BACKSTAGE BEFORE A LATE-SEPTEMBER KINGS of Leon show in St. Louis, nerves are running high. “I’ll bet at least a hundred people showed up just so they can boo us,” says singer Caleb Followill. “Maybe I’ll pretend to run off stage crying.” The Kings are here to make up for a disastrous gig in July – a flock of pigeons in the rafters rained down so much excrement that the band quit after only three songs.
The incident became an immediate source of widespread ridicule – the group was mocked by everyone from national magazines to Rush (who played the amphitheater a few days later) – as detractors accused the Kings of becoming prima donnas who had lost touch with their roots as a hardworking Southern rock band. By the next morning, the story had gone global. “It was on CNN, it was on Reuters,” recalls drummer Nathan Followill, 31. “It felt like that’s gonna define us: ‘Four-time Grammy-winning, pigeon-shit-on band Kings of Leon.’ It’s crazy that pigeon shit made me realize just how big of a band we really were.”
Less than an hour before the gig, a friend says he spotted a pigeon under the awning. “You saw one?” asks bassist Jared Followill, 23, who had bird shit land on his face. Nathan teases him, “It was just one, but he had some Taco Bell bags with him.” But pigeons aren’t even the Kings’ principal concern right now. The bandmates are religiously loyal fans of University of Oklahoma football – the Sooners are up two points against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats with one minute to play. There’s a TV set up in the fluorescent-lit dressing room and a spread including hot wings, beer, wine and artisanal cheeses. “This one smells like if a foot could fart,” Nathan says of one particularly ripe wedge. After a trip to the bathroom to puff on one of the pre-rolled joints (“PR’s”) a Kings crew member keeps in a smell-proof container in his pocket, Nathan cues up the Sooners’ fight song on his iPhone and does a little jig. “If OU loses,” he says, “pigeons are gonna be the least of this venue’s problems.”
The Kings’ fifth record – Come Around Sundown, out October 19th – follows the album that turned their world upside down and made the Followills (three brothers and a cousin) the biggest young band in America: 2008’s Only by the Night has sold 6.5 million copies worldwide. That record, fueled by the radio smashes “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody,” brought the Kings to a mainstream audience, about which they expressed Nirvana-style ambivalence. (Earlier this year, Caleb, 28, had to apologize after saying their new soccer-mom fans were “not fucking cool” and calling “Sex on Fire” a “piece of shit.”) They batted away requests to be on soundtracks and even turned down an offer for one of their songs to be performed on Glee. “We feel really blessed and really popular,” says Jared. “But now it’s like people are looking for any reason to hate us. And I think that’s partly because people had to hear ‘Sex on Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’ 8,000 times a day. That would make anybody hate anything.”
At the same time, the Kings’ LSD-gobbling, groupie-bagging years are fading away. Nathan married his longtime girlfriend, singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin, last year (they met by the Porta Potties at Bonnaroo in 2006: “It was love at first shite,” he says); guitarist Matthew Followill, 26, and girlfriend Johanna Bennett wed around the same time. And in mid-September, Caleb proposed to model Lily Aldridge. Jared is the only bachelor left in the band (he split from his fiancee more than a year ago), so he spends more time partying in New York than in Nashville. “It’s not the best place for single people, at all,” he says.
FEELING OVEREXPOSED AND EXHAUSTED from more than a year of straight touring, the Kings planned to take an extended break at the end of 2009. But by February, they were bored out of their minds. “We can’t really sit on our hands,” says Caleb. “After you’ve cooked dinner and you’re sitting there listening to Townes Van Zandt and you’re drinking whiskey, when you see a guitar in the corner you’re going to go pick it up.”
With a batch of new songs written in Nashville and on the road, the Kings moved to New York to record Come Around Sundown. “We needed a change of scenery,” says Nathan. “A shock to the system.” They bought condos and settled into a regular working routine – Caleb became obsessed with the roast chicken at a favorite Italian restaurant, Nathan dug walking uptown to the studio. They’d get there around noon, battle each other at darts in the lounge between takes, and end at whatever time the alcohol-to-creativity ratio made it impossible to get any more work done. “Some days we’d end early because somebody had gotten to that point too early,” says Nathan. “There were a lot of five-day weekends on this album.”
The Kings tried not to think about singles or platinum records during the sessions. “It would have been really easy for us to go in there and put a lot of stress on ourselves and pressure to compete with the last record,” says Nathan. “Luckily for us, the first three records were not successful at all, so it’s not like we had a different mind-set going into the last record. It was just the same ‘OK, shit, we’re just making another record.’ We did that with this one as well – just do what Kings of Leon do.” Still, Come Around Sundown – produced by longtime collaborators Angelo Petraglia and Jacquire King – pushes their surging modern-rock sound further into stadium territory with ringing guitar riffs, booming drums and Caleb’s raspy howl on songs like “Pyro” and “The End.” At the same time, “Pickup Truck,” “Mary” and “Back Down South” have a strong country vibe, and Caleb is already talking about making his own country solo album someday. “I think being in New York subconsciously reminded us that we’re still Southern boys,” says Nathan. “It was just an amazing experience while we were there, but it sure felt good to get back to Nashville when it was over.”
