Kings Of Leon have put together a striking album in "Mechanical Bull," one that melds the most appealing aspects from a decade of evolution. The powerful, diverse record, which drops Sept. 24, showcases the elements KOL do best: turn-on-a-dime tempo changes, mysterious, atmospheric ballads, and ringing, hard-charging rockers. And, produced again by Angelo Petraglia, "Mechanical Bull," the band's sixth album, ventures into new territory while remaining resolutely a guitar rock album in the classic sense.
Drummer Nathan Followill calls "Bull" an "unofficial greatest hits," given how it taps into the finer points of previous KOL releases. "In some weird way this record was kind of a reflection for us, kind of a trip down memory lane to where we didn't police ourselves so hard, 'that's not gonna fit on this record, that doesn't go with this or that,'" he says. "This time, it was just get in there and jam, if it sticks it sticks, go on to the next song and try to make it better than the one you played before."
Guitarist Matthew Followill agrees with that assessment. "Having made five albums, we know what we think is best about each record, and you can add that to it and then add new elements," he says. "Each time you build on it, make it a little more eclectic, little bit more well-rounded."
Billboard's Ray Waddell spoke with the Kings Of Leon at the band's Neon Leon studio in Nashville as the group was working up the songs on "Mechanical Bull" for the concert stage, and teeing up international album promotion commitments. Here's what they had to say about each of the tracks on "Mechanical Bull."
Chiming, thumping, and melodic, the debut single from "Mechanical Bull" signals that the Kings Of Leon are back. Also notable are Caleb Followill's vocals, which come through with more clarity on "Supersoaker," and throughout the album, than ever before.
"I just think I'm more comfortable in my skin," says Caleb of his singing on "Mechanical Bull." "I could always sing the way I'm singing now, I just refused to do it, because I was a kid that wanted to sound like a man. I think now, these guys [in the band] have given me a lot more confidence in my singing. If I do something and get embarrassed, they say 'no, you've got to do that, people are gonna love hearing you be that honest and singing the way that you can.'
Greasy bass lines, ragged whoops, and Stones-ish guitars accentuate one of the coolest tracks on the record, with Caleb delivering a Petty-esque vocal, whether he knew it or not.
"Tom Petty was the first album I ever bought with my own money," Caleb says. "I've been listening to him ever since, so I know there's a huge influence on me. Maybe that song is kind of showing that a little bit."
A rock powerhouse, "Don't Matter" is where "Mechanical Bull" really finds its stride, evoking the Stooges with its punk bravado, go-for-broke guitars, and intense vocals with lyrics like, "I can f*ck or I can fight, it don't matter to me."
"You got it right," Matthew Followill says of the Stooges comparison. "Most people say it reminds them of Queens of the Stone Age, and it's definitely the Stooges"
Adds bassist Jared Followill, "I've still got scars from where we recorded that one, I rubbed my wrists raw because I'm doing down strokes the entire song. We just nailed it."
The song fits nicely into the record as a body of work, injecting a thunderbolt into the sequencing. "We were kind of going through everything, and we needed a rocker," Caleb recalls. "We've got a lot of mid-tempos, but we needed something that rocks really good. Me and Matthew sat there and came up with a riff in about 15 minutes, and I just went in there and just sang it off the top of my head. We played it three times and we ended up keeping the first take."
An atmospheric, mid-tempo ballad which, with its sterling, confident Caleb vocals, sibling harmonies, and understated power, seems destined to be a classic and a mainstay in the KOL setlist.
"That song was written years ago, the same weekend I wrote 'Use Somebody,'" Caleb says. "It was a slow, country song. Angelo had a bunch of notes, reminders of what songs were, and he had one that said, 'what is this?' I started strumming it on acoustic and playing it, and the guys listened and thought it was great. They had heard it for years, they just didn't realize it, and as soon as everybody picked up their instruments, it completely transformed from a slow country song, to a tempo, as soon as Jared started I was like, That. Feels. Awesome.' That song came together pretty quickly, too, and it's definitely a song that I'm very proud of."
A somewhat different melodic stance for the Kings, with cool tempo changes, and a nice breakdown before the outtro.
"That song and 'Walk A Mile' were written the same night in South Africa in the hotel room," Caleb says. "Obviously things changed when we got in the studio, like the intro, but it felt like a '90s song to me. That's when we were listening to a lot of music, and still when we play it, we crack up the whole time, this the most radio friendly song…"
"We call it 'smiling rock,'" Nathan adds. "Then you get to the breakdown, and it's our ode to Thin Lizzy."
