Kings of Leon: The Bruised Brothers

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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