For the past 23 years, Nathan Followill has avoided learning pretty much anything about his instrument besides how to hit it with sticks. Now 29 and the drummer for one of the most soulful and authentic sleeper rock bands to have emerged in decades, Followill couldn’t care less about the nuts and bolts of his craft, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Here he is on playing an auxiliary snare with a dropped strainer: “You know, turned off, so it’s like the high pitch and not rattle-ly, with the latch down, not tight or whatever … my terminology is horrible. I’m not too smart as far as describing stuff. But, you know, I’m more concerned about the group. I really don’t pay attention to all the extra stuff. I mean, it’s only the drums. I just I like just getting up there and playing.”
Kind of refreshing, isn’t it? Besides, when called upon to devise exactly the right pulse to bring the evocative Southern rock rawness of a Kings Of Leon track to life, Followill knows exactly what he wants to say – not a lick more. “I like my comfort zone,” he says. “I’m the kind of guy that, once I go to a restaurant, if I find something I like I’ll order it every time, just because I know I’m going to be satisfied. I’ll throw a thing in every now and then that’ll maybe make a drummer turn his head, but for the most part I like to be a pocket drummer. I don’t think a drummer should have to show off to get noticed. You’re like the conductor of a train. You keep the train on the tracks – let everybody else worry about everything else.”
Followill speaks with laid-back assurance, a consummate Southern boy, relaxing in the comfort of his home in Nashville just a few hours before the Kings Of Leon are set to take the stage for the final show of the American leg of their tour in support of their fourth album, Only By The Night. And while each new album and each new tour expands their fan base, it also necessitates a swing through Nashville, and a chance to test the new stuff against the hometown crowd. “People either love us or they hate us here,” Followill laughs. “Oh my. There’s no in between. I mean, you’re always going to have those fans that think you’ve sold out or think you’re out of your element. And for the most part, I think those are the fans that like us being kind of like their best little secret, you know? The fans that really don’t want to share us with everyone else out there. And that’s understandable, but at the end of the day, you want to sell as many records as possible and play to as many people as possible, and with that comes growth. And this being the first band that any one of us has ever been in, I mean, it’s natural to change and progress.” And with that progression a reality has begun to creep in as of late: If Music City can’t handle Kings Of Leon, there are plenty of places that will gladly answer the call.
It’s on European stages mostly, and the UK in particular, where the Kings Of Leon are, in fact, met like kings. To give you an idea, they sold out 98,000 seats for a string of five recent shows in the UK in less than four minutes. But America is beginning to wake up and take notice, and the rewards have started raining down on the Kings.
“When we first started out, we said if these two things happen that we would consider that we had made it,” Followill explains. “One was playing Saturday Night Live, and one was selling out Madison Square Garden. We’re going to get to knock both those out about four months apart.” In case you missed that, they sold out Madison Square Garden – that’s 20,000 seats – amidst the rubble of the music industry, a hemorrhaging economy, and, let’s be honest, a general sense of “who the hell are these guys?”
“We never had that one big thing that put us on the map,” Followill admits. “We just kind of snuck up on everybody.”
That’s easy to do when you’ve spent your life hidden away in that exotic, faraway territory known as the American South. The Kings Of Leon parachuted onto the scene in 2000 with a patently ridiculous formula: a rock band consisting of three brothers and a cousin whose collective musical experience probably wouldn’t get them taken seriously at a battle of the bands. But Nathan, his brother Caleb (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), brother Jared (bass, keys), and their 15-year-old cousin, Matthew (lead guitar) – a high school sophomore without a shred of guitar experience – strutted into a Memphis studio and cut that first EP, they snapped enough important heads to attention to change that perception in a hurry.
“None of us had really said when we were growing up we were going to be in a band. It just kind of happened,” says Nathan, the eldest of the group, pointing out that he was in the process of earning a sports trainer degree when his parents got divorced and his mom moved to Nashville. The draw of Music City suddenly seemed a more attractive bet than sports medicine. “I quit, came home, and we started writing songs together. And next thing you know, we had a publishing deal and a record deal.”
The boys did have a huge advantage – an innate, blood-bound understanding forged in the shared experience of an unusual childhood (one that also accounts for their biblical monikers). Their father was a Pentecostal preacher who took it upon himself to spread the good word around the South, with his family in tow. The experience left Followill with mixed feelings.
