Drop the words mainstream or arena into a conversation with Kings of Leon lead guitarist Matthew Followill, and his dismay is palpable, even via a cranky cell phone halfway across the country.
Point out that he and his band mates have been headlining at some of the largest venues in the United States and he turns apologetic. ("It's absolutely ridiculous.") Mention the Grammy, the platinum album and the single (Use Somebody) that has recently caught the ear of soccer moms and adult top-40 radio programmers, and he assures you that all this madness will soon be over. ("It makes me nervous. I'm sure we'll be back in the 5,000-seat theaters.")
Maybe. Or maybe Followill, 25, is just a little shell-shocked after a year of being propelled into the ranks of rock royalty. It's important to remember that, until very recently, he and his Tennessee cousins — Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill — were merely four respected and upstanding members of the alternative-rock neighborhood, a quiet and sane place where artists play small dates at clubs and theaters, and have lots of time to think and create.
It's where the Followill boys were living in 2003, when they released an EP of raw, Southern-tinged garage rock that turned heads and paved the way for their RCA debut in 2004. And it's where they stayed for the next few years and the next two albums as they experimented and shaped their sound, which grew steadily more complex. Kings of Leon attained unexpected star status in Britain during this period, but the band flew mostly under the radar in the States, where only hipsters and music critics seemed to be susceptible to its charms.
That changed suddenly last summer with the arrival of Only by the Night, a wickedly infectious and smartly produced disc that draws much of its magic from Matthew Followill's moody, muddy guitar and Caleb Followill's wailing, bluesy vocals. Leadoff single Sex on Fire, accompanied by an oddly erotic music video filled with skin, sweat and smoke, quickly put the band on the stardom track, and the mainstream rock 'n' roll biz has been eager to pay its respects ever since.
The tune won a Grammy last winter. The band did Saturday Night Live and landed on the cover of Rolling Stone. Now there are reports that a Kings of Leon remix album is in the works, with contributions expected from Linkin Park and Kings über-booster Justin Timberlake. Further burnishing of the Followills' rock-star credentials came in August at England's annual Reading Festival, where they had themselves a good old-fashioned onstage meltdown. British press accounts of their performance say they hurled obscenities at fans and smashed guitars after a messy set that was marred by technical problems.
Matthew Followill spoke recently about Kings of Leon's whirlwind year.
Question: Only by the Night came out a year ago this month, and it changed things pretty drastically for Kings of Leon. Is it still possible for you to consider yourselves alternative?
Answer: Yeah, I don't feel like we're in the mainstream really at all. I mean I know we are now because we'll hear our song on the radio and then the next song will be Kanye West or Britney Spears. But we're definitely still in the alternative vein. We just got lucky, I guess, with these songs — Use Somebody, Sex on Fire. We didn't know those were going to be big singles.
Q: The band had a loyal but much smaller following before Only by the Night. How have the fans who cut their teeth on tunes like Molly's Chambers and Holy Roller Novocaine from your first album reacted to your recent success?
A: A lot of them liked the raw music of the earlier days. I'm sure we've lost a couple of fans along the way. I've seen girls down front who obviously have been fans since the beginning, and they'll be going crazy for the whole set. And then Sex on Fire comes on, and they just sit there and cross their arms and act like they hate being there. I guess they just hate the new sound. You don't let that throw you too much, though; you make new fans.
Q: You guys are from Tennessee, and that's about as middle American as you can get. Yet it was fans in Britain who loved you first. You were huge there long before Only by the Night. What's the secret of your appeal to the Brits?
A: I think they listen to a lot more music. It's definitely a broader audience of music listeners. I think we just hit at the right time. The Strokes were out, the White Stripes. There was different stuff going on, and we looked way different. We were Southern, and that was really different. Right off the bat, they took a liking to us. ... I guess they knew something we didn't.
Q: Only by the Night has won you a lot of older fans, people in their 30s and 40s, and some of them say they hear an echo of '80s arena rock in tunes like Use Somebody. Are you OK with that?
A: It sounds funny to hear "'80s arena rock," and I would never put the song in that category. ... We've been called everything. We have pretty tough skin now. Nothing hurts too much. But I don't know about that. Whatever. I guess we'll try to stay away from '80s arena rock from now on.