Four years ago, the world seemed so right for Kings of Leon.
Those frisky, feisty Followills were coming off a Record of the Year Grammy when they played to 15,000 fans in Tampa in September 2010. They were about to release Come Around Sundown — their followup to 2008's global smash Only by the Night, which featured the hits Sex on Fire and Use Somebody — and the Black Keys were opening for them. Kings of Leon were no longer American rock's Next Big Thing — they were American rock's Big Thing, period.
But Kings of Leon grew erratic, started feuding, canceled a 2011 tour — on the eve of a gig in Tampa, no less — and went on hiatus. Come Around Sundown and 2013's Mechanical Bull sold okay, but reviews were mixed. They were, and are, still headlining festivals, but crowds for their solo shows began to shrink.
Things were looking up this year … until last month, when drummer Nathan Followill broke two ribs in a bus accident, forcing even more concert cancellations. The band's gig Friday at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre — assuming it actually happens — will be one of their first since the injury.
But does anyone still care? Has Kings of Leon's time come and gone? Were they snakebitten by fame? Four years after their peak, have we already moved on?
Let's hear what the band has to say. In a recent teleconference with journalists, the Tennessee family band — brothers Nathan, Caleb (vocals) and Jared (bass) and cousin Matthew (guitar) Followill — shared five reasons why you shouldn't count them out just yet.
Their hiatus helped them heal. When Kings of Leon canceled the 2011 tour, fingers were pointed at Caleb and his excessive drinking. "The days and weeks and months after that, a lot happened," he said. "We've kind of all had a bit of a reflection period, where we all took a couple of steps back and walked away from the music world and tried to figure out what it was in life that made us happy and made us want to keep doing what we were doing." Caleb went to New York, the other guys went back to Tennessee, and "we tried not to talk about music for a little while," he said. "It was something we probably should have done a couple of years before." Today? "I believe we are tighter as a band personally and musically right now, but also creatively," he said.
They're trying to have fun together. "This is the first time we've shared a tour bus in a long time, and I think it's good for us," Matthew said. They go golfing, play Cards Against Humanity and "view being on the road as our own little clubhouse," Nathan said. "We try to schedule fun activities in each city, whether it be going to a baseball game or a sporting event or just going out to dinner."
They're digging deeper into their catalog. For each show on this leg of their Mechanical Bull Tour, Kings of Leon are letting fans pick a deep cut or cover to be played on that night only. "You can only read so much of, 'Hey, we want this song,' 'Hey, we want this song,' without playing it before we decide, 'We gotta dig a little deeper with our setlists,' " Matthew said. For example: Toronto got Soft, a deep cut from 2005's Aha Shake Heartbreak; Mansfield, Mass., got a cover of the Pixies' Where Is My Mind. Fans can submit suggestions by tweeting @KingsOfLeon, #SongForTheCity.
They want to get people dancing. When Kings of Leon headlined Lollapalooza in August, they dropped in a cover of Robyn's Euro-pop gem Dancing On My Own. "I think it was just an opportunity to show a funner side of ourselves," Nathan said. Well, that, and they want to get bodies moving. Caleb said his wife, Victoria's Secret model Lily Aldridge, is a Robyn fan. "A lot of her friends are attractive women, and anytime we go to these parties, there's usually a DJ, and I know that in order to get all those pretty women dancing, you always play that song."
They're thinking more about the fan experience. "For a long time, we just thought we could get by with just going out and playing our songs," Nathan said. "We just realized if we want to take it to the next step, we have to step it up, we have to do more." They looked to bands like U2 and Pearl Jam for tips on staging a spectacular live show, and as a result, "this is the most thought we've ever put into a tour, as far as the way it looks," Nathan said. They're also taking cues from younger artists. "I'm learning from people like Taylor Swift that the more you give to your fans, the more you get back," Caleb said. "So by spending time with your fans, or even just taking their requests and trying to give them something that makes them feel involved, I think that that's the way of the future."