Kings of Leon appeared to be on the downswing after an unexpected breakdown in July 2011; it was uncertain whether the band would swing back up again. Two years later, the group is revitalized and returning with its sixth album, Mechanical Bull.
The band of close male family members — brothers Nathan, Caleb and Jared Followill, accompanied by their cousin Matthew — had been traveling on the road together for a decade straight. With his voice growing ragged and no sign of a break in sight, lead singer Caleb Followill took matters into his own hands at a Dallas performance: He announced to the audience that he was leaving the stage to vomit and drink a beer, but would return to finish the show. He never did.
"I think, at first, we were all pretty tough on Caleb backstage that night. We were definitely angry," drummer Nathan Followill says of his younger brother's onstage antics. "At the time, we didn't realize how severe it actually was, healthwise, for him."
After seeing a throat specialist, Caleb Followill was told that he was one show away from permanently damaging his vocal cords.
"I think that was just kind of something that was bound to happen," the singer says. "We had been running pretty hard for almost 10 years, and our bodies were just spent."
The release of Mechanical Bull marks the end of a tough period for Kings of Leon. Moments of optimism — however sarcastic — are perceptible in tracks like "Comeback Story."
"It's kind of tongue-in-cheek, saying it's the comeback story of a lifetime," says Caleb Followill.
Nathan and Caleb Followill recently spoke with NPR's David Greene about their familial roots and how their intimate lives changed after a not-so-intimate announcement that summer night in 2011. Hear more of their conversation by clicking the audio link.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
"Sex On Fire," that get your attention?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'SEX ON FIRE')
KINGS OF LEON: (Singing) Yeah, oh, your sex is on fire...
GREENE: That's a hit song from the band Kings of Leon who are out with a new album after a long hiatus. They exploded onto the popular music scene in 2008 and then disappeared just as quickly. It happened after an embarrassing incident at a performance in Texas, more on that in a moment. We'll begin with the band's roots: three brothers, the sons of a Pentecostal preacher. They spent much of their childhood as a traveling band of sorts, touring churches and revivals, packed into backseat of dad's car.
The eldest brother, Nathan Followill, still has the image.
NATHAN FOLLOWILL: It was a 1989 Olds '98.
FOLLOWILL: Zero shocks whatsoever.
GREENE: You felt every bump.
FOLLOWILL: So we were cool long before bouncing cars were cool, not by choice. I can remember growing up on the road. It was we were always envious of which have her little brother was still small enough to curl up in the floorboard, and use that as kind of as their bed. Once you outgrew that, you were stuck to sitting up in the back seat using the window as a pillow, basically...
GREENE: You wanted to stay small so you could get that sleeping space.
FOLLOWILL: Yes, we tried to stay as small as humanly possible.
GREENE: Nathan joined us with his younger brother and lead singer, Caleb. When those two were old enough, they went to Nashville and got a record deal. And they insisted that their younger brother, Jared and also their cousin Matthew join the band - even though they were both still in high school and had absolutely no idea how to play any instruments.
FOLLOWILL: Our cousin Matt, who was 14 and a half at the time, we're like: Well, he took guitar lessons when he was 10 so I guess we'll let him play guitar. And that was met with, you know, laughter. But who's laughing now, big bad record labels?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'FAMILY TREE')
LEON: (Singing) I am your family tree. I know your A to Z is a secret proposition, lay your hands on me. Nothing to talk about, darling, it's all make-believe...
GREENE: And so Kings of Leon was born. They released five albums between 2003 and 2010, each more popular than the previous one. But with the fame came challenges that Caleb traces to the way they were brought up.
CALEB FOLLOWILL: The way that we were raised, we were kind of raised in a strict upbringing. And, you know, a lot of times that will kind of push you one way or the other. You know, I think the direction that we were pushed in there was a bit of a rebellious side early on.
GREENE: And later on, like in 2011, when the band had to acknowledge what one member called an internal sickness.
Caleb, let me ask you. I mean two years ago, you had this incident. You walked off stage a concert and told the audience that you were going to go vomit and have a beer.
GREENE: What happened there?
FOLLOWILL: I think that was just kind of something that was just bound to happen. We had been running pretty hard for almost 10 years, nine years, and our bodies were just - they were spent. And my voice had just completely gone. It was just so point when it was actually physically it was hurting, you know, when I would try saying.
GREENE: Nathan, what did you think at that moment when you saw your brother walk off stage?
FOLLOWILL: You know, I think, at first, we were all pretty tough on Caleb backstage that night.
GREENE: You were angry at him.
FOLLOWILL: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, def. We were definitely angry at first, embarrassed. You know, kind of felt like we had been hung out to dry a little bit. And then, you know, at the time we didn't realize how severe it actually was, health-wise, for him. And then, you know, once Caleb finally got to see the throat specialist, the guy was like: Man, you are literally one show away from permanently damaging your vocal cords to where you would never have been able to do another, you know, sing another song, play another show.
So, you know, it's like your body, you run too hard, too ragged. If you don't shut it down it's going to shut itself down for you. And I think that's what happened and, you know, it was all for the better. And it forced us all to kind of take a much needed break. You know, for all of us, when the rest of the world was, you know, talking about that we were done and we were broken up, you know, we were all actually at home actually enjoying it and to be husbands and fathers for the first time in a long time.
GREENE: Did you guys think you were done?
FOLLOWILL: This is Caleb. I never thought, you know, we were done. I just knew that I had to take a minute. I had never really lived a normal life. Since I was old enough to live one and just being out with my wife - we were expecting a baby - and so I got to live every bit of that and it was so inspiring to me.
You know, to be able to actually be a man and not have people around me, you know, doing everything for me - and opening doors for me. And I kind of have to make decisions on my own. And that was something that I needed to do at that point in my life.
FOLLOWILL: This is Nathan. You know, that's all we have known for the last 10 or 11 years. Like, every morning there's a day sheet slid under your door that tells you what time press starts, what time lunch is, what time sound check, what time you play, where you're going the next day. So you kind of get used to that lifestyle.
And then, you know, like Caleb said, we got home it was like there's absolutely nothing to do. If we don't want to have to do anything today, we don't have to.
GREENE: You say this album is a direct result of all of that. Point me to a song where we really kind of feel this album as the end of a tough period.
FOLLOWILL: I think one of the obvious ones is 'Comeback Story.' And it's kind of tongue-in-cheek, you know, saying it's the comeback story of a lifetime.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'COMEBACK STORY')
LEON: (Singing) Picking up the pieces of the world I know with one in the fire and one in the snow. It's a comeback story of a lifetime. The comeback story of a lifetime...
GREENE: Well, you know, I guess I wonder if you're back on tour now, are those day sheets coming under the door again? And does that kind of give you chills when you see it?
FOLLOWILL: We've gone paperless now.
FOLLOWILL: We get e-mails. You know, it's a part of the gig. Actually it felt good to get that first day sheet 'cause we were like, OK, we're back. The past is the past, now let's just move forward in a positive direction; no more fistfights or...
GREENE: Were there some fistfights? Did it get that bad?
FOLLOWILL: No face punches, maybe a couple to the kidneys or the back.
GREENE: Ouch. Well, you guys are past that. And best of luck with the tour.
FOLLOWILL: Thank you.
FOLLOWILL: Thank you very much
GREENE: Nathan and Caleb Followill from the band Kings of Leon. Their new album 'Mechanical Bull' is out today.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, 'FAMILY TREE')
GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.