Watch Nathan Followill breeze into his local Nashville watering hole, and it's obvious that he's well-known and well-liked by the crew at McCabe's Pub. Clad in sweats and a Yankees cap, the Kings of Leon drummer comes off more as cool local guy than international rock star. Nothing in this manner indicates that his band's fourth album is finally making the Kings as big in the United States as they have been in the United Kingdom and Europe since 2004, when it had back-to-back No. 1 singles in the United Kingdom. The band's label, RCA, says "Only by the Night" has sold almost 3 million copies worldwide, going platinum in Canada, Australia, South Africa and Belgium. They've been multiplatinum in the United Kingdom for quite a while. Until now, that kind of success has eluded them at home—the band's three previous albums never broke the 300,000 mark—but that's beginning to change. So far "Only by the Night" has sold 397,000 in the States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and Kings of Leon are now making their home country their target market.
Ken Levitan, founder and president of Vector Management, which handles the group, says the game plan was to first break the band overseas, partly because of the chance that Americans weren't ready for a Nashville-based rock band and partly because of staff changes at RCA. "We tried to break it out of Europe first. We thought they really might get the music and the story quicker there than they did here," Levitan says. "So basically we hopped on a plane, got the guys over, hired a publicist, got the label fired up and away it went."
The band—brothers Nathan, Caleb and Jared and their cousin Matthew—has a well-documented back story. But the Followills' childhood of traveling with their Pentecostal preacher father didn't resonate at home as it did in Europe. "Over there, we stepped off the plane and they were amazed we had socks and shoes, had all of our teeth and didn't have our tongues stuck in a bottle of Jack Daniel's," Followill says.
In retrospect, Followill reckons, the story has helped more than it has hurt. "Nobody believed it," he says with a laugh. "They thought some publicist spawned this whole story, [that] they stuck us in with [producer] Angelo [Petraglia] [and] he wrote all our songs for us. We actually had a publication in Europe that brought swabs to an interview—they wanted DNA, didn't believe we were all related. My idea was to take the swabs and get samples from a black fan, a little person, a Japanese fan and a woman and send them back. They'd get the results and say, 'See, they're not related.' "
Although the band's U.S. growth was slow, it was also steady, which suits Followill fine. "We had friends in bands that came out and sold 4 million records in their debut and that's amazing," he says. "Then they come back and sell 3 million on their second and it's considered a failure. The bar gets set so high, you have so much pressure to replicate what was so successful about the other one, which kind of sticks them in a rut."
"Only by the Night" has already topped the domestic sales numbers of 2007's "Because of the Times" (226,000), 2005's "Aha Shake Heartbreak" (262,000) and the band's 2003 debut "Youth and Young Manhood" (218,000).
"We've had our frustrations" in the States, Levitan says. "Obviously, it would have been great if the whole thing would have blown up really quickly. But when you're doing it this way, laying it brick by brick, your foundation gets much stronger and I think you're in for a much longer ride."
The band is still riding on the new album's debut single, "Sex On Fire"—it spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Modern Rock radio airplay chart and has sold 460,000 digital downloads—while the second single, "Use Somebody," is starting to make noise at the format.
"This has been one of those projects where the band makes the right record, you lay out a plan and the plan works," RCA VP/GM Tom Corson says. "The market has come around to the band. It's just their time. The band has put in the work over the years, they have their finest album to date, and consumers are into it."
Nashville is notoriously nonchalant about its stars in public ("Even your freak fans here are still nice, sweet people," Followill says), but Followill's days of going to bar without being mobbed are numbered.
By his own estimation, Followill has spent only a few months at home in the four years he's lived in the West Nashville neighborhood, a testament to the Kings' nonstop touring/recording cycles since debuting with "Manhood." The band has played live in a wide range of configurations, from opening for U2 in arenas and playing secondary stages at festivals, to headlining their own club, theater and arena shows and topping the bill at the largest outdoor events in the world.
Only a few days earlier Kings of Leon marked a career milestone by selling out New York's Madison Square Garden for the first time. "It was cool to see we had that many fans," Followill says, "especially considering we never really had a hit."
More recently, the band performed at Clive Davis' pre-Grammy Awards party for an audience that included Prince, Jay-Z and Jennifer Hudson.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
The band's genesis wasn't auspicious, to say the least. "Jared had never picked up a bass, Caleb had never picked up a guitar, Matt had taken two guitar lessons," Followill says. So what made them think they could pull this off?
