Kings of Leon: The Bruised Brothers

The Followills were the biggest band in the world - then the bottom fell out. Can rock's new underdogs battle back?

Kings of Leon, RS1192
David McClister
Kings of Leon
By |

"I need some pain pills right now," Caleb Followill mumbles in a husky drawl. On a recent drizzly London evening, the Kings of Leon frontman sits in the corner of the art-deco bar of the band's five-star hotel, his weary-lumberjack face illuminated by candlelight as jazz plays. "I jumped off the top of that fucking yacht again." The accident happened a couple of weeks ago on a break between shows, when the band hit golf balls into the sparkling Mediterranean and threw a toga party. "Two a.m., pitch-black, drunk. Landed on my butt in the water. For a week now, I can barely sit, barely stand."

The Night That Tore the Kings of Leon Apart

He taps on his leg nervously, discussing his pillow options for the flight home to Nashville. "The doughnut thing? I'll fucking sit on it. I don't care. I might have to get Vic'ed up. I can't sit for that long. It kills me."

A friend at the table points out that this is Followill's second yacht mishap – he bruised himself on a boat in Italy in 2010. Jet-setting party injuries are an occupational hazard for the Kings, who are back on tour after two years, their biggest break in a decade. The last time they started a tour, they were arguably the biggest band in the world, filling arenas on the strength of their huge pop-radio hits "Use Somebody" and "Sex on Fire," from 2008's Grammy-winning Only by the Night. Many expected the follow-up, 2010's Come Around Sundown, to take them even further. Instead, it sold poorly in comparison, moving 731,000 copies, about a third of what Night sold. "I pretty much checked out for that record," Caleb says now. The band ended its U.S. tour early, canceling 26 dates after a disastrous Dallas gig in July 2011.

Now, the Kings are back on the road supporting their new album, Mechanical Bull, which touches on all of the group's identities of the past decade: revved-up garage rockers, Southern-soul disciples, masters of arena bombast. "It feels good to be the fucking underdog," says bassist Jared Followill. "We're a comeback team. I'm glad we took that time off and there's all this controversy. It pushes us up against a wall, and we work best that way."

Caleb, who's a little more reserved, tells me he just listened to the sequenced new album on the plane for the first time. "I was actually kind of into it," he says.

That evening, the Followills unwind after a day of photo shoots and British press interviews at one of their favorite restaurants, the Mayfair seafood hot spot Scott's. "You don't really have to order anything," says long-haired drummer Nathan Followill, choosing two big pieces of Dover sole, sides from octopus to summer squash and the first of two £178 bottles of Australian chardonnay for the table. "Not bad eatin' for an interview," says Caleb.

The oldest Followill brothers are hardcore foodies – this month they're curating a food festival back in Nashville, their home for more than a decade, where they've both finished home renovations to accommodate their baby daughters. Nathan describes his home as "a wooden UFO hovering in the trees." (He says his wife, singer Jessie Baylin, wants to get it in an architecture magazine.) But with all the recent activity, he's spent only nine days there.

Caleb has had a hard time navigating the baby-proofed rooms in the house he shares with his wife, model Lily Ald­ridge, and their 15-month-old daughter, Dixie Pearl. "I couldn't get into the toilet, couldn't get into the kitchen," he says, talking about a recent night when he came home late, drunk. "She double-proofed everything. They just go overboard."

The brothers reminisce about England, where they've been huge ever since their manager scored them festival gigs with Interpol and My Morning Jacket in 2003. "We got up there and played, and these seasoned bands saw us as a threat – we loved that competition," says Caleb. Adds Nathan, "And it was our first taste of the debauchery, the rock & roll lifestyle."

Over the next several years, they earned a reputation as the hardest-partying band on the road. "I was in the belly of the beast for a while," Nathan says, recalling one depressing-sounding New Year's Eve in the mid-2000s: "Me, Caleb and Nacho" – the brothers' cousin and guitar tech – "went to New York and were like, 'We are going to do so much cocaine that it kills us, or if we live through this weekend, we're going to never do it again.' We holed up in an apartment in Union Square. Delivery guy would come three times a day. We went home and our mom looked at us and cried immediately because we were all skinny and pale."

Caleb stops chewing, shooting his brother an uneasy look. "Let's lighten the mood here," he says.

The Kings didn't become American superstars until five years after they hit big in Europe, when they traded garage rock for a more polished, reverb-soaked sound, which they found after opening for U2. 2007's Because of the Times wasn't a big hit, but the following year's Only by the Night was a monster. Some old fans felt betrayed. "I don't want to write about my sex parts being on fire just to have a huge song," said My Morning Jacket's Jim James. Liam Gallagher said, "It seems to me they've gone for the bucks."

The Kings disagree. "We used to grow our hair out really long, wear tight clothes – we were being kind of fake back then," says the band's guitarist, cousin Matthew Followill, sitting near a spotless white Gibson hollow-body after smoking a cigarette under the chimney of his hotel suite. "Now we're just normal and comfortable with ourselves." Jared says he's embarrassed by their early videos: "God, I hate it. And I can barely listen to our first and second records. It's very cringe-worthy for me. To me, Because of the Times is like our first record. We were finally being ourselves."

But by the time they made Sundown, the band felt burnt out and torn about who to please. "I would say, 'We need to try and write some hit songs so we're not one-hit wonders,'" says Matthew.

