Kings of Leon: Unholy rollers

These three sons of a preacher man (and their cousin) grew up on an extended road trip on the Southern US Pentecostal circuit. It helped Kings of Leon to produce a gloriously wicked album of songs about sex, drugs and debauchery, they tell Alexia Loundras
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The Independent Culture

Caleb Followill is fed up. The sleepy haze that hangs heavy under his bright eyes - the consequence of an all-night bender - lifts to reveal fiery disbelief. Something has tripped a switch somewhere. "Everybody wants to know about our dad being a preacher. Everybody wants to know about the fact that we're young and we're family and blah, blah, blah. Everybody wants to know about the fact that we look like we stepped out of the 1970s and that we sound like The Strokes mixed with the Allman Brothers," he says, exasperated, spreading out on the west London hotel's leather sofa as far as his over-tight denim flares will allow.

It's fair to say that his is not an average band. Kings of Leon are the Tennessee-based brothers Nathan, 23, Caleb, 21, and Jared, 17, and their 18-year-old cousin Matthew. They smoulder with vintage good looks and have a fine knack for hook-heavy Southern blues-drenched rock'n'roll; their excellent debut album, Youth & Young Manhood, is a dirty, gnarled, searing shot of distilled moonshine. They are the sort of band that A&R men would sacrifice their first-borns to sign.

It's not unusual to find musicians struggling to break out from under their father's shadow, but it's much less common when the father in question happens to be a disgraced Pentecostal minister. "We're riding on the coat-tails of a story, or that's what it feels like," says Caleb about the whole preacher thing. "Why would anyone want to buy a record just because someone's dad ministered and they grew up in the South?" adds Jared, perplexed.

"Our dad thinks he's more famous than us," laughs Caleb. And in a way, he's right, regardless of all the hype that surrounds the four-piece. The fact is that everything about Kings Of Leon is intertwined with their father, Leon. As the sons of a travelling United Pentecostal evangelist, Caleb, Nathan and Jared grew up on the road between Memphis and Oklahoma City, living in cars, with relatives or as pastors' guests. And with the exception of a four-year stint in redneck country in Mumford, Tennessee, they never stayed put for more than a year. Their extended road trip came to an abrupt end when Leon's alcoholism got the better of him and he was defrocked.

A fondness for booze runs in the family. Only Caleb and the decidedly perky Jared have made it to the interview, as Nathan and Matthew woke up to find their pulsating heads nailed to their pillows after the excesses of the night before.

But this is not the sum of Leon's legacy. Not only did the boys learn their instruments playing in church alongside their mother, a church pianist, but their nomadic upbringing helped to sow the seeds of the band's formation. "We're really close, but not in a weird way," says Caleb. "It's just that we didn't really have anything else. Our friendships would last a day because we'd have to leave. If I'd had those relationships, I wouldn't have been so close to Nathan, Jared and our cousin."

And then there's all that salvation gossip. "Everyone assumes that as preacher's boys we'd seen loads of holy righteousness, but in fact it meant we were fed tidbits from the pastor, like 'so-and-so was a prostitute'. We'd see behind the scenes of a lot of bad stuff. When we write songs we just tell those stories," Caleb says, his deep growl lifting mischievously.

There wasn't much in the way of musical inspiration to be had, just the fired-up Pentecostal gospel music and the odd snippet of Dylan or Cash snatched off the radio. This goes some way to explaining why the band's only sonic ambition is that their instruments "sound old". But there was always an encyclopedia's worth of sin to plunder. And nothing fuels the imagination more than real-life tales of sex, drugs and ungodly debauchery. Amen to that.

The resulting album is gloriously wicked. A heady concoction of wired Stones rock, rockabilly riffs and dusty toe-tapping melodies - from the Lou Reed-esque "Tranny" to the taut, blues-heavy "Holler Roller Novocaine" - steeped in the kind of moral depravity that would have shaken the pulpit of their backwater church and fuelled congregation rumours for months. These are vibrant, illicit tales of murder, seduction and forbidden love, given life by Caleb's grizzled, slurred howl. It's a furious, moody album that exceeds every heightened expectation. And ultimately, it's rock'n'roll - raw, just as it should be.

After a fire-and-brimstone upbringing, the band have now slipped over to this other side. "The way we were, man, to the way we are now - it's totally at the other end of the spectrum," says Caleb, shaking his head at their moral decay. "Our mom has four sisters and all five girls married preachers. There are a lot of preachers out there who hate everything about us. We'll get home and there'll be a letter in the mailbox from one of our uncles telling us what we need to do because 'the time of reckoning is at hand'. Our whole lives, whatever job we had, we work our asses off and we really put everything into it. And that's kind of how it is now - we smoke too much and drink too much, and I'm sure our hair's too long..."

Ah yes, the hair - a prize, shoulder-length chestnut barnet teamed up with the perfect d'Artagnan moustache. "For most people image is important, but the only thing that's important about our image is that people know we don't care about what they think is cool," says Caleb. That much is apparent. Baby-faced Jared is straight off the set of Almost Famous. Caleb, wearing flares a few inches too short and a burnt orange "ladies" jacket that barely reaches his wrists, looks like a bum, albeit a catwalk-calibre bum styled by a hippie Calvin Klein. Even so, this shrunk-in-the-wash look is unlikely to catch on. "We dress how we always dressed, and now we're in a band people talk about our style," says Jared. Caleb sniggers at the suggestion that they could ever be mistaken for trendsetters.

But it's the band's don't-give-a-toss attitude, not their dress sense, that really marks them out. Glowing with home-baked pride, the Followills are not swayed by the spoils of lightning success. "Honestly, you should think of it all as bullshit - the good, the bad - it's bullshit," says Caleb, referring to the media frenzy that's broken out around the band. "Evidence is all I want. I want to see people reacting to the music. I don't want to see some guy who's trying to break his story writing about The Next Big Thing.

"We don't want to be known for being different, we don't want to be known for anything other than our music," Caleb adds determinedly. "I really can't wait till it gets to the point we have enough, um..."

"Leverage..." Jared interjects. Caleb carries on: "Yeah, leverage, where we can make our music and not worry about everything else. Play music for people." He ends, dreamily: "Or even just keep songs to enjoy for ourselves."

"Turn into Brian Wilson," Jared jokes. Caleb looks inspired - something's tripped a switch somewhere. His aquamarine eyes glisten: "Yeah! We can turn into The Band - we can do whatever we like!"

'Youth & Young Manhood' is out on Handmedown