It's a long way to the top if you want to rock 'n' roll - especially when your father is a fundamentalist preacher prone to railing against such evils. Michael Odell learns how Kings of Leon still find inspiration in an upbringing full of fire and brimstone.
Kings of Leon take time for family matters
it's not every day a rock star who has just headlined New York's Madison Square Garden gets out his iPhone to show you a picture of a trout.
After playing the legendary venue, Matt Followill, the lead guitarist with Kings of Leon, caught the fish in a New Jersey lake during his day off. He drove an hour out of the city the morning after the show because there is only so much of the big city he can take.
"I'm the most country of the band by common agreement," he says, showing me the photo of the handsome fish. "I don't want to sound ungrateful or disrespectful, but I see playing in the band as going to work. It's the only way to stay sane. And when I'm off duty then I'm fishing if I possibly can."
There is a moment in the new Kings of Leon documentary, Talihina Sky, when locals from the small town in Oklahoma where the band grew up gather around the camera to say the Followill boys have not changed a bit.
Well, they have. But not that much.
After the Madison Square Garden show there was a backstage party attended by the actor Benicio del Toro, the Strokes and a handful of Victoria's Secret models. Even more excitingly they recently played the UK music show Later... with Jools Holland, where they met Eric Clapton and looked on as his band played one of their songs.
"The proudest moment of my life," says Nathan Followill.
But this ease with their peers is new. In the past there have been difficulties navigating their way through the world of showbiz. Like the time Matt Followill, a well-built young man who likes his food, went to a party hosted by Beck.
"People say that we look alike," Matt Followill told the star host.
"I could see from the way he looked me up and down that he didn't agree." He laughs.
They still have that attractive innocence. Caleb Followill went out for dinner in Greenwich Village one night recently and saw Hugh Jackman pull up and tie a bicycle to a lamp post outside the restaurant.
"I can't get used to seeing real celebrities," he says. "I was sitting there thinking, 'You're [the X-Men character] Wolverine, man! Wolverine doesn't tie a bike to a lamp post!'"
After a late night out, they gather this morning at Robert De Niro's Greenwich Hotel in Manhattan. They are in a reasonably good mood, although reviews of the show are mixed. The New York Times says Caleb Followill is a reticent frontman and that Kings of Leon "paint with concrete". On the plus side the New York Post says Nathan is one of the three best drummers in the world. The drummer has the review on his iPhone and shows me proudly, his own personal trout moment.
Caleb, for his part, moans: "I've been to Radiohead shows and Thom Yorke doesn't exactly do a stand-up comedy routine between songs. Why do they expect me to be different?"
The New York show crystallised the new territory Kings of Leon find themselves in since becoming global property. At the front of the stage a devoted young following in checked shirts knew every word to every song and pumped their fists. Up in the stands an older, more affluent section of fans waited patiently for the hits Sex on Fire and Use Somebody and then pumped the air with SUV keys in hand when they were played.
The band are not as delighted with where those songs have taken them as you might imagine.
"We have to be grateful to those songs for taking us to this next level, but there was a time when they were like yogurt past the sell-by date. You just thought: 'Man, we got to take them of the shelf.' It's just the way radio works. They decide they like something then play it to death," Caleb says.
"It was torture going into a restaurant and hearing those songs all the time," Matt adds with genuine pain etched in his face.
It's hard to believe they ever faced the problem of mass recognition at all. As adolescents the three brothers (Matt Followill is a cousin) followed their Pentecostal preacher father, Ivan Leon Followill, around America's southern states. Home-schooled by their mother, Betty-Ann, they had a nomadic and intensely religious upbringing. Caleb Followill even thought about following his father into the ministry. But after their father left the church with alcohol problems and their parents divorced, life changed dramatically. Caleb and Nathan formed the band in 1999 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Of course, years of struggle for a young band are not unusual. But the success of a preacher's sons who were specifically programmed to hate and fear rock 'n' roll certainly is.
Caleb and Nathan are still haunted by one of their father's sermons they heard when they were 10. There was a boy, their father said, who wanted to spend his pocket money going to the cinema in town to see a film. His father said no, but he defied his parents and took his red bike and rode to the cinema anyway. According to the sermon, the cinema burns down while the film is showing and the boy dies and goes to hell.
"Who preaches that to a little kid? We grew up believing that kind of stuff," Nathan says. "It was a very strict world view and it made you fear a lot of things. Rock music was one of those things. I was kind of fascinated by the music that we were not allowed to hear, this bad, evil music. So when my parents split it was the first place we turned."
In the sermon the bike, the cinema and the town are symbols of venality and decadence. In real life the Kings of Leon took their own version of the bike ride.
