Kings of Leon make long-awaited return with 'WALLS'
Kings of Leon
It’s good to be the Kings of Leon again.
“We’re excited to be back,” says lead guitarist Matthew Followill. “It’s been a good break, but now we’re all rested and ready. We’re definitely ready. We’re inspired.”
That wasn’t the case back in 2011. After a reportedly dehydrated (but more likely inebriated) Caleb Followill — the Kings’ frontman and Matthew’s cousin — walked off the stage mid-show in Dallas never to return, the band cancelled 26 shows and ended their tour. More crucially, they seemed to be imploding, with bassist Jared Followill tweeting to fans: “I know you guys aren't stupid. I can't lie. There are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade.”
Since then, hatchets have been buried. Acts have been cleaned up. Lives have changed — all the members (including drummer Nathan Followill, Jared and Caleb’s brother) are married and all but Jared are dads. Walls have come down. And new ones have gone up. But in a good way.
WALLS (We Are Like Love Songs), the Kings’ pivotal seventh studio album, displays the inspiration cousin Matthew mentioned. It was recorded in L.A. (like their early albums), not their Nashville home base. It was produced by Grammy winner Markus Dravs — who has worked magic for Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons and Coldplay — instead of longtime compatriot Angelo Petraglia. And it finds the Kings retooling their sound and style without totally demolishing their southern arena-rock foundation.
A few days before unveiling WALLS in concert for fans, contest winners and journalists including yours truly (see my review of the show online), Matthew opened up about Minnie Pearl’s hat, the band’s biggest control freak and why he’s not a doctor.
There have been a lot of stories about the band’s supposed struggle to balance your personal and professional relationships. How does it feel from where you sit?
I don’t know that I felt that struggle, really. I think what happened was we have wives and children now. Anyone would try to balance their time better, if you have a job like we do. Or any job, really. It’s just family vs. work stuff. We had to find that balance, but I don’t think we struggled with it. And now we’re great.
How are things different now?
Well, I like to be home for dinner instead of burning the midnight oil.
Speaking of home, don’t you live in Minnie Pearl’s old house?
I used to, yeah. I don’t anymore. We used to make a lot of jokes that it was haunted, but actually it was very not haunted. It was very normal. But there was a hat of hers there in a frame. We had it in the basement. That was pretty cool, but when we moved we left it with the house.
Is the new place not haunted by the ghost of another famous country star?
It’s very not haunted as well. (Laughs)
Back to the changes in your lives: Why did you go out of your comfort zone to make WALLS?
It’s important to evolve and change, or you just get bored. So we decided to record in a new place with a new producer. We also took a different approach to songwriting. We tried to have a full song done before we recorded it. Before, we would just have the idea. This time, we tried to have something you could play on acoustic guitar as a finished song. Also, a lot of songs started with me on this album, which is different. The last album, there was a lot of Caleb. But this time I was bringing in riffs and chord progressions that we would use to create the song. I was more inspired this time. I felt a little bit more of a fire.
Basically, I fell in love with guitar again. Before, it was like playing guitar was my job. I kind of floated through life, and then I had that turning point when I realized I’m so, so lucky to play guitar and get paid for it. So I got super-into guitar, which led to more playing, and it just went from there. So when it was time to write, I had this handful of ideas and luckily the band just really liked them.
From what I’ve read, your producer Markus Dravs might have been a harder sell. I understand he pushed you guys.
He definitely pushed us. He wasn’t really trying to be our friend, which is totally fine. I mean, I love him. He’s an awesome guy. But he was there to do a job, and I totally respect that. But he wasn’t worried about telling you, ‘Yeah, that one’s not so good.’ But that was OK. We had plenty of ideas.
It shows. This album starts off sounding familiar, but really takes a detour in the middle.
It does. And I was really nervous about that. We basically have a pretty new sound for us, but the first two songs are very much Kings of Leon. I thought it might be a little confusing. But then I thought it was good. Maybe you need to ease people into it.
How is this album different to your ears?
The sound is a little cooler — a little more effortless. We used a lot of vintage amps and guitars and drums and old synths that I’ve collected. But there are actually fewer things on each song. We didn’t throw the kitchen sink at every single song — we gave space for the parts to breathe. And the arrangements aren’t so formulaic; it’s more random; anything can happen. You think you know what’s going to come next but that doesn’t happen. Overall, I think we’re moving in a good direction.
