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Kings of Leon

With a No. 1 album in the UK, the Kings of Leon are all but exiled from Main Street, USA

After several days and nights of waiting to hear from someone, anyone with a Kings of Leon pedigree, I finally get a last-minute cell phone hookup with Matthew Followill, cousin to Caleb, Jared and Nathan Followill, guitarist and one-quarter of the Kings of Leon. The Tennessee-based Kings are in Glasgow, Scotland, and Matthew is talking to me from somewhere inside the cavernous Carling Academy.

To celebrate, I ride the subway home listening to the Rolling Stones' classic Exile on Main St. Right now, post-long-awaited Kings of Leon interview, on a New York City subway where thronged commuters have certainly learned to keep their conversations, if not their hands, to themselves, and where iPods are as de rigueur as pants, I'm rocking out to the Stones' “Rocks Off” while, a quarter of a world away, the Kings of Leon proceed with their final UK set.

Maybe Exile is a cleanser for my aural palate. Perhaps I've overdosed from almost a week of daily cram sessions with the Kings' third and latest album, Because of the Times.Or maybe I've just got Jagger on the brain. I could blame the official Kings of Leon press kit, which is effectively infested with the band's brushes with greatness: a photo shoot with Chrissie Hynde, an onstage jam with Eddie Vedder and opening stints for both U2 and Bob Dylan. Then there's Mick Jagger and a casual backstage rock and roll royalty visit.

The British — Jagger included — love them some Kings of Leon.

A full 80 percent of sales of the band's first two albums, Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak, occurred within British borders, and Because of the Times launched to No. 1 on the UK charts (sure, the Brits are also partial to Kasabian, but when's the last time you did something better than anyone else in an entire country?).

There's already talk of a show at Wembley, England's live music mother lode, when the boys return this summer, and tonight, just about the time I'm finishing off my Stones-fueled rush-hour commute, the Followill foursome will take the stage for their last in yet another series of sold-out British club dates.

“I hope America wises up and, you know, starts to like us or whatever,” Matthew says. “But I mean, it's fine in America. It's like, we play to like 1,500 kids, you know, and that's pretty good.

“It'll feel weird to come back and play for such a little crowd,” he continues, “and a crowd that might not care as much as a big crowd here, but as far as leaving here, I'm ready to get back to America, man.”

Their first week back in the States, the band will have performances on The Tonight Show and at Coachella, high-profile appearances that their music and success in Britain have earned them. But prior to this tour, the Kings of Leon were best known for press kit posturing. As the story goes, the three brothers Followill, progeny of Leon Followill, a former itinerant and now defrocked Pentecostal preacher, spent their youth (and young manhood) traveling America's highways and byways with their father as he spread the word of God. The fruits of rock and roll were strictly forbidden. Cousin Matthew's upbringing was just a little more normal. “I didn't travel around too much, but my family did move around a lot,” he says.

By now, however, Matthew and his cousins are sick to death of the reference.

“We got tired of that on the last record,” he confesses. “We're like, Jesus. Like, please.”

And yet not only did it give the band a hook, it provided, in a sense, a ready-made audience of Brits. Like the Rolling Stones and their Delta blues fixation, the British love all things Southern, what's myopically seen as “the real thing.”

Despite one track titled “Camaro,” named for the patron car of the below-the-Mason-Dixon-line working class, with Because of the Times, the Kings of Leon make a move to distance themselves from the stamp of post-Pentecostal Southern rock band. Where Exilewas the result of a big band pulling back the reins, Because is expansive, spacious and ambitious, a long-limbed stretch for a band that has come late to the rock and roll game.

True, singer Caleb Followill's frenzied yelps of personal pain don't match the musings of, say, Bono. The Kings' instrumentation, in fact, borrows heavily from the post-punk, arena rock efforts of those like their U2 sponsors, from the separated bass of “Charmer” to the Edge-influenced guitar triplets of “Ragoo.”

“It's bigger,” Matthew says of the band's new sound. “We toured with a lot of bigger bands and we played big stadiums and stuff like that, and we were writing songs and we just really liked the way they sounded in those rooms. We've got more atmospheric songs on this record, but a lot of it is because we started using guitar pedals and vocal effects and reverb on the drums and stuff to make it sound like it was big, you know.”

And what if a writer feels compelled to mention the Followill brothers' youthful travels with their fire-and-brimstone father through the South? Well, the guitarist is either smart enough, polite enough or Southern enough (they're not mutually exclusive, you know) to bestow his secular blessing.

“If you have to,” he says, “it's fine.”

Kings of Leon perform Saturday, March 12, at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483.

 
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