Kings of Leon are back with their 8th studio album ‘When You See Yourself’, an 11-track collection of tracks which see the band take stock of their 20+ year career as well as examining their options and hope and fears for the future.
As bassist Jared Followill reveals to us, despite the delays the album was both a cathartic and energising experience for the group.
“We took longer to make it than we ever have before,” says Followill of the largest gap between albums in the band’s career. Though he is quick to note that the lengthy gestation period was not down to lack of inspiration.
“We started writing in 2018, it came together reasonably quickly in terms of the writing and the demoing, then we went into the studio in March of 2019 and recorded all the way through until the end of December.
“We were very pleased with what we had done, we worked our asses off and were excited for people to hear it and then everything got flipped upside down in 2020.”
“I kind of wanted to force hipsters at their dinner parties to say 'Dude, did you hear Kings of Leon's album? It's fucking good’
Apart from the pandemic, much of the delay in the release of ‘When You See Yourself’ was self-imposed with the group determined to make every song perfect. Something which Followill admits may not always have been the case in the past.
“We just didn’t sign-off on stuff that we might have in the past before it was as good as it could be – it’s not necessarily out of laziness before, maybe just having standards that were lower than what we gave ourselves on this album.
We just made sure that the songs were perfect and did not stop until all four of us were satisfied and thought; ‘this is great’… so we were just a little bit harder on ourselves and made sure we didn’t take any shortcuts.”
This self-imposed perfectionism mantra meant that some tracks that were initially expected to make the album were put aside to be worked upon at a later date. And Followill is happy to admit that he removed some of his own ideas from consideration, including a song called Clown Shoes.
“I had a few ideas that I personally said ‘no’. One song in particular Caleb loved and Nathan loved it and Marcus the producer loved it… but it just didn’t work,” says Followill, before offering a glimpse into the democratic process within the group.
“Matthew didn’t like it either so that was all it took, once you get a couple of guys onboard saying that they don’t like something, it kind of goes in the bin for now, but you never know, that’s happened a lot, we could pull it out and it could work on another album… It was a song that I named Clown Shoes because I ended up hating it so much,” he explains, laughing before expanding on the inner workings of the band.
“In my world, I would give Caleb the final vote, but it’s very much a democracy, but the way I’ve always thought of it is Caleb maybe has 30% and we all have (23.3%). He is the one singing and it’s a lot more vulnerable having your voice out there than it is playing the bass, drums or guitar… Caleb is part of the democracy and he’s very onboard with that.
“…If there’s something that we hate enough then it doesn’t happen and that’s for any one of us, cause at the end of the day if Matthew hates something he could just say ‘I quit’, and then you’re like well, do I like the song enough for Matthew to be replaced?”
Followill believes that one unsuspected benefit of the pandemic could be an onslaught of new albums from bands who have been cooped up for so long.
“When we finish an album we’re still reverberating with inspiration, we’re still in that creative space and you have to shut it off because you go into a few months of media and 15-18 months of tour and rehearsals. So now that touring is not necessarily a thing right now… it could definitely force us to where we’re like okay, we’ve got this inspiration there, why don’t we just go back in.”
When we note that this is the first time that the entire music world has been off the road for a sustained period of time and this could lead to an unprecedented period of growth for many acts. Similar to when The Beatles stopped touring and became a studio band, Followill agrees, noting it’s something the band have talked about amongst themselves.
“We’ve referenced that a lot, The Beatles doing that and The Beach Boys kind of doing the same thing with Brian Wilson, he just kind of let the other guys tour – he stayed home and wrote. We talked about that a lot actually and how that could happen.”
Having been in the music business for over 20 years now Kings of Leon have rightly began to think about their place in the grand scheme of things. Prior to commencing the writing process the group met with creative director Casey McGrath to discuss their vision for the future of the band, the album and how to avoid the pitfalls of becoming ageing rockers.
“We all sat around talked about insecurities. I’d seen a concert, it was an older band, I won’t name names, but the lights are so bright, and they are on such massive screens and I just felt like, ‘fuck, man’. I felt kind of bad because they’re making such great music, but HD cameras and their faces are 50 feet high and I’m just going Jesus man, that’s basically us right now.
“I kind of miss a little bit of the mystery in music and I feel like all of the mystery is gone nowadays with social media and you kind of know almost too much. It’s almost an overload of information,” explains Followill.
“... because I wasn't handcuffed to the drums, I could write whatever came to me... and it basically shaped my sound.”
The album title ‘When You See Yourself’ is drawn from the album’s opening track, utilising the classic rock idiom of multiple meanings. The phrase ‘when you see yourself’ could mean anything from when you realise you have a problem, to when you stop yourself from doing something stupid (to borrow the hippy phrase ‘find yourself’) and Followill believes it stemmed directly from this period of individual and collective reflection.
“When you get into the lyrics there’s a lot about sight and seeing things and reflections and then the lyric came, kind of late in the game I think, ‘when you see yourself, when you’re far away’ and after Caleb sang that we were like okay that’s great, that’s going to stick,” says Followill.
“It just read really poetic, once you wrote it down and it clicked with all of us and tied back into that reflection. How do you see yourself and how do you want other people to see you? And what do you see when you see yourself? So, it just made sense for the whole album.”
One of the ways that the band kept the process of creating ‘When You See Yourself’ interesting for them was by introducing vintage gear into the mix.
“Matthew was the spearhead of that, he’s very obsessive and he will get hobbies. You’ll see him one week and he’ll like something and you’ll see him a month later and it’s his complete life. He did that with synths on this album which was very, very cool,” says Followill.
“You kind of just think of it as a keyboard and there’s so many more layers than that. He kind of brought us into that world and he did it to give us inspiration, you know, ’cause new sounds and unique things can inspire you, your songs and take you in directions you’ve never been before. But also, it was important for us to have a unique album, to have something that you don’t hear on everybody else’s album.
