Caleb Followill fingers his Marlboro with the delicacy and reverence of a man reunited with a sorely missed lover—strokes it, places it between his lips, and then pulls away. But it's not lit, and it will remain unsmoked. As singer/guitarist of Tennessee's Kings of Leon, Caleb used to puff through well more than a pack a day, but he's given it up so he can hit the high notes on "Milk," what he calls their "only true love song." Amidst autobiographical stories of hazy nights, half-remembered conversations and a steady stream of girls, girls, girls, "Milk" is the seductively melancholic focal point to the Kings' sophomore effort, Aha Shake Heartbreak, a song about coming to terms with leaving a loved one behind.
"I knew we weren't coming back," says Caleb. "I can kinda feel when things are coming to an end, and I know most people can't feel it as much as we can. Growing up the way we did, we had to say goodbye as often as we said hello."
Brothers Caleb (23), Nathan (drums, 25) and Jared (bass, 18) spent their formative years traveling from town to town with a Pentecostal-preacher father and their mother, Betty Ann, and it was only when their father's alcoholism became too much for Betty Ann (and the church) that their nomadic routine ceased. Nathan settled into studying physiotherapy, Jared was a straight-A student, and Caleb worked construction. Then, one day, Nathan and Caleb sat down and wrote a song.
"I realized after a while the kind of songs that I wanted to write . . . that only we would play on [them] because they were personal," recalls Caleb. So they roped in their cousin Matthew (guitar, 20) and Jared, then a freshman in high school with his heart set on scoring films ("I would mute the TV, play Talking Heads and watch cartoons. It would fucking blow my mind," he says). And Betty Ann's three sons moved out on the same day.
When the Kings of Leon emerged in early 2002, with their '70s facial hair and hick-hipster clothes, people were quick to peg them as the Southern Strokes. Certainly their rollicking debut, Youth and Young Manhood, followed a similar trajectory into the upper echelons of indie-cult cool, to the point where if the Followills go out to a club in the U.K., a bodyguard has to be nearby to ward off overzealous lady fans. During 18 months of nonstop touring, the spin machine lurched into overdrive, and much to the Kings' chagrin, their supposed hard-partying ways (and celebrity fans such as Kate Moss, Mick Jagger and Chrissie Hynde) seemed in danger of overshadowing their hard-rocking music.
"There was a time when we partied, but [the press is] still trying to carry that over, like all the time we're doing all these drugs," says Caleb. "None of us have ever had chlamydia or STDs like they say, and none of us are gay!"
"Yeah, and none of us are related at all!" jokes Nathan.
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While AhaShakewill do little to dispel the tales of rock boys run riot, it's still a remarkable record: their tunes are woven with sophisticated hooks and a newfound maturity that completely outstrips their debut. Caleb's lyrical bent isn't so much a celebration of fast times as a candid portrayal of them: the drunken swagger of "Four Kicks" is balanced by the hollow and surreal "Day Old Blues," and no one escapes lyrical scrutiny. "Razz," for instance, is exclusively about Jared.
"If I'm going to write 10 songs about myself, I should at least be able to write one about everyone else," says Caleb. "It's pretty flattering. 'Razz' was just me being drunk and I was thinking that Jared was being cocky even if he wasn't. When you're in the studio, everyone's egos really come out. At the time, he had a girl, and it seemed like he was going wherever she wanted him to, even though it probably wasn't."
"That's when I stopped drinking, so I was coming in sober. And you know when a drunk person says something to you when you're drunk, you'll just throw one back at 'em," Jared counters. "But when you're sober, you're like, 'Fuck, man, what are you saying?' And you take it a lot more seriously. [Though] one of my bass lines spells out 'Caleb is a douche,' and that's how I got him back!"
KINGS OF LEON WITH U2 AT ARROWHEAD POND OF ANAHEIM, 2695 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 704-2400; WWW.ARROWHEADPOND.COM. FRI.-SAT., 7:30 P.M. $49.50-$165. ALL AGES.