Kings of Leon on Mick Jagger, lockdown hair and writing songs on bar napkins

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

image copyrightMatthew Followill
image captionKings Of Leon: 'We only wanted to make one record and sell a thousand copies'

Twenty years ago, long before Kings Of Leon became festival headliners, Caleb Followill made a deal with one of his friends.

"He and I used to go to random bars, all over the world," says the singer. "Wherever we were, if we had a day off, we'd put our finger on a map and go, 'Alright, we're going to go to this little dive bar'.

"And we would sit there and get some bar napkins. I would write poetry and he would draw pictures. And we would trade 'em off to each other and say, 'Alright, whichever one of us is going to be famous first, you own my lyrics - and likewise I own your art'."

Needless to say, his friend got the better end of the bargain. A signed copy of Caleb's lyrics for Use Somebody recently sold for $6,600 (£4,800) at auction - so those wine-stained poems could be a lucrative little nest egg.

Caleb also held on to some of the napkins, too, and every so often he finds one lying around his house in Nashville.

"I mean, I open books and I have bar napkins from all over the world," he says.

"Some of the poems are not as great, and that will let you know how boozy that night was. But every now and then, there's a clear little picture that I'm painting - and you don't remember exactly when you wrote it, or how you wrote it, but it can definitely make you proud."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe band's hits include Molly's Chambers, The Bucket, Sex On Fire and Supersoaker

The singer plundered his archive while writing Kings Of Leon's eighth album, When You See Yourself, which was released on Friday.

The words to one song, Fairytale, are 10 years old. Those of another, Supermarket, date back to 2008 when Caleb was feeling "a little lonely" on tour, shortly after he started dating his now-wife, Victoria's Secret model Lily Aldridge.

"I'm going nowhere… if you've got the time," he sings wisftully. "And it's a long hard road / 'Til I can get to you."

Almost as soon as it was recorded, Supermarket's lyrics took on a new resonance, as Covid-19 forced friends, family-members and bandmates apart.

"It was recorded before all this stuff happened," says the singer, "but if you read the lyrics it kind of sounds prophetic. It was strange how that worked out."

Other songs had a much shorter gestation period. The words to A Wave poured out of Caleb, unprompted, in the studio.

Its images of baptism and rebirth suggest some sort of personal reckoning - but the singer is unwilling to examine why he spontaneously sang lyrics about "drying out" and water "crashing down on me until I feel whole again".

"I guess it could be kinda therapeutic to figure out, but I don't know," he says. "I imagine that I probably had a bit of a night before and my skin was a little crawlin'."

Moves like Jagger

Kings Of Leon's capacity for drink is legendary.

Ever since they emerged with the deep-fried southern rock of their debut album, 2003's Youth and Young Manhood, they've had a reputation as the sort of hard-living, heavy-boozing, groupie-chasing rock group that you read about in vintage editions of Rolling Stone magazine.

Even their backstory felt ripped from the back pages of rock history: Three sons of an evangelist preacher who fell for the temptations of rock music (and its accompanying lifestyle) and kidnapped their cousin to form a band.

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Before long, their raucous live shows, and gritty garage-band riffs had won them the patronage of the musicians who inspired them. Caleb still remembers the first time Mick Jagger came to watch the band, at the Brixton Academy in 2004.

"It was very distracting because we were playing the show and there were a few empty seats up top; and then before you know it, it's Mick sitting there and banging his arms on the balcony and dancing.

"We were all looking at each other like, 'Holy crap, this is very surreal.' I started shaking my hips a little more. Yep, I definitely did some dancing that I hadn't done before."

They were big in the UK before they made it at home - but their fourth album, Only By The Night, changed that, selling 6.2 million copies, and producing pop radio staples like Sex On Fire, Use Somebody and Revelry.

Behind the success, though, there were constant stories of backstage debauchery and drunken recording studio punch-ups.

It all caught up with them in 2011, when Caleb announced to a crowd in Dallas: "I'm gonna go backstage and I'm gonna vomit, I'm gonna drink a beer and I'm gonna come back out and play three more songs."

He never returned.

His brother, bassist Jared Followill told the crowd: "Hate Caleb, not us". The rest of the tour was cancelled, and the singer gave up drinking for almost a year as the band attempted to repair their relationships - and their career.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe earlier, hairier incarnation of Kings of Leon (L-R): Matthew, Nathan, Caleb and Jared Followill

Perhaps understandably, their next record, Mechanical Bull, played it safe, sticking to the arena rock anthems they'd become known for. But they shook things up on 2016's Walls, bringing in Arcade Fire and Florence + The Machine producer Markus Dravs, who located a darker, more sinister side to their signature sound.

The new album, also produced by Dravs, finds the band in a more contemplative mood, reflecting on youthful exuberance (Time In Disguise), growing older (Fairytale) and domestic romance (When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away).

Caleb started writing the songs in the dark days of winter 2019, after "the dust settled and all the Christmas presents had been opened".

"January in Nashville, it's almost cold enough for snow, but not quite. We just get a lot of fog and rain and that's usually when I tuck away into my little office and start writing.

"It's sad because my birthday's in January and I feel like my month is the month everyone hates the most - but it really just makes my mind go to the great times we've had on the road, and I start writing songs about that and try to escape for a moment."

Hail Mary music

The new album isn't completely self-referential, however. Claire & Eddie tackles climate change, while The Bandit is a rip-roaring story of a bandit and a bounty hunter.

All of which raises the question of whether Caleb's ever considered writing a story that lasts longer than a four minute rock song.

"I think about it sometimes," he says. "Maybe one day I'll go from writing songs to a children's book or something. Something with some pictures to distract people from my words."

Figure captionWarning: Third party content may contain adverts

The album was recorded at a leisurely pace, with Kings Of Leon holed up in Nashville's Blackbird Studios for 10 months, playing vintage 1960s instruments and allowing themselves to experiment with melodies and arrangements.

They had so much fun, in fact, that the sessions were extended after an initial deadline of November 2019. The album contains "a few hail Marys" that were written and recorded in those extra weeks.

When Covid struck, they decided to sit on the record until the end of lockdown, unaware how long that would actually take. Even so, Caleb thinks of the "big pause" as a gift.

"Because once things get back to normal, we know the process: You make a record and then you go tour for six months, and then you come home and you take six months off and you go back to the studio. That process isn't part of our lives right now, so why not keep making music?"

image copyrightMatthew Followill
image captionThe band say they hope to be back on the road by the summer

Lockdown also allowed the frontman to experiment with his hair, even going back to the luscious locks Kings Of Leon sported in their early days.

"I've done it all, he laughs, "I've had every form of facial hair you can imagine. My moustache was pretty epic for a while, but the wife wasn't too keen on it."

On the other hand, his two-year-old son, Winston Roy, freaked out when the moustache vanished.

"He's seen me with some form of a beard for most of his life and when I shaved it off, he didn't want to hang out with me, which was pretty sad."

With the album finally out, things are slowly kicking back into gear for the Followills. They even have two dates booked in the UK this June. So what are the odds of them going ahead?

"The odds? I do like to gamble… But I don't think I'd put my money on it," says Caleb. "Then again, things are starting to move along with the vaccines and I would frickin' love to be on stage in June. So yeah, let's cross our fingers."

No matter what happens next, he's just amazed that Kings Of Leon have survived this long.

"We always thought if we could make one record and sell a thousand copies, then we'd be able to play a concert once a year and 10,000 people were going to show up.

"So to be on album eight is insane and humbling. It's a landmark that never was in our sights."

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