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The Heartbreak Kings of Leon

A rock & roll fantasy starring four southern brothers who left the revival tents behind

Kings of Leon

Jared, Matthew, Nathan and Caleb Followill backstage at the 9:30 Club, February 26th, 2005.

David Corio/Redferns/Getty

Since there’s hardly anyone else in the wood-paneled downtown Manhattan dive bar where the Kings of Leon congregate whenever they’re in town, there’s no reason for Nathan Followill to be bashful. “Hey, look what I got,” he says. He pulls off his tweed blazer and unbuttons his shirt to reveal a pair of new tattoos on his chest: a Native American dream-catcher on the right and Betty Ann on the left, over his heart. The amulet, according to the twenty-five-year-old drummer, is a tribute to the fraction of Cherokee and Chickasaw blood coursing through his veins. The name is his mom’s. In the bar’s tiny back room, where a dozen or so people are taking advantage of a late-night leniency toward the city’s smoking ban, Nathan’s brother, singer Caleb Followill, 23, has planted himself on a black leather couch. The two other, youngest members of the Nashville rock band, little brother Jared, 18, and cousin Matthew, 20, opted to stay in their hotel room tonight. Hardly your typical young Southern-rock-stars-in-the-big-city behavior, and Nathan and Caleb are quick to mock it. “They’re probably talking to their girlfriends on the phone,” Nathan says, disdainfully. “Last night,” Caleb scoffs, “they sat in the room watching The Wedding Singer and splitting a Caesar salad. I swear.”

For his part, Caleb is only a tad more sociable: While Nathan genially chats up a brunette in knee-high boots, Caleb sucks down his Heineken and slouches lower in his seat as if he could make himself disappear by sheer force of will. In the U.K., the Kings’ unfiltered roots rock and strange, gothic American back story – the three brothers grew up barnstorming through the Southern revival-meeting circuit with their evangelist dad – made them superstars. There Caleb would never be afforded such anonymity, but here in New York’s East Village, he’s just another pensive hipster in too-tight jeans and a moth-eaten T-shirt. Which is just fine by him.

Caleb has no compunction about owning up to his neuroses: In fact, he wrote an entire album about them. Aha Shake Heartbreak, the Kings of Leon’s second album, was partially designed as a showcase for “every insecurity I have,” says the singer. Two songs on the disc refer to his anxiety about going bald, and another one called “Soft” is fairly self-explanatory. “If all people want to talk about is, ‘The Kings of Leon do drugs and hang out with models,’ I’m gonna give it to them straight,” he says. “You want to talk about how you saw me doing blow with such-and-such supermodel? Well you know what my rebuttal is gonna be? ‘I couldn’t get my dick hard that night.’ ”

Those kinds of rumors – often apocryphal tales of drug excess, STDs and sexual dalliances with boldface names like Paris Hilton and Kate Moss – haunt the Kings in the U.K., where tabloid headlines about the band are nearly as popular as their albums. Even before the Kings released their debut, Youth and Young Manhood, in 2003, the Followills were being hailed in the British press as the best American band in decades. These four Southern boys had the right pedigree, from their weird religious upbringing to their long locks and retro fashion sense. And then, of course, there was the music: A unique blend of hillbilly garage rock and postpunk that had the press dubbing them “Lynyrd Strokes.” Aha Shake Heartbreak could never be described so simply. A departure from the compact ditties of their first album, the follow-up is not only more personal but also moodier, more angular, more complex – more distinctly their own. It also represents a major commercial risk. “The last record was more whiskey, and this one’s more wine,” Nathan says.

For all their success overseas, the Kings are still relatively unknown at home. Their first album, Youth and Young Manhood, sold around 750,000 copies outside the U.S. and just over 100,000 copies here; Aha Shake Heartbreak, out this month in the States, debuted at Number Three on the British charts last October. But the band’s stateside prospects got a sudden boost last month when the band was selected as the main support act for U2’s spring tour. “We’re now relevant in our mom’s eyes,” says Nathan, though he acknowledges that Betty Ann doesn’t really know who U2 are.

And neither did the boys until late in life. Growing up as the sons of Leon Followill, a traveling Pentecostal minister, Caleb, Nathan and Jared weren’t allowed to listen to secular music – only gospel. “We wouldn’t have gotten caned or anything,” says Nathan. “But there would be a lecture.”

Still, from the start, the boys’ musical influences were forged as a combination of the church choirs they attended each week and the rock & roll songs they listened to on the sly. “I used to sleep with a radio under my pillow and listen to oldies,” says Caleb. “Other nights I’d get a cassette of my dad preaching and listen to that. I’d wake up with the worst cricks in my neck from sleeping on that radio.” (“Now he sleeps with a Valium under his pillow,” Nathan jokes. “No crick.”)

While Leon preached at churches and tent revivals throughout the Deep South, the boys attended services and were occasionally enlisted to bang on some drums. They were home-schooled or enrolled in small parochial schools. Except for a five-year stretch when they settled in Jackson, Tennessee, the Followills spent their childhoods driving through the South in a purple 1988 Oldsmobile, decamping for a week or two wherever Leon was scheduled to preach. Often they would all sleep in a single backroom of the church itself. “We’d have to use the preacher’s shower,” Caleb says. “It made you feel bad about everything you were doing.”

