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Caleb Followill: ‘I never allowed myself to get too close to people because of the way I grew up’

The Kings of Leon lead singer tells us about fearing that he would go to hell, and why he never allowed anyone to get close to him – until he met his wife

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Kings of Leon — brothers Caleb, Jared and Nathan Followill and their cousin Matthew Followill

Kings of Leon — brothers Caleb, Jared and Nathan Followill and their cousin Matthew Followill

Kings of Leon — brothers Caleb, Jared and Nathan Followill and their cousin Matthew Followill

Caleb Followill leads a quiet life. He didn’t always. The lead singer of Kings of Leon — the band he formed with his two brothers Nathan and Jared and cousin Matthew in 1999 — had a well-earned reputation in the past for excess.

Roaming hotel corridors in naked cocaine stupors” was how New Musical Express once described his five-star wantonness. And there was talk of the rest of the band wanting him to go to rehab for his problems with alcohol in 2011.

These days, though, Caleb’s existence is a calmer one. A family man, he lives with his wife, the former Victoria’s Secret model Lily Aldridge, and their two children, Dixie Pearl and Winston — aged eight and two respectively — in a Tudor revival mansion on 100 acres outside of Nashville.

He says that the two young children have him “going bald, and the bits of hair that are left are grey”.

It’s the sort of fatherly comment you could never have imagined him saying when he was in his superskinny pomp and romantically linked with the likes of Kate Moss and Paris Hilton. Caleb’s late grandfather Leon, from whom the band took their name, once told him: “Y’awl can keep fame. It’s not for me.”

“And it’s not for me either,” Caleb says to the Sunday Independent when we chat by phone to discuss the band’s new album, When You See Yourself. “That’s something I have always struggled with.

“You want to be successful and with that comes fame. We have always tried to avoid it as much as we can. That’s why we don’t live in a big flashy city. We have very quiet lives. And when it’s time to put on the boots and hit the stage, you want the people to be screaming and having a good time. But after the lights go down, I am more of a quiet-life guy.”

Before fame, he says, “it was fun... travelling the world and playing shows with small crowds. But when you get a little bigger and people start taking your picture, it’s not fun.”

Perhaps the moment that being one of the Kings of Leon started losing its charm for Caleb can be traced in his 2008 song ‘Cold Desert’.

“No one ever carried my load/I’m too young to feel this old,” went the lyric. How does Caleb, now 39, feel about the young man who wrote and sang that song?

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“That was a period when I could feel the pressure, and I could feel the strain — of things to come and of things that had already happened,” he says. “It was tough to be a young man and to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. You have people that are counting on you. You don’t really have a chance to be fragile.”

The song was also about the conflict between his ultra-strict Christian upbringing and the decadent life of a rock star who could quote lines from the Bible while doing lines of cocaine on his own private plane. It was the gospel of heaven and hell.

The Followill brothers’ lives are the stuff of Gothic novels. They are the sons of a Tennessee preacher, who married a Memphis belle in 1977. When Ivan Followill first met Betty Ann, she was engaged to another man. But Ivan set her straight. “God has told me we were meant for each other,” he informed her.

Nathan was born on June 26, 1979, followed by Caleb on January 14, 1982. In 1986, when Jared arrived, the Followills moved to a little town in Tennessee, called Millington. Ivan became the pastor at Munford United Pentecostal Church. Five years into his position, the pressure of being the leader of the flock started to tell on Ivan. He began to drink heavily.

One day Caleb returned from school to find his father in handcuffs at the front of the house and the police standing over him. His mother was shouting: “He’s a preacher! He didn’t do it!”

During an unspecified meltdown, Ivan had apparently made a citizen’s arrest on a police officer whom he believed was breaking the speed limit. Not long after, the Followills left town.

For the next four and a half years, the three young brothers, whose band would become one of the biggest rock bands in the world, travelled through the Bible Belt in an Oldsmobile with their evangelist father and home-schooling mother.

On the road 325 out of the 365 days a year, they slept in relatives’ houses, in the car, or in the basement of the churches where their father preached. All the while, Betty Ann played the piano, Nathan played the drums and Caleb joined in with his father on traditional gospel standards like ‘Jesus on the Mainline’.

The boys’ upbringing was firm: no music, other than church music; no television; only secular movies (Ivan once delivered a sermon about a boy going to hell in a burning cinema); and no girlfriends. Still, Nathan once said that “preachers’ kids were the equivalent of rock stars in the religious world.”

Were you and your brothers the pre-teen rock stars of the Bible Belt?

“No, I don’t think we were acting like rock stars,” Caleb laughs. “We did get a lot of girls, though. We just couldn’t do anything with them. It was fun. We would roll into town. We were the new guys in town, and that goes a long way...”

The story had an unhappy ending. In 1997, Ivan left the ministry, and his marriage to Betty Ann broke up due to his problems with alcohol. Was Caleb broken-hearted that his father left the ministry?

“Yeah, probably at the time,” he says. “It wasn’t really that he left; it was more he was asked to leave. That was kind of a heartbreaker for us, because so many people looked up to him. The minute he showed his human flaw, a lot of people turned their back on him. That is the opposite of what we were raised on: help one another out — as opposed to kick dirt on someone when they’re down.”

