Nathan Followill: The Driving Force

nathan followill

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.”

nathan followill

Young Bucks

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.”

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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.”