Interview: Kings of Leon's Caleb Followill
Kings of Leon plays Webster Hall tomorrow September 23. The show is sold out.
"'Sex on Fire'--I kind of wrote it when I was drunk."
Caleb is the one in the vest
Early signs suggest a successful fall season for the four Followills who make up Kings of Leon. Possibly even a breakthrough: within hours of the official onsale for their upcoming tour of not-so-small theaters, nothing was left in most cities except for a few last row seats in the balcony. Ducats for the boys' September 23 record release performance at Webster Hall are now trading at six-to-seven times face value. And as a warm-up, the central Tennessee quartet--brothers Caleb, Jared, and Nathan, along with cousin Matthew--emerged nationwide this past Saturday as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
In the afternoon following John McCain's speech at the Republican National Convention and a surprising Vanderbilt victory over Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks, we spoke by phone with KoL lead guitarist Caleb Followill about wasabi snorting, songwriting under the influence, and the transitory lyrics of "Sex on Fire," the first single from the band's upcoming fourth full-length, Only by the Night. -- Rob Trucks
Tell me something you've never ever done in your life.
That's tough. There's so many. Let's see here. I've never swum with the sharks.
Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
I flew in my step-dad's airplane.
The name of a book that you've read at least twice.
Catcher in the Rye.
The name of a movie you've seen at least three times.
Dumb and Dumber.
And for the last of the-short answer questions, do you own a rake?
No, I do not.
Caleb, did you watch television last night?
Yeah, I did actually. I watched a football game.
The Vandy game or the Giants game?
The Vandy game.
Well, that must've been nice, if you care about the hometown at all.
Yeah, we were actually at a bar right next to the stadium so we could hear the cheers while we were watching.
Are all four of you living in the area?
Yeah. Actually we all live now in Nashville.
But in four separate homes?
The band tours a lot. How often are you home in order to take whatever advantage there is to living in Nashville? Could you live somewhere else and still be Kings of Leon?
I think we probably could, but we'd all have to be there together.
So if one of you moves then all four of you will have to go?
I mean, I think to keep the work ethic and, you know, the same camaraderie that we have, I think it'd be kind of difficult to do so if we were all living in separate places. We're not that kind of band.
If I'm reading the schedule right, you've just returned from Europe but you don't have another show until New York on the 23rd which is almost three weeks away. Then you've got almost another three weeks before the real tour actually begins. How are you filling your time other than drinking at a bar near Vandy?
Well, every now and then I get the opportunity to go out . . . we have a farm, also, out in the country. And I just go out there and ride on my four-wheeler and I do a lot of cooking. I don't know. We all kind of have little hobbies. My cousin Matt buys cars like every day and Nathan works out [laughs] and all kinds of shit.
I know you've got rehearsals and interviews and the like, but that's still a pretty long break, isn't it?
Oh yeah, especially for us because, you know, we're not used to having time off. But yeah, you know, it's a good chance to, I don't know, try to catch up to normal life. I mean, we don't have shows but we have so much going on right now. It's really strange right now. This record is getting the most attention of anything we've ever done, so that's why we rehearse and stuff like that. We're just trying to keep on our toes because every day we hear new information about opportunities that are coming open. And, you know, we like to play. We like the sound of our own voices, I think [laughs].
All right. Your website's putting up a new home movie every day during the month of September. And the most recent film features a white bijon poo and what appears to be someone making an ill-fated attempt to snort guacamole.
That was actually wasabi.
That's even dumber, I think.
Who was trying to snort the wasabi?
That would be our drum tech, Dan. He's kind of a simple guy, but he'll do anything for the cash.
I was about to say, I hope he made some money for the effort. I hope he got something out of it.
Yeah, he was saying that he had some bill he had to pay and he was $100 short, so we said, 'If you snort the wasabi, we'll give it to you.'
And did he get the $100? Because it doesn't look like he kept it down.
Yeah, we gave it to him. It was a valiant effort.
And who does the dog belong to?
The dog is my mom's dog. She named him Sir Leonardo, which is a pretty tough life for a dog. She dresses him up in sombreros and calls him, 'Sir.' We don't claim him as a brother.
