The Kings of Leon: 'One day we will be a really, really great band'

The Southern rockers who came from nowhere with Youth and Young Manhood are back. Alexia Loundras meets The Kings of Leon
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The Independent Culture

It's a dangerous thing when a band's story becomes bigger than their music. It happened to the sexed-up funkster Har Mar Superstar. Mention him and what springs to mind is not his smooth, Stevie Wonder voice, but performing in his underpants and his much played-upon resemblance to a legendary porn star. The Libertines are known to some for their heroin-addled sometime singer rather than their stirring anthems, and the shock-meister Marilyn Manson not for his songs, but for his make-up and tireless dedication to stirring controversy. What starts out as an interesting aside very soon becomes an albatross around an artist's neck and tunes play second fiddle to something that was, for the most part, intended to be rather more incidental.

It's a dangerous thing when a band's story becomes bigger than their music. It happened to the sexed-up funkster Har Mar Superstar. Mention him and what springs to mind is not his smooth, Stevie Wonder voice, but performing in his underpants and his much played-upon resemblance to a legendary porn star. The Libertines are known to some for their heroin-addled sometime singer rather than their stirring anthems, and the shock-meister Marilyn Manson not for his songs, but for his make-up and tireless dedication to stirring controversy. What starts out as an interesting aside very soon becomes an albatross around an artist's neck and tunes play second fiddle to something that was, for the most part, intended to be rather more incidental.

The Kings of Leon are another a case in point. "Just go back and read some of our press," says their front man, Caleb Followill, lounging in his plush hotel armchair. "It's all about our hair, our partying and our dad. And then right at the bottom there's this little blurb about our music." When the Tennessee-based band crashed onto our post-Strokes musical landscape last year, they came gift-wrapped in a Southern gothic fairy tale so perfect it was hard to look any further. Born to Leon Followill, a Pentecostal evangelist, and Betty Ann, a church pianist, the brothers Nathan, Caleb and Jared spent their formative years living a nomadic existence as they travelled the Bible Belt with their parents. But the brothers' road-trip came to an abrupt end when their father's alcoholism led to him being defrocked.

With a heritage soaked first in fire and brimstone, then sin and indulgence, the Kings of Leon are the real-life incarnations of Dusty Springfield's sweet-talkin' preacher's son. Leon's blood runs thick through his boys. But while rumours of Pa Followill's philandering are unfounded ("He has problems but he'd never do that," say Caleb), his sons have wasted no time in cementing a family reputation for partying harder than most, including, at times, in the most salubrious company of people such as Kate Moss and Liv Tyler. Supplemented by their their quiet cousin Matthew, they arrived fully packaged in skinny-fit vintage clothes, shoulder-length locks and - in the case of Nathan's near-Biblical beard and Caleb's d'Artagnan moustache - the kind of facial hair not seen since Woodstock.

With their good looks and Southern charm, it soon became apparent they could seduce the wimple off a convent lass - and, if the colourful gossip surrounding the band is anything to go by, probably have. With their exotic, stranger than fiction back-story and a notoriety for hard living, the Kings of Leon epitomised the ultimate rock'n'roll image. Even their music, Southern-fried and steeped in tales stolen from the church confessionals, seemed to perpetuate their thrilling saga. So enticing was the myth surrounding the band, it was no surprise their fiery, garage-blues drenched debut, Youth And Young Manhood, was reduced to a mere footnote in their already engrossing tale, despite the fact that it sold more than half a million copies in the UK.

Yet with the release of their wonderful second album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, just 16 months after their first, the band have proved they can succeed where others have failed. Like a rattlesnake inching out of its skin, the Kings too are shrugging off the Southern cliché. The change of their band logo's font, from a coarse, "wanted"-poster-style text to an elegant flowing script, is just one of many subtle-but-notable refinements.

Another is the fact they're all here for our interview. When we first met last summer, only Caleb and the baby-faced bass-player Jared could pull themselves out of bed for our afternoon interview. The remaining half of the band found their hangovers too much to bear. Now, daintily pouring tea from porcelain pots in the Oriental-themed lounge of their posh Hamburg hotel, all four are the picture of clear-headed civility. Last night, despite being just a stone's throw from the city's infamous red-light Reeperbahn district, The Kings of Leon chose not to spend their night off ogling dancers in the city's striptease bars. Instead, they decided to have dinner. Their only concession to their rock'n'roll life style was the decidedly debauched bill after their "wine-off" - everyone ordered what they thought was the best wine and a vote was taken to determine the winner. The Kings' tour manager is a big fan of the grape and his tastes have been rubbing off on his charges. "The Chablis Premier Cru won," announces Caleb with the assuredness of a connoisseur. "But," he continues with surprise, "a Californian came a very close second."

"We were one of those bands famous for everything but our music," says the drummer Nathan, as though confessing his sins. But, for that, the Kings admit they must largely blame themselves: everything said about them was, after all, true. "We were plucked out of our little world, came to England and we were suddenly celebrities," says Caleb - sharp-fringed, straight-haired and clean-shaven. "The beers were bigger over here and the girls weren't scared of the way we looked..." he smiles a what-would- you-have-done smile and wraps himself tighter in his new cashmere scarf. "We were young and dumb," he continues. "And we really did have a truly good time."