"I think the red bike was our tour bus," Nathan says, laughing. "And I think the movie house was the UK. That's where we first started to tour and make it and see and enjoy all the things that a rock band is supposed to. We spent our whole lives living in fear of temptation and what was considered right and wrong, so there was bound to be a rebound."
But you do not shrug off an upbringing like that lightly. There is more than a lingering sense of the Followill sons' sense of religious disappointment in Kings of Leon music. On the band's last album, Come Around Sundown, there was a track called Pyro that was inspired by a siege at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho in the early Nineties. Randy Weaver, a Christian fundamentalist who believed the apocalypse was coming and was thought to have links with the racist Aryan Nation organisation, saw his wife and son killed by FBI agents and federal marshals during a shoot-out at his remote woodland cabin.
Weaver survived, but in Pyro Followill re-imagines Weaver's rage at a world that is sinful and corrupt and so extreme that it ends in a suicidal fireball.
"I like the beauty in crazy people and their extreme ideas. Randy Weaver thought he could make the world a better place and then realised that this is not the world he wants to live in. He realises he is just as much a sinner as everyone else so he decides to destroy everything. It's the story of learning about imperfection. Every time I heard a preacher quote the Bible I want to grab the book and shove it into his face. Telling people, especially kids, that they are going to hell is a sin in itself."
Somehow the Followill family have survived the ructions of the fallen preacher whose sons who became rock stars. What comes across in Talihina Sky is the strong sense of family and community that lives on. Each May the extended Followill family gathers for a week-long reunion in Talihina. The gathering doubles the size of the town and they play horseshoes, party and swim in the lake.
Someone always brings a gun. "You gotta be careful of the water moccasin snake. You see one of those and you shoot it," Matt says.
"You need to stay level-headed in this business and there ain't no more level place than the reunion," Caleb says. "People aren't going to stand for airs and graces. Sure they want to know how you are doing and hear some tales from the road. But it's family time. Everyone should do it."
It's an America that we barely get to see or hear about and the Followills are pleased that people have taken an interest. They were less pleased about the video to last year's single Radioactive, which they also hoped would capture the spirit of their upbringing. The video showed the band singing in a barn with an African-American children's choir enjoying the sunshine, eating pie and flying kites. It seemed like a good idea on the drawing board, but by the time it came out they were horrified.
"Did you see the Russell Brand film Get Him to the Greek?" Caleb asks. "The pop star in that film makes a very cheesy 'Save Africa' charity video called African Child. It came off like that. I saw it and thought, 'We have made the video to African Child'."
Given their backwoods upbringing it's a wonder that the Followills found a way to connect with a modern rock audience. In many ways the band's guiding cultural influence is its youngest member, Jared Followill. With boy-band good looks and an eclectic taste in music, he was just 16 when he got the call from Caleb and was handed a bass guitar. "I was listening to Pixies and New Order and a lot of left-field music they had never heard before. I think that's what makes us interesting is that tension we have with the band between old country and the big city," he says.
"I am the only member of the band who does not keep a place in Nashville. I am happy in New York and I don't feel the need to go back anyplace else."
Jared takes out his iPod and flips through his playlist, which includes plenty of little-known indie bands: Local Natives, Shocking Pinks, Beach House. "In the past we used to fight because there was something happening in the music or lyrics that I didn't like," he says. "I was Caleb's worst critic. But we are more constructive now. We have security guards around to make sure we don't come to blows."
Talihina Sky is a compelling primer to one of rock's most fascinating stories and it's worth the price of admission to see Ivan Leon Followill's contribution alone. The father figure and fallen preacher who gives his middle name to the band is filmed driving a car and trying to assess how the three sons and nephew he tried to warn from the devil's music became one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
"I don't want to say my kids are going to hell, you know, nothing like that, but as far as what I envisaged it's a little different," he says ruefully.
The story isn't quite finished yet, either. According to Nathan Followill, his father is a few steps away from resuming his ministry. And it won't consist of sermons about burning cinemas, that's for sure.
"Nah. He'll be talking about what he has been doing and what he has been through instead of what other people should be doing," Nathan says. "He's doing good. He is proud of us. And if he needs a house band for one of his tent revivals then we'll do it. That would be a neat way of bringing the story full circle."
Talihina Sky premiered in April at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and was shown in June at a "hometown" premiere at the deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City. The European premiere will be hosted at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on July 25 and the UK distributor Revolver Entertainment will stream the movie and the subsequent Q&A with Kings of Leon to 50 UK cinemas for a "One Night Only" live screening event. The DVD is scheduled for a Christmas release in the UK.