“Something that you can’t get from ProTools, something that not everybody has access to at the click of a button and to do that you gotta go digging and find incredible old instruments and that’s kind of what we did.”
Jared explains that he has always been melody driven rather than gear driven so he had to take a leap of faith. “Matthew pushed me a little bit to branch out and try new basses, amps and just to try new things. Basically just to get out of my comfort zone which s really important.”
However, as Jared notes producer Marcus Dravs was delighted at the introduction of this vintage gear as it forced each member of the group to adapt.
“The last thing he wants is for the band to be comfortable, he wants you to be uncomfortable and work as hard as you can, do things the hard way, no easy way out and that will make the best product and it’s kind of worked for us,” says Followill.
“If you are super comfortable with a fast song and you love the way it sounds, he’ll make you play it slow and vice versa. He flips everything on its head. It’s one of the craziest, exhausting experiences you’ll ever have, but it’s the most rewarding thing that’s ever happened for us as a band.”
Jared Followill has built-up a reputation for being one of the best bassists in modern rock, with so many tracks dripping with melodic basslines, so it will come as no surprise to learn that he is a student of the Peter Hook approach to bass.
“Peter Hook is probably my number one influence, he always made me feel like I can be that,” says Followill. “There are a lot of other bass players that kind of intimate you a little bit and a tonne of bass players that get swallowed up by the music. They are in the background and you really have to try and find the stems to even know what they are doing. But Peter always played with such melody and he drove the songs with his melody, but it was never incredibly flashy.
“He never really showed off, he just had the melody, it was beautiful, and it drove the song and I always aspired to be that bass player, to not necessarily try to be technically overwhelming, but just get the melody, drive the song as much as you can.
“I’m lucky that I was in this band, because I would’ve gotten kicked out of any other band when we first started because I couldn’t play, and I definitely couldn’t play to the drummer at all so Nathan played to me. So I would write my bassline and then Nathan would kind of write his drumming around my bass which is the opposite to what most bands would do. But we didn’t have that option because I wasn’t good enough to play to him.”
And Jared is very grateful to Nathan and the band for their patience. “because I wasn’t handcuffed to the drums, I could write whatever came to me and then he could play at me, and it basically shaped my sound.”
It was important for us to have a unique album, to have something that you don't hear on everybody else's album.
One notable anniversary coming up for the Kings of Leon in 2021 is the 10th anniversary since they played what Jared claims is the best gig they ever played Slane Castle.
“You get asked this question a lot by friends: what’s the best show you’ve ever played? And I think we all collectively say Slane Castle, just because it’s such a special place, such a beautiful setting and everything about it was just amazing. The bands that we got to play with that day were unbelievable and just the crowd size and how enthusiastic, they just make you feel so good about yourself, it’s so hard not to have fun with a crowd like that. It’s my number one.”
Eight albums in and with over 20 million albums sold and several Grammy and Brit Awards to their name what does success look like for Kings of Leon in 2021. Surprisingly, Jared seems happy to step into the elder statesman of rock role and let somebody else have their Slane moment.
“I think at point we’re looking for respect more than anything. We respect so many artists right now and some of our contemporaries that are not as big as we are, we look to them and just think, holy shit, they are making unbelievable music and we never want to be that big band that are contemporaries only think of us as ‘big’, we want them to think that what we do is good.”
Although Jared Followill is clearly okay with the fact that the Kings of Leon aren’t cool any more, he still wouldn’t mind making a few hipster squirm between now and when the band call it a day.
“I kind of wanted to force hipsters at their dinner parties to say ‘Dude, did you hear Kings of Leon’s album? It’s fucking good’ and they are so upset to say it they’re like: ‘fuck, dude, yeah it’s good, it sucks, I’m mad at myself for having to say it”.
But who exactly are these bands that Kings of Leon consider to be their contemporaries? “We’ve toured with most of them: Deerhunter, Grizzly Bear, Broncho and some of these bands who are not household names at all, but they are just making beautiful, incredible music, a lot of people don’t even get to hear it but we do and it means a lot to us.
“A lot of people might think of us as an uncool band now, which is fine, but as you said we’ve kind of got a lot of the goals that we had on the technical side of things and charts and things like that but at this point we’re just looking for respect. We just want to make albums that make us a band that people respect in the future and don’t just see us as two songs or Grammys or something like that, that they think yeah they’re a great band.”
And kings of Leon are keen to take these bands and more besides on tour in the post pandemic world and pay it forward to the next generation of acts.
“Bands did that for us. U2 took us out, Pearl Jam took us out, and that was huge for us and it didn’t necessarily make ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ a huge album, but it helped us hone what we had from ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ and turn it into ‘Because of The Times’ and then ‘Only By The Night’.”
Kings of Leon were horrified by the way the pandemic decimated the live scene and were quick to get involved in helping crew during this difficult time.
“The very first thing you worry about is your own crew and so without getting into details of everything, during the pandemic we did right by our crew, and we made sure everybody was (okay)…” says Followill.
When Kings of Leon were approached by charity Crew Nation they were happy to get involved to help crew beyond their own fold too.
“Obviously, it’s very personal to us, it’s our livelihood, we have personal relationships with our crew. We know how important they are. And the situation that they were put into this was a way to help all of them.
“We always try to do our fair share when it comes to charitable things, we just don’t always put it out there and a lot of times we don’t need to, but in a situation like this we kind of felt like it was necessary.
“If you’re telling people about the charity that you did, it almost takes a big portion of the goodness out of it. You really shouldn’t have to tell people.”
Kings of Leon’s new album ‘When We See Ourselves’ is out now.