It’s hard to believe that the Followills, whose primary imperative used to be raising hell, are now looking forward to raising babies. Caleb is already overseeing the construction of a Nashville home, where he hopes to eventually raise a family. (Aidridge was recently named Victoria’s Secret’s newest Angel, so he figures it could be a while before she’s willing to let him knock her up.) He’s been working on his cooking skills – though he also just cut back on bread and pasta and lost more than 10 pounds. “I can make a phenomenal steak dinner with gorgonzola-bacon mashed potatoes, or shrimp put-tanesca,” says the singer. “I look forward to cooking for my kids. I’m building pretty much my whole kitchen around Daddy-and-kids time. I’m gonna have a big outdoor pizza oven.”
Nathan predicts that as soon as one of them has a baby, the others will follow. “We went through our crazy drug phase,” he says. “We were just four penises let loose in the world. It was a blast, but I don’t think we’d be the band we are today, or even a band at all, if we kept up that lifestyle. Luckily for us, we all kind of got tired of it at the same time. I’m married, it’s football season, and I’m totally cool with chilling out watching SportsCenter.” When he’s at his place in Nashville, the drummer passes his days playing golf on a private course near his house, taking hikes with his wife and eating her home-cooked meals. “I’m slowly settling into the role of taste-tester,” Nathan says. “We’re newlyweds. We’re still enjoying not being sick of each other.”
THE SONS OF AN ITINERANT PENTECOSTAL preacher named Ivan, the Followills grew up driving from church to church in the South, often sleeping at relatives’ homes or in church basements. “We had to be each other’s best friends by force, and it turned out that’s the way we wanted it,” says Nathan. “We love each other.” (It seems the dented frying pans, smashed mirrors and broken shoulders of their famously violent fights are a thing of the past.)
Their parents visit on the road regularly, and when they get a little extra money, sometimes they’ll buy a pickup truck for a relative back home. At a recent show in Florida, Ivan and his younger brother Uncle Cambo (Matthew’s dad, a painter in Oklahoma City) were hanging out backstage. The brothers’ relationship with Ivan – who split with their mom after his drinking led to him leaving the church in the Nineties – is as strong as ever.
The Kings extend that family-oriented approach to their enterprise. The core of their crew – from their producer, Petraglia, to their guitar tech, cousin Nacho – have worked with the group from the beginning. “It’s rare now to have that loyalty and that relationship,” says Nathan. “But these are people that have been with us from Day One, and what makes us comfortable is you want it to feel like a family. That’s our business model for our whole career, basically.”
In recent years, as their operation has grown to employ close to 50 people, Nathan says they’ve learned to “think like businessmen.” After Nacho hurt his hand on the job and the Kings footed his massive hospital bill, they realized they needed to provide everyone in their crew with health insurance. While they were at it, they took the rare extra step of adding a 40l(k) plan. “Except ours is called a 420(k),” Nathan jokes. “For every joint you put in now, we’ll give you two joints after you retire.”
Within minutes of playing their final note in St. Louis, the dressing room is engulfed in a celebratory cloud of smoke. They were neither booed at nor pooed on – and the Sooners won. Instead of rushing off immediately to their idling jet after the en- core as usual, the foursome hang out until 2 a.m., drinking, passing PR’s and playing ping-pong with opening bands the Whigs and the Features. Matthew heads outside to smoke cigarettes, and Nathan plays iPhone DJ, cuing Tom Jones tunes after he’s mocked for wanting to play Toto. Caleb takes on a series of opponents at ping-pong, and Jared gets down on the floor so a muscle-bound roadie can teach him a punishing pushup routine.
They don’t have much to worry about – except for how Come Around Sundown is going to be received. “Obviously it would be the best of everything if you could be really popular and still be considered cool,” says Jared, who’s a big fan of indie bands like the Drums and Beach House and keeps up with music blogs. “But it’s one or the other. And at a certain point, it becomes about longevity.”
But Caleb isn’t nearly as ambivalent. “I hate fucking hipsters,” he says. “Everyone talks about indie this and indie that, but would you really want to be one of those indie bands that makes two albums and disappears? That’s just sad. When we signed on with our manager, we all said we wanted to have a box-set career. We’ll gladly be the next generation of bands that aren’t going anywhere.”