Kings of Leon interview: The kings of the wild frontier clean up

The Followills swapped partying for personal trainers after burning out three years ago. Now they’re back on the road

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The Independent Culture

Deep backstage at the city’s Ziggo Dome, an hour before showtime, Kings of Leon are recalling the first time they played Amsterdam. Or, they’re trying to.

“I don’t think anyone can remember the first time they played Amsterdam,” chuckles drummer Nathan Followill, who will celebrate his 35th birthday later this month on the road in Sweden with the band.

“I do,” says his brother Caleb with a ruminative rub of his beard (“I’m going for a Jim Morrison thing”). The singer can picture himself promoting the Americans’ 2003 debut Youth and Young Manhood, doing an interview outside the Paradiso club, “and staring at a canal. Then when we went on stage I was really high. As a matter of fact I’d been to the Paradiso the night before, just dancing, all messed-up on everything,” the 32-year-old grins at me.

“We were there for several days,” continues his Proustian reverie. “It was really hot, and I never changed clothes, never showered, and I was dressed like an old woman…”

The hash cookies, the siblings confirm, were even more ruinous for their bandmates, youngest brother Jared (bass, 27) and cousin Matt (guitar, 29). “I think poor Jared and Matt rode a Ferris wheel for two hours straight one time,” laughs Nathan, “not realising what they’d got themselves into.”

This, of course, is classic Kings of Leon behaviour. Tales of narcotic derring-do (or, in the case of the big-wheel-trapped Matt and Jared, derring-don’t) and hedonistic misadventure are what we’ve come to expect from the hard-partying family band from Tennessee. It was partly because of their gung-ho enthusiasm for A Good Time, All The Time that the band’s southern-fried rock’n’roll was embraced more quickly in the UK than anywhere else. While it took 2008’s fourth album Only by the Night – and the singles “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” – to break them in America, the Brit/Followhill love affair has been in full flower for years now.

When we speak Kings of Leon are preparing for a headline slot at this weekend’s Isle of Wight Festival, followed by a run of UK stadium shows. They’re still high from “appetiser” gigs at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Glasgow and Newcastle’s St James’ Park last month.

“No one was more excited than we were in Newcastle,” says the quiet but hospitable Caleb as he sips a beer, the early evening sunshine pouring into a meeting room in the cavernous arena. “We ran onto the stage, played almost 30 songs, and they had to pull us off the stage after two hours. The atmosphere is just so much better,” he adds. Having been on tour with last year’s sixth album Mechanical Bull for fully 12 months, he knows of what he speaks. “The crowd took over singing and they just went on forever. That’s how you do it.”

Kings of Leon’s aim for this summer’s enormous open-air shows, he affirms, is simple. “Some of these people have been drinking all day and we want them to be in the moment. And never feel like they have to go take a piss.”

“Half the time they piss in the cup!” hoots Nathan. “And British shows especially – I’ll see the cup flying and think, ‘some poor soul is about to get nailed…’ And they never get mad. A girl tweeted me the other night – ‘it was worth taking three shampoos to get the piss out of my hair.’ And she was dead serious.”

Actually, that gives the hearty, gregarious drummer a thought. “We need a deal with a shampoo company...”

Weirder things have happened, especially to bands who’ve sold over 16 million albums, and not least within the ranks of Kings of Leon. For these days the onetime kings of bacchanalia are serious, sober(-ish) men. They have personal trainers and serious golf habits. They’re husbands and fathers too, which is one reason for the mellowing out. Another is that their workload – and work style – almost killed the band.

Having released five albums in seven years, the canary in the coalmine was Caleb’s voice. During the typically lengthy tour in support of Come Around Sundown (2010), it was reported that, to help him keep performing, he was on the receiving end of a procedure at which even Michael Jackson’s physicians might have baulked: steroid injections in his throat.

“No, no, not there,” comes the frontman’s rebuttal. “Usually in my ass, sometimes in my arm. It relaxes you, but it also tricks your body – it gives you this false belief in your voice. And your face gets all red and you get a headache.”

“And it makes you angry,” adds his brother, taking a thoughtful swig of his white wine. “It’s like taking Viagra pretty much.”

“I got a little temperamental,” Caleb concedes. “’Roid rage is a true thing. At one point I had to go on them for a week straight ’cause I had polyps on my throat.” His wife, the Victoria’s Secret model Lily Aldridge, was less than impressed. “She was like, ‘We’re getting you your own hotel room, you’re being quarantined, come see me when you’re off the regimen. When your balls are the normal size again.’”

At Dallas’s Gexa Energy Pavilion in July 2011, the wheels finally fell off. A seemingly intoxicated Caleb walked offstage, muttering about needing another beer. What was planned as a brief respite turned into a full-blown hiatus – which in turn catalysed “Kings split” headlines in the press. But no, the band only needed space from the stage, and from each other.

A few months later they were back in the saddle, and Mechanical Bull – if hardly a reinvention – is the sound of a band embracing functionality and creativity over debauchery. These days they’ve tempered their partying; the serious drinking only happens after the shows. That said, most nights on this European leg the band are private-jetting back to Spain. They’re “hubbing” out of a mountainside retreat, where their wives and young babies are basing themselves.

Newly domesticated, and semi-detoxed, Kings of Leon are playing some of the best shows of their career, as the 17,000 Dutch fans packing the Ziggo Dome that night would attest.

“Back in the day we played 186 shows in one year,” says Nathan, almost wistfully. “You can do that when you’re 19 and you’re playing 30-minute sets and you’re the opening band. And you can do that hung over. But when you’re doing a two-hour set in a stadium – my trainer says to me: ‘You’re like an athlete, a professional, and you have to keep your body in shape.’ Although,” he says with a smile and an old-habits shrug, “I don’t think David Beckham would be drinking a glass of wine before a football match.”

Kings of Leon play the Isle of Wight Festival tomorrow, and then tour (