By Rebecca Bulnes
By Lee Zimmerman
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For a moment, imagine you're Caleb Followill. You front Kings of Leon, and on your band's just-released fourth album, things finally seem to be falling into place. That disc, Only by the Night, is (for the most part) critically acclaimed and commercially successful. In the UK, your album debuted atop the charts, with 220,000 discs sold in its first week on the shelves. It seems you might have finally reached the pinnacle of Southern rock stardom. And, as such, life for you at the moment is quite good.
There are girls. There are cars. There are parties. There are houses. But then there's also this, which is at least a little annoying: You can't avoid the subject of your family.
Since your band's 2003 debut, Youth and Young Manhood, the origin story of Kings of Leon has reached almost mythic proportions — not quite Led Zeppelin's "red snapper" story levels, but not far off either. It's fairly widely known at this point: You and your brothers Nathan and Jared grew up the three sons of a traveling Pentecostal preacher, a man whose religious background was shattered when, as a result of his divorce from your mother, he was asked to leave his position (although not defrocked as many rumors claim). Your religious perspective, too, was shattered — at least somewhat — and instead of becoming a preacher like your dad as you'd always planned, you started a band with your brothers and your cousin Matthew.
Your dreams were big, and since the times seemed ripe for a Southern rock resurgence, fame looked a likely destination to you. It looked even more likely to RCA Records, the label that, as a recent Spin magazine cover story divulges, signed you before you really even knew how to play your instruments.
Still, despite your successes, as you continue along the path laid before you, every interviewer seems to ask the same questions. What was it like growing up on the road with your family? What was it like being raised in such a religious environment? What really happened with your father?
Indeed, your family truly follows you everywhere. Quite literally, actually (and not just because your family is your band, or because your father's history provides a compelling contrast to the rock 'n' roll lifestyle you are leading): In a bizarre, Everybody Loves Raymond twist, you have to put up with the fact that your mother lives right across the street from your home in Nashville. Buzzkill much?
Not really. For Followill, the rock-star good outweighs any family bad. And all of those questions about his kin? Well, they're just proof of how far he's come, Followill says.
"I wanted to take the Followill name to places we thought it would never go," he says over the phone from a stop on his band's nationwide tour. "Now, we've made the Followill name more than a name on a sign." Well, in a sense. Turns out his band's name is a family name — Caleb's father's name is Leon — and, yes, on the road, that name does get flashed onto the marquees of the venues his band is playing. So, y'know...
But the point remains the same: The Followill family finally seems beyond the disgrace of Leon's being removed from the Pentecostal church. Part of that success is due to the band's ever-changing sound. Since the release of Youth and Young Manhood, Kings of Leon's sonic stylings have grown substantially from the Southern-fried garage-rock, Strokes-of-the-South mold in which they began. On Only by the Night, the band is fairly tough to peg; the music coolly ranges from the party-friendly, Beastie Boys-esque fuzzed-out buzzing bass of "Crawl" to the oversexed, pop-rockin' first single "Sex on Fire" to the ready-made for lighter-raising love ballad "Use Somebody." It's a big step up for Kings of Leon — namely in that, on the record, the band seems less inclined to play in garages and more built to bang out its jams in arenas.
As a result, it does look as if Kings of Leon are headed for a hit record. In America, where, unlike in the UK, the Kings' sales haven't always matched their positive reviews, the album has landed the band its first Top 10 Billboard chart ranking. In its debut week, Only by the Night opened at No. 4 — an impressive feat considering that the band's last album, Because of the Times, which peaked on the charts at No. 25, was the group's previous high watermark chart position in the States.
This initial success ended up being quite the surprise for a band that had all but given up hope on being as appreciated domestically as it is abroad. "I used to always hope that the next one was going to be The Big One for us," Followill says. "Now I feel like it's going to be what it's going to be."
With an album that appears to have re-energized both the band and its domestic fan base, "what it's going to be" doesn't look all that bad. If anything, things are looking up for Kings of Leon. And finally — family history and real-life Ray Romano perils aside — Followill is beginning to appreciate that.
"The only time I start to get down on myself," he says, "is when I'm halfway through a bottle of whiskey." But, c'mon now, that's true for everybody.