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.
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