Hansons, Mansons and Hammer: A Night with the Kings of Leon
At first glance, the Kings of Leon might appear to some to be nothing more than a Southern rendition of the current sweethearts of American rock n roll, The Strokes. But the comparison is a lazy one. Do the Kings sound like The Strokes? Yes, if by that you mean that they're playing rock music and singing songs about how it feels from their perspective to be young men in the 21st century.
The Strokes are from New York and are heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground and the punk scene cultivated at New York's CBGBs in the 70s. The Kings are far more boogie-based, which comes from a mixture of the driving rhythm of the gospel praise music they grew up listening to in the United Pentecostal Church and the twang of hill country blues from their Tennessee upbringing. That's not to say that the Kings are not at all influenced by punk rock- it'd be nearly impossible given their ages.
Beyond the music, The Strokes aren't at all scary or intimidating, while the Kings of Leon look like they could kick your ass. I'd give you all six of the Strokes guys against the four Followill boys any day of the week.
At 24 years old, Nathan Followill is the elder statesman of the band. We spoke for about 15 minutes before Nathan's younger brother, Caleb, 21, wandered out from the back of the bus and took a seat. The leader singer had been peeking out from the back lounge for the majority of the interview and meandered in towards the end to see what was going on. The two youngest members of the band 16-year-old Jared and Matthew, 18 bounced from the front of the bus to the back every so often, stopping at times to smoke or throw in their two cents. Enjoy.
AT: What’s your first musical memory when you were a kid?
Nathan Followill: First musical memory was probably from the church, cause that's where we grew up. Our mom played the piano, our dad played the guitar and bass. I started playing the drums when I was seven years old in the church. As soon as I could really even have a memory, I was already playing music by then, you know?
It was an all-black church. Like Al Green's church. It was really emotional music, really sloppy, real praise music, you know….not no prim and proper, or just the right volume levels. Naw, this was no holds-barred…just boogie music in the church, baby.
AT: So, gospel praise music was probably your biggest influence, but what was the first album you ever bought?
Nathan: First album I ever bought? Dude, this so embarrassing. This is SO embarrassing. I don't even know if I want to tell you the first album I ever bought?
AT: Come on, you gotta tell me.
Nathan: Dude, hit me with a little "Hammertime!"
Nathan: Yeah, a little MC Hammer. I was nine, maybe 10. He had a gospel choir song on there, so we was able to buy that one. I was like, "He's got a gospel song on there. Come on, Mom."
AT: You’re from Tennessee. What city describes your music tastes better Nashville or Memphis?
Nathan: Oh, man, I would say…Nashville…1976.
AT: Why that era?
Nathan: Just because…that's when the bad boys owned the town. Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie (Nelson), Johnny Cash…everybody had attitude. They didn't care. They wrote about beating the shit out of their women, or killing you if you messed with their woman. They didn't give a shit. They were the outlaws.
AT: Talk to me a little bit about your childhood growing up on the road. Your dad was a traveling preacher in the United Pentecostal church. What kinds of stuff were you listening to during those road trips?
Nathan: My dad is a sports freak, so most of the time it was probably AM sports talk radio. On the way home especially, because we were all passed out and he was trying to stay awake. On the way there, we listened to the radio a lot. A little bit of country, a little bit of rock n roll. Mom was always listening to her lite hits of the 70s and 80s. Dad would every now and then sneak off and listen to a little Neil Young or the Stones, or The Band or something. He was into Bad Company some, and he let us listen to it with him a little. But for the most part, man, we was in church. It was basically this bubble for us. Life outside of the church was really foreign territory to us for a really long time, man.
AT: How long did your dad preach in the church?
Nathan: From 1979 to 1998. Almost 20 years, man.
AT: I’ve never been to a Pentecostal church service before. Describe it to me.
Nathan: It's a Kings of Leon show, except we're singing gospel music instead of rock music. Lots of sweat, lots of shouting, lots of hooting and hollering. No one cares what anybody thinks, or how ugly a face you're making. Cause you're doing it for a totally different reason in church.
AT: How did living on the road and traveling around the country affect your sound as a band? Do you feel like praise music is your chief influence?
