Not so long ago, Caleb Followill’s wife, the model Lily Aldridge, came up from the basement of their Nashville home and called out to her husband: ‘Babe!” she said. “I was just going through some boxes, and I found these!” In her hands she was carrying a large stack of books. “Lyric books,” Followill says now. “Some of them predating Kings of Leon. Songs I wrote when I was 16. And every Kings song. And every crinkled up napkin with red wine spills on them and ideas for song titles and album titles.” Down the line, he sounds faintly amazed. “I thought I had lost them in a move,” he says. “I had quite the moment.”
It has now been nearly two decades since Kings of Leon arrived. When the band emerged from Tennessee in 2003, they were an impeccable music marketing dream: three sons of an itinerant preacher, and their cousin, all playing a Southern-rock-garage-rock hybrid, each song gussied up by Caleb’s half-comprehensible yelp. Their debut, Youth and Young Manhood, seemed equal parts Allman Brothers and gasoline, testosterone and trouble.
From the start, they were warmly embraced in the UK and Europe, where they soon gathered a reputation as the kind of hard-drinking, groupie-summoning rock band of the imagination. Back in the US, however, they were largely ignored until their fourth album, 2008’s Only By the Night. Harbouring singles “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody”, the record finally brought the band success in their homeland, with platinum sales and Grammy Awards. Today, as they release their eighth album, When You See Yourself, they stand as one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
When You See Yourself was recorded pre-pandemic, and as the months unfolded the decision was made to delay its release. With extra time at their disposal, the band might’ve been tempted to revisit it, but instead they chose just to let it be, a golden maturation of their well-known gleam, a yearning verse giving way to the surging chorus. “I’m happy that we didn’t take the time that we had to manipulate it and move things around,” Followill says. “Because it is a moment in time that you don’t want to mess with.”
For a long time, the 39-year-old says he couldn’t quite bring himself to listen to the album, but when he did, he was surprised to discover not only how personal he had been in its lyrics, but also how prescient some of the songs now seemed: he cites the obvious example of a track called “I’m Going Nowhere”, but also “100,000 People”, which in its original version was titled “100,000 People in an Old Folks Home”. “Some of it’s a little prophetic,” he says. “It gives you shivers at times.”
It has been good for the band to have time away from the road so they could “have in-depth conversations about the music [when] we’re actually at home”, Followill says. “We never got to do this before. So the camaraderie between us has never been stronger. We appreciate one another, and our family bond is even stronger, because we have kids now, and their relationship with one another is as important as ours.”
His older brother, Nathan, 41, has also been enjoying time with his young family, homeschooling his three children, and squeezing “36 hours into 24 hour days”. “I’ve been giving drum lessons to my kids,” he says in a separate interview. “Me and my wife both made it a point to not force music onto our kids, but one month in to quarantine my daughter asked, ‘Dad, would you give me drum lessons, for real?’” Her younger brother duly followed suit. “And so my man cave is now a room full of three sets of drums, and not much quiet,” he says. “And now the two-year-old had his set. So we’re good to go.”
In the past, Kings of Leon have spoken about the strangeness of being an American band in Europe as the politics of their homeland have grown increasingly deranged, and so to have spent a year at home in the midst of America’s most peculiar year must have felt extraordinary. “The first thing that comes to mind: a sigh of relief, just being able to exhale,” says Nathan when asked about the change in president. “I don’t think there’s any band in the world that would choose to tour and be from a country where there is drama going on, where you know you’re going to be asked questions, and rightfully so.” He pauses. “That’s about as political as you’ll ever hear Kings of Leon!” But what about “Crawl”, I wonder, the band’s 2008 single with distinct political overtones. “Well that was a rocker,” he says. “So we thought maybe we could sneak that one through with a little noise.”
When You See Yourself reunites the band with producer Markus Dravs, famed for his work with stadium-stirring bands such as Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons, and with whom they recorded 2016 album WALLS. Dravs, says Caleb, is an exacting producer; whenever a song begins to feel comfortable he will tell them, “‘Alright now, play it as a fast song, play it really fast, with a lot of intensity’,” he says. “And a lot of times when you do that, not only does it work, it ends up becoming a fast song. And the same thing happens with a fast song: he’ll say ‘Alright, now play it to me as a ballad.’ And that’s when you realise this story isn’t developed enough, it doesn’t have any depth to it, I was just hiding behind the beat…”
It is a lustrous album, carrying the warmth of the vintage equipment the band chose to use. “Sometimes the equipment is ornery and doesn’t want to play with you,” Caleb says. “And so you kind of have to massage it and work with it.” But that lustre also lies in the arrangements of the songs, he believes. “I feel we all put our egos aside with the album,” he says. “We found more space, more time to let the songs breathe.”
