By Mark Guarino
The Kings of Leon is a band no one would guess would be handpicked to open a U2 tour. Yet there they’ll be at an arena near you in the spring, playing to some of the biggest crowds of their two-year career.
What did it take for a relatively unknown Southern rock band of brothers to get hooked up? A chance to play for Bono when both U2 and Kings were booked to play the same television show in the U.K. “We talked about touring with them but you never really know if they were being serious or not. A lot of bands will tell you a lot of things. But he did seem to like us,” said Kings bassist, 18-year-old Jared Followill.
The ascent of the Kings of Leon is one of the most unpredictable stories of the past few years. Brothers Caleb, Jared and Nathan were raised on the road, the sons of an evangelical preacher named Leon who took his family on the road for eight years. The Followills left their home in Memphis and made continual treks through the South and West Coast, settling down in cities for only weeks at a time. Jared, the youngest, was five when the traveling ministry began. When it was finished and his parents divorced, he was 13 and ready to start high school in Nashville. It was then, after mingling with other kids for the first time, he started to realize that maybe his life up to then wasn’t exactly normal.
“I never really felt it was different or weird until I got out of it. We were shut off from pop culture which overall benefited what we do now. We didn’t grow up hearing all that (expletive). When we did listen to music, we heard the old stuff which was fresh inspiration,” he said.
In Nashville, the brothers lived with their mom while their dad settled in Oklahoma City, gave up religion for the secular life and became a house painter. In the course of two years, the older brothers started pitching songs to country stars and scored a publishing deal. After that, they formed a band, added cousin Matthew on guitar and went to New York City to shop their demo around. Quickly signed, they called up their younger brother, then 15, and told him he had a week to learn the songs and create bass parts for them. (He just started learning the instrument only a few weeks before.) When their debut EP “Holly Roller Novocaine” (RCA) was released two years later in 2003, the band hadn’t ever performed live.
Since then, the Kings returned to their old routine minus the preaching. Helped by the fact they are more popular in Europe than in the U.S., they spent a solid year and a half on the road, traveling around the world and playing dates with the Stokes, the Pixies and others. (“It really changes you. It’s like being in a war without the blood. You get a lot of battle scars,” he said.) The sudden exposure to life outside the South helped them move away from the country rock sound of their debut album, “Youth & Young Manhood” (RCA) and more into the direction of streamlined rock.
“We were in Paris and London more than we were in Nashville,” Jared said. “So a lot of things crept in.”
Once it was time to make a follow-up, the band enlisted Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Counting Crows), who produced their debut, and made sure they’d walk into the studio with the songs perfectly arranged and written note perfect. All Johns had to do was capture the band digging into them live.
The band writes together although Jared is the one who introduced his brothers and cousin — together rooted in Southern rock and country — to the postpunk sounds of Joy Division, the Pixies and the Cure and New Wave innovators Television and Talking Heads. “I just tried to get everybody to be more open-minded to more than one thing and not be afraid of having keyboards and harpsichords. A lot of songs start with the bassline and I would change the notes to a Michael Jackson or Talking Heads song and call it my own. They would write stuff around it,” he said.
On the new album, “Aha Shake Heartbreak” (RCA) the band’s scruffy attitude takes flight on songs with strutting beats, snorting bass intros and guitars that rapidly keep time with no wiggle room. Lead singer Caleb, in his slurring vocals that hiccup and occasional yodel, sings of knife fights and bedroom frustration, with urgency that can only be matched by Mick Jagger. At 35 minutes total, the individual songs are the summation of only the most vital parts — not many verse/chorus structures here. Instead, the Kings gallop ahead with the same odd coupled approach that made “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones such a classic: sinewy, ragged good-time music executed with diligence and discipline.
Poised with a club tour and then into the arenas, Jared said the band is busy enough without thinking of who they’re aiming to compete with at their level. Probably nobody except themselves. If there’s inspiration to be gained, it’s from last year’s highly successful Pixies comeback.
“Now they’re fat and comfortable and it looks so great,” Jared said. “I’d love to be fat and not worry about anything and live in a big house, not because you were on MTV but because you did the music you wanted to do and you didn’t (expletive) conform to anything.”