Nathan: It's weird, because I think our sound sounds very traveled. When we made the record, that was the goal. We wanted to make a soundtrack. We wanted to make something that you could stick in when you had a 45-minute to an hour-long road trip, listen to all the songs and experience every emotion happiness, sadness, sorrow, sex, violence, everything. We wanted to touch on everything. Nowadays, records are made around singles. They just want their two radio songs, and they don't care about the rest. They could get eight boring songs that are the same fuckin' thing, just so long as they get those two radio songs, the video on MTV and either Letterman or Leno…and sell the 500,000 records or whatever, you know? It's fuckin'...yeah, it's pretty bad. We just wanted people to stick our record in and listen to the songs. Plain and simple.
AT: When did you guys start playing together as a band?
Nathan: Two years ago now, maybe?
AT: How did it start out?
Nathan: Me and Caleb had been writing songs for a little while. We had a small publishing deal. Word of mouth had spread about us and got us this publisher, who was in partnership with a guy that was a manager. He heard some of the songs and said, "I'm not even really your manager, but I have some buddies that work at some labels that would flip over this." Looking back now, it was some horrible shit. I don't know what they were thinking. So he took me and Caleb up to New York, and we hit about nine labels in two days. We'd go in, play a couple of songs and then go out. And it was the typical (Nathan crosses his arms tightly and stares gruffly from under his brow.) You know, the "Give me a reason to blahblahblahblahblah." Man, we ended up getting five, six offers out of it, and we were just hoping to get one call back. (Laughs) RCA just…the thing that got us was that they hugged us, instead of a handshake. We knew that they were the way to go.
AT: Talk to me a little bit about what your goals were going into the record. Was there a particular band you had in mind going in that you wanted to emulate, or a specific record that you said, "This is what we want it to sound like?"
Nathan: Not really, to be honest with you. I was really the only musician in the band who had played my instrument for a while. I played from when I was seven years old until when I was 16 years old, and then didn't play again until a couple of years ago. So the sounds we got on the record and the style, that's just us playing the songs we wrote the best way we could play em. We didn't say, "We want it to sound like Exile on Main Street, or "We want this to sound like Zeppelin." It was just what came out when we played together. It came out like it is now. That's the only way to describe it.
Our producer, Ethan Johns, comes from a musical family too. His dad, Glyn, and his uncle did all the Zeppelin stuff, all the Stones stuff, so the pedigree was there. Ethan brought in the third Tele (Telecaster guitar) ever made, and I played a set of Charlie Watts' drums on the whole record. The first guitar that was ever given to him was given to him by Keith Richards, and he brought that in there. He brought in all these instruments that hadn't been used since like the 60s, and I think it fit perfectly because we're such a simple band. Back then, shit, that's what music was. That's how music was made. You made music to make music. You made what you felt. Before Pro Tools and before 20 tracks just for the drums themselves, that's how it was done. So we went in there and played everything live, just looking at each other. Most of the time, we'd get it within the first two takes and play it three or four times, just to…you know how producer's are. We did it just to say we did it. They'd be like, "That was it, it was that take. But let's go one more." (Laughs)
AT:. Did you have any goals going into the recording of the album? Did you have a particular concept in mind?
Caleb: We just laid it down. We played like five warm-up shows, but the Holy Roller Novacaine EP was the first time we'd ever played together, besides playing in the garage.
AT: When was it recorded?
Nathan: July 2002.
AT: So you guys had jammed in your garage a few times before that?
Nathan: Yeah, in fact, the first time the label ever heard the band, they was sitting on a couch in our garage in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, resting their feet on a lawnmower. Out in the middle of bumfuck Tennessee. All these suits come walking into our garage in this tiny town about an hour from Nashville to hear us play. They called us, and I told them I was thinking about putting together a band. I told them we were planning on buying our little brother Jared a bass, and teach him all the songs Caleb and I had written. And we had our 17-year-old cousin that lives in Mississippi that's been taking guitar lessons since he was 10 years old, so we're going to get him up here and have him be our guitar player. Caleb wanted to learn how to play the guitar a little better, and I was going to play the drums. These guys were just cracking up over the phone and thought we were hilarious. We were just like, "Ok, whatever, you dip shits. We're not going to talk to you for a month, so just leave us the fuck alone." We didn't do anything for a month except lock ourselves in that garage and just play. We were dead to the rest of the world for a month. After the month was up, we called them back and said, "Ok, the band's ready. Y'all come on down." They came, sat down and did the same thing with their arms. (Nathan crosses his arms tightly and scowls over his glasses.) And we fuckin' rocked their asses off. Dude, they were like, "We're sorry, we'll trust y'all with whatever you want to do." And they trusted us, until it came down to the name…
AT: What’s the story there?
