If anyone needs proof that Kings of Leon are now old-hand rock stars, first consider that they just released their seventh album. Then consider that they recorded that album not at their home studio in Nashville but in Los Angeles, decking out the studio to match their status. "Couches, various tapestries, incense – all of the cool things a veteran band should do to look like they know what they're doing," chuckles drummer Nathan Followill.
Yet also befitting a longtime rock-star band, the Kings are at a crossroads. Walls will be their last album for their longtime label, RCA, which is part of the reason the band recorded it in California. "We thought it would be kind of neat to bookend it in L.A.," says Followill. They're also coming off 2013's indifferently received Mechanical Bull, after which the band took a three-year break. But the family-centric Kings – still comprised of brothers Nathan, Caleb and Jared and cousin Matthew Followill – are still as ornery as ever, as the drummer reminds Rolling Stone in this recent interview.
Walls is your first record in three years. What led you to take such a long break between records?
Coming off of an 18-month world tour and then going straight into the studio – I mean, that can be kind of taxing. For a young band, that's great because what else are you going to do? You're just going to make music and have fun. We got to take a little time away and be with our families and get to be husbands and daddies for a while, and not musicians. Early on we didn't have families of our own. it was a little easier back then. But now three of us have kids, and we're all married, so the priorities change as your family grows.
How did that break relieve some family tensions of the past?
This record was a little different because we did have so much time off. We all went into the studio having not been together for a while, musically, and it was cool to see where our heads were musically and how everything lined up. That was a huge relief. There's nothing worse than going in there and all four band members want to take it in four different directions. That's usually when we just go behind the barn and settle it with our fists.
Caleb does a majority of the lyrics, but this record was the first one in a little while where we were all four very involved lyrically and was kind of a team effort. Us being family, no one shies away from "No, that's a horrible line" or "That's a great line." Our brutal honesty is good and bad for us sometimes.
What did you take from the making of Mechanical Bull?
We learned our lesson early on after our really big record [2008's Only By the Night and its hit "Use Somebody"]. You put so much pressure on yourself after that – to at least maintain that momentum you've got going—and we really had a shitty time in the studio trying to do that. Trying to chase a hit or trying to recreate success you had on previous things. So going into this record we had the frame of mind of no pressure to recreate any success we've had prior to this.
Obviously you want everything you do to be the best you've done and reach the masses as easily as possible. But we didn't put any pressure on ourselves that we had to repeat it at a certain level. We were scared shitless and excited at the same time and just going into it we were like, "We're just gonna roll with it. And wherever the record takes us, that's where we're going to go." There's no right or wrong way to make a seventh record. You've obviously established yourself well enough if you can make seven records.
That change-up comes across in a song like "Muchacho," which has a very different feel, down to the piano guiding the groove.
We wrote that one about our art director, Brett Kilroe, who passed away from cancer. He had done every video with us, every record cover, every photo shoot. So Caleb wrote that about our friend and it was actually the last song we recorded. I said, "Man, y'all should bring a cocktail drum kit in here." It didn't seem like the type of song that really needed a full set of drums for this big sonic boom. It was more delicate and simple and just beautiful.
The title song is pretty subdued, too.
That was another one that was very minimalist. We didn't really think it needed a whole lot of stuff going on. Caleb's vocals are definitely the star of that song. Markus wanted the drums to be subtle and light and almost like a heartbeat, as opposed to a drum being hit. So for that song I sat on the ground with the beater and I hit it manually with my hands instead of using my foot on the kick pedal. That's probably the easiest drumming gig that I've had, I would say.
You also worked with a new producer, Markus Dravs, known for his work with Florence and the Machine.
Yeah. Lovely chap. It was the first time we ever made a record where we were pushed almost to the point of breaking. He was very sneaky. We would run through the song and play it three times and he'd be like, "Uh, yeah, you know – let's run it a few more times. You still don't have it nailed down." So we would do it a few more times and he'd be like, "You all still don't have it nailed down. Let's go through it a few more times." So we'd do it three or four more times, and then he'd be like, "Uh, we're keeping the first one. I was trying to see if I could get you guys to beat it, but obviously we're not going to." We're like, "You little bastard! You made us play that song 10 times and you liked the first one all along?"
But we kept Markus on his toes a little bit. We had moments where there was a disagreement here or there on a guitar part or a solo or something. We had to throw a little Jerry Springer family action in there every now and then. We couldn't make it too easy for the guy.
You guys have been known for getting physical with each other.
There might have been a couple verbal jabs here or there on this record, but we're getting too old. I've had surgery on both shoulders and I have broken ribs. We're out of the physical game. Now it's, "Let's have a spelling bee. Let's handle it with our brains."
The album only has 10 songs, just like the days before CDs.
It seemed like a nice clean number. There's all kinds of versions of songs nowadays. Now you have the extras and the acoustic version and the version where the member was too drunk and played the wrong part. But after eight or nine songs, your ears are like, "All right, let's take a short recess." We'll see what people think about it.
The band has been known to set off firecrackers in the studio. Same this time with the new producer?
Yeah, but not early on. We were still feeling each other out. But the poppers did make an appearance about a third of the way through the record. We still got to have our fun.
How did Markus deal with it?
He was not a fan at first. But by the end of the record, I believe he placed a popper or two himself. He came around.