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God, the Devil and Kings of Leon

Around the world with the heartbreaking, trouble making, earthshaking band of Southern brothers

Kings of Leon perform at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine, California.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
April 30, 2009

Caleb and Nathan followill don't fight very often, but when they do, get the hell out of the way. One night in 2007, the brothers — at 27 and 29, respectively, the two eldest members of Kings of Leon — arrived home after a night of heavy drinking in Nashville. What precipitated the fight, no one remembers exactly, but "I had just walked in the front door when I heard pots and pans falling everywhere," says their cousin and guitar tech Nacho. "I ran into the kitchen, and Nate and Caleb had handfuls of hair, just rolling in grease in front of the stove." Nacho eventually separated the brothers, sequestering Caleb, who'd dislocated his shoulder, in the adjacent greenhouse. But Nathan was still going ballistic. He shattered a $7,000 mirror in Caleb's bedroom and repeatedly stabbed his brother's mattress with a kitchen knife. "Nathan definitely gets psychotic when it comes to fights," says their younger brother, Jared, 22, who plays bass in the band. "He's like the American Psycho — he's told me that one day he'll kill Caleb."

The following morning, Caleb, the band's singer and lyricist, and Nathan, the drummer, made peace. "I love ya, bro," Nathan told him. "I'll pay for everything I broke." But the brawl also had an upside: It led to Caleb writing the group's biggest song yet, "Sex on Fire," the smash anthem that has helped the Kings' latest album, Only by the Night, sell more than 3 million copies worldwide. "I came up with that song fresh out of shoulder surgery," says Caleb in his hushed Southern drawl. "The doctor told me not to play guitar for nine months, but within a week I'd popped my sling off." His stitches had immobilized his left arm, restricting his movement, so when Caleb picked up a guitar again for the first time he could only articulate chords high on the neck in the upper frets. "The first thing I did," he says, "was come up with that riff and sing the melody for 'Sex on Fire.'"

In February, the song earned the Kings — brothers Nathan, Caleb and Jared, and their cousin Matthew, 24, on guitar their first Grammy, and in the past eight months the band has checked a handful of career goals off the list, including performing on Saturday Night Live and selling out Madison Square Garden. "Sure as fuck never thought that'd happen," says Nathan. After four stellar albums, the song has helped earn the Followill foursome the overdue respect that has eluded them in the U.S. since their 2003 debut, Youth and Young Manhood. Only by the Night — full of the Kings' dirty brand of Southern rock & roll, as well as arena anthems as grandiose as anything by U2 or Pearl Jam — has gone gold in the U.S., and in the U.K. the quartet have sold a staggering 1.8 million copies (more than the last Coldplay record). Down under in Australia — where I lived the life of a King for seven days, in Sydney and Newcastle — the album has been certified eight times platinum. Six years ago, the Kings were four scraggly, wasted kids who could barely play their instruments, and now they're rolling through a life of uninterrupted luxury, traveling in private planes, performing in sold-out arenas and making more money than they could ever imagine. "We feel blessed," says Caleb. "There have been too many talented bands who have gone down the toilet to think that there isn't someone smiling down on us."

"I feel like the kid in that Richard Pryor movie The Toy," adds Jared, who was 15 when he joined the band. "Like, why can't I go buy some $800 night-vision goggles?"

The Followill brothers have come a long way since their backwoods childhood, much of which was spent in a purple Oldsmobile, barnstorming churches and tent revivals in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma with their father, Ivan, a United Pentecostal preacher. The boys' religious mandate was strict: no movies, no music but church music, no "mixed bathing" (with girls), no competitive sports, no short pants (even while water-skiing). "You're under the microscope," Nathan says. "It was like TMZ before TMZ. God forbid you get caught going to a theater, or watching TV. Then you're fucked."

Nathan was born in Oklahoma City in June 1979, two years after his parents, Ivan and Betty Ann Followill, tied the knot. Caleb came along in the winter of 1982. The fact that their parents hooked up was a minor miracle. "It was a great love story," says Caleb. "He'd get off work on Friday night, drive from Oklahoma City to Memphis, eight hours, every weekend, just to tell her she was going to marry him. She was engaged to another man, and he said, 'God has told me we were meant for each other.'"