Well, he seems like a pretty tough dog for being so small and your mom trying to prissy him up like that.
[laughs] Well, you know, I think he's trying to put out as much masculinity as he possibly can, you know, because she's walking him around in a handbag.
So are all of the scheduled videos already shot?
Well, we still document on a regular basis. But yeah, I think we have 23 clips and then some already down, but you know we still try to make some changes and approve and improve them. It's actually fun, man. It's a weird thing. At first you're really nervous about it, but then when you see it it's like, you know, we feel like we'd be missing out on some good stuff if we quit now.
You recorded Only By The Night in Nashville. That's got to be a different feeling, getting to sleep in your own bed every night and being able to find your own way back to the studio every day, than it is recording on the road. How do you think that affected the recording itself? Are there more distractions? Are you more comfortable at home?
Absolutely. The comfort level is just such a different thing. You know, we've recorded in L.A. and all these places, and it really feels like you're at work. But when we're home it feels like we're home, you know. We know where we're going at the end of the night. We know what restaurant to go to, or you have the luxury of cooking your own meal or sleeping in your own bed. And I don't know, I think besides the work it really gave us all a desire to get in there every day. But yeah, you know, I think the amount of comfort is evident when you listen to the music because, I mean, we were going in there pretty buzzed every day and, recording as opposed to trying to keep your composure fully. It was a hometown vibe, and everyone there lived in Tennessee. We weren't the only people talking with a country accent, and I think that helps.
Does this album take longer to record than the one in L.A.? Because you may feel like you're at work out in California, but maybe that makes you hurry up and get the hell out of there. Comparatively, time-wise, do the Nashville albums take longer to record than the non-Nashville albums?
No, we're pretty quick when we get in there working. I would say it takes a little longer into the day before we start recording, just because, you know, there's not that pressure on you. You don't feel like you're spending money in a studio. It's just like we would go in there and we knew the material was there, you know. So we were just all about getting the right headspace and going in there and recording. But we've never taken longer than six weeks to record an album.
Your last album, Because of the Times, sounded bigger, more atmospheric, like a "Daniel Lanois does stadiums" kind of thing over the previous records. I mean, it sounded like a band that had been on tour with U2. What were you going for in terms of sound on the new record?
Well, we wanted it to have a more professional feel than anything we've ever done. We've always thought that, you know, the music that we write, it all feels big to us but the production styles that have been used in the past, when we come out of the studio the songs felt smaller than when we were writing them. So this is the first record that we literally rolled up our sleeves and said, 'All right, man, we're not going to come out of here again and have a song that can't get played on the radio because it's so lo-fi that, you know, people can't put it up next to other music. We want it to be bigger.' And I don't mean popularity-wise. I mean, we want it to feel bigger and more professional.
So are you disagreeing with my theory? Are you saying that Because of the Times wasn't bigger?
Yeah, it definitely was bigger than anything we'd done in the past. But, you know, to us it still had, which is something that I really love if a band has the balls to do it, I love when you can feel the live vibe on the song. You can tell that it's not people going in there one at a time and recording. And that's something that we didn't do on this record. We did it in the same way. I just feel like with each album we're getting better and better at performing live, and so this record, you know, it had that bigger feel. But, you know, it sounds like we were going in there, almost like going in there individually and recording our parts, but really it was the same way that we do it. I think we're just getting better at it.
That's interesting, because it seems like the live sound that you're talking about, the live sound you're aspiring to, would almost have to sound more lo-fi, which is something that you're trying to stay away from. But maybe Angelo (Petraglia) has some production tricks up his sleeve to make it both bigger and more immediate.
Yeah, absolutely. I think with Angelo, it's just our comfort with him is so . . . I mean, he literally is the fifth King of Leon. We don't hold back in any way, shape or form with the way that we talk to him and vice versa. So yeah, I think the comfort level also contributes to how immediate it sounds.
I haven't seen the credits to this album because we're doing that funky 'you can only listen to it as a stream because if we catch you sharing it with somebody else we will lock you in rock critic jail,' but I'm assuming that we're splitting the songwriting credits four ways like you've always done.
But you seem to be the fountain from which the songs flow. Is that a fair assessment?
