Working with Grammy-winning producer Markus Dravs for the second time, Kings Of Leon are ready to release the fireflies of When You See Yourself into the night air. Drummer Nathan Followill talks specifics of the four-piece’s eighth album.
When the three Followill brothers were just little lambs, they were fans of country music by geographical circumstance; they’d listen to old-timey tapes in the car as their parents drove through the southern United States, stopping to camp in whichever township their Pentecostal minister father was scheduled to preach at the time.
They weren’t long into their teens before hard-, blues-, and punk-rock records made their mark, and when their cousin Matthew (also surnamed Followill) joined the wolfpack to form the entity we now know as Kings Of Leon, the Southern rock influences of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival had given way to Pixies, The Velvet Underground, and The Clash. So it went, throughout the four-piece’s first three albums (2003’s Youth & Young Manhood, 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, and 2007’s Because of the Times).
Then came Sex On Fire.
The group have ridden peaks and troughs aplenty as they’ve travelled the 12 years between that violently popular single (from album Only by the Night, of 2008); they’ve created their own families, endured appalling accidents, navigated bad press and, in 2016, released yet another #1 album in the form of WALLS. One thing, however, has remained the same.
“Way back when we started, we were playing a festival, and I realised that I did not have anything on my kick drum,” says Nathan Followill. He’s the most senior member of the quartet: long-maned and bespectacled. “All the other bands had their bandname on the front, like an advertisement. I was like, ‘Sh-t! I don’t have one!’”
(It’s worth noting here that in a Nashville accent, nothing sounds too panicky, but this is probably about as panicky as it’s possible for Nathan Followill to sound.)
“So I grabbed my drum tech and said, ‘Just go get some tape, and for now, we’ll just put a K-O-L on there!’ We did that, and we ended up keeping it for that whole festival run. Then I got an endorsement deal, and [the drum manufacturer] started making my [drum] heads, [printed] so it looks like it’s taped on there. It’s very convincing,” he says.
The scrappy-looking (though professionally fabricated) bandname acronym remains on the kickdrum skin for Kings of Leon’s eighth album, When You See Yourself, out this month. The pandemic upended the group’s usual tight schedule, something Followill says was something of a blessing. “There was one song on this record that I swear to you we probably worked on in some form or fashion for a few months – like, just because we had that time that we normally would not have had,” he says. “So that was great. I mean, none of us saw the future and thought, ‘Oh, we’re gonna make this record and then have to sit on it for a year.’ But it was kind of comforting knowing that we did not have the immediate pressure on us to have it done by a certain date. That was wonderful.”
To some artists, more time could make for a more manic experience – if you don’t have the time to nitpick then you simply have to put down the paintbrush.”I would say we had moments where it could have gotten out of hand, overthinking stuff and trying to add parts to it or change a part here or there,” Followill admits, “and I can definitely see how that could get maddening. And how it would never work: the record would never be good enough, because you would always want to change something else. But… if one of us wants something, [we’ll] hear him out and try to come to an agreement or solution. But for the most part, we’re all like, ‘Okay, if everybody else thinks it’s better the other way, then we’ll just do it that way.’ I think that’s part of being a family. Like, it’s not as big a deal. It’s not an ego thing.”
The album roams through many moods and vistas, with a soft harpsichord that draws all its elements together; the excellent Supermarket sees Followill using soft-headed mallets along with rim shots and tambourine. “That drumbeat came from just jamming,” says Followill, “but for some reason we had to play low. We couldn’t play loud, they were doing something in the control room or something. So instead of hitting a loud snare, I was just sitting there clicking around [with the] snare off. That was really neat: [I was playing it like that] because that was how I could play it in that particular moment, in that setting, without busting anyone’s eardrums. And it worked. It was like a happy accident.”
In the beautiful A Wave, there’s long sections which lean on the slurred beauty of singer Caleb’s voice, without the full kit incorporated – but if you listen in, you can hear the gentle pulses of auxiliary instruments. “I love percussion; I love like bongos and tambourines and stuff like that,” Followill says. “They’re just fun to play, but they add so much. Percussion can be so subtle, and tucked into a song, but stick out so much.”
And Followill has a lot of that ‘stuff’. “I have tons of [auxiliary percussion instruments] that I’ve picked up. And I would say 80% of it is from making records; I’ll try stuff out on songs, and buy it to play on a specific song. And then that way, if we play that song live, I’ve got it, so I can play it. You know, we’ve always tried to make it to [a point] where we want to make something that doesn’t sound different when we play a live. Like, there was so much stuff added to it on the record that it’s kind of a disappointment live. We always tried to make it as close live as it is on the recording. And luckily, now we have a couple utility guys in the band that give us a lot more freedom in the studio to make it bigger and more grandiose, and still be able to pull it off live.”
As it stands on the live front, Kings of Leon have some shows booked in the UK in June, although no word yet on our home shore. For the next few months, the boys will be kicking back in their hometown of Nashville and doing Nashville things, like catching fireflies. “You get a mason jar, and you poke holes in the top, and you put them in there,” Followill explains. “And then you release them when you’re done.”
When You See Yourself by Kings Of Leon is out March 5 – including on JB-exclusive red marbled vinyl, pictured above – via Sony.
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