Ivan was a natural showman with a great voice and a wicked sense of humor that he passed on to his three boys. "He was definitely my idol growing up," says Caleb, who compares his dad to the Robert Duvall character in The Apostle. "My dad was the best preacher, hands down. He could crack the code of the Bible pretty easily. He would take a sentence this long" — about an inch — "and his whole sermon would be about those three words. The biggest man in the room would be bawling his eyes out. Two seconds later, he'd be on the floor laughing." During the services, Betty Ann played piano and Nathan would drum along on the backs of pews with straws or pencils. "Most people think the [Pentecostal] music is reserved, but there's organs, pianos, guitars, basses, drums, horns," he says. "It's the equivalent of black gospel music. It's a full-on Al Green, Aretha Franklin-style service."

Until 1986, when Jared was born, the family never had a fixed address. But with three kids the Followills settled into a run-down, one-story house in Millington, Tennessee, near Memphis. For the six years the family lived there, Ivan was the pastor at the Munford United Pentecostal Church, which the kids would attend at least five times a week. Caleb and Nathan wore ties and rode their bikes to H.M. Simpson Academy, a three-room schoolhouse.

By the time Jared entered kindergarten, Ivan began behaving erratically. "I guess the pressure was getting to my dad, being the leader of the flock," says Caleb. "Things were really up and down, depending on how his nerves were." Ivan started drinking. "He was trying to be perfect, but in the process, he was imperfect." The drinking ignited arguments between the boys' parents, and trouble with the law. "I pulled up one day on my bike, and my dad was handcuffed to the front of our house, surrounded by cops," says Jared. "My mom was crying and screaming at the cops, saying, 'He didn't do that! He's a preacher!'" According to Nathan, his father was arrested after he spotted a cop speeding through the neighborhood and bizarrely attempted to make a citizen's arrest. "I wouldn't call it a nervous breakdown, but it was about as close as you could get," says Nathan. As word spread about Ivan's troubles, the family returned to the road, beginning a four-year itinerant period, with the boys home-schooled by their mother.

Despite the discomforts of life on the road — sleeping in relatives' houses, trailers and church basements — the kids maintained a positive attitude. "They always made the best of whatever situation they were in," says their cousin Jared White, who briefly looked after Nathan and Caleb in his trailer in Scotts Hill, Tennessee, in 1994, while Ivan and Betty Ann crashed with in-laws. "And the boys were all smart, really intelligent." The drinking and arguing continued until Ivan left the church; he and Betty Ann split up around 1997. "By the end of their relationship she had seen this powerful man of God becoming more human every day," says Caleb. "He had a lot of character flaws."

Nathan first played drums onstage when he was eight, during one of his father's services at a local skating rink. "We'd play songs like 'Jesus on the Mainline' and 'You've Got to Move,'" says Nathan. "It's like touring now — we had a 20-song repertoire." On all-night drives, Caleb remembers, he'd stay up late listening to radio sermons, sports and gospel with his dad. Eventually Caleb started singing with the family band. "He had the most amazing voice," says Jared. "He could throw his voice around like Alicia Keys." Caleb, who planned to follow in his father's footsteps, wrote his own sermon when he was 10, "Why Beg for Bread When You're Living in a Wheat Field," though he never delivered it. "Caleb was soaking up how to put on a show," says Nathan, "how to roll into town." In the back seat, little Jared slept on the floorboard, with his legs arched over the hump. "It was comfortable as shit," he says. "And I slept like a son of a bitch."

Some of the boys' favorite memories are of the Followill family reunion, held every year in Talihina, Oklahoma. Hundreds of family members would descend for the weeklong party, where the adults cracked beers at sunrise and never let up. The boys remember waking up to breakfasts of eggs, grits and biscuits smothered in chocolate gravy, swimming all day in the creek and throwing horseshoes at night. The family reunion was also the site of many firsts, including cigarettes and beers. "Me, Nate and Nacho got a six-pack of Budweiser bottles and put 'em in the creek to stay cold," says Caleb. "Nate took one sip and spit it out. Nacho" — he got his name during a later mushroom trip, when his cousins decided he resembled a tortilla chip — "nursed his all night. I drank the other four, thinkin', 'This is fuckin' all right!'"

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Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Kings of Leon perform at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine, California.
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