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How the Kings of Leon were begat

The Followill brothers grew up with foot-stompin', tent-shakin' gospel music. Then one day they learned how to rock 'n' roll.

July 27, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

For the handsome, longhaired Followill brothers, growing up the sons of a traveling Pentecostal evangelist who worked the revival circuit between Tennessee and Oklahoma in the '80s was more than just hard on their social life. They lived a brand of Southern life that few Americans can imagine. They've experienced the country as outsiders, looking at the world from inside a Flannery O'Connor story.

They made a home out of gospel tents, eating and getting their schooling out of the back of the car, in camper trailers, in hotel rooms, as parsonage guests. Even when their dad stopped to pastor a church for six years in Mumford, Tenn., a deep-country town just outside Memphis, there were rules. An image that sticks in the mind is the boys out water-skiing, fully dressed in shirt and blue jeans so as not to show any skin, struggling to stay afloat in their waterlogged denim.

But then there were upsides, like the music.

The boys who grew up to become the stripped-down rockers Kings of Leon -- brothers Nathan, 23, Caleb, 21, and Jared, 16 -- watched their mother and father play gospel music all their lives. Leon is their father's name.

The brothers have transmuted that gospel soul via the blues to a kind of bell-bottomed Southern garage roots-rock on their compelling RCA debut "Youth and Young Manhood" (due Aug. 19), which includes four tracks from their previous EP, "Holy Roller Novocaine." They're becoming a mainstay in the pages of Rolling Stone, which headlined a review of the band's May 9 show at NYC's Irving Plaza: "Band of brothers mixes religion, guns, garage rock and family -- perfectly."

And they've been an even bigger phenom in the U.K., where the New Musical Express recently called "Youth and Young Manhood" "one of the best debut albums of the last 10 years." On NME.com, the Web site of the influential magazine, the band is No. 2 in user popularity and its EP is No. 1 in site sales. It's been picked for tours with Ben Kweller, the Coral, Euro-fests like Glastonbury, and now Lollapalooza. An L.A. date is in the works.

The Followills say their childhood brand of gospel music sounded like the Rolling Stones.

"I hope when people think of us growing up in church, they don't think bland, plain church, nothing going on, no emotion," singer-guitarist Caleb says in his steady drawl, a corduroy sport coat pulled over his T-shirt and tattered jeans. "That's not what it was like. It was very much hand in the air --

"Tent revival gospel festivals," interrupts drummer Nathan, whose hair tumbles down over an army fatigue shirt.

Sitting in the living room of Shangri-La, a recording hideaway overlooking Zuma Beach, the Kings of Leon have come a long way from church. Taking a break from recording their debut, they talked reverently about the people who recorded there, including Bob Dylan and the Band. One of Eric Clapton's album covers was shot in the mirror of the pool parlor near where we sit. For them, this lineage is consistent with the music they grew up with.

Theirs is a church that truly gets down. Aretha Franklin was raised Pentecostal, as were Al Green and Elvis. Pastor Followill preached and played bass, Mom played organ, and eventually first Nathan and then Caleb played drums. Their dad, an ex-hippie, introduced the boys to Neil Young and classic rock like Bad Company. He was eventually defrocked, and when he left the church, Nathan and Caleb suddenly saw they wouldn't be going to Bible College like all their friends. They picked up guitars and learned how to rock.

In the beginning

Holed up outside of Nashville in the little bitty town of Mount Joliet, Tenn., the two older brothers worked with a professional Nashville songwriter named Angelo Petraglia, who has written a No. 1 hit for Trisha Yearwood, "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)," and songs for Emmylou Harris and Brooks & Dunn.

"He's the guru," Nathan says. "He's opened our eyes to everything."

At first, their upbringing boiled out as garage stomps like "Wasted Time" and "Molly's Chambers," a kind of tambourine road rocker combining a storytelling tradition with the hi-volume, lo-fi roots sound of bands like the White Stripes. On the basis of a first handful of songs, they were signed by RCA's Steve Ralbovsky, who already had the Strokes. They recruited little brother Jared on bass and cousin Matt Followill, 18, on lead guitar, and Kings of Leon were born.

With the subsequent writing that led to their full-length release, however, they found an even more compelling voice, an urgent but loose urban blues reminiscent of "Exile"-era Stones or Johnny Thunders. "Tranny" has a Lou Reed quality, a lingering, satisfying story told in a voice by turns mustache mumbling and then demonic, cracking, lost in a kind of Roky Erickson shrieking over a great Velvet Underground din. "O Dusty" fades into a lament, "Where thrills are cheap and love divine," repeated with a certain scratchy moral authority over a sweet, acidic melody.

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