The band were intent on setting a standard. "All our relatives that are our age were always the best at everything," explains Jared. "It was our first record and we wanted to show the world what we could do - that we could party hardest and Caleb could sing growliest and we could play sloppier than anyone and still be better than the rest." Given the band's religious upbringing, their overnight UK success was akin to a kid's lock-up in a sweet shop. What was once forbidden was available in abundance. But while the first treat whetted the appetite for more, it wasn't long before the novelty started to wear off.

"You just start to see through all that stuff," says Caleb. "At first, seeing those beautiful, famous girls backstage at our shows was great, but then you begin to realise these people are just talking to you so they can enjoy your party." The Followills concluded they were the real stars, and not those whom Caleb refers to as "the has-beens hanging around us so they get talked about." Arrogant perhaps, but the band reacted well to this surge in confidence. They could have taken the Oasis route and, happy with their glittering rock'n'roll credentials, continued according to script: rehashed their first record, brushed up their beard bristles, sharpened their Southern twangs and headed back over the pond for their second rebellious assault on our shores.

But they haven't done that. Instead, they've used that confidence to make an album that's considerably better than their first. On Aha Shake Heartbreak, the Kings of Leon have scrapped their Credence Clearwater Revival-do-The Strokes formula and injected all the taut energy of their debut into a wonderfully textured album brimming with a life - and sound - all of its own. Glimmering melodies tussle with swathes of electronica, drunken waltzes dance with lonely guitars and bass-lines boogie with boisterous abandon to make a record with real breadth that defies expectation. Not only does that show courage and confidence, it shows pride.

Because, as well as seeing through the hangers-on, at some point during their arduous world tour the band realised they weren't being written about because of their tunes. And, they point out, they only formed a band because of their passion for music. "We just got so sick of everything that was being said about us - we became completely sick and tired of Kings of Leon," says Caleb. "We were tired of everyone that works for us, against us - whatever the hell they do. We were tired of all the stories that have been told about us, we were tired of what people thought we were and what kind of music they thought we made. We had shit to get off our chest. We wanted to do things that no one would expect us to do. And when we came home, all that frustration just started pouring out of us."

"So this record is our hangover," explains Caleb. "We had all these feelings boiling inside us for two years and they had to come out. And we captured those emotions. I want you to listen to this record and feel how I feel." That's not hard to do. Aha Shake Heartbreak is a raw, honest and open diary of an album, filled with faceless groupies, illicit encounters and drunken nights. Given the Followills' well-documented touring legacy, it's no surprise sex features in almost every song, but Aha Shake Heartbreak is hardly a proud catalogue of conquests. Though peppered with wit, self-deprecating humour and at times real tenderness, the record is underscored with melancholy. Far from having the times of their lives, the Kings sound lonely.

Nathan agrees: "Definitely, the theme of this record is desperation," he says, laughing as though found out. "The sex just gets old!"

"What we need is a permanent girl on the tour bus," interjects Jared. "A nice girl we can talk to. That's what we're missing!" Nathan shakes his head: "No, we're missing Jesus and our mama! We're turning into our dad, whether we realise it our not." Ironic really, for a band who've been trying to escape the shadow of their heritage. The table falls into a thoughtful hush for a moment as the band-mates quietly contemplate the similarities between themselves and the disgraced, recovering alcoholic preacher: both performed daily shows in front of a rapt audience, both have confessed to an over-fondness for alcohol. As Nathan puts it, "Like him, we're just starting to appreciate the quieter side of life."

Of course, quieter for the Kings of Leon is still quite loud for the rest of us, and the band certainly haven't given up on the good life entirely. Later that night, after an electrifying gig that rouses two thousand Germans into an increasingly excitable, set-long mosh, the band head to a private members' bar off the Reeperbahn to see in their baby brother's 18th birthday. The celebrity quotient inside the harem-styled club is not quite that of the band's New York or London after-shows, but there's still an ever-present chorus of pretty things hovering keenly around the band. The Followills hardly seem to notice. The champagne and fine wine does flow freely, but they're much happier talking among themselves and to their support band, the New York garage-rockers The Mooney Suzuki, than responding to the gaggle of girls.

It's three in the morning and, according to the band's tour schedule, they should have been on the road to Berlin an hour ago, but they're not. Tomorrow's hangovers are being nicely primed, but the band spurn Jared's vodka-soaked birthday cake for fear of peaking too soon. Ultimately, the four genuine and open musicians are taking the same increasingly mature approach - they're determined to last the distance. "You start to realise that if you don't take it a little easier," says Caleb, "you're going to be a flash in the pan - you're going to be gone tomorrow. If we can just keep our sanity, I think that one day we'll be a really, really great band."

With Aha Shake Heartbreak the Kings Of Leon's albatross has taken off, carrying with it the more unwieldy of the preconceptions, and freeing the band up to take a sizeable step towards that goal. "One day, I want my kids to have more than just a laugh at the way we used to look," continues Caleb, eyes gleaming. A winner's smile flashes across his face. "I want them to be proud of the music we made." The way his band are going, they will be.

The Kings of Leon tour the UK from 8 December; 'Aha Shake Heartbreak' is out now on Handmedown/RCA

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