Nathan: They were totally against Kings of Leon. Totally. Our last name is Followill, so they wanted us to be The Followills. It had such a natural ring to it, they said. "Everybody knows you as The Followills. Why would you want to change that now?" We were like, "No way, dude." Because when my dad and us was traveling around, we were The Followills. And we were like, "Well, we're not doing that anymore." Our grandpa's name is Leon, and our dad's name is Leon, at least for Caleb, Jared and me. He's Matt's uncle. We was all sitting around one day, and someone said, "How about the Kings of Zion?" Just being totally retarded, but we were like, "How about the Kings of Leon?" Nobody said anything for a few minutes, and then we all kind of looked at each other and agreed that it would be our name. When we called the label and told them, they were like, "No, that is horrible. There's no way. You will never go anywhere…dadadadada" But we held our ground, and a couple of weeks later, they were like, "Well, it's starting to grow on us." (Laughs)
AT: Those first couple of jam sessions in your garage, what were you guys playing? Was it covers?
Nathan: No, me and Caleb wrote from the very beginning. It was originals right from the start.
AT: Really? You guys didn’t start out playing covers at all?
Caleb: Naw, we don't know a cover to this day.
MF: We're not good enough to play covers. (Both Matthew and Nathan bust out laughing)
Nathan: Honestly. We're not good enough yet to learn someone else's shit yet.
AT: What was the first original to come out?
Nathan: I think it was "Molly's Chambers." It's a song about a couple of different things. "Molly's Chambers" can be a place where she takes you, or it can be Molly's chambers. She's got your "pistol," or she's got your "pissing tool." It's kind of double meaning. Take it how you like.
AT: Another track on the album is "Holy Roller Novocain." I read somewhere that it’s the most personal song on the album. Talk to me a little bit about that one.
Nathan: Yeah, it is. It's about this preacher trying to fuck our Mom, basically. He tried to seduce her and use his position as a man of God to get at her. My parents were having marital problems at the time, and he said he was trying to comfort her. You know, "ease her pain?" Fucking bastard. So we just pulled his card and fuckin' wrote a song about him. And then we called all the kids in his church and told them that the song's about him. Now the whole church has got the record, and they know he's just a horny motherfucking bastard. That song is basically us bustin' his balls for screwing with our Mom.
AT: One comparison that’s been made with you guys is the whole "Southern rock" comparison to bands like Lynard Skynard. Obviously, your sound goes well beyond "Southern rock" into your upbringing in the church and the influence of praise music, with that constant, driving beat. How would you describe your own music?
Nathan: We describe it as juke-joint, boogie music. Music to shake your ass and sweat to, you know? Totally. We want people to feel comfortable to do what they feel at our shows. Who gives a shit what you look like, right? Just feel the music and go with it.
AT: You mentioned some of the other new rock bands The Strokes, The White Stripes that have fallen into the music scene in the past couple of years. How do you feel about some of the stuff that’s out there? Are you a fan of the Stripes, the Soledad Brothers, or Mooney Suzuki?
Nathan: Aw, yeah man, I'm a huge fan. I went and saw the White Stripes at the Greek Theater in L.A. with the Soledad Brothers three nights ago. Jack White is the fuckin' shit. He is the absolute shit. He's the most brilliant musician on the scene right now, in my opinion. They guy's possessed. He breaks out the slide guitar, acoustic, and then slams it on the ground and gets down on his knees and shit…He just goes for it all. He's amazing.
Caleb: The Stripes put on a great show, and we got a chance to hang out with them afterwards. We went to an after-party at this big house in L.A. There were a lot of people there. So we come rolling up to the house, and Jack's sitting on the porch with a bunch of people. It was a bunch of folks out of People magazine, man. So we walk up, and Jack White turns to us and goes, "Leon, Leon, Leon and Leon." It blew us out of the water, man. For him to know who we were, that just was the shit, man.