Think you’ll keep moving in this direction?
I definitely think so, yes. I could already go back to the studio. I want to. I find myself playing guitar and being like, ‘Man, I bet this would be a good one. I would love to give this one to the guys.’ So hopefully we’ll work a little harder. Maybe we won’t take as long a break this time. Though probably we will. (Laughs)
As a cousin to the three brothers, where do you fit in? What’s your role?
I feel like I’m the most opinionated, for sure. I’m the biggest control-freak in the band. I’m sure I’m very hard to work with. (Laughs) I’m just so opinionated that I can probably be annoying. But I’ve tried to step back from that, because it’s fun to collaborate. And the other guys bring in things that always blow my mind. So I’m not always right.
Sounds like you might want to make a solo album.
I don’t know. Maybe. But I think I’d end up wanting to save those songs for the Kings. So maybe not.
What would you have done if not for the band?
Oh man. I either would have been a painter like the rest of my dad’s side of the family, or I would have sucked it up, finished high school and gone to college, and become a lawyer or doctor or something. But I guess we’ll never know. (Laughs)
Kings of Leon
3.5 stars out of 5
There’s more than one way to build a wall. Or tear it down.
Nashville’s Kings of Leon do a little of both on their seventh studio outing WALLS (We Are Like Love Songs). Recorded in their old California stomping grounds with producer Markus Dravs, it’s the band’s most musically varied and experimental outing, incorporating funk, post-punk and Latin rhythms into their familiar southern arena-rock.
Strangely, it might also be their darkest album, with frontman and chief lyricist Caleb Followill singing about everything from heartaches and hauntings to suicide and the death of a close friend. What’s even weirder: Despite the pitch-black tone of some lyrics, the disc is never a downer — something even his bandmates are hard-pressed to explain.
“I don’t know how that happened,” says lead guitarist Matthew Followill. “They are definitely dark, but they don’t make you feel like, ‘Wow, that was depressing.’ I think maybe it’s because with Caleb’s lyrics, you’re always trying to decipher just what he meant. He doesn’t always explain everything, so you never really know. I think that’s cool. I would rather listen to some of his weird lyrics than hear the same thing I’ve heard a million times in a million songs.”
Judge for yourself when WALLS drops Friday Oct. 14. Meanwhile, here’s a quick spin through the tracks.
Waste a Moment
Every trip begins at home. And WALLS opens on familiar ground, with a chugging bassline, clanging guitars, a crisp beat and tom-tom accents merging into a classic KoL rocker — while Caleb’s raspy drawl spins the live-for-today tale of a Hollywood waitress and her hired-gun boyfriend.
Like Sunday morning follows Saturday night, the scene downshifts and softens with this glittering mid-tempo gem full of arpeggios and rounded edges, offset by the merest screech in Caleb’s vocal.
Around The World
Funky Kings? You bet. The band deliver a dash of Talking Heads, putting slinky guitars, a strutting groove and a clackety rhythm beneath Caleb’s seemingly autobiographical lyrics about losing himself and finding a girl.
Speaking of the girl: Caleb’s model wife Lily Aldridge — who thought their L.A. hotel was haunted — inspired this chunky, choppy rocker about falling in love with a ghost. Reverb and echoing guitars help set the atmosphere.
From ghosts to suicide. His voice rising from a baritone croon to a scream, Caleb spins a harrowing tale of a celebrity who hangs himself — while his bandmates chug through dark, distorted post-punk reminiscent of Joy Division.
The tragedy (and experimentation) continues as Caleb recalls his “favourite friend of all” — a band associate who died of cancer — to the skewed strains of a Mexicali bossa nova.
Inspired again by Aldridge — who wanted to move to California, but reconsidered after living there during recording — Caleb voices a sombre ballad that gently ebbs and flows.
Eyes On You
Driven by a bouncy beat and bassline, decorated with a jangly unspooling guitar and sporting another lyric about owning the moment, this upbeat track bears traces of Arcade Fire.
With fluttering guitars over four-square chords that give way to quiet verses, this floating midtempo anthem is a late-album standout.
The mandatory closing ballad features stark piano, a heartbeat drum thump, and dour lyrics about a “Western girl with Eastern eyes” who tore out Caleb’s heart and threw it away. “Now there’s nothing in the way,” laments Caleb. Hope there isn’t a rope nearby.