If you're a betting person, you'll know what I mean when I say that the over/under on the Kings of Leon tends to be around 200,000. Each of the Tennessee rockers' first three albums has sold right around that six-figure mark in America, according to SoundScan. Not bad, but not the stuff of superstars.
In Europe, particularly the U.K., the Kings of Leon are as big an American rock band as there is. "Our first European tour was sold out," frontman Caleb Followill said matter-of-factly, "and every tour since has been sold out. Over there, some kids have been trying to get into our concerts for five years."
The man is not lying. This summer, the Kings headlined the main stage at Glastonbury, the granddaddy of U.K. festivals. Now that's big. Echoes brother and bassist Jared Followill, "We can go to the U.K. and play all of England, literally the entire country, and it'll sell out. And then we come back home, and people are like, 'You guys are nothing.' "
They're hardly nothing, but it is an interesting paradox, since apart from their royal name, the Kings are American through and through — borne out by five years of bar-band, country-garage, Allman Brothers-meet-Strokes music. The "Strokes" part of that equation, bouncy hooks you can't get out of your head and their skinny-jeans-lovin' sense of style may account for tipping their following to the other side of the Atlantic. On the other hand, Jared thinks it may be more basic. "Over there, they just seem to be more susceptible to liking rock music," he offered. "It's like, rock music is for them what hip-hop is over here. Over here, it seems that anything hip-hop, it's easier to be popular with that."
Undaunted, the Kings are forging ahead with their fourth album — recorded in the spring and ready for release September 23 — Only by the Night. One listen tells you the band can hardly be said to be staying musically in one place. Forecast earlier this year by Jared to be their "hardest-rocking" record yet — a direction he said was initially inspired by their sharing a bill with the pile-driving Queens of the Stone Age — it's not especially ferocious on the rock front. What the new album did turn out to be is Kings of Leon's "biggest" sound yet. "Yeah, I have heard people say that," Caleb said. "Not bigger meaning it will be more successful, but I mean it has a larger feel."
The album does have an arena-rock feel on tracks like "Use Somebody," a soaring song that finds the band in previously uncharted U2-like territory (the guys toured with U2 in 2005), and "Manhattan," a more relaxed song that is still bathed in a production sheen that's miles away from the Kings' raw, chugging, first releases. While they concede they were going for a more dramatic sound this time out, they say the biggest difference on album number four is in Caleb's vocals, which are cleaner and more in the forefront. "I've been telling this guy to really use his voice for three records now," Jared said of his brother, "and he's finally started doing it."
For my money, it's precisely Caleb's mush-mouthed twang and obtuse lyrics that were always one of the Kings' great signature strong points, yet the singer said much of that was done out of insecurity. "I was trying to hide my lyrics and what I was saying," he admitted. "Mostly that was because I thought journalists would say I wasn't intelligent, you know, I was from Tennessee and didn't graduate high school. So I always just tried to hide what I was saying." Newly confident, he said he just opened up and belted vocals this time, partly wanting to do justice to the melodies he had come up with while under the effects of pain medication for shoulder surgery. "And the amount they were wanting me to take? They would kill a man," he said. "But they definitely made me want to go different places, because I felt so pretty. So I wanted to sing pretty, I guess."
In a lot of people's estimation, the Kings have never needed any help to look pretty — even Radiohead's Thom Yorke gave it up to the guys' good looks onstage at the All Points West festival. Still, they recently worked with a woman in whose hands everyone looks good: Sophie Muller. The veteran video director, who's trained her lens on such beautiful faces as Annie Lennox, Jeff Buckley, Gwen Stefani, the Strokes and, yes, the aforementioned Radiohead, did the honors for the Kings' first video from the new album, for the hard-charging "Sex on Fire." The clip features rich colors ("like a Dali painting," Jared said), some nudity from drummer Nathan Followill ("I might show off my chest and the happy trail for the lady fans") and Caleb in a "fevered state." Keep in mind, Muller has always had a taste for the twisted (the Killers' "Mr. Brightside," anyone?), and sure enough, as Caleb describes it, "I'm seeing things that are not really going on, and I'm seeing them do wacky things. And the things that I'm seeing make it look like I'm a pervert and I'm attracted to my family." Jared concurred: "If we didn't have so much trust in Sophie's previous work, we never would have picked up a treatment that has Caleb getting crazy on a bed and me chasing a chicken."
"It's beautiful," Jared said, but still self-deprecatingly predicted, "I'm sure we made another video that will never be played on this guy (pointing at the MTV logo on the mic cube). Never say never. And anyway — if it ain't broke, as they say, don't fix it, and for the Kings of Leon, in the rest of the world, it definitely ain't broke. Still, there is the elusive U.S., where the band will be touring this fall with the Stills, the Whigs and We Are Scientists. "We don't worry about it, but you think about it," Jared said. "We have to think about it, because we're from America. It's not for superficial reasons that we want to be big here, it's just for respect reasons, you know?"