By 2010, the band of brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill, along with cousin Matthew, were on fire. Only by the Night, KOL's fourth album, became its biggest success to date, spawning the singles "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody." At the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards, the band took home the honors for Record of the Year, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and Best Rock Song for "Use Somebody."
"It didn't really hit me personally until it was all done," admits guitarist Matthew Followill. "It was like, 'Wow, we won a Grammy. That kind of went to my head for awhile with partying and stuff, but then I said, 'No, I gotta stop.'"
Yet rather than take the some time off, the band went back in the studio and cut its fifth album, Come Around Sundown, and backed it up with a near-relentless touring schedule. The album-tour-album treadmill was beginning to take its toll, with the spoils of success only making things worse. And then, on July 27, 2011, during a date in Dallas, things came to a head. According to reports, frontman Caleb Followill was wasted and rambling and finally left the stage in the middle of the set, leaving his bandmates to apologize to the crowd.
"It was kind of confusing and it was really hot, because it was an outside show," Matthew recalls during a recent phone call from London, where the band was doing some advance promotion. "They booked a lot of back-to-back shows and Caleb was just like, 'Man, I'm losing my voice.' We really didn't even know that the doctor had prescribed him steroid shots. I guess it just got to the breakdown point of it being too hot, his voice was gone and he seemed a little vulnerable and embarrassed because he couldn't sing, which I can't even imagine what that might feel like."
Not only was the crowd perplexed by Caleb's actions, the band was also in the dark. "He walked off stage and went to his dressing room and we didn't know what was going on and Jared sent out some tweets and that started things; it was just a weird night," Matthew says.
While relations were strained between the band members then, they seem to have reached an understanding now, with Matthew again sympathizing with his bandmate. "Like I said, I can't imagine what it would be like not being able to sing in front of thousands of people," he says.
With doctors insisting Caleb take some time off to rest his voice, the band had to cancel the remainder of their U.S. tour, prompting rumors that the Kings had called it a day. "People don't realize that we toured Canada, South Africa, and Australia three weeks after that," Matthew says.
When the touring commitments were finally finished, the band did eventually take that much-needed year off before reconvening in Nashville in a former paint factory the band converted into its studio to record its sixth album, Mechanical Bull, out on Sept. 24. Don't call it a comeback, because KOL never actually left, but it is a return to form, featuring the recent rollicking hit "Supersoaker," as well as "Don't Matter," possibly the hardest rocking KOL track to date.
While the Kings don't disown Come Around Sundown, Matthew admits it could have been better. "We did it pretty quickly and we probably should have waited," Matthew says. "But I think it's a pretty good record. It's a little bit mid-tempo, which is not much fun. We did it in a tiny little studio in New York and I guess we didn't have much fun. It was coming off a pretty successful album and there was a lot of pressure. I don't know why, but some members of the band said, 'Let's not write a hit,' and that kind of backfired on us."
"It got really hard after Only by the Night because we had two types of fans to please, the old fans and the new fans, fans of the hit songs," Matthew continues. "It was like, 'How do we keep moving forward and make music that our old fans will like and our new fans will like?' On Come Around Sundown we just kind of failed with that. We just ended up making something that nobody liked."
For Mechanical Bull, the band was in a lot better frame of mind and well rested when they hit the studio. "A lot of people thought we took a year off because we were fighting, but we really had planned to take a year off since we started making Come Around Sundown," Matthew says. "It was necessary. Caleb and Nathan had kids, Jared got married and I had another baby. [It was good to] live normal lives for awhile. You kind of step back and look at what you accomplished. It makes things fun again."
Even though three-fourths of the band's are now fathers, it doesn't necessarily mean that the KOL is going to start churning out dad rock. "I don't think it's really changed the band," he says. "We'll probably not spend as much time as we used to away from home. We used to go out for months at a time. That will definitely never happen again, but if we did, the kids would come with us. It hasn't changed us musically at all; maybe we're having a bit more fun."
That new attitude is evident in the grooves of Mechanical Bull and Matthew says that's something the band was striving for, although it wasn't necessarily spoken. "We wanted it to be a little more up-tempo, but we don't really talk about that kind of stuff. We don't really say what this album should sound like," he says. "It doesn't really have a commercial sound to me. It sounds like a good rock record. We just wanted to make it fun and not boring. We touch on a bunch of musical styles that we like. There are slightly country songs, really rocking songs, and some poppier songs. For some reason, it has more of the feeling of being a whole record."
Yet Matthew admits he wasn't initially taken with two of the album's hardest-rocking tunes, "Don't Matter" and "Family Tree." "I just thought people would think they were too weird, but I was wrong," he says. "When we played it for people, those were some of their favorite songs. 'Don't Matter' is one of the heaviest songs that we've ever recorded, and I was just nervous about it, thinking our fans would think, 'What are they doing?' But so far, it's gotten a great response from everyone. Maybe it's because of that year off, but for whatever reason, people are excited to hear us again."
Then again, the musical landscape has changed dramatically since the Kings of Leon's heyday with rock absent from much of the mainstream, such as at the recent MTV Video Music Awards. "I remember watching that sitting at home...I turned it on and I watched the whole thing and I just felt horrible about the state of everything," Matthew says. "I felt so embarrassed for everyone. I felt that it's a terrible state for music and maybe even the world."
We suggest that maybe Mechanical Bull can start to swing the pendulum back. "I don't know if one record can," Matthew says, "but hopefully it can push people back in the right direction."
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