. That's not the type of songs they have. They're an album band. They always were."

An album band, yes, but every stakeholder on Team KOL would love a single or two as part of the body of work that is Mechanical Bull. "You need both," Corson says. "You need a super-strong album, which they have. But you need those singles as a wedge, an invitation for folks to come in to explore the album."

The lingering magnitude of "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody" is most evident at shows. As is often the case, a mass breakout can alienate hardcore fans. Nathan says "you can always tell" fans of the songs from fans of the band. "You know it's an old fan when they go get a beer when you play 'Sex on Fire.'"

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