God, the Devil and Kings of Leon

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

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

Nathan Followill is always "fixin"' to do something: "I'm fixin' to get some grub," "I'm fixin' to play golf," "I'm fixin' to whoop Caleb's ass." One crystal-blue morning in Sydney, where the Kings are playing 11 sold-out arena shows, he's fixin' to get a beer at 11 a.m. We walk to the Opera House, where the cafe serves Beez Neez, his favorite, on tap. Whatever town he's in, Nathan dives into the local culture. In Sydney, he visits both Bondi and Manly beaches, dines at Michelin-star restaurants and sneaks in a round of golf. He wants to sign up for a walking tour that scales the arches of the Harbour Bridge, but he's pretty sure he would be denied admission after the mandatory Breathalyzer test. When he sees an outdoor blood drive, he's ready to donate. "I don't know what I got," he says. "But I know the shit's universal." That night, at Tetsuya's, Sydney's toughest reservation, Nathan and his fiancée, Jessie Baylin, whom he met in 2006 in a bathroom line at Bonnaroo, are tucking into the house special: a confit of Petuna Tasmanian ocean trout with konbu, daikon, fennel and nine other things.

Nathan constantly talks about marrying Baylin, hopefully in Italy, and by dessert the couple have decided what to name their firstborn. When Nathan proposed to Baylin, in 2007, Caleb says he felt betrayed. "Back then, we lived in the same house," says Caleb. "Nathan was settling down, and I was like, 'What the fuck am I supposed to do?' Luckily, I found Lily" — his girlfriend, the model Lily Aldridge, whom he met at Coachella in 2007. After 4 a.m., on a clear, warm night, we sit on Caleb's hotel-room deck with a view of the Sydney Opera House and a low-hanging yellow moon. Caleb and Aldridge are talking about buying an apartment together in Manhattan. Drunk on wine, Caleb is quite the romantic. "You gotta come to New Zealand, man," he tells me. "The flowers are so beautiful that everywhere you go you want to pick one for your lady." The next day, a relatively sober Caleb spots three different brides posing for photos in front of the Opera House. "Three men's lives just flushed down the toilet," he says.

The Followills have always been lucky with the ladies. "Preachers' kids are the equivalent of rock stars in the religious world," says Nathan. "When the girls started filling out, we were running a racket of flesh. Once a year we'd have these conferences where all the churches would come together for a week and have services, so you'd run into seven or eight girls that you'd professed your love to, and they'd all be standing there, like, 'Damn it!'" When I suggest that these church camps sound like sex farms for repressed teenagers, Nathan says things weren't actually so wild. "The stuff we were doing that I felt so guilty about was chump change, like touching a girl's nips. And I'd feel so guilty about it until the next service. Then I couldn't wait to touch the next pair of AAs."

At the Kings of Leon's farmhouse in rural Tennessee, a few days before the Australian tour, Caleb stands behind the stove, whipping up spaghetti puttanesca. A dented frying pan hangs above his head, fa reminder of one of Caleb and Nathan's brawls from a few years ago. "Caleb is the sorest loser ever," says Jared. "Every fight that Caleb's been in has to do with losing in shuffleboard, or getting his ass beat in pool." The frying-pan fight came after Caleb lost a game of poker and started making fun of Nathan's date. Nathan attacked, and Caleb whacked him across the forehead with the pan, drawing blood. "They're a weird couple," says Jared. At 3 a.m., their mom was summoned to break up the fight.

The weather today is cold and gray, but the afternoon light shines across the Kings' 75-acre expanse, reflecting off the endless bottles of hard alcohol and wine that cover nearly every inch of counter space. (I calculate there's enough booze in the house to keep a raging alcoholic shitfaced for at least five years without restocking.) Richard Manuel's forlorn voice singing "Tears of Rage," from the Band's first album, plays quietly on a vintage gramophone.

Caleb and Nathan, who both have places in Nashville, share the property as a second home. They come here to fish in the lake, shoot trap and skeet, cruise around on ATVs and throw parties. The boys plan to build new houses on the property, as well as a studio, a bar and two holes of golf. Nathan wants a "French colonial" country house, and Caleb is leaning toward a Spanish-style villa.

At the peak of their partying, the Kings went as hard as any band on the road. I joined Nathan and Caleb for one epic trip to the Bonnaroo festival in 2006 — over the course of the weekend we got profoundly twisted on LSD, 'shrooms, MDMA, uppers and downers. "There were times when I was a pretty fucked-up guy," says Caleb. "There was rarely a moment when I was sober enough to make a point."

