"We needed the break so bad," says Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill of the band's hiatus following an onstage meltdown in Dallas in the summer of 2011 – when frontman Caleb Followill abruptly left the stage after 40 minutes. He never returned, and the band canceled 26 U.S. dates. "We were exhausted," says Caleb now. "It was a good time for me to reflect."
During the downtime, Caleb worked on new songs for the band's sixth album, Mechanical Bull (out September 24th). In January, the Kings convened in their new studio, a former Nashville paint factory, with longtime producer Angelo Petraglia. "It was how we sounded when we started playing as a band, excited to plug in," says Nathan. The first song the Kings cut was "Beautiful War" – an arena-size ballad Caleb wrote the same weekend as their 2008 hit "Use Somebody." "I have this anti-radio person inside of me," says Caleb. "But I'm pretty good at writing radio-friendly songs." On the country-tinged "Comeback Story," he reflects on the band's breakdown, admitting, "The bright of the lights, they are burning me out." Sessions rolled on with throwback FM-radio jam "Rock City" and the GN'R-style "Don't Matter." One highlight, "Family Tree," has Caleb chanting over a funky Family Stone-ish bass groove that recalls the Kings' first LPs. Says Caleb, "When people hear it, they'll think, 'The family band is back again.'"
After European dates this summer, the Followills are easing back into the spotlight here in September, curating Music City Eats, a hometown food festival with 25 of the region's top chefs. During the weekend, they'll join friends including Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Jakob Dylan and the Black Keys' Patrick Carney at a Nashville edition of the Petty Fest covers bash. "Nashville is becoming one of the food meccas of the South," says Caleb. "And that's great, because for so long, we were going to chain restaurants because they were the only restaurants that had a fucking glass of pinot noir."
This story is from the September 12th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.