Nathan Followill: The Driving Force

nathan followill

Followill's Setup

Drums DW (Flat Black maple/mahogany)
1 24" x 15" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6" Craviotto Maple Snare ("baseball bat" edges)
3 13" x 9" Tom
4 16" x 15" Floor Tom
5 18" x 15" Floor Tom
6 14" x 6" Side Snare

Cymbals Zildjian
A 15" A New Beat Hi-Hats
B 22" A Thin Crash (or 22" K Light Ride)
C 24" K Light Ride
D 23" A Sweet Ride
E 20" A Thin Crash
F 20" Crash Of Doom

By The Horns

It’s a warm, sunny summer’s day in Nashville, where Followill, Baylin, and their newborn daughter Violet Marlowe reside. Though it is 82 degrees this afternoon, autumn is just around the corner – a couple of trees in his yard have already started to turn orange – and Followill has golf on his brain. Again.

“It’s great golf weather,” he says. After a beat, he concedes: “Currently my game is in the old s__tter.”

He’s got a good excuse. For the last 12 months, the brothers Followill have been at work writing, recording, and supporting their sixth full-length album, Mechanical Bull. The 11-track work – recorded in Nashville between December 2012 and March 2013 – represents the first new studio sounds from the band in three years, and the first fruit after a period where the band decided it needed to slow down.

Ironically, the music machine is already spinning up again.

“There’s just not enough time,” Followill says, lamenting his lack of golf in recent months. “I don’t really play that much when we’re off the road. We very rarely have down time. Every sound check we do, we’re working on new stuff. Before every night, we have an hour of sound check, trying new stuff. Doing our homework for the new record.”

On Mechanical Bull, the band fully embraces what it has become: an arena act soaked in reverb and grand gestures. The so-called Southern influences and post-punk styling that brought the band early acclaim have gelled into a consistent formula that’s equal parts catchy, carefree, and crunchy. The lead track, “Supersoaker,” combines the tinkling melodies of an E Street Band in its prime with the engaging insistence of The Walkmen. “Don’t Matter” has a fuzzed-out drive that recalls Queens Of The Stone Age. “Wait For Me” has a pensive shuffle of a song best played over the denouement of a major motion picture. And “Family Tree” has the jaunty, bass-driven hop-step of a jam band lost in its own set list.

It’s a diverse set of songs, structurally. In many ways, it’s a tour through the band’s last five records. It also represents the ongoing evolution of a drummer who told this very magazine four years ago that he was the furthest thing from a technician.

“I feel a lot more comfortable. I’ve learned that less is definitely more. Our band as a whole, we’re all so much more familiar with our instruments and each other and playing. Each record was us growing together, charting it. This record, especially the rhythm section, is the tightest we’ve made. Part of that has to do with taking a break and stepping away from the music and giving us that desire. This record was the most fun to make, definitely the most put together. It has a little bit of something for everyone.”

Take the honky tonk of “Family Tree,” for example. “That’s the funnest, funkiest song that I’ve ever had the opportunity to write a part for and play. It’s like Sly And The Family Stone – just nasty. It’s a very simple, straightforward part. Nothing fancy. No bells. But it’s a groove that makes everyone in the room tap their foot or nod their head. It makes everyone who wants to be a drummer be a drummer in that moment for three minutes.”

Or a three-and-a-half-minute song called “Coming Back Again,” which is carried all the way through by forearm-destroying sixteenth-notes on the hi-hat. “That’s hands-down the hardest song I’ve ever recorded. And they’ll probably want that to be a single! They’ll make me play it on Lettermanand SNLand at halftime. It’s just – man, put on a sweatband, plow ahead, and pray you don’t mess up too bad. That was the last song we rehearsed today because they know that when I’m done playing I’m mentally challenged for 20 or 30 minutes.”

Or “On The Chin,” a country-tinged slow burn of a song, complete with rim-clicks and ride pings, that accompanies the close of an album and last call at a bar with equal aplomb. Back to back with “Coming Back Again,” the track is demonstrative of Followill’s aim to stay in his comfort zone but continually rearrange the furniture within.

“This record had so many great moments, drum-wise. I got to go back to my roots a little bit. Less is more – find the beauty in the simple drum parts. Lovin’ me some rimshots on this record. Not as cowbell-heavy as I’d like it to be, but you know. Still, we got to step away, and we were all thrilled and excited to get back together. We had a lot of smiling rehearsals. There was a lot of grinning going on in the early stages of this. That was our way of showing that we were back and excited and ready take on the next chapter.”

The Kings Of Leon will be the first to admit that the sessions for Mechanical Bull were less than professional. “We spent more time playing practical jokes on each other than recording,” Followill says with a smile. But it was critical to the band’s longevity that they rediscover how to act like a cohesive unit after they had so famously disintegrated just a few years prior.