Caleb has settled down since he met Aldridge. His whiskey days are over — now he sticks to wine, beer and the occasional shot of tequila, and his self-destructive alter ego, dubbed "the Rooster" by the rest of the band, hasn't surfaced for a long time. "When my grandpa Washington was drinking whiskey, he was the same way,", says Caleb. "I'd drink whiskey knowing that I was going to turn into [the Rooster], but I didn't care. I had so many insecurities that stemmed from putting my faith into things that ended up breaking my heart."

When Ivan left the pulpit, Caleb became disillusioned. "I was going to be a preacher — it was everything I knew," he says. "My heart got broken, seeing that it was impossible to be perfect. So I said to myself, 'I have to go the opposite way.' I couldn't be a sober man. When I started getting fucked up, I got fucked up. I thought I was going to hell. I had nightmares about money and girls. The sky would open up and the Lord would take my soul."

"Caleb would sleepwalk a lot, more like drunk-walk," adds Jared. "Like, he'd wake up in the lobby buck-naked. If a fire alarm goes off in a hotel, you know Caleb's naked somewhere and he suddenly woke up and freaked out." The Kings employed a security guard primarily to protect Caleb from his own antics. "We were going to put an ankle bracelet on him," says Nathan. "But his tight jeans won't fit over it."

Like his father, Caleb suffers from nerves, and he regularly vomits during performances. "Our whole family is like that in pressure moments," he says. "I think when times got tough, my dad just turned to the bottle. We all do." Ivan now lives in Oklahoma City with his wife, Kathy, and he keeps in touch with his boys, dropping in on their performances.

"We don't really have the time — or make the time — to have that day-to-day relationship," says Caleb. "But there's still that same love between us." "I don't want to make it sound like my dad's a horrible alcoholic fuck-up," adds Nathan. "We had great times, there were great years."

I've met Ivan Followill backstage at various Kings shows over the years. He's always jovial, proud of his boys and a bit of a loose cannon. At the All Points West festival in New Jersey last year, Ivan shoved a couple of unidentifiable pills into my hand after he heard me say my back was hurting. I asked, "What will these do to me?" For the rest of the afternoon, he repeatedly mocked me, saying in a fey voice, "What will these do to me?" Caleb quit high school during his junior year, in 1999, and began working construction in Jackson, Tennessee. "He was settling into the life of being one of those hardened guys that starts doing hard labor, and the next thing you know, you're 35 with an overweight wife," says Nathan, who was attending college in Henderson, about 30 miles away. But Caleb, whose hero growing up was Chris Farley, held on to dreams of one day becoming an entertainer. "I always knew I'd be on Saturday Night Live," he says. "I just didn't know I'd be singing."

Nathan recognized Caleb's desire to make something of his life. "He wanted to help me, and he did," says Caleb. "One day he came out of his room and said, 'Check it out, I wrote a song.'" It was a "shitty-ass" country song, says Caleb, but it emboldened the brothers. "We'd devote hours a day to writing songs," Caleb says. "We'd get three or four a day." Caleb bought a notebook, drew a heart on the cover and poured out sad songs. His lyrics were about the same themes that he draws inspiration from today: "Religion and alcohol and women and love."

If they hadn't found music, Nathan says, "Caleb and I would have ended up like in Step Brothers. It would be me and him, in our 40s, living at Mom's house." Caleb agrees: "I'd-a been rubbin' my balls on his drum set."

Around this time, Betty Ann had fallen for an insurance executive living in Nashville. Soon, Nathan quit college and Caleb quit his construction gig to rejoin their mother and Jared in Nashville. (Betty Ann still lives in the area, and her sewing skills are regularly called upon to tighten her sons' superskinny pants.)

Driving away from the construction site in his Chevy Blazer, Caleb turned on the radio. The Mungo Jerry classic "In the Summertime" was blaring through the speakers. "I remember having the windows down, smiling ear to ear, thinking, 'I'm going to Nashville. I'm going to fucking do it.'"

If Caleb and Nathan form one unit in the Kings, brother Jared (on bass) and cousin Matthew (lead guitar) form the other. "Jared was always the little brother, and I was always the little cousin," says Matthew, who spent most of his childhood in Mississippi. Despite the distance, they'd catch up on the phone and make up for lost time at the family reunions. According to Matthew, they were both "little shits" growing up. "Jared was the devil incarnate," says Nathan. "He'd throw a knife and say, 'What are you going to do, tell Mom?'" When Jared would get in trouble, like the time he and Caleb shot the windows out of their dad's truck with a BB gun, he was far from penitent. "Mom would hit Jared with a belt, and he wouldn't even flinch," says Nathan. "He was like Scarface." Jared finally grew a conscience after he BB'd a rabbit in the backyard when he was eight. "It started doing these crazy flips, and I felt terrible," he says, reclining on the guest bed of his house in Nashville, which he shares with his fiancée, Alisa Torres, and their toy Pomeranian, Chopper. "I got a cold piece of pizza and threw it at it, but that just made it flip more. I just remember my dad being really pissed off that I threw out the last piece of pizza."

