Something remarkable happened during the making of the eighth Kings of Leon album. For the first time ever, the four Followills – brothers Caleb, Jared, Nathan and their cousin Matthew – got through the recording sessions without any fistfights. “Our bodies don’t work like they used to,” says singer and guitarist Caleb, speaking over Zoom from his home in Nashville. “So there’s no punches being thrown.” Drummer Nathan and guitarist Matthew are joining us from their respective houses a few miles away, with bassist Jared checking in from a holiday in Florida.
“We have kids now,” says Nathan, the eldest. “We leave the fighting to the duelling eight-year-old girl cousins.”
Matthew grimaces when he remembers some of the brawls he’s witnessed over the years, when he would be hunched up at the back of the tour bus thinking to himself: “Oh my God, there is no way we’ll ever play music again after what he just said to him.” The fighting, he says, would often be the result of a day off on tour spent drinking too much, as innocent squabbles took a sinister turn. But that’s all in the past and this is how progress is now measured by Kings of Leon: not in streaming figures, Grammys or ticket sales, but whether they made a record without lamping each other.
This mid-life peace and wisdom is at the heart of that eighth album, the excellent When You See Yourself. They’re a markedly different group from the wild garage band who showed up on British shores in 2003: “Branded,” Jared remembers, “as the new rock revival: us, the Strokes, the White Stripes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.” They’re different, too, from the arena-rockers who had huge hits with Sex on Fire and Use Somebody a few years later.
Caleb’s alcohol-induced meltdown in 2011 brought on a period of reflection for the quartet. Two solid records on, 2013’s Mechanical Bull and 2016’s Walls, they have transformed into an expansive rock band in the vein of Pearl Jam. The rockier moments are still rowdy but they’re on a leash, while the epic ballads are a little more melancholy. They were once dubbed the Southern Strokes, but these days a more accurate description might be the Cattle-ranch Coldplay.
Recorded at their Nashville base with Arcade Fire and Florence and the Machine producer Markus Dravs, When You See Yourself’s release was postponed for a year by Covid. “It’s quite strange when you read the lyrics,” says Caleb. “It very much looks like it was written during quarantine. A lot of the content is prophetic.” You would certainly assume some songs were written during lockdown. Time In Disguise asks “is it a man or a masked machine?” And Echoing wonders if “we’re ever going out / We could be here for ever without a doubt.”
It’s not just Covid anthems that they’ve accidentally written. The chorus of Claire & Eddie, with its warning that a “fire’s gonna rage if people don’t change”, felt eerily prescient as the band watched riots spread across the US last year. “A lot of it has come to pass,” sighs Caleb. “I’m glad we got it finished before it all happened.”
They have a standard procedure. “We bang out a record, says Caleb, “and then hit the road for a couple of years.” But lockdown has allowed them to pause and clear their heads with family time. “I wouldn’t normally be catching some of these milestones that I’m getting to be part of,” says Nathan.
Being stuck at home has thrown up some problems, though. Recently, Caleb walked in on his wife, the model Lily Aldridge, watching a career-spanning selection of Kings of Leon music videos. “I was like, ‘Babe, you gotta turn this off!’ I was blushing so bad I felt like blood was seeping out of my face.” Caleb can’t usually watch or listen to himself. He says the only reason that he thinks 100,000 People, a soulful anthem from the new album, is any good is that when he hears it, he doesn’t cringe or “try to crawl under a table”.
While Jared comes across as a genuine rock star, Nathan is more of an easygoing surfer dude. Matthew is ultra-polite and slightly fretting, while Caleb seems a somewhat reluctant frontman. He has the air of a person who wouldn’t be fussed if his phone ran out of battery, and says some of his closest friends are the ones he plays golf with who care little about his music career. He’s like a man who just wanted a quiet life but finds himself having to headline Reading festival every three years.
“I think that’s fair,” he nods. “I’m happy to have someone else stand in front of the photo or accept the award and give the speech. I love the perks that come with being the frontman but I don’t love the pressure. I’m always happy to take the backseat.”
“He’s a very quiet guy,” says Nathan. “Especially on stage. He just kind of hides behind his guitar. It’s amazing. He can be singing to 50,000 people and still have that little bit of shyness in him.”
Caleb may be best known for hollering “Whoaaaaa, your sex is on fire!” but there is often a vulnerability to his lyrics, as with Supermarket, a song on the new album that has been knocking around for over a decade. It was written around the same time as their 2010 album Come Around Sundown, which was a commercial disappointment. A drunken, mid-gig departure by Caleb in Dallas had observers wondering if they’d reached the end of the road. One line in Supermarket gives you an idea of Caleb’s headspace at the time: “I’ll never be whole again until I get clean.”
“It was a dark period,” he says. “I didn’t know that it was a dark period at the time. I was a bit of a boozehound when I wrote that and there’s some sadness and some reflection. All these years later, when I hear it, I’m glad I got through that period and I can look back on it. It’s always weird to look at the different version of yourself, or hear where your head was. It’s also therapeutic. It’s kind of nice. I learned some lessons from that period.”
With time for contemplation in lockdown, the band have all been casting their minds back. Jared was recently thinking about their time as guests at the Columbia hotel, London’s historical hub of new-band debauchery, and their first UK show at Buckinghamshire strip-bar-come-venue The White Horse: “We were playing to 150 people!” he marvels. “I was 17,” adds Matthew. “I’d never left the country before. I think about how excited I was to come to England. It was a magical time.”
Until their fourth album, Kings of Leon were big in the UK but nobodies back home in Tennessee. “We stuck out like a sore thumb with these big moustaches and bell bottoms and shirts that went to our belly buttons,” recalls Caleb. “All the country boys in Nashville were like, ‘Who the fuck are these guys?’ But then we’d land in the UK and everybody had my same moustache, pants and shirt.”
Sex on Fire levelled things up in the US, but none of them pick it as their proudest moment. Three of them toe the party line and say that it’s the fact they’re still together, making music and getting on better than they ever have – but not Jared. “I’m pretty shallow, I love trophies,” says the bassist. “I love winning Grammys and Brits and stuff like that.”
Back at the beginning, when the quartet all lived together, they would invite people over to their house for a Sunday barbecue. “About one in five would end up with someone in the koi pond or with a lump on their heads from a frying pan,” laughs Caleb. They always knew things had gone too far if Betty-Ann Followill, the brothers’ mother, had to get involved. “If she ever got in the middle,” says Caleb, “you knew it was time to stop fighting.”
• When You See Yourself is out on 5 March.