It’s late January, I’m spinning back and forth in my office chair and staring at the ceiling while listening to Kings of Leon. More specifically, I’m listening to members of the band yap on an impersonal teleconference call with writers from across that country, most of whom sound way too excited to be on the line. Sure, Kings of Leon are arguably the biggest band in the world, and definitely one of the last arena rock outfits left. But they’re also, well, an arena-rock band.
As the others lob softballs (one hack goes so far as to point out that he was way into the early albums, first, before everybody else on earth) it’s hard to see this interview as more than some kind of perverted punishment. I’d spent the better part of the Aughts jabbing Kings of Leon from the safe distance blogs and barroom banter provide, often surrounded by musicians coveting their success–or at least their ability to pay rent–but were stubbornly reluctant to endorse them. In the Golden Age of scenester schadenfreude, we couldn’t see that they were just strange kids who landed the weirdest job on earth right out of high school. We were just assholes.
Arena-rock bands aren’t typically my beat. Eclectic folkies, obtuse metalheads, outre purveyors of the overly weird–that’s where I live. But, when the monarchy calls: you answer. And, I have a bit of history with these guys…
It’s the summer of 2003, and I’m in my car relaxing with an after-shift joint in the parking lot of the suburban supermarket where I work. I exhale a cloud of smoke and think, “Ah. So that’s what they sound like” as “Molly’s Chambers” is playing on the radio. I’d spent the previous semester in Tennessee studying music business at a second rate state school, and there had been a lot of talk about these Kings of Leon characters and their odd pentecostal upbringing. They were supposed to be “The Next Strokes.” Locally, they were potentially about to be the first rock band to shatter the fabled Nashville Curse, and break out beyond the city.
The way the locals told it, the Nashville Curse was one of God’s plagues; a pox on any band that strayed from the pop-country fold. Turn-of-the-century Nashville was still awash in the afterglow of Shania Twain’s crossover success, and smitten with the uptick in patriotic fodder that flowed out of Dubya’s war-boner. Nashville’s brand, as a city, was middle-of-the-road country. The ’90s had seen the success of some notable underground artists from the region–take alt-country pioneers Lambchop, for example–but Music City’s impact on alternative America had been close to nil. Most won’t admit it now, but a lot of locals thought Kings of Leon had a snowball’s chance in hell of blowing past the Buckle of the Bible Belt.
Having spent some time in Tennessee binging on southern culture, running amok with anarchists, and crate-digging in the foothills of Alabama while regularly haunting the house party-and-alternative show scene beneath Nashville’s rhinestone surface, I considered myself an expert on all things worthwhile in the area. And these Kings of Leon goons didn’t appear to pass muster. In an era when Mississippi bluesmen like T Model Ford and Paul Wine Jones were ever-present specters below the Mason-Dixon, few things could seem less authentic than four well-dressed dudes with fancy haircuts cutting major label rock records. Especially to a brash 23 year-old carpetbagger with an inflated musical sense of self-importance.
KINGS OF PEE-ON
Fast forward to late September 2005. I’m in Middle Tennessee, and Kings of Leon are standing in the foyer of the Acklen House, an art-rock party culture epicenter in Nashville. Me and the other members of my band are nearby, urging our drummer to urinate on the rock stars with the pointy hair and skinny jeans. We’d just played a gig for a crowd of three, and were drunk on cheap beer. You could hear a band bashing away down in the basement, the thump and snarl of teen angst pounding through the floor.
“Go ahead, pee on them … Yeah, do it dude.”
The house, nestled in-between a scrappy working class neighborhood and a Christian college, was teeming with the principal players of local underground rock. In the cellar, Be Your Own Pet, the flagship band of then-fledgling Infinity Cat Records (which would later bring Jeff The Brotherhood and Diarrhea Planet to national prominence) were preparing to unleash their teenage punk rock fury. In the backyard by the bonfire, you could find future members of the garage rock band Turbo Fruits, rising country starlet Caitlin Rose, and maybe even a high school-aged Ke$ha, who was a frequent fixture in the party world before she hit the West Coast to find her boozy oral hygiene regiment and pop stardom.
Our drummer maneuvers around the foyer and behind the Leon entourage. It seems like he’s in pole position for a stealthy whiz. Needless to say, there’s no good reason for our drummer to piss on Kings of Leon–at least not beyond the reason that peeing on a rock star is hilarious. There were rumors they were dickheads coddled by the music industry machine, but they weren’t moving that many units yet, as their initial albums, Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak were bigger abroad than at home. The industry was in a tailspin, a result of ham-fisted attempts to stop the evolution of digital music. This made Kings of Leon less contemptible, yet still deserving of a golden shower.
As our drummer starts to unzip, a member of the Leon entourage notices his presence. They flash him the appropriate look for responding to a mutant preppy creeping up behind them, and at that, our drummer sheepishly sheathes his wang and scuffles back to our side of the foyer while we cackle like drunken hyenas. Somehow, we all know that it will make for a good story down the line.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
The thing about teleconferencing is that it protects artists from the prying eyes of the press. Generally, the artist’s team selects the journalists, sets the agenda, and defines the parameters of said discussion–in this case, the band’s 2013 album, Mechanical Bull, and new tour which swings through TD Garden in Boston this Friday. No one is interested in kicking up old dust about Nashville. Only hometown pride is fair game here.
“I actually enjoyed [recording Mechanical Bull in Nashville],” says Nathan. “The best part is being able to go home at night and sleep in your own bed … It was great because we were able to kind of turn the studio into our own little clubhouse and … we were able to kind of have that time of the day to ourselves and to be creative and to, you know, to make music and to make the record.”