Well, you know, we do things differently. I mean, as far as like the subject matter and things like that, and just kind of having the last say-so as far as what's being said, that's me. But, you know, a lot of these songs . . . I mean, my little brother on the bass guitar, he'll inspire a song and I'll write around that. Or I'll hear a drum beat and write around that. You know, obviously there are times when I'm at home by myself and I kind of put it together and come in and hope the guys like it.
You had some shoulder surgery since the last record.
And after the surgery you spent some time at home, with a full prescription of pain killers, and a few songs come about that way. A few of these songs were written under the influence, so to speak.
What's a good example of a song where you woke up and it was a little more finished that you thought before you went to sleep?
Well, I would say "Sex on Fire" was that way. But, you know, for the most part it'd be a sad song. Like we have a song called "Revelry." And I think I did all the lyrics for "Use Somebody" the same way. It's kind of like you feel good but it's the kind of good feeling that brings about kind of sad emotions, things like that, but you don't really . . . I don't know. I hold a lot in. I'm not the kind of guy that cries and stuff like that. Not that that's a good thing. But, you know, after I've had a few drinks and I have a songbook in front of me, a lot of times I'll kind of talk to myself a little bit, you know, and kind of point a finger at myself, and usually that's the most emotion that comes out of me.
So the shoulder surgery and all that that entails allowed you to open up a little bit.
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I'm going to open up one way or the other, but I think it just happens a little quicker when you have something altering you to give you the confidence to do so.
But songwriters can be a little superstitious. Songwriters go through dry spells and you go through spells where it seems like songs run through you like beer, where every 30 minutes you've got to go piss one out. And oftentimes when you find a method that works, the temptation is to go back and do it that way again. How worried are you about having to drink a couple glasses of wine with a Tylenol 3 in order to write a good song?
Well, I mean, you know, I'm always having glasses of wine. But for me it's like, you know, the musical inspiration is always there. And that's the good thing about having a band that, you know . . . I don't know if it's because we're family or what. Or maybe it's just because we were so musically deprived growing up. But at all times, you know, there's something being played to where we all kind of pick our heads up and go, 'Hey, that's good. Let's work on that.' And that, too, is the reason why I think we all need to live together, because we inspire each other.
But as far as lyrics go, I never allow myself to write lyrics until it's time. Most of the time I'll write lyrics . . . You know, on a few of these songs I wrote lyrics, literally everyone's sitting there looking at me like, 'Come on. Let's go record the song.' I'm like, 'Okay. Give me one second,' and I'll finish the lyric and run in there and sing it. And usually I don't have it memorized so I end up singing it the wrong way and that's how it stays, you know. A lot of times, the lyrics, the way it comes out is the way that it ends up.
You're a believer in happy accidents.
Oh yeah, absolutely. That's the beauty of music, you know. I don't like to overthink stuff. So many people do it and, I don't know, I feel like if you overthink things well then, you know, if you overthink something and it ends up being a hit, then you're going to spend the rest of your career trying to repeat that, and I don't want to do that. That's the beauty of accidents because it's like, 'Well, we did that. We'll never be able to do that again, so what's next, you know?'
So you feel like you work pretty well under pressure.
Oh yeah. I think we're a big pressure band. We're just too competitive to let pressure get to us. Knock on wood, you know.
I've got to believe that one of the good things about being so far along in your career is that now maybe you can start talking about the music instead of rehashing your rather atypical childhood, traveling around with your dad and stuff. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I just think it's got to be a little tiresome telling that particular story for the 267th time.
Absolutely. Yeah, it's a good day, you know, now that people talk about the music. We spent our whole beginning of our career--hell, not only the beginning, but the beginning and the middle and all that stuff--and just after a while you feel like you're a story and you're not being recognized for what you're actually out there sacrificing everything for.
Why does every album title by Kings of Leon have five syllables?