“We bought this old paint factory in Nashville and our initial idea was turn it into a rehearsal space. That’s when we started kicking around the idea to do another record. Then we’re talking about studios. Well, shoot, we’ve got this space here! Next thing we knew we fixed it up well enough to do the whole record there. We’d leave the wife and babies at home and it was our own little Elks Lodge. We’d get there early and hang out and have a beer and get loose and go in and hit record. You could tell we were all very inspired.”

That’s a big change from the early years, when the Kings were younger and more self-conscious about their ability to perform instruments they had only just learned. “The first record we ever made, we were scared s__tless. I had played in church before, but that was it. A couple studios in Memphis, maybe, playing by ear. It wasn’t as – I don’t want to say technical, because there were parts that were amazing and hard to play – but every drummer has certain things they do well, whether it’s a tight pocket or a quick kick leg or triplets all over the place or math rock. This record, I was able to dig into a little each of those, from every record. It was fun to play songs that are so simple but would have been tough to play three records ago.”

On Bull, that would be the “grit-your-teeth-and-pray-to-God-that-your-arm-doesn’t-fall-off-before-it’s-over” of “Don’t Matter” and the George Jones—like “On The Chin.”

“I even went back to church – there are a couple beats on this record that I played with the choir years ago. That’s a revisit of moments of my life where that was it, that was my game, that’s all I had to offer. It was fun to go through the catalog, drumming-wise. We all go back to our comfort zone. Different drummers hear songs differently. But it’s only natural to find that comfort zone and it’s not forced. That’s never worked for me, to go to the studio and try new things.”

nathan followill

Road Show

Unlike his brothers Jared and Caleb, who have become somewhat famous for their hatred of life on the road, Nathan is looking forward to taking the Kings’ new material out on tour.

“As a drummer, I truly have fun. I get up there and every night it’s an adventure for me. I have mental battles where there are two or three songs that I mess up during sound check, and that happens all tour. The crowd will never even know that you nailed it, but I’ll finish the song and I’ll look at my drum tech and he’ll give me a thumbs up and that feels great. You’re always striving to be better.”

The good news? The Kings Of Leon are still at their career’s peak, which means their first few gigs out of the gate include playing Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, the Late Show With David Lettermanand the Global Citizen Festival in New York City’s Central Park where the band will share a bill with Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and John Mayer. The band is still very much a known quantity, adored by millions of people. A new set of songs that combines the best sonic moments of their previous work plays to its strength.

“The level we are fortunate enough to tour at right now definitely makes life easier. It’s all about the fans seeing us back up there having a good time. You tour for ten years straight, I don’t care who you are, you’re going through the motions whether you believe it or not. You’re in a rut, a routine. You’re giving it the same, but you fall into that area to where you give them a show and they get their money’s worth but you’re not high-fiving people on the way off the stage. Lately, it’s been that way every night. We’ve allowed ourselves to fall back in love with the idea of touring – that high you get when you leave the stage and they’re still singing the song that you just played.”

For now, Followill says he’s just biding his time.

“We’re in the calm-before-the-storm phase. The record comes out in three weeks. We’re about to start the whole press and promo machine. We go to London on Sunday – a lot of TV shows, radio stations, photo shoots, getting the word out there. Once you’ve recorded the record – this one has been done since March – you need to sit on it a bit, even though you’re chomping at the bit to play it live. Everyone’s phone now is a camera. You have to keep it close to your sleeves.

“Now we’re in the phase where we’re rehearsing the new songs – playing the record from beginning to end and re-familiarizing ourselves with the songs. Come January and February, it’ll be the old 18-month whirlwind.”

This time around, there’s one major difference: the full-time musician is now a full-time father, throwing a wrench in his old habits and altering the tour narrative that he’s come to know so well.

“We’ve got families now; we’re all chilled out. It’s easier to have two versions of yourself – offstage, I’m Dad now. Or I’m just Mr. Followill. I missed her crawling this time; I’m sure I’m going to miss her walking, too. But the first time I see it is going to be the first time she walks, so …”

People in bands do tend to keep later hours than most.

“Since I’ve become a father now, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. is so valuable to me now. No one’s calling or bugging. I just hang out. That’s so different than having a day sheet slipped under your door. Eat, prep, sound check, press, meet and greet, dinner, show, hotel, plane, hotel, do it all over again.”

The glamour is real. The hours are long. The relationships are strained. It ain’t easy being a pro drummer and parent. Followill wouldn’t dare have his young daughter follow in his footsteps, would he?

“Her Mom and I have talked about this,” he said, laughing. “They will be there if she wants to play, but I’m not going to stick drum sticks in her hand. I just go in her room every night and whisper in her ear that she wants to be a drummer.”

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