To say the least, Kings of Leon didn’t exactly bask in their success after 2008’s Only By the Night became their breakout album. Brothers Caleb and Nathan Followill had an infamous fight during the making of 2010’s Come Around Sundown, and the next year, Caleb abruptly walked offstage during a show in Texas following an incoherent rant; the band canceled the rest of its American tour and took a sabbatical. (And let’s not forget the aerial pigeon pooping incident during their show in St. Louis in 2010.)
Two years ago, amidst rumors of overindulgence (and Jared Followill’s infamous tweet about “internal sickness” in the band), the Kings announced a sabbatical. But they eventually reconvened and cut their sixth album, Mechanical Bull (out September 24th), in their hometown of Nashville. Nathan Followill talked to RS about the band’s reunion, their new approach to making music together, and getting their rocks off in the studio without hurting anyone — at least, not any of the band members.
Given some of the onstage weirdness in 2011, no to mention tension between you and Caleb, did you ever think the band was over?
No. People ask us that, and if you ask any one of us, we’d say, “No way.” Being a family band, we were bound to have that awkward first time hangout at a show or at Christmas or Thanksgiving. There’s no avoiding it. If the band even stopped, we’re still a family and would see each other. So that wasn’t a thought in any of our minds. We all knew we needed a break, but we knew it wasn’t over.
How do you look back on the Come Around Sundown era?
That album got the post-Grammy monkey off our back. It was definitely before its time. But that was a record that had to be made for that point in our lives. We threw them a curveball and made the opposite of what people were expecting. Everyone was expecting six more “Use Somebody”s, that formula for success. That was such a whirlwind record and tour and we needed to take a step back.
How did you come to make music together again?
We had taken a break, obviously, and everyone was off in their own little world. In November of last year, we started kicking ideas around in this shitty-ass place we bought that we turned into a studio. This is the first record where we didn’t have a chance to write on the road. At soundchecks we used to break in new material, and by the end of a tour, we’d have ten or 11 new ideas. This record, we had to go back to the blueprint of what we did on our first album, when we locked ourselves in a house and rolled the dice.
So how did you know when a song was working or not?
This is our sixth record, so we kinda know. But you notice the little things, like someone tapping their foot or people whistling a melody in the studio all day. You have little signs. But for the most part we had to go back to the drawing board and say, “Do we continue this song or do we stop this one and do something else?” Lucky for us we were all in the same headspace, and taking that break allowed us to fall back in love with what we get to do for a living. We did what we’ve known to do for 12 years, which was pick up our instruments and play.
We’d go in every day and play stuff we were into, and it was interesting hearing what people were into. There are a couple songs that could be considered country ballads, even though they’re not country songs. One song has more of a Queens of the Stone Age feel. Another one sounds more like Sly and the Family Stone. It’s all across the board.
Some of the album, like “Family Tree” and “Don’t Matter,” has a louder, looser feel than the last two records.
Definitely. “Family Tree” is a song that sounds like we picked up our instruments and went with a groove, and that’s pretty much exactly how it happened. That song embodies the headspace we had going into that record. “Don’t Matter” was one of the last ones we recorded: “We need one more fast one, let’s see what happens.” It literally was written that day in about 15 minutes.
You have a seven-month-old baby, and Caleb had a baby girl last year. How did change or affect the band?
A lot more baby bottles than beer bottles now! [Laughs] But we tried to keep it as much rock & roll as we could on this one. We had one song that ended up not making it on the record. It had all of our kids’ names on it. We kept it internally to play for the wives.
This record was so much fun to make. We spent 80 percent of the time playing practical jokes and 20 percent getting work done.
What was the craziest practical joke?
We found these little exploding things that you can pretty much put underneath anything. It’s the loudest pop in the world. By the end of the album, we’d watch people flinch picking up anything, like an instrument or a magazine or a TV remote. We had no idea at the time, but our engineer had ear problems, and we got him pretty good one day — a triple load. That did not end well. It ended up with a trip to an ear specialist. But we had a good time. No losses yet.