Nathan Followill: The Driving Force
Nathan Followill looks down at the dimpled white ball resting on the grass in front of him and shifts his weight side to side. He purses his lips, then looks up over his right shoulder. Before him is a clear blue sky, punctuated by whispers of clouds. It is reassuringly quiet. At 75 degrees, it is comfortingly cool for an afternoon in July.
It is as perfect a day for golfing as you can ask for.
The green grass before him is gentle and sloping and manicured in such a precise way that it could only be the work of Swiss groundskeepers. Indeed, it is: Followill, the drummer for the band Kings Of Leon, has come to Zurich with his mates in between festival dates on the Continent. This morning, he has spirited away with fellow King Chris Coleman for a day of “the gentleman’s game,” as it is sometimes called.
Back on the teeing ground, Followill takes a breath, purses his lips again, and turns back to the ball, staring at it intently. Again, he shifts his weight from side to side. He relaxes his fingers, then grips extra tight, his left hand leading his right. He carefully places the head of his club next to the ball. He pauses. With one great and deep breath, he pulls the iron back behind his head, then whips it forward, plowing the club’s rounded mass into the dimpled sphere with the force of – well, a Grammy award-winning rock drummer.
The ball screams down the fairway, over the pointed tops of the pine trees and past the sand traps. Followill watches as its white dot fades into the landscape. Behind him, Coleman leans on his club, nodding silently in approval.
Whether the golf ball actually made it to the putting green doesn’t really matter. The fact that two tattooed, longhaired rockers who spend their nights awash in cheap alcohol, black leather, and glaring stage lights can come here during the day and find solace? That’s what matters. Here, pointed leather boots have been exchanged for two-tone saddle shoes. Wood drum sticks and wound guitar strings have been traded for nine irons. Those telltale long locks have been tied back into a ponytail or tucked behind the band of an unassuming Callaway golf cap.
Here, these Kings Of Leon are not rock royalty. They are merely two recreational players out for a day of relaxation, marking their progress with 18 holes. What was once long ago just a hobby has evolved into a necessity – a sort of mental glue that binds a string of cavernous venues, deafening crowds, insistent handlers, and inquiring journalists.
“We had the whole place to ourselves,” Followill recalls wistfully a short while later. “That’s how we recharge our batteries. Golf and fly-fishing – the two least rock and roll things you’d expect. We love the outdoors. Most of the world I get to see is through the golf courses on which I play. We can’t just walk around – we need to bring security, which draws attention, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth. We can blend in on the golf course, as much as you can with tattoos and long hair. That’s the main way we experience culture.”
You can forgive 34-year-old Followill and his bandmates – brothers Caleb and Jared, cousin Matthew, plus utility player Coleman – for needing the respite. Since the band’s inception in Nashville in 1999, the members of Kings Of Leon have been recording and touring almost without break.
“We were all living together in a fraternity house in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Once we set up our gear, we were pretty strict about rehearsing as much as we possibly could. Jared and Caleb had never played their instruments much before. We had a small window of time before we had to make the [Holy Roller Novocaine] EP for the label.
“I was 20, Caleb was 18, Matt was 15, Jared was 14. We had signed our record deal and the label was ready to put our band together. They asked, ’Does he know how to play bass?’
“’Well, no; he’ll learn.’
“’Do you have a guitarist?’
“’Well, no. I used to play drums in church so, I guess I’ll just play drums.’ So they said they’ll come down in six weeks. They were stupid enough to give us a Led Zeppelin boxed set on the way out the door. So we locked ourselves in there and did teenage things. We had five songs – ’California Waiting,’ ’Molly’s Chambers,’ ’Wicker Chair,’ and two others – and that’s how it all got started.”
That was 14 years ago, when “…Baby One More Time” topped the charts and the most popular rock band around was Goo Goo Dolls. The band’s perseverance through the rise and fall of the boy-band era eventually culminated in the tremendous commercial success of their fourth full-length album, 2008’s Only By The Night, which spawned four hit singles (“Sex On Fire” and “Use Somebody” among them), album sales of more than 6.2 million and countless live shows from Lollapalooza in Chicago to Wembley in London. SPINmagazine named the four brothers “Band of the Year” and put Caleb on the cover. MTV had them perform “Use Somebody” at its annual Movie Awards. The band played Saturday Night Live and sold out Madison Square Garden. Impossibly, that same year Nathan found the time to marry singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin.
“When we started this band, our goal was to sell 10,000 records and put on one concert a year for 10,000 people,” Followill told SPINin 2009. “We did that 179 times on this tour.”
That success was what the band sought, no doubt about it – but it eventually took its toll. In the midst of the extended tour supporting their fifth full-length album, Come Around Sundown, things fell apart. After a handful of out-of-character episodes – including a walk-off by frontman Caleb at a show in Dallas – the band decided to scrap most of its U.S. tour dates to regroup.
“Ashamed & embarrassed by last nights fiasco,” Nathan wrote the following day on Twitter. “Can’t apologize enough, utterly gutted. A million I’m sorry’s.”
Shortly afterward, the band announced it would take a brief but much-needed hiatus. The fame had come too fast and become too furious. The booze had become too burdensome. The tours too trying. The music industry machine they had spent so many years trying to start was now spinning far too fast for the four brothers to manage. So they simply shut it down.
“We’re going to take six months off now,” Nathan told Britain’s Q magazine. “I’m going to sit on my couch and cry tears of joy sitting in my pants with a tub of chocolate chip cookie ice cream. Then it’s on to the golf course, a bit of fishing, and some camping in the wild. Cooking your own meat under the stars, that’s the way to reconnect with something real after a year of immigration lines at the airport.”