Exclusive: Kings of Leon - 'Ireland feels like a homecoming for us'
The Nashville four-piece will play Dublin's 3Arena in July, the only band to have three consecutive shows scheduled for the Docklands stadium this year. But before that happens, we catch up with drummer Nathan and bassist Jared just before they take the stage to a sold-out gig in Birmingham to discuss their Irish connection and how they feel like they've found their way again after a few 'lost' years.
"We absolutely love Ireland, pints aside - but that’s a given and that’s always fun," says Nathan.
"Irish fans are pretty nuts, there’s a whole different energy when we play there. We always feel so welcome. Going to Ireland always feels like a homecoming for us."
That comment more than just a soundbite to appease the Irish fans as Jared reveals that the band recently discovered that they're actually, more or less, half Irish.
"I did ancestry DNA with my wife and we discovered that there’s Irish blood there. We couldn’t tell what side of the family, it didn’t give that information. We’re pretty much half Irish according to the DNA results.
"I assume it’s my dad’s side because he looks Irish. I know people are always trying to claim Irish ancestry but this is actually legit."
The three Followill brothers (Nathan, Caleb and Jared) and their cousin Matthew first came to Ireland in 2003, playing small clubs and venues and quickly building up a loyal fan base this side of the Atlantic. They played Oxegen in 2004 and returned to the Punchestown festival as headliners in 2008 and 2009. At the height of their Irish fame they were the kings of Slane Castle in 2010 with 80,000 concert-goers trekking to the historic setting in Co Meath to see them play, a gig they describe as a "dream".
Growing up in Tennessee, as the sons (and nephew) of a travelling preacher, did the band ever think that that they'd one day be playing to fans so far removed from home?
"We never really travelled outside of America before so the fact that we were able to get a passport and go to a foreign land and have people over there - who had never seen us or heard us before - welcome us as if we were their own and behave so familiarly with us, like we’d been playing over there for 20 years, was just incredible," explains Nathan.
"That was always fun for us and it was good motivation too. At home nobody really knew who we were and we had to work extra hard in America to get it to the level that it was in Ireland."
Irish bands like Thin Lizzy had a massive influence on their early sound, they even credit them as being the reason they started making music. Caleb once explained that the band reference Thin Lizzy's version of Whiskey in the Jar on their hit Molly's Chambers.
“I was a big fan of Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey in the Jar. It’s not actually their song, it’s an old Irish song," he said. [The line] ‘I went to Molly’s chambers…’ We wrote around that, making it about this girl who had this secret power that would take you over."
Jared nods his head as I share the quote, "We were super, super influenced by Irish bands like Thin Lizzy and U2. They inspired us to pick up instruments. I guess some of that bled through our music and that's why Irish fans connected to us in the way that they did."
Kings of Leon were what was cool about rock and indie in the mid-noughties. They rode into the garage rock scene that was exploding at the time with effortless panache. Young, lank-haired, hickory-smoked, southern-fried country rockers in skinny jeans. Bluesy and boozy at the same time.
By the time they had released Because of the Times in 2007 they had expanded their own parametres. Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien called them "the greatest band in the world at the moment."
Ramshackle garage rock was replaced by a more progressive sound but with the same unabashed energy. And then came Only By The Night (OBTN) in 2008 and everything changed. It was the album that cracked America and brought them shiny accolades. As the venues got bigger, their sound evolved to fit the new space they inhabited. Then Kings of Leon started being compared to the likes of Coldplay. For some it was a compliment. For others it was criticism.
Once they were embraced by the mainstream, the purists accused the band of selling out. They were making music for "the suits" with populist power ballads and U2-esque stadium rock. Fans were divided down the middle with one side belonging to the pre-OBTN camp and the other side firmly post-OBTN. No other band probably had to justify themselves to their own fans quite like Kings of Leon did.
"I understand why there's a divide," says Jared.
"Best case scenario all of your fans will like what you put out, but it’s a lofty goal. It’s not extremely realistic at all times. Compare the first few albums to the last few, it sounds like a different band. I mean we could have changed our name between the first three and the three that followed and people would have thought it was an entirely different act.
"Almost all bands I listen to, I’ll like their first few albums or I’ll like their later stuff or what they became. So I really do understand the divide [between fans] completely. It's going to happen. But you know, it's rare that you'll find a band that - as a fan - you can go on an entire journey with and like all of their stuff," he says by way of justification.
Nathan agrees as he explains that halfway through the journey the band had lost their way a bit. At times, they weren't even trying. Self-destructive habits, bickering, fall-outs, a dissolute lifestyle and increased pressure to make songs for the music business steered the band off course.
"We had the big record with the hits that got America’s attention," says Nathan.
"With that album (ONTB) we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to strike while the iron was hot, to jump on it while we had their attention," he says.
"We pushed ourselves really hard there, whereas a normal band - in hindsight - would have been like 'you earned a break, take a year and a half off, clear your head and spend some time with your families and enjoy yourselves some time off and wait until you have that fire again'. As opposed to ‘oh we gotta capitalise on the success we’ve just had, let’s fool them and they’ll still like us, they’ll buy the same amount of records'."
But with their latest album WALLS, Kings of Leon have made a record that coheres. It shot straight to number one in the Irish charts when it was released last October. In making the album, the band swapped the recording studio in Nashville for Los Angeles and teamed up with a new producer, Marks Dravs (Bjork, Arcade Fire). It sounds different to anything they've put out before. It's more pop-facing with a good deal of storytelling. It's still a bit commercial but with more authenticity this time around. An album that bares its soul.
While they're never going to sound like the band that burst onto the scene in 2003 (is there even space for that now when so much has changed?), it sounds more earnest and real than anything they've put out in recent times.
"This record is a rejuvenation for us," says Nathan. "This was the first record in so long where we were just ready to get back in there and be creative and to be a band again and do what we love to do, which is make records and play shows."
"With this album we're going very natural, very organic, not using a lot of pedals, do it very old school and we did it very old school," adds Jared. "We put a lot of thought into every little detail, more than we have in a long time."
So what incarnation of Kings of Leon can fans expect to see in Dublin's 3Arena in July? Is this a new era of Kings of Leon? Could this be the album and tour that bridges the gap between fans.
It’s definitely going to be different from now on," says Nathan.
"I think we’re all very open to anything at this point to going anywhere with anybody. We rediscovered with this album how much fun it is to make a record. We also rediscovered how much fun it is to play together. It’s going to be interesting to see where we go from here. For now, we’re really going to enjoy this tour. Give our fans a good show."
"It will be hard to top Slane though," they both agree. "Hands down one of our top three gigs of all time."
After we finish talking, Kings of Leon play to a sold-out, 16,000-strong crowd in Birmingham's Genting Arena. The buzz is palbable. Nobody can conjure up a clatter like Kings of Leon.
The unfurling of their 22-song set doesn't pause for thought. There's no bullshit quips in between songs. It's all about the music. Caleb’s rasping vocals still sound like he's spitting lyrics through a wad of tobacco with The Bucket, Four Kicks, Slow Night So Long and McFearless. He slows things down for an acoustic, pared back version of The Runner and a group of men beside me look teary-eyed. This is clearly what they came for.
Kings of Leon don't rely on the pull of their back catalogue. New songs like Muchaco, Find You and Reverend balance out a set that, at times, rattles along like a freight train and at other times rumbles steady and slow, perfectly paced.
The sound is more polished. The band is more confident.
It seems like the spark has been rekindled.
Kings of Leon play 3Arena on July 1, 2 and 4, 2017.