The New South
"It's okay to eat fish because they don't have feelings," quips Kurt Cobain on one of Nirvana's most hyperanalyzed tracks, "Something in the Way." The line is a potshot at hypocritical animal-rights activists, but don't tell that to the Kings of Leon. The four boys from Tennessee -- Caleb, Jared, Nathan, and Matthew Followill (three brothers and a cousin) -- are proud of their pescatarianism.
"All we eat is fish," says lead singer Caleb Followill, when he is asked if he has any guilty pleasures. "It's not a guilty pleasure, but it's something I'm proud of. We eat one meal a day, and it's usually a really big seafood meal. That's our guilty pleasure. That's what fuels us for the show." He pauses, perhaps contemplating the unrock star visual of four guys picking at pecan-crusted salmon, and quickly adds, "Of course the women and the coke and the heroin too."
Caleb might be a bit facetious, but really, when was the last time a band from the Bible Belt got any taste of the glamorous life? Though the term Southern rock may conjure up images of Confederate flag tattoos and Skoal, it's been a long time since anyone requested "Free Bird" (with a straight face). The new face of Southern rock isn't framed by a mullet, but rather a perfect mess of bed-head hair that has girls from LA to the UK practicing their best rebel yell. And while the Kings have inspired comparisons to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, their songs of the South lyrically rival those of any emo boy singer/songwriter and sonically are influenced as much by the Rolling Stones as by Interpol.
Their backstory -- three brothers raised by a Pentecostal minister father found rock and roll, and crossed over to the dark side -- is equally enticing as their sound, and one that has had music journalists clamoring to buy them rounds and throw them parties in hopes of capturing the Christian boys gone wild.
"You guys have to talk about something," Caleb says about the tendency for reporters to hone in on whatever debauchery the Kings partake in, "so why not blow things up a little bit and make them larger than life? We've always hated the rock star term and all the cliché bullshit that comes with it. You guys have to have people want to buy your papers or your magazines, so they're never going to just say, 'They played a good show'; they're going to say, 'They were whisked away by gorgeous women on the cocaine train.'"
But what about the gorgeous women? Do they simply take all that great hair and Southern charm back to the bus and watch HBO? Caleb comments, "As far as girls, yeah, we're young, so as long as they're looking at us, we're going to look back." Caleb doesn't deny the bandmates are enjoying the fruits of their success, and he credits that success as the inspiration behind their sophomore effort, Aha Shake Heartbreak, a collection of songs chronicling everything the band has experienced during the past year.
The album isn't, however, so much about life in the Champagne Room. It's about insecurity ("Soft"), underwhelming sex ("Slow Night, So Long"), and good old-fashioned ass-kicking ("Four Kicks"). It was important, Caleb says, to point out his flaws. "Half the time when you're writing songs, the things you're saying, you don't realize you're saying about yourself until you finish. Then you look back on an album you've written and put the pieces together, and you're pointing out your flaws. And that's the kind of stuff people want to hear. They want to know that it's normal to fuck up. That's a lot better than writing about purity."
Purity is definitely something the Followills kicked under the church pew a long time ago, not only when it comes to their lifestyle but also their music. What critics and fans alike love (or despise) about the Kings' sound is Caleb's muttered, unkempt delivery and indiscernible lyrics that invite constant analysis. "First I think it was just out of insecurity -- I didn't want everyone to understand what I was saying," Caleb says of his signature mumble. "But eventually it got to the point where I was proud of the way I was writing and admitting to it."
Though Caleb tries to hide as much about himself as he can, "I'm just entirely too honest to hide it completely. I try to do plays on words; I try to say things that sound like I'm saying one thing but change the words a little bit. I try to use different terminology that I hear. I'm not scared to use the wrong kind of English. That's normally a hook to me. If you listen to a lot of older songs, if the English wasn't correct, that's normally how you get a hook in a song."
Those grammatically loose artists Caleb credits as influences include the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant, and Dolly Parton. "I love old country songs too, so a lot of them are old songwriters nobody's heard of. I also like old songs with collaboration, where it's more than one writer. A lot of times you can hear the different styles of songwriters. Like the Beatles. I love [the punk rock group] Television. I love the lyrics in every Television song. I don't know if it's just one guy writing those or what."
They've just finished touring with U2 and have everyone from author Dave Eggers to Eddie Vedder to Chrissie Hynde singing their praises, so the Kings will have no problem summoning collaborators. "I don't want to jinx anything by saying too much, but I will say we're writing songs now that we've never imagined," Caleb comments. "We already have songs that could be the biggest songs we've ever been a part of. We're not scared of any other records coming out. Sorry if that sounds cocky -- God forgive me -- but if it's up to us, we'll go record it right now. I know at some point we need to rest, but I don't want to." Must be all that fish.
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