“The way we were raised was very fear-driven, fear-based. Looking back on it, there was lots of stuff that we worried about that we shouldn’t have had to worry about, because we were just kids, you know?” On the other hand, it was in these churches, bouncing around the South, where Followill honed his craft. “I played every night with my parents,” he says. “My mom would get up there and sing before my dad would preach. My feet could barely reach the pedals, but somehow it came out right. A lot of people are like, ’Who’s your biggest influence? Who’d you grow up wanting to be?’ A hundred nameless, faceless drummers in churches all across America. I couldn’t tell you any of their names. I kind of just took a little from each.”
He didn’t have any other choice. “Growing up, we listened to zero music because the only kind we could listen to was Christian music,” he says. “And we didn’t want to listen to that. So pretty much the only music we were exposed to was at church.”
For a while, the family was living in Oklahoma City, and Followill would attend an open jam on Sunday nights at a blues bar in town. One night, some older guys joined him on stage who seemed to really know their way around their instruments. “I got off stage and all these people were like, ’Do you even know who you were on stage with just now?’” Turns out, it was the members of Wilson Pickett’s band, which, to Followill, meant exactly … nothing. “I had no idea who the hell they were,” he says.
These days, the Followill boys have made it their mission to fill that musical void. “We’ve kind of been like musical sponges I’d guess you would say. My friends love it because they feel like they get to rediscover these bands all over again. They love the fact that they can play me a band they’ve listened to for years and they know that I’ve never heard one single song. It’s almost like they get to relive that first time they heard the music just by seeing me have my mind blown.”
It’s an ongoing source of amusement between Followill and his fiancée, songstress Jesse Baylin, each time he fails to identify a Beatles song on the radio, which still happens with shocking regularity. “Now, if it’s anyone that I don’t recognize, I’m like, ’So, let me guess. The Beatles?’” he laughs.
Still, Followill’s limited childhood diet of “church music” wasn’t as provincial as it sounds. “When I say, ’I played at church,’ a lot of people probably assume a nice, quiet church with a couple of instruments,” he says. “The churches we played in were like black gospel, like Al Green or Aretha Franklin. Every church had an organ, piano, a couple of guitars, bass, horns, and a rhythm section. It was full on like a juke joint, but it was gospel instead of blues or rock.”
To trace the band’s steady ascension from the gritty, garage-y vibe of their aptly titled debut, 2003’s Youth And Young Manhood, to the clear, resonant power of Only By The Night is to witness a classic flipbook evolution of a young band finding its voice. You can almost watch the excess being stripped away at each new stage, exposing a gleaming, solid core. “The first couple records we’re just like, ’Get it recorded and whatever happens, happens,’” Followill says. “The last two records we put a little more thought into it. The songs were a lot more together before we got in the studio. We had rehearsed them quite a bit, but there’s nothing worse than recording a song, then six months later on tour you’ve got ten things you’d do different that would have made the song so much better if you would have recorded it that way.”
But the tight structural purity of Only By The Night belies the spontaneity of the Kings’ recording process, which is still done in full-on garage fashion. “Me, Jared, and Matt are just in a semi-circle with our instruments,” Followill explains. “Caleb is in the vocal booth with his guitar, and we just kind of go off of each other – a lot of eye contact.” Tracks are laid down fully live, and the rawness of each take is preserved throughout the entire process, with overdubs kept to an absolute minimum. “We never go back and fix the drums,” Followill insists. “It’s a curse and a blessing. It’s cool to be able to say we don’t need drum fixes. It sucks when you have to take one for the team. There might be a little mess-up here or there, and we keep it on there because it’s like a scar, it’s cool, it gives it character – it’s cool for everyone else except for the person who’s playing the part that messed up a little, because every time you listen to it it’s the only thing you focus on.”
But the high stakes of spontaneous creation, harkening back to the days of tape, long before the Pro Tools revolution, can produce the best stuff, as it did on Only By The Night. “One of my favorite parts on the record was a total accident,” Followill says. “And I was like, ’I’m never going to be able to do that again for the rest of my life.’ It was on ’Manhattan,’ on the break after the second verse, and I missed the snare hit and instead did a triplet with my kick pedal. And everyone in the studio was like, ’That was awesome. How did you know to do that?’ Uh, that was a total accident. I missed my snare and for some reason my leg went where my snare should have.”
