Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder showed his support for Nashville's Kings of Leon by singing some of their songs with them at a Seattle show earlier this year. Then he did what a lot of other people do with KOL lyrics: He got them wrong.
"He got on stage and when he sang our songs, every other verse he sang was different," says Caleb Followill, KOL's lead singer and lyricist. "And it was better than mine. I was like, 'Motherfucker.'"
Vedder is not alone in his inspired confusion. Many a KOL fan has attempted to shout along with Followill's soul-stabbed "innagaddadavita" vocalizations, and they find they need -- or want -- to make up the parts that they don't understand: "Ootata rollo?" "Keel-la-mee?" "No-dis-ah-gohn?" (Interpreted: "Good time to roll on," "Kill me," and "No tears are gone.")
The kicker is, many critics and fans alike believe that Followill's lyrics are elegant, rural, fragmented pieces of verse -- when understood. Followill's voice spits and slurs with natural twang over melodies that mix Southern-fried licks and vibrant garage rock.
The combination has worked well. In the past year, along with having Pearl Jam's iconic singer shill for them, KOL released a critically lauded album, Aha Shake Heartbreak; allowed Volkswagen to use "Molly's Chambers" (from EP Holy Roller Novocaine) in a commercial; and opened for U2 on Bono's request. Oh, and most surreal, when they flew their dad, Leon, out to the L.A. show recently, Drew Barrymore invited him back to her house. (He declined.)
In fact, as the band became popular, it was immediately and unfairly compared to the leather blazer-sporting Strokes. While the two bands share some common traits -- both attract supermodel groupies and attend each other's shows when in town -- the differences start with their looks. The Strokes are New York Nolita. Kings of Leon, on the other hand, boast a Skynyrd-punk image taken right out of 1978, complete with the stoner hair and beards, cigarettes, whiskey and unwashed jeans. Their sound is as much convenience stores and horse sheds as it is city garage.
Made up of Followill, brother Jared on bass, brother Nathan on drums and first cousin Matthew Followill on lead guitar, Kings of Leon is both reviving Southern rock and taking it to new places -- mainly Europe. Overseas, its debut album, Youth & Young Manhood, went double platinum.
"The last couple of tours in America feel similar to the tours to the U.K.," Followill says. "There's a sense of urgency. The crowd knows the music and they want America to get it."
This, of course, is an impossibly long way from where the group began. The brethren spent their youth following Dad, a traveling preacher, around the South. They sang at churches, praised Jesus and generally lived a strict, no-funny-business lifestyle. It wasn't until their teens that the Followill boys were even allowed to tap into pop culture things like MTV, and they despised much of the music. So they bought guitars and drums and formed a band. Once they caught the live-performance buzz, there was no turning back.
"We just go for it, and we don't care what others think," he says. "We just say our piece and sing our song."
Aha Shake Heartbreak spans a visceral realm, from salt-lick inspirations to a comb-in-back-pocket gauntlet tossing. On "The Bucket," Followill remembers a lost crush on the road to rock 'n' roll success; it's at once poignant and jubilant. In "Soft," Followill manages to celebrate any male's greatest nightmare -- going limp when in bed with a supermodel (apparently based on Followill's own groupie-supermodel experience). In "Four Kicks," KOL rocks out to a dream of a switchblade-and-gun fight, during which Followill spits about his opponent, "I'll be lovin' him under my shoe."
Now, with a dream year behind the group and more touring ahead, KOL faces overwhelming expectations that include calls for an even better follow-up album. It's that old axiom of success: The better you get, the more that is demanded of you. But Followill says the band is ready to meet these demands; and he says the group will surprise fans with a new album that leads in unexpected directions.
"Man, it's some of the best shit," he says of the songs they've been writing on the road. "It's so good. It's like Journey with some balls. Fist-in-the-air kind of music. It's pretty, but it's fast. There's a lot of angst in it. There's a lot of raw youth in it. But then there's a sense of maturity. It's completely pure and from the best place."
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