Kings of Leon on the challenges and growth behind new album When You See Yourself
After a four-year break — including a delay due to COVID-19 — the Nashville family band is back with their eighth album.
For Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill, inspiration usually strikes around the same time: post-holidays, off the road, home in Nashville. "It's just something funny that hits me...pushing me to do something," he tells EW. The feeling also surfaced in the fall of 2018, when the Tennessee rockers (Caleb; his brothers, bassist Jared and drummer Nathan; and their cousin, lead guitarist Matthew) began work on their eighth studio album, When You See Yourself (out March 5). They finished in December 2019 and, well, we all know what happened next.
"We were polishing our shoes, ready to tour, and then it all stopped," says Caleb. The band decided to wait to release the record, even though they'd already spent three times longer than usual making it. But, as Caleb notes, "We were happy to not listen to it for a while. When I [went] back, I was thinking, 'Man, I hope I still enjoy it.'" Luckily, he did.
Much of the credit goes to producer Markus Dravs, who worked on the Kings' last project, 2016's Walls. "Markus is very challenging," says Jared. "That's really useful for a band like us, who's had an amount of success and could just phone it in. He takes every opportunity to push you. It's super helpful [and] super frustrating." After 20-plus years, seven albums, four Grammys, and one worrying hiatus following a disastrous 2011 gig, the group was looking for a challenge. So they expanded their sound by working with older equipment, adding synthesizers to the mix, and leaving everything on the studio floor. "I'd go home and my wife would try to talk to me, but I'd need 30 minutes to just sit and stare at the wall," says Jared. Caleb jokes that during the recording process he couldn't sleep through the night. "I was shell-shocked. I'd wake my wife up, screaming, 'Markus! Markus!'"
Despite the sleepless nights — or maybe because of them — Caleb thinks the record shows growth in their sound, as well as his attitude. "I feel like we're starting to do things that, early in our career, I would have been hell-bent against," he says. "Now we have songs where my guitar isn't featured because there's enough going on and the story is good enough. I need to focus on that. We're still trying to find ways to experiment and do different things; we're still growing."
Indeed, the guys were so focused on pushing themselves and creating good music, they even forgot to adhere to the traditional rules of making a commercially viable record. "We just made the songs as good as possible; we didn't think about radio or singles or anything like that," says Jared. "Every song is almost five minutes long."
Clocking in at about four and a half is "Golden Restless Age," a track about reaching a moment in life when, fittingly, time seems to stand still and you're anxious to get out and live. "What I'm saying is, 'Don't take it for granted,'" Caleb explains. "You're going to look back and go, 'Wow, I had it so easy. I was looking for something in the future that is not as good as what I have right now.' "
Perhaps that self-aware appreciation mixed with just enough restlessness is the key to their longevity. "Bands with family almost never make it for a super long time," says Jared. "There have been a few red flags and odds against us, but it feels like we're at the best place we've ever been."
Another new track, "Time in Disguise," speaks to their sense of gratitude for all they've accomplished. Caleb recalls a party he and Jared jetted to London to attend. On the flight home, they drank as much wine as they could and started jotting down lyrics about the surreal situation in which they'd just found themselves. "When we were sober reading it back, I was like, 'Yeah, that's not great, but it's got a skeleton idea,'" says the singer. "We're guys from Tennessee and any time we find ourselves in a situation like that, we look at each other, and go, 'Wow, this is pretty insane that we came from where we came from and now we're here rubbing shoulders with all these people.'"
So what's left to achieve? "One good Pitchfork review," jokes Jared, while Caleb mentions, with trepidation, securing a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. "That s--- terrifies me," he says. "Getting up and trying to give a speech...I wouldn't last three minutes before I started crying and had to get off the stage." In the meantime, KOL will settle for getting on any stage to tour the new album — a thought that equally excites and panics them. "There are so many places I can't wait to go," says Caleb. "And it's not just to play shows. Selfishly, I can't wait to f---ing go to some restaurants." For Jared, any travel sounds good. "I cannot wait to be stuck in traffic," he says." Or drink red wine and watch High Fidelity on a 10-hour flight with a screaming baby." Now that's rock & roll.