Interviewing Kings of Leon before they took the throne

Photo of Kings Of Leon @ Virgin Megastore - Oxford St - 11/07/03


By Steve Newton

There’s a real buzz happening right now about Kings of Leon, a scruffy Tennessee quartet consisting of three brothers and a cousin who are winning praise for their garage-y brand of Southern-flavoured guitar rock. England’s prestigious NME put the band on the cover of its July issue, calling its Youth and Young Manhood CD “one of the most exciting rock ’n’ roll debuts of the last 10 years”.

Not bad for a bunch of guys whose oldest member is 24.

When the Straight reaches the self-described “old man of the group”, drummer Nathan Followill, on his cellphone in Nashville, he’s about to catch a flight to L.A. His band is scheduled to play the KROQ Inland Invasion III, a sold-out festival that features headliners the Cure and upstarts like Hot Hot Heat and Fountains of Wayne. Then it’s down to Mexico City before heading off on a West Coast jaunt that will see Kings of Leon visit Richard’s on Richards on Tuesday (September 30).

“We actually played Toronto about a week ago,” Followill says, “and it was our first time ever in Canada. We loved it, man, but we heard that if you’re goin’ to Canada, Vancouver’s the place to go.”

Those Kings of Leon certainly seem well-informed. And they don’t behave like your typical young rockers getting their first taste of fame and fortune. When they head down to Mexico, they have no intention of drowning themselves in tequila, the way others in their position might. Part of their reluctance stems from the fear of anything liquid in Mexico—“We’ve heard horror stories about Montezuma’s Revenge”—but it has more to do with the fact that they could care less about getting wasted.

“Yeah, that’s the funny thing,” says Followill, who cites Levon Helm as his all-time favourite drummer. “Everywhere we go people always have a bottle of Jack Daniel’s waitin’ on us, and we’re really not liquor drinkers at all. I mean, there’s maybe one of us, Matthew, who’ll take him a shot of whisky every now and then, but other than that…”

Figures. It’s always hard to keep the JD out of the clutches of those guitar dudes. Matthew Followill is KOL’s 19-year-old lead player, and somewhat of an outsider in that he’s only a first cousin. Rounding out the lineup are Nathan’s brothers Jared, the 17-year-old bassist, and Caleb, the 21-year-old lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist.

“We got another cousin, Nacho, who’s our stage manager,” Nathan notes. “He looks just like Caleb, so a lotta people think there’s five of us.”

The story behind Kings of Leon begins with the Followills’ paternal grandfather, whose name was Leon. That was also the name of their father, a United Pentecostal evangelist who spent a lot of time on the road, preaching the gospel with the three brothers in tow. The siblings’ dad was also pastor of a church in Mumford, Tennessee, in the redneck haven of Tipton County.

“There was lotsa rebel flags, lotsa mullets, and lotsa tobacco-chewin’ women,” Nathan recalls. But there wasn’t a lot of Skynyrd—at least not in the Followill residence. “My dad would sneak off and play us a little Neil Young every now and then,” he explains, “but rock ’n’ roll definitely wasn’t a part of our house.”

From the swamp-boogie vibe of Youth and Young Manhood, one might think the members grew up on a steady diet of CCR, but Followill—who names the Kills, My Morning Jacket, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs among his fave new bands—says the influences aren’t so easy to pinpoint.

“Man, I don’t know if there’s anything that really turned us on to this kinda music,” he relates. “We just bought our little brother a bass, and we just got Caleb an acoustic guitar. And our cousin Matt had taken lessons when he was, like, 12, but had put the guitar away and hadn’t really played it until about two years ago. And I played the drums in church growin’ up, but when I was about 17 I gave it up and didn’t pick ’em up until about a year ago.

“When we get up there and play,” he continues, “a lotta people say, ‘It sounds like it’s influenced by this or by that.’ To be honest with you, that’s just the sound that comes out when we play together. We didn’t grow up listening to a lotta music, so we didn’t know a right way or a wrong way to play rock ’n’ roll. A lotta people say it’s got that innocent, raw energy, and that’s exactly what it is, you know.”

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