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Kings of Leon: Pop's unlikely royal family is back at the Grammys

With a gospel foundation and a kitchen-sink mentality, the musical kin have cobbled a sound that has something for everyone. 'Use Somebody' is a huge hit that's inspired many covers and they have fou

January 31, 2010|By Ann Powers pop music critic reporting from nashville >>>
  • FRONTMAN: Caleb Followill has seen "Use Somebody" become a hit thatÂ’s covered by other artists. The success seems to unnerve him.
FRONTMAN: Caleb Followill has seen "Use Somebody" become a… (Christopher Berkey / For…)

Caleb Followill will be trembling in his black leather ankle boots when the Record of the Year prize is announced tonight at the Grammy Awards. "Use Somebody," the hugely popular power ballad by Kings of Leon, is nominated in that category and three others. That gives the 28-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist four chances to get up on stage and choke.
"Our family gets to see it. That's the only reason I go to the Grammys," said Followill during a wine-soaked interview at Giovanni Ristorante, across the street from his recently purchased Nashville luxury apartment, a week before the awards ceremony.
Family is important to Followill; the other members of the Kings are his older brother Nathan on drums, his younger brother Jared on bass and his cousin Matthew on guitar. "The Grammys are a scary place for me. I fight panic attacks, so it's not a fun time for me. If we win and we have to go up there and talk I probably won't say a word. I won't be able to."
Followill is given to declarations like this one, somehow both modest and a bit overblown. They complement his persona, which persuasively melds the hedonistic bravado of macho guitar slingers with the insecurities of sensitive indie-rock types.
Kings of Leon has become the emblematic band of the new decade by resurrecting the sound and spirit of rock's classic era for a generation that doesn't view the music as necessarily heroic or transformative. Combining the blues strut of the Rolling Stones with the jitters of post- punk bands like Joy Division and, more recently, the reach of U2, the Kings of Leon do what great pop does -- they transcend any specific root or subculture to make something universal. And "Use Somebody," with its churchy chorus and what Caleb calls its "double meaning" of mercenary lust melting into loneliness and soul hunger, was a perfect anthem for a troubled year like 2009.

Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga might wind up trumping the Kings for Grammy statues, but "Use Somebody" stands as a song that's crossed borders and made many unlikely fans. It's one of only four rock songs in recent history to top four Billboard charts at once, including the mainstream and alternative Top 40 tallies. No less than Jay-Z called it his favorite song of last year in a recent Village Voice interview, saying it was rivaled in his book only by the Kings' more carnal but equally lofty "Sex on Fire" (which last year earned the Grammy for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals).

Artists can't stop covering "Use Somebody." Nick Jonas and Nickelback both perform it in concert; English soul songbird Pixie Lott, avant-pop chanteuse Natasha Khan ( Bat for Lashes) and Jay-Z protégé Bridget Kelly have recorded it; Nashville emo band Paramore scored a YouTube hit after performing it live for the BBC.

"It was a perfect song for us to cover because I enjoy singing anything that's soulful," said Paramore's lead singer, Hayley Williams, in an e-mail. "All Caleb's vocal lines are extremely soulful. It could almost be any genre. And that versatility really shined when we were able to strip the song down acoustically. It didn't affect the power of the lyrics or anything because good art is good art no matter how someone translates it."

All this praise makes Caleb Followill uncomfortable. He's recently taken to telling journalists that he wants to "shoot himself in the head" when he hears "Use Somebody" -- he's sick of it and prefers to listen to late Texas troubadours like Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley, whom he claims as a current main influence. Yet he admits that he hit on something special when he followed through on the phrase he first uttered to his siblings on a desolate night during a long tour.

"It's kind of a hook," he said. "When you see it on paper and you think, it's Kings of Leon, he's going to be talking about some one-night thing. But really it's just the opposite of that. At the end of the day no matter who you are, you're gonna have those moments when you need someone to help you out."

Becoming the Kings

Kings of Leon had a story before they were a band, and it took some time for the group to make music that lived up to it.

Raised on the road by a traveling Pentecostal preacher and his home-schooling wife, Caleb and his older brother Nathan, 30, weren't allowed to indulge in much popular culture as kids -- only the occasional Stones or Neil Young cassette that their dad played while driving. "When you grow up in the back seat of a car, the window is your television," said Caleb. "It was just about, where do you want to go with your mind?"

The land of pretend gave way to musical collaboration when the Followills' parents divorced and the family settled down outside of Nashville. Nathan Followill, who spoke in a separate interview at his house nestled in the trees above the Music City, said that the road seemed obvious then.

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