Sometimes you have to cut loose from the shackles of self-perception to really be free. Nearly two decades into their recorded career, Kings of Leon are a band now willing to let go of commercial concerns. “We’ll argue with the record label later if we don’t have the radio hit,” frontman and principal songwriter Caleb Followill tells Variety.
“We had a ton of rules at the very beginning,” shares his brother and bassist Jared Followill, who says the band used to “frown” at the idea of using instrumentation that strayed from their original sound. They were also so intent on ensuring that the live performances were as good as the album experience that they would only record what the four of them “could play live.”
This time around, however, it was different. For their eighth album, “When You See Yourself,” Kings of Leon entered the studio and discarded the notions that usually preoccupied them. “Don’t think about the live show, don’t think about radio, don’t think about singles,” Jared recalls, “[just] try to make the best album you can.”
“When You See Yourself” has become the first release by a major rock band to be offered as an ‘NFT’ (Non-Fungible Token) — a form of non-duplicable digital token that denotes rights of ownership of the artist’s work to the purchaser. But no such concerns influenced the music the band recorded.
“The longer you’re doing this, the more you want to take things as far as you feel like they should go,” Caleb observes. “I don’t think any of us realized that this album didn’t have many songs that would fit the radio format. That isn’t something that came into our minds at all. In this day and age, I wish it didn’t have to. It’s a different world.”
It’s certainly a different world to the one Kings of Leon greeted with their boisterous debut, “Youth and Young Manhood,” in 2003. They seemed to be something out of a bygone era themselves with a backstory almost too tantalizing to be swallowed as gospel truth.
Drummer Nathan, Caleb and Jared Followill are the sons of a Pentecostal preacher from the American Deep South, who enlisted their cousin, Matthew Followill, to play lead guitar. With their long hair and tight tees, the Nashville rockers looked like they’d been cryogenically frozen from the 1970s and dropped into the new century. They had a sound to match. Amid Caleb’s scat-like yelps, lyrics charted brothel scrapes (“Molly’s Chambers”) and warnings of religious comeuppance (“Holy Roller Novocaine”) within their southern-fried tunes.
Audiences in the U.K. and Europe came flocking, turning them into cult stars. The ramshackle brilliance of sophomore album “Aha Shake Heartbreak” (2004) completed a two-record volley of critically acclaimed garage rock that Jared believes was only possible thanks to the patience of their longtime label, RCA Records.
“They didn’t try and make us produce radio hits,” he reflects gratefully. “They would let us be completely free artistically, and that’s why you have albums like ‘Youth and Young Manhood’ and ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak.’ Those are weird albums, and we were weird boys. They just released the weirdness and [even though the albums] weren’t very big, they just let us evolve naturally and grow into what we were going to be. We were always kinda surprised that they let us keep making albums and kept paying for them.”
Every so often, Caleb can be found contemplating the body of work they have amassed so far and is struck by what he sees. Whilst his lyrics have never shied away from dark terrain — “You kick the bucket / I’ll swing my legs,” he wrote on “The Bucket,” for example — he has often tempered darkness and/or the personal with abstraction.
Even so, it is hard not to draw elements of autobiography coursing through some of his words. When asked if any lyrics from the band’s earliest days resonate with him still, he’s philosophical.
“I feel like the longer time passes, the more they can hit me. It’s like you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, but a much younger version of yourself: someone who wasn’t necessarily as confident and was unsure of what lay ahead,” he imparts. “So, a song like ‘Milk’ can still give me shivers. Or ‘Arizona,’ ‘Knocked Up,’ ‘True Love Way,’ all those songs. Sometimes I actually look at [my work] and I go, ‘Wow,’ and I’m proud of myself. I can tell it’s a young man at the early stages of growing up. Some of that was pretty deep stuff for a young man who was searching.”
By KOL’s third album, 2007’s “Because of the Times,” the band found itself in transition, the members laying the foundations for a more polished second act. That arrived in earnest with “Only by the Night” (2008), the album that signaled their breakthrough Stateside thanks, in part, to anthemic singles “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody.” Feted with Grammys and toasted by the mainstream, their stock rose, and the two releases that followed, “Come Around Sundown” (2010) and “Mechanical Bull” (2013), forged similar sonic ground without scaling comparable commercial heights.
When it came to their next move, rather than stick, they decided to twist. Angelo Petraglia, a stalwart in the Kings of Leon camp — cowriter of some of the band’s earliest material and producer or co-producer on all of their albums — was replaced by Björk and Coldplay producer Markus Dravs. Under his stewardship, they released 2016’s “WALLS”: their first number one album in the U.S. In 2019, the group decamped to Blackbird Studios in Nashville with Dravs to begin work on its follow up. The 10 months they spent recording “When You See Yourself” became the longest studio stint in their career.
Aside from “Echoing’s” frenetic chug and “The Bandit’s” propulsive thrum, “When You See Yourself” is more glacial than its predecessors, the lyrical mood contemplative, and their trademark sepia-soaked, gothic arena-rock even more atmospheric than usual. The likes of “100,000 People” and “A Wave” contain washes of synthesizer and tasteful piano that adds color to their palette without eliminating the band’s personality.
A core part of that personality is still Jared Followill’s wandering, inventive bass. A style that is rarely content to simply ride the root note. “Every once in a while, I might have a little guitar melody. But if I bring something in, it’s almost always just on the bass,” he divulges. “Usually, it’s more my simple stuff like ‘Charmer’ or ‘On Call’ that everybody writes around, because if an idea starts from the bass, it needs to be simple. I feel like I do my best work when playing other people’s stuff.”
“I feel like you write on guitar though,” interjects Caleb, addressing his brother directly. “I mean, a lot of your lines, when you play them on an acoustic guitar, they sound like a great guitar riff.
“In the early days, we just kinda put a bass in [Jared’s] hands,” he continues, “and so I feel like he wrote guitar parts on the bass as opposed to bass lines. That’s what makes it such a unique sound. Most people don’t write a bass line the way that he does.”
Even when a band of brothers approaches their two-decade mark, the temptation to do something else can arise.
“I think Nathan wants to go solo — the world is ready for an all-drum album,” jokes Caleb, before contemplating the topic more seriously. “Film scores or writing something for a movie,” he ponders. “As far as solo stuff, I enjoy writing songs and a lot of the time the songs that I enjoy writing are not Kings of Leon [songs], but more of a singer songwriter/man-and-his-guitar kind of thing. I wouldn’t be interested to release that stuff as me and then go and tour it, but I could see myself writing songs and someone else singing them maybe or something like that.”
“Hopefully, all of our side projects would be a little bit worse than our band,” adds Jared. “Just because, with me personally, if I ever did a side project it’s going to be [the] scraps. Anything I write, the first people that get to hear it are the band. They’re always going to get first dibs of the best of the best.”
All of which raises the question, what’s next? “I feel like we’re in a place that it’s taken us eight albums to get to,” Caleb says. “We’re all in the same headspace and we all have the same vibes going on in our lives, which is great because that is going to make us want to continue playing music, touring and doing the things that we do,” he adds. “I feel like we’re in a good spot and hopefully it stays that way for a long time.”