It just so happened that the first, well, Youth and Young Manhood, we didn't think about it like that. And Aha Shake Heartbreak, as soon as we knew it was going to be Aha Shake Heartbreak, my little brother, like literally, like as soon as it was like, 'Well, let's go with Aha Shake Heartbreak,' he said, 'Okay. Well, the next one has to be Because of the Times.' And that was years ago. And then one day someone did the math and it was like, 'Wow, everything's five syllables. We want to stick with that.' And that was actually the toughest part of this album. I mean, we had the music and we knew it was good. Or at least to us. Every day we'd go in there and record and it would come out great, to us, but we would still have our head down. Like, 'What the fuck are we going to call the record?' Because we had all these great titles, but none of them were five syllables.
I mentioned superstition before. Would you say that's a pretty good example of a band being superstitious? That you have to have that five syllable title from now on?
Absolutely. I think we've all decided that maybe our final record will be called The Altar Call, which won't be five syllables, but, you know, until then I think we need to try to stick with five syllables. Who knows? Maybe we'll change one day.
You've got a song on the new album called "Manhattan." Now I know you've got some Native American blood in the family, and at least part of the song deals with Native Americans.
Yeah, the song is kind of about the unfortunate story that has happened that's kind of been pushed under the carpet. No one really likes to talk about it. But yeah, the beginning of the song's about the beauty and the freedom of the way that it was, and then by the end of it it's about, you know, how it's all been taken away. And you kind of still have the hope that, even though it's been forgotten somewhat, you know, I like to think that some of us still have that spirit inside of us. You know, as far as the living your life with a smile on your face and wanting to go and dance and enjoy all the beauties we have. I mean, I guess in a way it's kind of me trying to pardon myself from my party lifestyle.
Yeah, Manhattan, I think it means the hilly island, or something like that. As soon as my friend . . . I was playing it and I said, 'Man, I think I'm going to call this song "Manhattan," and I hadn't even written the lyrics yet, and he said, 'Yeah, man. That's a Native American word.' And I was like, 'Really?' And I already had the first line, "I like to dance all night and some of the day." And it worked out.
So which song on the new record took you the least amount of time to write?
I would say "Notion." I've never even written that down.
I hope you get somebody to write down the lyrics for you before the tour starts.
How long does it take? Do the words and the music all come to you in one big rush?
One soundcheck we all played our parts. Like I started playing the melody on the guitar, just kind of found the chords, and literally everyone one at a time jumped in. Then I sang it, and we finished and I asked my soundman if he recorded it, and he said, 'Yeah,' and there's the song.
Well, I guess he gets to work for the next tour.
[laughs] He always has the tape rolling.
And which one takes the longest to get it the way you want to get it? Which song takes the longest to write?
Well, I mean, I know I told you that "Sex on Fire," I kind of wrote it when I was drunk, but due to, you know, the hook of the song I didn't want it to be too cliché and too corny, so I actually rewrote those lyrics probably six times in my songbook. You know, I knew the hook so I wrote one song about two people that hated the sight of each other but the sex was so good that they couldn't stay away. And then I wrote one that was just way too explicit. I don't know. I just kind of tried to find a happy medium there somewhere.
You've written the lyrics six times. Have you found that happy medium yet?
I don't know. That's what I sang when they pushed 'Record,' so that's the one that stuck. I still think I have some lyrics in my book that might be better, but the boys didn't want me to change it so I was like, 'Okay.'
I know that you've got to work really hard, and the harder you work the more likely you are to get lucky, but do songs like "Notion" that come to you so quickly feel more like gifts from the songwriting gods?
Oh, absolutely. Even songs that you have to work at. For me personally, I don't know if it's the way that we work, if it's that we work quickly or that sometimes I'm a little inebriated when we're, you know, working, but I mean on several occasions it's been like two and three years down the road and I've been onstage and I sang something and it was the first time that I actually realized what I was saying. I got chill bumps. Like, 'Wow.' It's almost like prophetic in a way. It's like you don't realize what's going on until later on, and it's like, 'Oh, I get it now.'
Obviously, some winery somewhere deserves a mention in the liner notes for helping this album along. Pick us out a good wine to drink while listening to Only By The Night.
Jayson Pinot Noir. It's pretty amazing. Usually, I mean, I start with Pinot and I end up with drinking a bottle of Jameson, but, you know, if you want the full effect I would start with wine, finish it with Jameson and then, well, don't open your curtains the next morning because you're not going to feel too good.
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