The Leon King
'You have 15 minutes." Jammed in between an interview with a Swiss newspaper, and a photoshoot for Channel Four, I am waiting for Caleb Followill in the conference room of a five-star hotel. Welcome to the Kings of Leon's international press day for newly released album Come Around Sundown.
Followill enters, all 5ft 8in of him. He circles the table, choosing his seat carefully. Seated, we are about to begin, when he raises an issue.
"Do you mind if we move rooms?" he asks. "I was told that someone in here earlier on had the flu. I can't have the flu." This is not a problem, I answer. We move next door, where he rummages in the ice bucket for a beer, before once again choosing his seat with care. We now have 13 minutes left.
The frontman for the Grammy-winning Southern quartet, Followill has exhibited more than his fair share of rock-star behaviour -- and it's escalated in the past year. This July, while playing an American show, the group were splattered from on high by some rogue pigeons -- and they promptly walked off stage. The next month, displeased with the reaction they received from the crowd at Reading festival, Followill issued the following immortal rant from the stage: "We know you're sick of Kings of Leon, so for all those who don't give a fuck about us, I understand. But we've worked fucking hard to get here. So anyone that has anything to say to us, fuck you. We're the goddamn Kings of Leon."
Perhaps then, it would be prudent to open with a gentle question -- he's finally off the road after almost eight solid years of touring, so how does it feel to finally have a place to call his own? "It's nice to come back home, really," he answers in a soft-spoken drawl.
"I'm building a home at the moment -- in the country. I designed it, and my cousin is currently there, overseeing the whole project. It's not a big place -- I mean, it's big, but it's one storey. I think that once I travelled to so many places, and saw so many things, I felt more informed to build a house. Each of the rooms will have a private garden. When I travelled, and people talked about gardens, I wasn't really sure what they meant! When I was growing up, a garden was something that you planted vegetables in! But now I know. I hope it'll be a place where I can settle down in, have kids. Make my home. It's humble, but I'm a humble kind of guy."
Humble is a word that will resurface again and again in the course of our chat. There seems to be a weird internal dialogue oing on inside Followill -- a clash between his upbringing (son of a preacher, don't you know) and his lifestyle. It's difficult to routinely play to crowds of over 40,000 and keep an ego in check. Later on, when I mention his music and critical opinion, he'll reach close to snapping point, before checking himself and shrugging it off. But for now, he's happy to talk about the one thing most celebrities aren't -- his personal life.
As of September this year, Followill has been engaged to model Lily Aldridge. How did he propose? Did he select the ring himself? "I did pick the ring myself," he smiles. "But when I got engaged I didn't have the ring. We were in a hotel room in Miami, and we had just had a big dinner and gone dancing. So I grabbed the bed sheet, and I ripped it with my teeth, and she was like 'What are you doing?' And I got down on my knee and tied it around her finger, and I asked her, and she said yes. Later on, I went and got a ring and I said I'd make it official. I got down on one knee, and I opened it and it was upside down! I was like 'oh no!'"
Right then, on to the tricky bit. "Caleb," I open, "when Come Around Sundown was released, a lot of reviews mentioned that the songs seemed to be specifically written for the large arenas that you tend to play. Do you have any thoughts on this?" He visibly bristles, gives me a look, and says: "Well, critics, I mean, hmph." There's also a shrug.
"I'm not attacking the record," I clarify. "But is there a different way to write stadium tracks than acoustic ones, say?" There's more bristling. "I don't compose a song for anywhere," he argues. "When I write them, it's in a small room, on an acoustic guitar. I don't write songs with a light show in mind. The lyrics are about intimate things, not grand themes. But when you add things on -- like drums and strings and maybe guitars with a lot of reverb on them -- then it all starts sounding big."
Formed more than 10 years ago, it's been a long old slog for the group, and to some extent, one can sympathise with Followill's prickliness. The anthemic tracks that broke the group (such as On Call and Sex On Fire) are the ones that one year on, following the soundtracking of multiple sports montages, seem to drag the group down into the easily parodied realms of other stadium bands -- such as U2 or Coldplay.
But, hey, you've had critical acclaim, I mention. You've got two Grammys, no? "I'm going to have to correct you," Followill says, with a wry smile. "I have four Grammys. They're sitting on my mantlepiece. I have a really tiny apartment in Nashville. I haven't even decorated it, it looks terrible. But there's four Grammys and two Brits on the table, next to like little song books and candles. It's a beautiful thing. But it's funny, because when I get home, I always see fingerprints all over the awards, and I know that my cousins have come over to clean the house, and they picked up the awards."
Despite its drawbacks, the slow climb to acclaim is something that he recommends, however. "I think that had we had an early success like that, I mean that was in our heyday, when we were partying and taking a lot of drugs and stuff. I think it might have ended us. We might not have been able to deal with the pressure. But when you've been doing it for nearly 10 years, and you start to get to real success, I think you've swallowed your pride a little bit and actually enjoy everything that you get.
"I don't know, but I think that early on, we would have been divas and all this shit. You see it every day with bands. You love a band and you hear them talk, and you think, 'fuck man, they're assholes'," he mulls.
Whether it's his better media judgement, or a real change of heart, he manages to slip by a slight lapse into curmudgeon, by rethinking and putting a positive spin on it. "And now at this point, we don't have to say anything, because people already think we're assholes. People make stories up about us. But I'm happy with the way that it's worked out, and excited for the future and hopefully we can continue to do things right, and continue to always change people's notions about what we are."