"Matthew would say the word 'radio,' and Caleb would get so pissed off," adds Jared. The tour wasn't much better; the bandmates traveled in separate buses. "We played the same set list for three years because we couldn't be bothered," says Jared. "The only time we had fun was onstage. Everything else fucking sucked."

The low point came on July 29th, 2011, during the group's show at Dallas' Gexa Energy Pavilion. The Dallas Observer described Caleb as yelling at the crew to bring him towels and water between erratic performances. After 40 minutes, he raised his arms and announced, "I'm married to the prettiest girl in the whole fucking world," adding, "I'm gonna go backstage and I'm gonna vomit, I'm gonna drink a beer and I'm gonna come back out and play three more songs."

He never returned, but Jared and Matthew did. "It's really not our fault," said Matthew. "It's Caleb." Added Jared, "Fucking hate Caleb, not us." (Today, Jared says, "That's exactly what management told us to say.") The bassist also tweeted, "I can't lie. There are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade."

Caleb woke up on his bus the next day surprised to be back home in Nashville, sent home by management. "I didn't know it was such a big deal," he says back at the bar. "People can say it was drink, but it wasn't even ballpark how much I was drinking at the time. I just think my body quit on me and said, 'You need to go away and rest.'"

He says he was blindsided by the band's comments. "I was fucking pissed," he says. "I got on the plane and went to New York and was like, 'Fuck them,' you know. And, you know, it hurts." His voice grows serious, his blue eyes welling up. "It hurt when I heard that, because I've always stood behind them. I stood behind them when we fucking walked offstage because of pigeons." He spits out the word in disgust, referring to an infamous St. Louis gig in 2010, when the band left the stage because of a flock of defecating birds in the rafters. "I've always been like a one-for-all, all-for-one type. And when I heard that, I was like, 'Wow. Maybe it is time to step back for a while.'"

The bandmates didn't see one another until days later, when they had an awkward meeting at a Nashville steakhouse. Several news outlets reported that they ordered Caleb to rehab. I ask Jared and Matthew if this is true; they respond with a long silence. "I can't say no one necessarily thought that," says Matthew.

"If they had, they knew I would have laughed at that," Caleb responds. He adds that he stopped drinking for nine months to prove to the band he could: "I have way too strong of a will to ever need to go somewhere."

If you want to make the Kings smile, ask them about their yearlong break. "This could be sad for fans, but I remember waking up, having my coffee, looking out the window and I could just not stop smiling," says Matthew, who didn't play guitar for six months. (He also used the time off to get sober.) Nathan played 186 rounds of golf; Jared says he masturbated to the porn site Tube8 for 30 days straight before getting bored and releasing an EP with his spacey side project, Smoke and Jackal.

Caleb, meanwhile, was secretly working on new songs at home after his family went to bed, his wife encouraging him when she heard a nice melody. "There was a healing period," he says. "I had to forgive them for what felt like them turning their back on me. And they had to heal too, from years and years of all of us going too hard and egos getting big. I told them, 'I'm working on new music. I'll let you hear it when you're ready.'"

In January, the Kings gathered at their newly built studio, a former paint factory in Nashville, with longtime producer Angelo Petraglia, to see if they could make music again. The first song Caleb showed them was "Beautiful War," an old ballad written the same weekend he wrote "Use Somebody." "We were like, fuck," says Nathan. Songs like the swaggering "Rock City" and the funky rave-up "Family Tree" followed. Caleb, who once blasted their new mainstream fans and called "Sex on Fire" a "piece of shit," was more excited than he'd been in years. "Back then, we were trying to do something that people remember," he says. "Now I'm trying to do something that makes my daughter so proud. One day, hopefully I'll still be here, but if I'm not, she'll be like, 'My dad was fuckin' cool.'"

The smell of grilled chicken cooked up by the band's personal chef fills the backstage compound in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the Kings are killing time before their set for 30,000 mud-soaked fans at the Tennent's Vital Festival alongside British bands the Vaccines and the Undertones. Caleb puts on a mitt and shows off his powerful arm as he tosses a baseball with Nacho. Jared passes around some snuff tobacco and talks about Kennedy-assassination theories with Martha, his 22-year-old wife. (Like Caleb and Lily, Jared and Martha met at Coachella; Nathan met Jessie at Bonnaroo.)

As set time approaches, the band gathers in a circle outside Caleb's trailer. He marvels that "Supersoaker" is a huge hit in Israel. "I've got promoters up the wazoo who want you to play Israel," says one staffer. Jared recalls an onstage streaker at a recent Birmingham show: "We hadn't been flashed in forever, and then boom! And he's British, so he's got the headless horseman hanging down. It was pretty gross."

Soon, the Kings are onstage, tearing through their jangly early single "The Bucket" as the fans bounce in unison, waving flags, tossing inflatable condoms and roaring soccer chants between songs. When Jared informs them Northern Ireland just won a World Cup qualifier match against Russia, they explode.

After 21 tunes, including a frantic, rollicking "Molly's Chambers" and a huge singalong for "Use Somebody," the sweat-soaked bandmates leave the stage. They move slowly down a tricky narrow stairway as drivers hold flashlights and umbrellas over their heads to protect them from the light drizzle. Crew members clap. With a police escort waiting, each King steps into his own black Mercedes sedan, and they drive off, one by one.

This story is from the September 26th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1192: September 26, 2013