CL Interview: Kings of Leon (with video)

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The band’s stylistic progression has achieved the desired commercial results. Only by the Night reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200. Kings of Leon have become certified musical kingpins in the U.K.; the current disc entered the British charts at No. 1 and has sold 1.5 million copies.

In the States, people, especially critics, have been more skeptical. Singer/lyricist Caleb Followill has often been singled out as a poser. But Kings of Leon are making steady progress in their homeland, having moved from opening arena dates for the likes of U2 and Pearl Jam, to headlining arenas, albeit somewhat smaller ones like the USF Sun Dome, where the band plays on Friday night.

I spoke with lead guitarist Matthew Followill (far left in the above photo) — the cousin to Caleb, Jared and Nathan Followill — on Monday afternoon. Here’s an edited version of our Q&A:

If you listen to the first song on your first album, “Red Morning Light,” and then “Sex on Fire,” you arguably wouldn’t know it was the same band. Tell me how Kings of Leon has evolved over the years.

When we first started, the band really didn’t know — we were just kind of nervous, sort of punks, scared of other bands. We tried to be as raw as we could, as rockin’ as we knew how. Over time we got more comfortable finding own sound, our own thing musically. We were so young. I was 17. Jared was 15. You could argue there’s a big difference, and not only in the songs.

Was part of it that you guys became better musicians?

Definitely. When we started, it was a matter of what we were able to play. After awhile, it became, “I want to play that,” so we figured out how.

Near the end of the bio on your website, there’s this line, which I think is kind of revealing: “Overall, the Followills knew it was time to be honest about their ambitions and prove what they could really do.” Sounds like at heart you guys wanna be huge, and don’t mind pursuing it, don’t mind admitting it.

I never read the bio, but it’s always seemed weird to us that you’d put together a band and sign to an indie label and don’t ever want to be popular, just play clubs forever. Anybody who plays music and takes it seriously wants to move to the next level. Yeah, I guess I don’t mind admitting that it’s a good feeling when more and more people like you and you get bigger and bigger.

You were the cousin that joined three brothers in the band. They grew up sheltered from secular influences — the devil’s music and such — and traveled from town to town with their preacher father. What was your upbringing like?

It was exactly the same. Really sheltered. They traveled a lot. I moved around a lot, moved to seven or eight different houses growing in different towns. We had the same religion. It was exactly the same for me — not being able to listen too much to secular music.

Now you guys are definitely playing secular music, and some of the lyrics are sexually frank. Do you see Kings of Leon music as in some way a rebellion from your upbringing?

I don’t know if you ever knew a preacher’s kid, but they’re always the super-rebellious ones. We really started rebelling, if you wanna call it that, at 14. And we’ve always kind of liked it. To say “fuck” in a song, we thought it was cool. Caleb writes the lyrics. I guess he could still be rebellious or pissed off. I can’t really say.

When they called you to join the band, were you close cousins, friends?

We pretty much grew up together. I’d go to their house for three weeks in the summer. There’d be family reunions out in the hills of Oklahoma where we’d hang out for a week. Me and Jared were always close ’cause we were close in age.

I knew they had songs and stuff. They’d play them for me when we got together. They were great, great songs. They knew I played guitar. One day I heard they were looking for a record deal and before you know it they go signed to RCA. They called me and said they wanted me to join the band. I finally thought I’d never get an opportunity like it — so I dropped out [of school] in the 11th grade.

I bet you look back at that as the best phone call you ever got.

It made me nervous. I was like, ‘But I gotta go to high school.’ I thank God it worked out — because I’d probably be painting houses now.

[image-1]Your guitar playing has changed along with the music. It was a lot of barbed wire in the beginning; now there are a lot of atmospherics.

When I got up there [to join the band], I immediately started writing guitar parts. They bought me a guitar, and I went for the Les Paul and Marshall [amp] thing. I jumped right in: “Can I play solos?” “Sure, you can play solos.” It was my favorite thing to do. I was into that dirty old Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin sound.

As I progressed, I listened to a lot of different music. I got a different guitar and amp. I bought a pedal with a bunch of effects on it and realized I could apply new sounds to the new songs and the old songs. I don’t think I coulda stayed playing that jangly stuff — it gets boring after awhile. I can still do that, but now I have different approaches I can take.

You don’t seem to play many solos anymore.

They stick out in the live show more so than on the records. They let me off the leash. I’ve been working atmospheric stuff into the music, but the next album could be more rockin’. We’ve been listening to punk and grunge, and the next album could be quite a bit different.

It seems Kings of Leon has established itself as a band that’s not going to stick to the same style. To me that sounds like a good thing — frees you up to change directions if you like.

If you listen to all the records, you’ll hear songs that some people would say sound Southern rockish, or punk, and there’s some country influence. And you have atmospheric and poppy. That’s the main thing I love about the band is that we don’t have to play one style of music. We do whatever we want to do, whatever we love. It’s worked out for us. We can anything we want.

Here's a "Home Movies"-style video.

In the studio and being interviewed about "Sex on Fire."

Three boys travel around the South with their itinerant preacher father and a mother who home-schools them. They sneak in as much secular rock music as they can, learn to play instruments, occasionally back up Dad at the altar.

They write songs. Then they write better songs and, as if from nowhere, land a record deal with a major label, RCA. They call their cousin to join the band as a lead guitarist. They adjourn to Nashville and begin a career that follows a steadily upward trajectory.

It’s the kind of narrative that record companies love — and, near as anyone can tell, it’s pretty much true. Kings of Leon’s first album, 2003’s Youth and Young Manhood, was garage-y and rambunctious, and earned them the sobriquet “the Southern Strokes.”

In the three albums since, KoL has consistently expanded its palette; its current disc, last year’s Only by the Night, is far more stylistic far-reaching, sonically polished and slotted more toward the rock mainstream. The single “Sex on Fire” might be described as Southern U2.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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