Tennessee Tornadoes

It is the inevitable outcome of the fact that rock and roll now has a well-established history: Whenever a hot new band comes out, the first thing that journalists and listeners do is describe their music in terms of, well, other bands. It's easy, convenient, and ostensibly a fan can tell from a one-sentence summation whether he should take the time to download that MP3.

But it's also frustrating for a band trying to forge its own identity, and no one knows that better today than Tennessee's Kings of Leon. Though the phenomenally talented act received high critical hosannas with the release this year of an EP (Holy Roller Novocaine) and then a full-length debut (Youth and Young Manhood), the band is inevitably categorized as "Lynyrd Skynyrd meets the Who," "the Allmans meet the Black Crowes" or -- in a remarkable demonstration of just how short attention spans are becoming, "the Southern Strokes."

In fact, the Kings of Leon really don't sound like any of those bands, but since they hail from the South and physically look like a vintage 1974 group, those are easy tags. But their churning and chunky chords and memorable melodies make them nobody's second-generation sound. And the oldest King is only 23.

"It used to bother me a lot, because I thought it would mess with our career. I mean, why would reading about Skynyrd make me want to go out and get our record?" asks bassist Jared Followill, who at 17 is the youngest band member. "Journalists just like to plop that one line in there and they're done."

Still, the Kings of Leon offer a staggering amount of other nonmusical anecdotes that provide ample column space for a band that hasn't even been playing together for two years. First, there's that Hollywood-esque bio. The band consists of three brothers: Jared, singer and rhythm guitarist Caleb, drummer Nathan, and a cousin, lead guitarist Matthew. All share the surname Followill, and Leon is the name of the brothers' father and grandfather.

The younger Leon provided an anything-but-normal upbringing, one oft-described as Southern gothic. As a traveling United Pentecostal minister, he'd pack his wife and the three boys in the car and pick up preaching gigs anywhere he could, from ornate churches to backyard tents. (He did have a permanent church pastorship from 1986 to 1992). While on the road, he'd blast Neil Young, Bad Company and Tom Petty from the car radio, and often have Caleb and Nathan contribute a little singing or drumming during the spirit-filled services. Jared, then a preteen, had other things on his mind.

"I was too young to play, so I pretty much slept under the pews and got into trouble and would go catch frogs outside," Jared recalls. "And my parents split when we were pretty young."

After their father left the religious life, Caleb and Nathan started writing rock songs together, though it didn't interest their youngest sibling at the time.

"I was into high school and girls; then I started breaking off and experimenting with all kinds of things. I got really antisocial," Jared says. But their brothers needed a bass player, and less than two years ago Jared picked up the instrument for the first time. A call to cousin Matthew completed the lineup, and about a month later the band entered the studio to record Holy Roller Novocaine.

The five-track EP garnered deafening buzz, causing Rolling Stone to name them a "band to watch" even before it was released. A fresh shot of rock and roll, it included the sexy and raucous "Molly's Chambers," the frenetic "Wasted Time" and a splash of sunshine with the wonderful "California Waiting." And it wasn't hard to discern the inspiration behind the title track, the story of an Elmer Gantry-like preacher who has as much passion for female flesh as for the word of God.

As for his bass playing, which could then be measured in weeks, Jared says he knew his limits. "My playing is so simple that they could have been, 'Okay, press this fret, then that fret.' But that's why I'm glad we're starting so young. We're not 20 percent of what we're going to be. I'm already looking back at the EP and being embarrassed about it."

The record garnered favorable praise in America, but following the career trajectory of Jimi Hendrix, the Strokes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, it made huge waves in England. There were even some Beatlemania moments in the UK.

"It's overwhelming there. We can't go anywhere without seeing ourselves on the cover of a magazine. We can't go into a coffee shop without being recognized," Jared says, though according to the English music press, they also spent a lot of time in pubs and topless clubs. "It's weird. We can't leave our hotel, and we have to check in under aliases."

Of course, being a rock star has its privileges, even if you're not old enough to vote. Nathan joked to Rolling Stone that Jared was getting all the groupie love. "All the older women want them a piece of young meat," he said, "and the young ones don't want to be violated by us old perverts."

All of which brings us to Youth and Young Manhood, which includes new versions of several Holy Roller Novocaine tracks and more than delivers on the promise of that EP. Sleazy rockers like "Red Morning Light" and "Spiral Staircase" commingle with the up-tempo "Happy Alone," the ballad "Dusty" and "Trani," their stab at a "Walk on the Wild Side"-type urban chronicle. Ryan Adams producer Ethan Johns is again at the control board, and the single-monikered Angelo, the unofficial fifth King, contributes a few lyrics and guitar licks.

Jared says that the album title wasn't just thrown out there, either, but is part of a bigger picture and longer career. "We want to be like the Rolling Stones, where you can hear the differences and the sound changes from their early records through their later ones," he says. "We want people to look back on this one years from now and go, 'Wow, they were really young then!' "

Already they've got a number of songs ready for the next record with names such as "Soft," "Pistol Fire" and "A-Ha Shake Heartbreak" that they occasionally play on stage -- but only when they're fairly sure that tapers aren't lurking. Not that anyone could make out the words to copy, coming from the famously slurry-voiced Caleb.

But for all the intensity and older-than-their-years skill of Youth and Young Manhood, the Kings of Leon say they are still honing their live show and feeling out each other's strengths and weaknesses in a live situation.

"I think we're kind of like a gang when we get up there on stage, a street gang. We go into that mode," Jared says. "We'll fucking just rock out together and have fun, but we'll also get into fights."

Though this tour stop will be the first time that the Kings of Leon have played Houston, the Followill brothers have been to the city before with their father on a preaching gig. Jared was too young to remember where they stopped, and is equally unsure about what his parents -- especially his father -- think of their secular music and Holy Roller Novocaine, in particular.

"Um…I haven't really heard any reaction from them," he says slowly. "But I don't think they can understand what we say anyway. We really have lyrics that are horrible."

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero