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Talking with Kings of Leon

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Eight years ago, Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill was taking a drunken stroll through Nashville with his lawyer, who offered the tipsy teen some indispensable advice. ”I said, ‘I wanna be so famous that when I walk down the street, people know who I am,”’ he recalls. ”And he looked at me and said, ‘Be careful what you wish for.”’

The Kings now understand that adage vividly. Two Tennessee brothers (Caleb, 27, and drummer Nathan, 30) born to a traveling Pentecostal minister formed a band in 1999. They then recruited their younger brother (bassist Jared, 22) and a cousin of the same last name (lead guitarist Matthew, 24), and released their debut in 2003. After three albums of rangy Southern rock made them critics’ darlings and superstars abroad, they finally conquered America with the release of last September’s Only by the Night, a hook-laden, uncharacteristically radio-ready disc whose throbbing first single, ”Sex on Fire,” beat out the likes of Coldplay for a Grammy. Chart success, magazine covers, an SNL gig, 959,000 CDs sold — suddenly, the Kings had seemingly accomplished everything imaginable. ”This year feels like 10,” says Jared. ”We’re trying to set new goals. I’m kind of embarrassed to say them. They probably involve yachts.”

The band may joke about big-ticket items, but it’s the success itself that’s come at something of a price. ”From the beginning, people have been saying, ‘Why hasn’t this band broken through?”’ says Caleb. ”Now [our fans] feel like they’re having to share us, and I don’t know if they appreciate that.” Explains Jared, ”Before we were big, we had credibility, and nothing to show for it. Now we feel like, in a lot of circles, we’ve lost credibility. We’re really insecure people. And more than anything, we want to have artistic integrity.” Pulling himself out of the sellout spiral, he adds: ”Don’t get me wrong. We’re definitely enjoying it. I think insecurity drives us to always be better.”

And it looks like they’ll be driven for some time to come. Despite rumors to the contrary, fueled by both a history of family fisticuffs and recent reports in the British press of a backstage blowout, the Kings don’t have any plans to break up. Not that they’re doing much to dispel any myths. ”What’s funny is they always make me sound like an awesome fighter,” Caleb says. ”So I just go with it.”

Plus, some of the temper is clearly real: At a recent Scottish gig, Caleb demolished his beloved 1972 Gibson ES-325, slamming it through the kick drum out of frustration. ”We have zero reasons to complain, but I do blame me breaking my guitar on being overworked,” he says. ”I would never, ever dream of doing anything to that guitar. It’s moments like that where you realize you need to take a break.”

For now, the boys may just have to brace themselves instead. Over the next few months, riding the success of Night‘s second hit ”Use Somebody,” the Kings will headline the Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits music fests and crank up an arena tour — events that are unlikely to resolve their struggles with rock stardom. ”Even when I’m having a great show, if I look out there and I see some guy sitting on his ass because he’s there with his girlfriend and they’re waiting to hear ‘Sex on Fire,’ I literally want to jump out in the crowd and kick him out,” Caleb says. ”But that’s the danger. Be careful what you wish for. If you want to be in big bands, you’re gonna have to take all of the good and the bad that goes with that.”


Night Fever!
Can’t get enough of Kings of Leon’s Only by the Night? Here are three things to look forward to.

Catch them on tour:
Sept. 8-Oct. 16.

If you can’t, fear not.
A live DVD, shot in London’s O2 arena, is headed your way this fall.

And a remixed version of Night,
which will likely include Justin Timberlake’s version of ”Use Somebody,” is slated for fall. Other names being bandied about: Pharrell and Trent Reznor. ”The important thing is to go way outside of the box,” says Caleb.

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