Caleb dropped out of school. He and his big brother Nathan, both of whom were living with Betty Ann in Oklahoma City, moved to Nashville and started playing a few low-key gigs in bars as The Followill Brothers.

In 1999, they brought in younger brother Jared on bass and cousin Matthew on guitar and started the band with Nathan on drums and Caleb on vocals and guitar. But the past was never far from Caleb’s mind. When Kings of Leon signed to RCA Records in 2002 — their debut album Youth and Young Manhood came out the following year — he can recall thinking: “As soon as I knew we got a record deal, that whole night I never slept — because I knew I was going to hell and I wasn’t going to be a preacher. That was a feeling, for sure,” he says.

In 2011, Caleb enacted his own fall from grace. In front of 30,000 people at a show in Dallas on July 29, he said: “I’m gonna go backstage for a second, and I’m gonna vomit. I’m gonna drink a beer, and I’m gonna play three more songs.” He never returned. The rest of the tour was cancelled.

Was Caleb walking away from the strain of being the leader of the band — just like his father walked away from the church in Munford in 1991 because he couldn’t take the strain of being the leader of the flock?

“I get what you’re saying. That was definitely a time when the pressure was the strongest on me. I felt like I did need to be able to walk away from it for a second. So, yeah, there was a big strain on me,” he says.

“And my dad in the same way, he wasn’t good with pressure. But you know, I think it made us both stronger. We came out better people from kind of admitting that, you know, there are times when you just need to walk away.”

After the Dallas meltdown, the band took “a little break”. They had released an album in 2010, but it would be late 2013 before the next one came out.

“But I never took a break,” he says. “I went home, and immediately the songs started pouring out of me.”

One of those songs, ‘Fairytale’, is on the new album. “I wrote it over 10 years ago. It is probably the most honest and autobiographical song. It was a different time. It was when my wife and I were dealing with a lot of struggles between our schedules. We didn’t really get to see each other as much as we wanted to.

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Caleb wrote ‘Fairytale’ for his wife Lily

Caleb wrote ‘Fairytale’ for his wife Lily

Caleb wrote ‘Fairytale’ for his wife Lily

“It felt a lot like the one thing that I hated growing up,” he says, “which is that I was always saying goodbye. I never allowed myself to get too close to people because of the way I grew up; because I knew that the relationship was going to be over shortly.”

Did that nomadic life as a child make it difficult for him to form romantic relationships later on?

“Yeah. My wife is one of the only true relationships I’ve ever had, because it always felt like there was going to be disappointment in the end. So I put a big guard up. A big shield.”

He built up other things to keep the world out too. When Kings of Leon became hugely successful, Caleb developed an alter ego called ‘The Rooster’ which would come out when he was in no fit state. He would sleepwalk naked through hotel lobbies and get carried out of restaurants.
Your wife seems like a brave woman who was taking on a lot with you, I say.

“Yeah, of course. My goodness. She is still with me. I still scratch my head. She’s a good woman,” he says. He met Lily at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California in 2007.

“He was performing and as soon as I saw him, I couldn’t stop thinking about him,” she told British Tatler magazine. They were married on May 12, 2011 at the San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito. Not long after, he set off on Kings of Leon’s world tour. On May 28, the band played to 80,000 people at Slane Castle. And two months later came the aforesaid show in Dallas that almost broke up the band...

Caleb admits that over the last decade, he has “grown a lot. We have a family now. Children are a much bigger responsibility” than being in a famous rock band.

“I thought the weight was so heavy when I had a career, but the weight is a lot heavier when you have children. Everything changes. They are the most important thing to me now.”

Almost as important, of course, is the music he and his brothers and cousin make. The band’s new album When You See Yourself — their first album since 2016 — is a flawed but great record. Something we haven’t been able to say about their music for quite a while. I ask him about writing ‘Fairytale’ for his wife.

“I don’t really tell her when a song is about her,” he says. “Matter of fact, I had written several songs that I felt were kind of obviously about her. Then one day she says: ‘I wish you’d write a song about me.’

“I was like, ‘Goddamn, who the f**k do you think I’ve been writing about?’” With this album, Caleb “wanted to do more storytelling. By using my imagination to write characters, it frees me up and makes me a little less self-conscious,” he says, “so I actually put more of my truth into the song.” Is he conjuring characters and stories up like his father did with his sermons?

“That could come into play,” he says. “My dad was a great storyteller. Still is. But on our travels as kids, I came across a lot of people from different walks of life. I can draw from that. If I decide I am going to write about a cowboy, I’ve met plenty of cowboys.”

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Caleb hasn’t ruled out a return to the stage

Caleb hasn’t ruled out a return to the stage

Caleb hasn’t ruled out a return to the stage

How does he look back on those years on the road?

“I don’t think we realised we were nomads. We just thought we were out there doing the work that my father had set out for us. We soaked it all in. The window was our television. We got to see the world go by.

“I wish more people had the opportunity to put down their computer and their phone and just go and travel and experience life and see what it does to them.” He doesn’t rule out a return to that life for Kings of Leon.

“You never know. You grow as a person, you change as a person… I still have aspirations of maybe one day that we go and we just become a little church band in the middle of nowhere. And ride out like that...”

‘When You See Yourself’ by Kings of Leon is out this Friday on RCA


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