Caleb Followill, lead singer of the Kings Of Leon, says the band has a simple philosophy of never wanting to repeat itself musically from one album to the next.
That outlook has become especially apparent on the group's third and fourth albums, the 2007 release Because of the Times
and the band's latest CD, Only by the Night
"We're the kind of band that tries to change from album to album," Followill said in a recent phone interview. "We try to do things that we haven't done before. So after three albums, you look back and there were things that you'd done that you just barely kind of dipped your toe into the water as opposed to really just diving in. And that's something we tried to do with this album and something that we tried to do with every album."
Many observers feel the Kings Of Leon's sound has grown by leaps and bounds on the two most recent CDs - shifting beyond the rather straight-ahead Southern rooted rock of the band's acclaimed first CD, Youth & Young Manhood
, to embrace a more spacious, more epic and ambitious range of music.
For his part, Followill said it really wasn't until Because of the Times
that the group got more fearless about tackling any musical direction the band members found inspiring.
"We kind of felt like we were starting to get to the point where we could start doing things that were a little more challenging musically," Followill said. "So you know, a lot of the stuff that we didn't do in the beginning, due to just insecurity, I guess, we felt we had put in our time and it was time for us to try something different for a second. And if it works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't. We really just always have tried to make music for ourselves. We never really tried to think about what people would think."
The arc of the musical development of the Kings Of Leon makes sense considering the history of the band.
The three brothers in the band - Caleb (vocals/guitar), Nathan (drums) and Jared (bass) Followill - grew up with a father, Leon, who was a popular Pentecostal preacher. The boys traveled extensively with their father, participating in tent revivals and at church services throughout the Southern United States.
As they reached further into their teens the brothers began discovering rock music, and in 2000, they recruited first cousin Matthew Followill (lead guitar) to form the Kings Of Leon. At that point, Nathan, at 21, was the group's oldest member.
Despite their youth, the Followills made rapid progress in developing their sound, and got signed by RCA Records, which released a debut EP, Holy Roller Novocaine
, in early 2003. Youth & Young Manhood
followed a year later to a storm of critical acclaim.
While that album enjoyed decent success in the States, it was a major hit in the United Kingdom. And as subsequent albums have arrived - Aha Shake Heartbreak
in 2004, followed by Because of the Times
and now Only by the Night
- the Kings Of Leon have remained one of the most popular bands in the U.K. while progressing considerably on a musical level.
The group members have made no secret of the fact that they are still discovering many different bands and styles of music. And because the group got a late start on its rock and roll education, the music the band is finding is helping to fuel the expanding range of the Kings Of Leon sound.
"The way that we were raised, we were kind of musically neglected," Followill said. "We didn't get to experience a lot of music because of our religious beliefs and things like that. But these past few years we've kind of been lapping it up and anything that we hear we feel like we can at least try to give our take on it. Obviously there are bands and musicians that are much more talented than us. But we feel like if we listen to something and we get inspired by it, we can try to give our interpretation and be a million miles away, but it still might sound like something fresh."
Followill thinks the music scene of the past few years has been especially inspiring.
"I think there's a lot of good music coming out," he said. "There for a while, when the Strokes and the White Stripes and all that came out, it was kind of like you had your people that kind of tried to re-create that. But since then, there's been kind of a little break. So now you have bands like Arcade Fire and bands like MGMT, and stuff like that that; it's a different thing and it doesn't sound like those bands at all.
"So any time I hear something like that that just sounds original, obviously it makes you want to get back in there," Followill said. "We're very competitive and almost jealous. If we hear something that's good, it doesn't matter if our album just came out, we immediately want to start writing songs. You kind of want to be on the front end of the curve. We don't want things to be going on while we're sitting on our asses and bands to kind of be taking our place."
The music the Kings Of Leon made on Because of the Times
and Only by the Night
has certainly enhanced the group's reputation as one of rock's freshest and most interesting recent arrivals on the scene.
Because of the Times
signaled a significant step forward in the group's music. It featured several epic slow building tracks such as "On Call" and "Knocked Up" that were stocked with rich vocal melodies, multifaceted arrangements and striking sonic treatments. Meanwhile, other songs, like "Charmer" and "Black Thumbnail," were among the band's most visceral rockers to date. It all made for a wide-ranging and dynamic album.
Some of that stylistic and sonic character carries over to Only by the Night
. But the new CD is a bit harder hitting and more immediate, while retaining the beauty of the previous album.
Songs such as "Closer" and "Manhattan" occupy a similar territory as "On Call." The rockers on the new CD - such as the propulsive first single, "Sex on Fire" (already a top 10 modern rock hit) and the massive, riff-driven "Crawl" - are more tuneful and accessible than many of the rockers on Because of the Times.
Followill said the new songs have also had a major impact on the group's live show.
"I would say this is the first album that we really can go out there and play every song on the album," he said. "I don't know, man, they really bring the show together, I feel the new songs, not only do they go over well, but they bring some length and some depth to the set that wasn't always there with our little two-minute songs. Some of these new songs we can go out there, and if we wanted to, if we were a hippie band, we could go out there and stretch these songs to 10 or 15 minutes. We won't do that, but they really lend themselves to have a big production. I mean, the lights and everything, these songs feel like they need to be lit well and the atmosphere needs to be right. We just want the people to have a good time out there."