Aside from playing in the Kings, Jared has never really had a job, which annoys Matthew, who is two years older. "Asshole — maybe he mowed grass, like, two times, made 20 bucks," Matthew says. "I've painted houses, roofed houses. I worked at a law firm as a runner." At home, Jared and Matthew share a love for fast cars, motorcycles and video games. On the road, they love room service and yearn for American TV. Matthew and Jared admit they're burned out from years of touring. "I want to go to Hawaii and check into a hotel — that way I won't be checking into rehab," says Matthew, who says he was drunk for most of the Kings' latest European tour. "I want to take a fucking year off and stay there until I'm sick of it."

In the condo that Matthew shares with his British girlfriend, Johanna Bennett, there's a dent in the chocolate-colored wall where he threw his PS3 controller after Jared whooped his ass in Mortal Kombat. After his parents divorced when he was five, Matthew shuffled around Louisiana and Alabama. In Mobile, at age 12, his history teacher brought in a classical guitar and showed the kids a few chords. Matthew was hooked. "I borrowed a guitar from my uncle and would play for six hours a day," says Matthew, who quickly learned classic tunes like "Voodoo Chile" and "Hotel California." "I played for four years, got a girlfriend and put it down."

"They're such a vital part of Kings of Leon," Caleb says about the younger duo. "If it were just me and Nathan, who knows what kind of music we'd be making. Matthew and Jared are what make the Kings so unique — we're all pulling in different directions."

When Caleb and Nathan first arrived in Nashville, they performed as a country-singing duo, the Followill Brothers, at songwriter havens like the Bluebird Cafe. "We'd play openmike nights, writers' nights," says Nathan. "We sang like a couple of black kids — we'd blow people's minds." They signed a publishing deal within a few months, with a goal of earning enough money to support their weed habit; all the brothers loved getting stoned, including Jared. "My mom would catch me getting high when I was 14 and 15, and she'd send me to my room," he says. "But my room was right above the garage, and there was a vent there. So I'd take the vent out, and — I swear to God — Nathan and Caleb would blow me bong hits through the hole." Jared no longer blazes: "Marijuana is a gateway drug," he says. "It leads to sweatpants and Cheetos."

The head of their publishing company, Ken Levitan — now the Kings' manager — shuffled Nathan and Caleb around town to collaborate with various songwriters. None clicked until they met Levitan's old pal Angelo Petraglia, a veteran Nashville songwriter who had worked with Patty Griffin and Trisha Year-wood. "My first impression of them was that they had something magical, but we didn't know exactly what it was yet," says Petraglia, whom the Followills regard as the fifth King — he doesn't write with the band anymore, but he co-produced Only by the Night. "When they came in, they had a soulful Everly Brothers vibe, but soon they realized, 'We don't want to play country music — we want to play rock & roll.'"

Sitting in Nathan's living room, beneath a huge print of Elliott Landy's famous photograph "The Band in the Catskills," Nathan says Petraglia blew the boys' minds with his record collection — Sly Stone, the Stones, the Clash. "Around that time I'd seen the Strokes do one of those $2 Bill shows on MTV, and I heard the girls screaming," says Caleb. "I was like, 'You've got to be fuckin' kidding me — that's what I want, right there.'"

Jared became a sounding board for his brothers, encouraging them to move away from country. "He played us music that his friends were listening to, like the Pixies and stuff like that, and we geared our songwriting toward those styles," says Nathan. "Once we'd won him over with the music, we knew we were on to something." Before long, Petraglia and the Followill brothers had come up with a breakthrough song, "California Waiting" — a poppy rock blast built around the first of the band's many arena-ready choruses.

In 2002, Levitan got the brothers a shot performing for RCA Records' A&R exec Steve Ralbovsky in his office. "Angelo plugged into a little amp, and Caleb and Nathan were headdown, slapping their thighs, singing," Ralbovsky says. After they sang some country tunes, Ralbovsky remembers, "the real zinger moment was the first chorus of 'California Waiting.' And then they started talking about how they grew up, their mom and dad, and jaw-dropping anecdotes about their wacky Pentecostal church upbringing." The next day, a deal was in the works. "RCA was like, 'We want to put a band together, a cool, hip-looking band,'" says Nathan. "They'd based their interest in us on how they could spin the 'two good-looking brothers from the South' thing. Me and Caleb came home and said, 'Fuck that.' I grew a mustache immediately, and he grew a beard."