They also each took on additional roles. “Matthew [guitarist] was super hands-on with the artwork,” he says. “And [bassist] Jared was more hands on with the songwriting – this is the first album that he was my person to bounce ideas off.” In part this was due to the maturation of his younger cousin, who was just 16 when they formed. “He used to be the little hotshot that was running around town having fun, while the rest of us had kids, doing real-life stuff,” says Caleb. “But he’s got a kid now, and he grew up.”
But it was also down to Jared’s engagement with contemporary music. “His musical taste is probably superior to most of ours,” continues Caleb, “because he’s constantly keeping his finger on the pulse. But he’s also a smart kid. He’s someone who will shoot you straight, and if something sucks he’ll let you know.”
Over the years, many have not shied away from telling the Kings of Leon they suck. Despite their success, despite the platinum-selling albums and the awards, and the sold-out stadiums, they have often incurred a level of scorn from the (largely male) critics usually reserved for pop acts. “Such a bunch of fakes,” ran the Pitchfork review of the band’s second album Aha Shake Heartbreak, questioning the band’s backstory and dismissing Caleb’s vocals: “He is a terrible singer – like a drunken Randy Newman with Tourette’s…” “Schoolkids heating Biros and a Bunsen burner have generated more chemistry than the Kings,” stated a Guardian review of a 2017 last arena tour.
“The older you get, the more you don’t really give a s*** about what everyone else thinks,” Caleb says. “And if people think I’m oversinging I don’t care. When you’re young, you’re just constantly looking around and hoping people like stuff, you really care about what everyone else thinks too much.”
In amongst those lyric books in the basement, there were also early cassette recordings, on which he could hear now “that my true voice wanted to come out, but I was young, and I thought it was cooler not to have people understand what I was saying, and to honk when I was singing, and try to put my nose into it too much”.
He laughs. “But when I listen to the actual demos, that’s when I hear a lot of purity to my voice, and I realise it was here the whole time. It just took me a long time to feel comfortable enough to showcase it.” He still writes this way. “Oh man, there’s nothing quite like pen and paper,” he says and notes that while writing the new album he had several lyric books on the go at once. “But my phone right now too, there’s constantly voice memos, I’m constantly singing things,” he says. “If it happens after 10pm, a lot of times I think it’s magic, and when I wake up it’s rubbish.”
Twenty years ago, when Kings of Leon emerged, it was at the height of a 2000s rock revival – with bands such as The White Stripes and The Strokes in the ascendence. The music scene has changed considerably since then, and the question of whether their music is still relevant and has an audience must occasionally rankle even the biggest guitar bands.
“My wife asked me this last night after dinner ‘Are you excited?’” Nathan says. “She said ‘You guys really have a chance for rock’n’roll to step back up now and be a part of the conversation.’ Because it has really faded off,” he says. “Or other types of music have become more popular in the mainstream. But I am definitely very hopeful that rock is going to have another renaissance, because I think rock ‘n’ roll is a much-needed thing for everybody. I think it’s a great form of relief.”
They cannot wait for the return of live music. “I never would’ve said this a couple of years ago, but I can’t wait to be in a crowded Nashville bar with some band up there playing a terrible rendition of somebody’s song,” Caleb laughs. “I miss that. It doesn’t matter whose song – I would take ‘Old Town Road’ at this point.”
But they have no dates scheduled as yet. “What’ve you heard? Should I get a haircut?” Caleb asks. “We’re all preparing, and just sitting by the front door with our backpacks waiting to get the call. We want it more than anyone. Touring is our life, it always has been, even when we were kids. And so to be stuck in a house… while it was great to be with our families, we can’t wait to get out there. Playing live keeps you young. And I feel like staying at home and not touring, I’ve had too much reflection, and felt like I’m getting old.”
Nathan has been thinking about what it will be like to finally walk out onto a stage again. “I can tell you how I hope it’s going to go, and I can tell you how it’s going to go,” he says. “I hope that I don’t pee my pants. But reality is I probably will pee my pants a little.” He’s been thinking of how much it will mean for them to play, and how much it will mean to their fans, too. “I can’t wait for that collective sigh of relief where we both realise it’s over,” he says. “I might wear an adult diaper on the first show back.”
When You See Yourself is released this week on RCA Records