Life generally isn’t easy on preachers’ kids, especially transient ones. “We come into town,” Nathan says, “and there would always be all these girlies around us. So every church we went to, we had to convince the guys not to whip our ass. The girls would be talkin’ about us, and the guys would be like, ‘Hell, no! You’re not coming into our church for one week and taking all our women.’ “

Everything changed for the three brothers in 1997, when their mother and father divorced – an even bigger taboo in the Pentecostal community than in the Christian world at large – and Leon left the ministry. (Though some have reported that Leon was defrocked, the boys say he resigned on his own because “he knew it was time.”) “Our parents’ divorce shattered the whole mirage of this perfeet little existence the outside world couldn’t touch and couldn’t pollute,” Nathan says. “We realized that our dad, the greatest man we ever knew, in our eyes, was only human. And so are we. People are gonna fuck up. They’re gonna want to experiment with drugs, have premarital sex. This whole new world was open to us.”

After the divorce, there was drift – hasty relocations and crappy jobs, including an ill-fated stint for Caleb and Nathan as house painters in Oklahoma, where the intoxicating effects of lacquer thinner proved a distraction. But a desire to have a go at making music brought the brothers to Nashville, where they started writing and learning instruments. Their lack of exposure to contemporary music resulted in songs that Nate compares to “horrible Nineties Everly Brothers stuff.” Things improved when they brought Jared into the fold: In public school, classmates had introduced him to artists like the Pixies and the Velvet Underground. Then came another breakthrough: “Our friend Mary Jane showed up,” says Nathan, the biggest pot smoker in the group. “Someone bought us the Led Zeppelin box set, and we spent a week smoking as much pot as we could, listening. Our minds were blown.”

Caleb realized that his lyrics – which tended toward facile love proclamations – needed a reality check. “Once I heard the Stones and Dylan, I thought, ‘My God, why should we be held to our own experiences? Why not do like our dad did as a preacher: Every day, he saw something that inspired him and told a story about someone different. I had to put myself in other people’s shoes.” The rest has become band lore: One balmy night in 2000, the two elder Followill brothers, straight from church and still dressed in their Sunday best, drove into Nashville to hear some music. They wound up talking to singer Trey Boyer, who invited the boys to come by his house the next night and play for him. “When we started playing, we could see his face light up,” says Caleb. Soon they had a manager and were the subject of a bidding war. Next thing they knew, “all these people from record companies came to Tennessee to our mom’s garage,” says Caleb, “where we were just rehearsing while they sat on couches that were soaked in urine.”

The Kings of Leon signed with RCA in 2002, quickly banged out a five-song EP and then an album – all recorded live in the studio with producers Angelo Petraglia and Ethan Johns, whose father, Glyn Johns, produced classics by Zeppelin and the Who. When they weren’t on the road, the boys led a relatively sedate life. They bought a house in the small town of Mt. Juliet, on the same lake where Johnny Cash lived. They got stoned and played golf and ate dinner at the local red-sauce Italian place. But on the road they went hog-wild. They were, after all, a newly successful rock band of young guys who grew up thinking booze and drugs were the devil’s nectar and only recently learned otherwise. Or maybe not.

“Rooster is a dick. I hate him,” caleb says over dinner in early February. “I’ll wake up some days and the guys will tell me what Rooster said to them the night before. And I’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God. That was the meanest, deepest, darkest thing ever.’ The other night in L.A., Rooster was at a table at the Rainbow Room with Drea [de Matteo] from The Sopranos and Ron Jeremy. He got so fucked up that he had to be carried out!” Rooster is Caleb’s alter ego: the lout who emerges when Caleb has ingested more than his share of substances. A couple of weeks ago, Rooster made an appearance at a downtown bar where Caleb had swallowed a couple of Adderalls, Vicodin and several glasses of wine. But the singer says he’s trying to make Rooster less of a recurring presence these days. As the band prepares to go on tour with U2 in late March, he is even more acutely aware of the potential havoc his alter ego could wreak. “I gotta get my politics figured,” Caleb says, noting Bono’s reputation as a seasoned activist. “Because I know they’re gonna ask me a loaded question….”

The Followills are steeling themselves for the excesses of the road, their biggest stage ever and everything that comes with it. They admit they’ve dallied with groupies, but they say that the thrill has worn thin. “We’re young guys,” says Nathan. “Obviously we’re gonna dabble. But you come to realize it has nothing to do with us as people. It’s crazy. We’ll be telling girls, ‘We’re leaving in fifteen minutes.’ And they’re like, ‘I only need ten.’ We’re like, ‘Are you serious?’ And they are.”

“Do you realize how long it takes me to get these tight pants off?” Caleb jokes. “We keep pliers in our bunks just so the girls can grab the zippers and ply them off.”

Caleb recently met a girl he liked, but she has been taking too long to respond to his text messages, and that’s putting him off. Maybe, he says, it’s for the best. “You see people that find the perfect girl and start writing these songs that are too happy,” he says, with his usual pessimism. “Where does inspiration come from? That’s my biggest question in life. A lot of the problems we have that are brought on by our vices – like drinking too much and our egos – are what inspire us. Could I be happy if I had a different lifestyle? I don’t know. You need to shake things up and have these experiences, even if they are fake.”


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