In what Caleb calls "rebellion at its finest," he and Nathan rejected RCA's offer to assemble a pro backing band, insisting that Jared and Matthew would fill out the group. "They were like, "This is fucking suicide,' " says Caleb. "I told them to fuck off and give us six weeks, then we'd show 'em." Jared initially resisted the bass — he thought "all bass players were fat and had goatees, like the guy from Goo Goo Dolls" — but nevertheless he began plunking away. Matthew was summoned from Mississippi. "They bought me the most expensive guitar and amp that I could have ever dreamed about," he says (a Les Paul and a Marshall). "I went straight back to Aunt Betty-Ann's garage, tuned it and we started playing."

A month later, RCA reps were sitting on a piss-stained couch in the garage, waiting to hear the result. When Caleb broke a string on the first chord of the first song, it took him 30 minutes to replace it. But the boys powered through brand-new songs including "Wasted Time," "Wicker Chair" and "Holy Roller Novocaine," written about a Pentecostal preacher who uses his pulpit to seduce women. "I don't know what they saw in us," says Matthew, "but it all started there."

"I was like, 'Oh, my God,'" says Jared. "I was droppin' out of school, smokin' doobies, having the time of my life."

Not long after, Jared remembers, "Angelo was playing on the religious thing, saying, 'Why don't you guys be called the Kings of Zion?' Then Caleb said, 'What about Kings of Leon?' Because our grandfather Leon is the closest relative to all four of us. We all laughed, but then we agreed it was kinda cool, like a street gang."

It's quite possible the band could've blown up years ago: In 2003, the Kings turned down an offer to license their tune "California Waiting" for a major national ad campaign, arguing that the song was too mellow to reflect the Kings' newer, harder sound. "I'm glad we didn't have a hit," Caleb says. "We weren't ready yet." Their second album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, didn't connect either, but it scored them opening slots with Pearl Jam, U2 and Bob Dylan. And their third album, 2007's Because of the Times, could have easily been their breakthrough, but they likely blew it by not releasing the infectious acoustic-guitar-driven anthem "Fans" as a single. "I thought if we came out of the gate with 'Fans,' then it's like, 'Oh, shit, there goes our reputation as a band that fuckin' wails,'" says Caleb. "Now moms are gonna be bopping along to our music."

"It's almost like he doesn't want to be too successful," says Jared, who adds that Caleb will write a gorgeous lyric, then fuck it up on purpose. "It's like he tries to sabotage himself, subconsciously." While he's loath to complain, the success of "Sex on Fire" is stressing Caleb out. "Now that we do have a hit, I'm scratchin' my head, going, 'Fuck, I don't know if I like this,'" he says. "A lot of the people coming to these concerts are not my kind of people. But it is what it is."

The Kings sold out their Australia shows in 30 minutes. After each gig, a party erupts at the tiny hotel bar at the Park Hyatt, often stretching until well past 5 a.m., with guest appearances by Kylie Minogue, Russell Brand and Pete Townshend. On this night, Chris Martin joins the party. After a few drinks, he leans in close to Caleb and promises that the Kings "will be the biggest band on the planet." Another night, the Kings and their guests tallied up a $10,000 tab, including the two $500 glasses of 1951 whiskey Matthew sucked down.

At their final Sydney show, the Kings open with the fuzzed-out blast of "Crawl," and when Caleb notices a portion of the crowd sitting, he points them out. "Get the fuck up," he says with a sneer. "This ain't a state fair, it's a fuckin' rock show!" Jared, who has an onstage vibe reminiscent of the Clash's Paul Simonon (they even spit the same way), evokes London Calling by slamming his bass against the stage after "Black Thumbnail." When Matthew gets thirsty mid-riff, he leans over his effects cabinet and sucks white wine through a cocktail straw; Nathan, as he does at most shows, rips from a joint during the guitar intro to "Milk." And as always, Caleb excuses himself midshow to vomit backstage.

Earlier that day, during soundcheck at the empty 20,000-seat Acer Arena, Caleb launches into a new song that doesn't yet have a title. "Sweet ocean liner, come anchor down," he sings. "Sea of forgiveness, see what I found." Within seconds the group falls perfectly into place. Jared, laughing, plucks out a generic country bass line, but the rest of the band plays in earnest, and the result is a gorgeous, heartbreaking country ballad that sounds almost fully formed. "Jared was taking the piss out of it playing that obvious country bass line," Caleb says later that night, staring out into Sydney Harbour. "But I look at a band like Wilco, or Ryan Adams, who can play a fucking rock song next to a country song. I think we have to get over the 'cool' thing, trying to be cool and look cool. Who gives a fuck? The older I get, the less I give a fuck about what a 16- or 18- or 21-year-old wants to hear. Our best album is ahead of us, and I think we're all getting to that age where it's like, 'We can do whatever the fuck we want to do as long as we don't get in the way of it.'"

This story is from the April 30th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1077: April 30, 2009