Given the way Kings of Leon have behaved and been covered in the past–Caleb’s struggles with anorexia, Nathan’s drinking, the constant fights and rock excesses of blog and tabloid lore–it’s understandable they would be watched closely. They’re the last Golden Goose of the old rock era. And while mythologies must be cultivated, no decent publicist would let inadvertent scoops slip out if avoidable. These boys paid their penance and taken plenty of licks. Especially from the press in their own hometown.
“Whenever you’re surrounded by your friends and your peers,” Caleb says about the band’s acceptance back home, “and to be in such a musical town, every day you have to know when you go to work that there’s somebody in a little studio or in a little garage or a basement somewhere that, you know, is cooking something up and trying to be the next big thing. So I think for us, it’s just–for us to just try to stick to our guns and do what it is that got us here in the first place. And there’s no better place to do that than Nashville.”
Listening to the band’s positive reflections on Nashville, I can’t help by recount my own experiences there. Like the Saturday morning in 2009 when my phone rang unexpectedly. It was an unusual time to hear from a fellow rock critic, but my buddy Adam Gold couldn’t wait to share the news: “Dude, I got kicked out of the Kings of Leon afterparty last night!”
I was beyond proud. Nashville Cream, the music blog for the local alternative Nashville Scene where I toiled, had made a cottage industry out of slagging Kings; a legacy inherited from NashvilleZine.com, the city’s first real music blog. Our snark was always simmering, and the idea of infiltrating a Kings of Leon after party, of course, seemed like an ideal coup.
This wasn’t any ordinary afterparty. It was the afterparty for Kings of Leon’s first sold-out show at the Enormodome, marking the band’s arrival at the very pinnacle of pop success. “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” had broken big. Their album Only by the Night had gone platinum, and driven a stake through the heart of the so-called Nashville Curse. They weren’t just playing this Enormodome. They were serenading big ugly Enormodomes across the country.
As the chattering classes stroked their beards and proclaimed the death of the old model, Kings of Leon proved that it was very much alive, even in spite of itself. In Nashville, they’d become the city’s preeminent rock ambassadors, and brought attention to the non-country output that had been waiting for a turn. They had also released Some Kind of Salvation by The Features on their own Serpents and Snakes imprint, a move welcomed by even the most curmudgeonly locals.
All things considered, there was obviously an entire underground still ready to piss on their parade. And my buddy (who would eventually prove so adept at weaseling his way into these kinds of situations that he now contributes to Rolling Stone) was the People’s Champ. Or at least that was my reaction.
By the time of Bonnaroo in 2010, it’s clear that Kings of Leon have prevailed over antagonism. It’s a sweltering Friday night, and 70,000-odd people are singing along to “Use Somebody.” I finally “get it,” or at least understand why the song is so huge. There’s a vacuum in modern society that needs stadium-sized rock anthems and power-balladry. I may have also eaten some mushrooms. Whatever the reason, it was good preparation for my next encounter with the band.
A few months later, I’m in the green room for a music industry conference at Belmont University in Nashville. My fried Gold is there, and I’m supposed to cover his keynote interview. Watching him from across the catering table, he seems shell-shocked by the people introducing themselves to him. It’s pretty evident his astronomical rise has taken a toll. The Faustian bargain they made at the beginning of their record cycle was beginning to pay dividends. In spite of my drummers’ stage fright back in Nashville, a vengeful pigeon pooped in Kings bassist Jared’s mouth while they were on stage at a show in St. Louis.
By April 2013, things seem to have changed significantly. I’m outside the Mercury Lounge in Nashville, smoking butts and chatting with Seth Riddle, the general manager of Serpents and Snakes Records. Caleb and Nathan arrive, excited to revel in the release of Dear Bo Jackson by The Weeks, at that time the newest S&S act, and a band whose back-story closely resembles that of their patrons. We exchange some water-cooler chatter, and the pair of them seem calm and collected. Just grown-up dudes out on a Friday night. They’ve come a long way from their raggedy and raunchy days, and even further from the public unraveling the band endured in 2011.
Back then, in the immediate wake of Caleb’s drunken walk-off at a Dallas show, there was talk of the band’s demise. But here, on the front steps of a rock club surrounded by kids who were in middle school when Youth and Young Manhood came out, it’s obvious these Kings have journeyed through the wilderness and emerged intact. They are, much like their local friends had always claimed, nice guys. Even I had to concede.
“For us it was only a short amount of time before we realized that … not everyone is going to love what it is that we’re doing, or be a fan … and that obviously happens here at home too,” says Nathan. “So for us I think the one thing that we’ve always tried to do is just to show bands that are from Nashville or bands that are moving to Nashville that, you know, Nashville is a great place and it’s such a great, you know, great town to get started and to have people take you under their wings.”
Back to me spinning in my chair, waiting to ask a few questions on the conference call. Mechanical Bull, the album that Caleb hinted at during our last run-in, has been out for months, and the band is now in the thick of tour press. The record marks a clear return to their wild edges that had been worn down by time and adulthood. Their latest isn’t the omnipresent fixture Only By The Night was, but then again, neither was 2010′s Come Around Sundown. Yet somehow, they remain one of the biggest bands in the world. Thinking back on my experience covering them, I’m led to believe it’s because deep down below the glitz, rock, and glamor, they’re just good dudes.
With Kings of Leon more or less out of the tabloids, and the gossip vultures having moved on to losses like Justin Bieber, it’s easy to forget about past loathing and indifference. I face the fact that no juicy scandals will be brought up on our generic teleconference. Even if there was something to tease out, Nathan and Caleb are both married with children. After more than a decade on the grind, Kings of Leon are impermeable. They’ve earned it.
Detractors, deniers, and dickheads–myself included–be damned.
[KINGS OF LEON. TD GARDEN. 100 LEGENDS WAY. BOSTON. FRI 2.28 @ 8PM. KINGSOFLEON.COM]