With a sound so inherently fueled by America’s rock ‘n’ roll roots, it seems unlikely the Tennessee-born Kings of Leon would ever struggle to find a U.S. audience. That’s partly because the band-composed of brothers Caleb Followill, Jared Followill, Nathan Followill, and cousin Matthew Followill-have been churning out some of the hardest hitting, most intelligently orchestrated rock albums currently on shelves. Still, the foursome-known as much for their peculiar backstory as they are for their stunning records-are only now beginning to lay claim to worldwide rock star status.
Following years of success in Europe and Australia, the band’s latest, 2008’s Only By the Night, has finally garnered them the stateside appreciation they have so long deserved. Anchored by the driving, raunchy single “Sex on Fire” and lead singer Caleb’s signature warble, Night went on to spawn both a number-one single and a Grammy win for the band. Sold-out dates at Madison Square Garden and a performance on Saturday Night Live soon followed, signaling the very real arrival of rock ‘n’ roll’s favorite Southern boys.
This Sunday, Kings of Leon will headline KJEE’s annual Summer RoundUp show at the Santa Barbara Bowl. We recently caught up with guitarist Matthew Followill to discuss the joys of stateside rock stardom.
How were you first approached to join the band? I always knew [the brothers] were writing songs and that they sang and stuff like that. They would always joke around like, “You need to play guitar for us.” I was 15 or 16 and would just kind of laugh. Then they started getting serious and tried to go get a record deal. And it worked out, and the next thing I know, Jared was calling me saying, “We need ya. Quit school and come live down here and start playing with the band.” So I just did it. I packed up and basically ran away from home and went to live with them. Thank God it worked out, because I’d probably never hear the end of it from my mother.
Has touring the U.S. changed this go around? Well, it’s definitely bigger; there definitely are more people. And our lights and stuff from the U.K., we can use here now. : It’s definitely just a bigger show. We play more songs; we play longer. It’s great. [People know] most of the songs, especially the new record. When we play through singing parts, like background vocals, everybody knows that stuff. It’s great. It makes you feel good; it makes you play better when everyone is singing along.
What’s the best thing about coming home after a jaunt like this? Geez. Just think about anybody who works all week and then they get the weekend. That’s like what I do when I’m at home. I’m working nonstop, and then I have a two-week weekend when I don’t do anything. I look forward to riding motorcycles-I miss those guys-catching up and watching TV, playing some PlayStation, maybe go to my favorite hamburger joint, Five Guys Burgers & Fries.
I’ve heard that a couple songs already are being worked on for the next album. Yeah, we usually play around in sound check, and we have a bunch of new ideas. They’re not like full songs or anything like that yet, but there are guitar parts and drum parts and stuff. We don’t have lyrics or anything, but that’s just the way we do it. : We have about five or six that are good, strong ideas that we’re working on.
What does the new material sound like? The only thing I can tell you about it really is that it’s a little bit less atmospheric, a little bit more rock ‘n’ roll. For some reason, we’ve been listening to a lot of grunge music and we’ve even been kind of dressing like we’re from the ’90s. I don’t know. I think The Whigs have inspired us because they kind of sound grungy. : We’re still going to try to make good songs; it just might sound a little bit different than the other stuff. Maybe we’ll try to do grunge or rock, Kings of Leon style. I don’t know. I can say that I think it will be a bit more rock-y than the last couple [of albums].
I imagine it’s harder to write from the road than in the comfort of your own home or practice space. I think it’s become more difficult now because we don’t really soundcheck anymore. It’s become such a good thing that we can pretty much play in any situation. Now we kind of have the whole day off and we play a show that night and it’s really great. It keeps everybody sane. [Laughs.] There’s definitely a big difference from writing at soundcheck because you can’t hear everybody, but we’ve been doing it that way for the past two records. Before that we would just practice in a basement, and when you have that time you can do whatever. If it’s 12 o’clock at night and you’re drunk you can go down and jam and remember stuff. Or, back in the days when we got stoned or something, maybe more stuff would have come out of that. But it’s worked out for us so far, so I dunno.
Are there covers that you guys have been known to rock out on, either onstage or in rehearsal time? Not that many. We’ll always play funny stuff. We’ve got one song that we play almost halfway through-I don’t even know the name of it-it’s a Joy Division song. It’s just easy and we all used to jam on it. And then, you know, there’s the occasional “Eye of the Tiger” that’s pretty funny.
You’re playing to huge, stadium-sized crowds around the world now. Is there any desire to hit the club circuit prior to releasing the next album? Umm. I never personally was a fan of playing in a bar or playing a small show. But even if we get a small show now, especially in England in stuff, it’s like 2,000 people. Over here, it would be like 500 or something. The last show we played like that was in London for a radio station, and it was like 150 people. But I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a desire. I mean, you grow accustomed to having your set ways and stuff like that around. [Laughs.] I’m just joking.
Only By the Night has been dubbed “arena rock ready” by a number of critics. Do you feel like the new tracks sound better in larger venues than the older stuff? I feel like all of our stuff sounds better in bigger venues-even old, old stuff like “California Waiting” and “Molly’s Chambers.” You play that in a small club and it sounds like a garage song, but if you play it in a stadium it completely changes it to a stadium sounding song. But I was surprised at how the new songs sounded. Usually we’ll start playing the songs when we’re getting ready to play live and usually it’s kind of difficult. On this new record, all the songs came really easy live and they’re still really comfortable. They’re still the songs that all of us want to play, so we get excited about playing the new stuff. That’s the main motivation to make a new record; so we can just play our new stuff, you know?
And you guys are on tour through September? I’d say November or something like that. It’s crazy. It will be a year and a half, I think, that we tour straight this time. But you can’t really-I mean, you can and you can’t complain about it. It’s like, you need a break and they’re like, ‘You can’t really because there’s just too big of opportunities.’ To play Madison Square Garden and these huge festival offers, you kind of just can’t say no to them. I mean, anything can change in a second, so we might as well do all we can now and just hope for the best.
You managed to get on one of the funnier episodes of Saturday Night Live last season. What was that like? It was fun. It was great. We’re all huge Saturday Night Live fans, so we got to see everybody. It was awesome. It was one of those milestone things for us. We always wanted to play Saturday Night Live and we never thought we could. It was like [we always thought] the cover of Rolling Stone would never happen. Playing Madison Square Garden-you just don’t even think about that, you know? We’ve done all these things and it just blows all our minds.
Kings of Leon will play KJEE’s Summer RoundUp at the Santa Barbara Bowl this Sunday, May 17, at 3 p.m. with The Airborne Toxic Event, White Lies, Far, and Iration. For tickets, call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.