"Boredom. Stupidity," Followill says. "When we signed the deal [with RCA] it was just me and Caleb. The label said, 'We're gonna put you a band together,' and we were like, 'We don't want to be Evan & Jaron. We're gonna buy our little brother a bass, he's a freshman in high school. Caleb will teach himself to play guitar. Our cousin played guitar when he was 10. I'll play the drums, I played in church when I was little.' They said, 'All right, we'll come down in one month and see you guys.' "
Levitan worked with the band from its most formative stages. Nathan and Caleb "came into my office and sang a cappella in the corner about eight-and-a-half years ago," Levitan says. Later, when informed they were recruiting their teenage brother and cousin to round out the lineup, "there were some raised eyebrows. But when we heard the music and saw the determination and that they had a vision, it was like, 'Let's put this together and roll with it.' "
Armed with a Led Zeppelin boxed set, "we kidnapped our cousin from Mississippi, told his mom he was coming for the week and just never let him go home," Nathan Followill says. "We locked ourselves in the basement with an ounce of marijuana and literally spent a month down there. My mom would bring us food down. And at the end of that month the label people came and we had 'Molly's Chambers,' 'California Waiting,' 'Wicker Chair' and 'Holy Roller Novocain.' "
Principal lyricist Caleb continues to impress his older brother. "He's my brother, I've grown up with him, but his songwriting is a part of his personality he really doesn't let out," Followill says. "He's kind of a reserved guy. He doesn't really do that much talking when he's sober. He does a lot of shit talking when he's drunk."
Followill says he considers the Kings fortunate "to get a record deal where the label was willing to grow with us, let us take our bruises and figure out the kind of band we were and the band we wanted to be."
When touring the world early in their career, oldest brother Nathan pretty much assumed the father role for the band. "I definitely worried the most," he says. "I mean, that was my 14-year-old brother; we're in Hamburg, Germany, and he's out with God knows who. Now it's definitely democratic. Every decision we make, we all four sit down and talk about it."
But just as the Vector team sorts through the band's options, "me and Caleb will weed through the shit and then take it to Jared and Matt," Followill says. "They could give two shits less about some of this stuff. The same way there's stuff me and Caleb could care less about but Jared and Matt are really into, like who styles us on our photo shoot. As far as publishing or something like that, me and Caleb are like, 'That's the money side of it. We need to really pay attention to it.' "
Caleb Followill calls the new album "the least cringe-worthy album that we've made. I'm pretty proud of these last two records we've made; maybe there's a little more professionalism than previous records. Maybe it's because we're stronger musicians and I feel as though I'm a stronger songwriter. I just didn't want to be the weak link."
Kings of Leon are definitely not a "formulaic" band in their studio approach, even though they once again tapped Petraglia as producer, with engineer Jacquire King as co-producer. "We spent six weeks doing this record, and out of the six weeks the most we spent was two hours [recording] in one day," he says. "We'd drink and play wall ball. Most people would record then reward themselves by taking a break. We play wall ball and reward ourselves by going in and recording."
And if the Kings can't play a song live, it doesn't make the album. "There's nothing worse in the world than having a record you love and going to watch that band play and they've either got two guys on keyboards behind a curtain, they're playing to tracks or they don't have that and the song sounds empty," Nathan Followill says. "We've got a couple songs on [the new] record that have keyboard parts, so our cousin, Nacho, is our stage manager and we have him play keyboards on a couple of songs. We make sure people can see him. We're not trying to be the Wizard of Oz."
Now the game plan is to make the global footprint of Kings of Leon even bigger. "This band has doubled or tripled their audience in every market where they had a meaningful audience already, from Germany to Australia to the U.K. to the U.S., Holland and Denmark," RCA's Corson says.
The team will attempt to maximize the impact of "Sex On Fire," then of "Use Somebody, "which is already off to a huge start at rock radio," Corson says. "We have a real opportunity to solidify the rock formats and then get into the pop formats."
The band's first U.S. arena tour, announced last week, will keep the Followills far from McCabe's Pub. Before the year is up, the band will headline arenas in Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe; headline a number of large festivals; and make another run through U.S. arenas. Scott Clayton at Creative Artists Agency books the band, and Vector's Andy Mendelsohn handles day-to-day managerial duties.
"All the success we're seeing right now, it's great, we love it," Nathan Followill says, "but if it ended tomorrow, we've had an amazing run. We've made enough records to put out a mini boxed set if we wanted to."
And, as he heads out the door of McCabe's, he adds, "Wish us luck at the Grammys." (For the record, Kings of Leon won for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals for "Sex On Fire.")