A similar thing happened on “Notion,” where the normally sparse Followill drum pattern gives way to a lively interplay between kick and snare. “That was one of the last songs we recorded and they had already taken my toms away,” he laughs. “On that song, all I had was a hi-hat, my snare, my kick drum, and a ride and a crash. I really had no choice. I couldn’t have used a tom if I had wanted to on that song.” It’s easy to imagine how, in most modern recording situations, these takes would have been either redone or overdubbed into oblivion, or until the status quo was satisfied. But the Kings have leveraged against even the possibility of such overzealous corrective tendencies with a simple refusal: No click track – not in the studio, not live, not anywhere, not ever. So the patchwork quilt approach is all but thrown out the window, which leaves the impetus on them to get it right the first time. “I think out of every song we’ve ever recorded, honestly, I could say, probably 90 percent were done in the first two takes,” Followill says. “Three at the most. Like, if we ever have to do a song five times, we’re having a bad day. We’ll usually get it on the first or second take, then just go lay two more down just to see if we can top it. But we usually never do.”
Fortunately, the Kings have discovered a production team sympathetic to their old-school approach. “The cool thing about Angelo [Petraglia] and Jacquire [King], they’ve never really tried to push us in any direction,” Followill says. “They are there if we have questions or if we’re second-guessing ourselves, then they’ll gladly step in and help us out. But for the most part, they just let us do our thing. We just tell them what we want and they go get it for us. So it makes it fun because they get to go create all the stuff that we can hear in our head but don’t really know how to get it ourselves. And they get to go on the adventures of every song.”
That’s cool, but let’s just get back to that click track thing for a minute. Really? Never? “I guess it’s just, we grew up, you know, listening to church music our whole lives. That’s the only music we heard. And there’s no click track in church,” Followill explains. “My buddy Fab, the drummer for The Strokes, he plays with a click track. So one night the drum tech let me listen to his headphones to hear what Fab heard when he was playing. Man, I would get so off, I think a click would hurt me more than it would help me.”
It can be argued, convincingly, that this is a big part of what gives Kings Of Leon albums such warmth, character, emotion – call it what you will. It’s that element of authenticity that seems to be perennially on the downslide in popular music. Followill has an interesting explanation as to why this works so well for them. “I think part of it, you know when you see, like, brothers that are really good at sports because you know where the other one is going to go before they’re going to go there? I think we kind of have that. It’s part of our DNA. I think it makes us able to be on time a little easier than most.”
But what about working with more conventionally minded artists, ones you may or may not be telepathically connected to? Followill had the chance to find out recently, in a studio session with his fiancé. (At least he’s keeping it all in the family). Followill came in with the intention of recording drums on a mid-tempo rocker called “Not A Day More” for Baylin’s sophomore release, Firesight. “We got in there and [the producer] said, ’Yeah, let’s set up a click.’ I was like, ’I don’t know how to play to no click.’ He’s like, ’Are you serious?’” Followill held his ground, and the track went down without a click.
The results were less than satisfactory.
“I was a bit of a loose canon,” he laughs. “I’d had a couple of beverages that night and just let it rip. I rocked it. I rocked it Kings style. I don’t think she was ready for that yet.” In the end, they had to bring another drummer in to play the part, a move Followill freely admits was probably best for everybody. “But um, you know, that shows my love for my instrument,” he says. “I compromised my relationship by refusing to use a click track. [laughs]. You make your choices.”
If there’s one thing Followill hates, it’s sitting around watching the clock before show time. It’s the only occasion when that cool façade of his can show signs of stress. “I do some stretches, stretch up my forearms and my calves, tape up my fingers. Usually I just try to do anything that keeps my mind off of the show,” he says.
What’s there to be nervous about? At this point, Kings Of Leon have toured with the likes of U2, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan – you know, dudes who’ll put things in perspective for you real quick. “I mean, it could be the worst kind of crowd, but you look over and Eddie Vedder is on the side of the stage rocking out to you. I mean, you kind of could give two s**ts about what the crowd thinks about it. It can be a little intimidating, a little scary; but you know, it’s only rock and roll. You can sit there and psych yourself out if you want to or you can pump yourself up, it depends on what head frame you’re in.
“I mean, obviously, some shows are bigger than others. I mean we’re headlining Madison Square Garden in January, so I’m sure our nerves will be a little, I don’t want to say nervous, but we will definitely be paying attention a little more at sound check, making sure we got all of our ducks in a row.”
So then, with their strongest album to date already garnering an avalanche of positive press, a worldwide headlining tour in the pipeline, and their two biggest career milestones behind them, what’s next for the Kings Of Leon? Followill doesn’t miss a beat. “We want to play a festival and have U2, Pearl Jam, and Bob Dylan open up for us,” he says, followed by a split second of silence where the thought is allowed to hang out there in space, extinguished only by his laughter. “I’ll give you an exclusive for that one.”