Nathan: Mooney Suzuki is the reason we survived Lollapalooza this summer.
AT: Why do you say that?
Nathan: First of all, we was on the second stage, and then there was the main stage. So there was the whole main stage-second stage rivalry going there. "Your passes are only good to get in to eat, and then you gotta get out of here." Whatever, we were totally cool with all that. But it was kind of hard to listen to music all day that you wouldn't normally listen to, and then get up onstage and do your thing. It was kind of like listening to a radio station that you don't really like for five hours, and then going and playing a show. And then going back to listening to that radio station again. Luckily, we had Mooney Suzuki go on before us every night, so we were able to get into that fuckin' mindset to play music. The Mooney saved us. Perry (Farrell, founder of Lollapalooza) is a total sweetheart. He's a class act, a real gentleman. He came by to check on us and make sure everything was all right. And we got to play for a crowd that normally probably wouldn't come out to a Kings of Leon show, so in that sense it was really good. We learned how to play without soundchecking, so that was another good lesson to learn from the experience.
AT: One of the things we’ve touched on is the band’s early rise to fame in England before you made it over here in the States. I just finished a story on Chuck Leavell, the keys player for the Rolling Stones. One of the things Chuck and I talked about was Britain’s fascination with Southern music. He told me a couple of stories about his audition with the Stones, and one of them was about Ian Stewart asking him about a tiny town in Georgia where some obscure blues recording was made. Talk to me a little bit about your thoughts on the reverence that the British show towards Southern music.
Nathan: It's so funny, because you either had British guys trying to sound Southern, like the Stones. Or you had Americans trying to sound British. I think that the British are really country people at heart, and they just talk a different way than we do in the South. (Laughs) I think it's just one of them things that maybe Americans and British people feel some of the same emotions when listening to music. Europe and Britain are definitely getting the new music scene quicker than we are over here. They understand it a lot better. Americans kind of will wait til we know it's cool, and then they'll jump on it. In Europe, they're not scared to take a chance. They might take to a band real quick, and that band might flop and implode. Look at the Libertines. Insane band, just phenomenal musicians. Hyped as the next shit, and they could've been. Everything went haywire, and it all fizzled.
AT: What’s it been like over there playing shows?
Nathan: Our first show ever over there was sold out. It was so funny…We pull up to this place, and they got a sign out front that says, "Lap dances until 5 p.m." (Laughs) So, we're thinking, "Holy shit, we're playing a strip club." Turns out it's a strip club by day and a club by night. We had to wait an extra 30 minutes to get into our dressing room, cause the girls were finishing up their lap dances. (Laughs) That was our very first show ever over there.
Jared Followill, bass player: Where was that again? (Jared yells from the back of the bus)
Nathan: That was in fuckin' High Wickleman, England, I think. Some shit like that. We get there, and there supposed to be only 150 to 200 people there. It turns out to be closer to 500 people, and the place is jam packed. So we're figuring this place is some dull town that never gets shit here, so everyone was intrigued to come check us out. Next night, same thing. And every show we've played over there has been the same since. The last show we played, I think 8,000 kids showed up, no lie. It is insane over there. We played a secret show and announced it the day before we played the show, and sold over 1,200 tickets.
AT: It seems like you guys have all fallen into the lifestyle pretty easily.
Nathan: Yeah, it's crazy, man. We're like gypsies. Growing up, we spent a lot of time on the road. We'd roll into a town on a Monday, have Tuesday off and then have church on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We'd leave Sunday night after church, go to another town and start it all over again. We preached this one revival for fourteen weeks straight. We drove three hours one way each night, all five of us in a single-cab Dodge Ram. Fourteen weeks, man. We'd leave church, sleep, drive home, get up and go to school, leave school and have just enough time to get off the school bus, change clothes for church, hop in the truck, drive three hours, go to church, sleep on the way back and get up and go to school.
AT: A final softball for you. You guys are a family band Brady Bunch or Partridge Family?
Nathan: Manson Family. (Small smile creeps across Nathan’s face.)
Matthew Followill, guitarist: (From the back of the bus) Did you say Manson or Hanson?
Nathan: Manson, you bitch. (Laughs) Fuck the Hansons!