"Wait For Me"
A gentle guitar intro morphs into a pulsing, rhythmic love song, with the bass and drums standing out here, and elsewhere, as "Mechanical Bull" is a rhythmic album from a naturally rhythm-oriented band.
Regarding the bass/drum interplay on "Mechanical Bull," bassist Jared says, "we never say, 'ok we really need to step up the rhythm section,' or 'we really need to step up the guitar.' And nobody every writes a part for Nathan or me, we just do it. The reason our rhythm section is what it is is because Nathan's really good. I'm not a normal bass player, I've always played guitar on bass, and as I get better and write more intricate parts, Nathan has always been good enough to where he follows me. So almost always I'll write the bass line, and then he plays his drums to the bass. So if there's ever anything where people think, 'man, the kick pedal is so synched up with the bass,' most people would think, 'man that bass player's locked in,' [but] it's really not me, I'm just playing my thing and Nathan locks in to me."
A funky boogie shuffle, "Family Tree" is another showcase for the KOL rhythm section and arguably the most fun track on the record.
"It's my favorite song to play live in a long time," says Jared. "You kind of look dorky up there, I kind of look like the way my mom dances, but you can't help but get into it."
For Matthew, "Family Tree" is, "a weird one for me, because it's so rhythm heavy that there's not a lot of space for anything else, everything's covered," he says. "There's nothing I can do that sounds cool, it sounds cool just being like it is, with just the bass and the drums it sounds great. So I didn't write any big parts for that, a lot of it is kind of noodling."
The song also features a greasy Caleb vocal, with lyrics like "I don't understand why everybody gives a big hot damn where I'm goin to/don't mean a thing to you," a song that could easily be construed as relating to the band's past couple of years. "A lot of these songs, the lyrics are kinda off the top of my head, but I think there's a little bit of psychology in there," Caleb says. "I'm talking to myself, and I'm talking to the world."
"Walk A Mile"
Spritely cadence and dual guitar lines, "Walk A Mile" has a harmonic musicality, with the refrain "Comeback story of a lifetime."
The line "comeback story of a lifetime," is kind of sincere," Caleb says, "but at the same time it us kind of laughing off the critics, -uh oh, we took a year, come back story of a lifetime.'"
Perhaps more importantly, "Walk A Mile" finds a home for a lyric Caleb always wanted to include in a song. "I knew that I wanted to tell my Grandpa's joke in a song, 'never talk about a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. That way you're a mile away, and you've got his shoes.' I knew I was gonna say that at some point in a song, and it so happened I was playing something pretty and it worked with it."
Guitars, guitars, guitars, with tempo changes, an all-in Caleb vocal, and a sense of urgency throughout.
"That one was kind of a toughie," Caleb admits. "The vocal's really high, and at one point I remember saying, 'let's lower it, let's go down a key,' and we did that, and everyone was like, 'that yearning of the vocal is gone when you put it in a key that is easy.' It's one of those songs that feels like nighttime, it feels like tonight. The first time I said 'when I see the lights on Broadway,' I thought, 'I know a lot of people won't know that I'm talking about Broadway in Nashville, which is a lot different from THE Broadway.' It's kind of like when you've just been good for long enough to where it's, 'alright, tonight, all the crew together, this is gonna get ugly.'
"On The Chin"
A dreamy, gently loping ballad, with some of Caleb's most evocative vocals and powerful lyric writing, including a chorus that says, "I'll take it on the chin for you, my friend."
"It's a beautiful feeling to play that song," says Nathan. "The beauty of it is in its simplicity. The thing I like about that song the most is [Caleb] could sit down and just play it all by himself with an acoustic guitar and it would be just as moving as it is with a full band. I think that's what makes it such a great song, it is a full band song, but it can still have that feel and that emotion of super-broken down, nothings forced, no one's jacking off all over the song trying to make it more than it has to be. That one will be fun to play live because even if the crowd doesn't get it at first, I think it's great for every set list to have at least two or three songs where we can play just for each other."
"We've always been each other's best friends, because that's all we had," Caleb says. "We were picking up and moving, every town we went to we knew we weren't gonna be there too long, so we knew, 'don't make too close of friends, and don't fall in love.' Being in Nashville, I finally had a buddy outside of the band, and he was just kind of always, no matter what you need, he's there. He's just a good guy. And that song kind of came at a time when I needed a friend, and I wrote it about him. And he's scared of the water. He's scared of sharks."