Home Artificial Intelligence Kings Of Leon’s Caleb Followill on ‘scary’ AI, sponsoring a darts player, and taking on Taylor Swift | Ents & Arts News

Kings Of Leon’s Caleb Followill on ‘scary’ AI, sponsoring a darts player, and taking on Taylor Swift | Ents & Arts News

“When you first start out, it’s you versus the world,” says Kings Of Leon’s frontman, Caleb Followill, speaking from his home in Nashville, Tennessee.

He remembers the comparisons – “the Southern Strokes, I think someone called us Y’all 2, like U2, which was funny” – and how each one added to the fire in their bellies to make their own name.

Now, with the release of their ninth album, Can We Please Have Fun (not a question), 25 years after the band was formed by Caleb and his brothers, Nathan and Jared, and cousin Matthew, Kings Of Leon have definitely done that.

“I feel like at this point, the thing we’re trying to do is something that inspires the next generation,” says Followill. “It’s kind of hard because people don’t really look to the grown-ups for answers. So we listen to the kids, we get inspired by what they’re doing.”

Caleb (centre background) on stage with brother Jared in the early days of Kings Of Leon. Pic: AP/ John Russell

Earlier this week, according to the Official Charts, things were looking good for Can We Please Have Fun to become the band’s seventh UK number one album, with only one teeny thing standing in their way – Taylor Swift, another artist who cut her teeth in Nashville. After topping the charts, The Tortured Poets Society is currently sitting at number two; but this is Taylor Swift, and she’s been known to climb back before.

Followill laughs. “At this point, I think everyone’s just trying to go for number two. Which, you know, that’s great too. But I love Taylor. I’m so happy for her and her success.”

Topping the charts once again would be a “kind of validation”, he says. “That’s also kind of a notch on the belt that you can show your family one day – hey, we had a number one.” Or several number ones, even. “But we don’t make records so they’ll be number one. We’ve been beat out by a lot of music that didn’t necessarily last as long as our music has.”

On stage at the British Summertime Festival in Hyde Park, London, in 2017 – the band will return once again to play later this year. Pic: Joel Ryan/Invision/AP

‘It hasn’t been the most fun the last handful of years’

It’s been 21 years since their debut, Youth And Young Manhood, and hits including Molly’s Chambers and California Waiting, which saw them embraced by the UK way before their homeland took notice.

The band have previously talked about the tolls and pressures of fame, of sibling fights, and going through the motions. Now, Followill says there is “renewed passion and this kind of fire in us that we haven’t had necessarily, in the last handful of years”.

Can We Please Have Fun, both in title and content, definitely feels like a Kings Of Leon with a new lease of life. There were other options for its name – Actual Daydream, Moving Spectacle, Suicide Machine among them, says Followill, flicking through a notebook to remind himself – but they would all have painted a different picture.

“It hasn’t been the most fun the last handful of years”, he says. “Not being in this band necessarily, just life has been kind of heavy. There’s been a lot of seriousness. I feel like maybe it’s always been that way. It just feels much more nowadays because it’s in our face with our phones and our computers.”

Their last album, 2021’s When You See Yourself, saw the band moving into the world of NFTs, a form of cryptocurrency used to hold assets such as art and music, which exploded that year. They were billed as the first music artists ever to release an album in this way; for a band rooted in good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, it seemed a surprise move.

‘It doesn’t take AI to sound like us’

Followill admits they “never truly” understood it. “Apparently it was something that was happening and maybe is still happening, I don’t know. I know it got us into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was cool. We were the first band to ever sell our music as an NFT, might be the only one, I don’t know.

“But we weren’t trying to push some new type of technology on people… it was just something that looked like that was kind of where things were headed. So, you know, why not be on the forefront of it?”

Since then, AI has become a huge issue affecting the music industry, with stars including Billie Eilish and Nicki Minaj recently calling for more protection. Followill describes himself as “kind of an old man” when it comes to his knowledge. “I am scared of it though, I think, maybe, a little bit,” he says. “I’ve seen some stuff that makes makes me a little nervous.”

He grins. “As far as music, it doesn’t take AI to sound like us, my god. We’re still learning how to play, so our skill level is still very much achievable by just human beings. It’s not going to take aliens or artificial intelligence.”

After When You See Yourself, they parted ways with their long-term record label. Rather than being a negative experience, “we felt like we were free for the first time since the very beginning”, says Followill.

On Can We Please Have Fun, they worked with producer mastermind Kid Harpoon, renowned for his collaborations with artists including Miley Cyrus, Harry Styles, Calvin Harris and Florence + The Machine. Despite being industry veterans, Kings Of Leon were keen to impress.

“We had to record a little bit and then he would duck away for a couple of weeks to do some stuff he already had scheduled. But that was a pretty eye-opening experience because he would go away and then it was like, all right, let’s get a bunch of stuff that’s going to make him impressed when he gets back.”

Winning Grammys in 2010. Pic: AP

Strip clubs to stadiums

Last week, they performed at a ranch in Nashville to mark the album’s release – “a real barn, no air conditioning, there was a peacock in the rafters screaming the whole time, a dog in the room”, is how Followill describes it.

It’s not the strangest setting they’ve ever found themselves in. That title would probably go to their first ever UK gig, in High Wycombe, at a pub that also doubled up as a lap-dancing venue.

“I remember we were backstage for soundcheck and we kept commenting on the potent smell of lotion,” Followill recalls. “It smelled like floral lotion everywhere.” After drawing small crowds in the US, that first UK show “was insanity, with probably only 100 people, but we had been playing in America to five people. So it was this crazy thing”.

The band went on to fill arenas and stadiums, headlining Glastonbury in 2008. They play London’s Hyde Park – “which always feels like a homecoming” – once again this summer. Last year, they played at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground; a stage that at one time might also have been added to their unlikely venues list, but following its Hollywood takeover is now a huge celebrity draw.

Kings Of Leon headlined Glastonbury in 2008. Pic: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

It felt like the whole town was there to see them, Followill says. “We were playing the show… but I feel like it was almost they were supporting just whatever was going to be happening at the club that night.

“The kind of fairytale story of Wrexham and what’s happened, it’s worldwide. Americans don’t necessarily know what it means with the different leagues and how you can get relegated and all that stuff. But we do know what an underdog story is and how special it is when you see someone work their way up.”

With celebrity football buy-outs becoming all the rage – Will Ferrell being among the latest, investing in Leeds – would Kings Of Leon ever consider it?

“We don’t have that kind of money,” says Followill. “Maybe darts. Can you sponsor a darts player?”

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They can add darts to the list of ambitions Kings Of Leon still have to tick off. Followill says there are “a lot of big lofty things I probably won’t say” because at one point they felt “ridiculous”; now, so many years in and still going, maybe less so.

The singer says he doesn’t look back on what the band has achieved “as much as I could or should, at times”. He sees reflection as something that comes when there is no longer “a lot left in the tank… and I feel like I still have a lot”.

But the reminders are all around. “My daughter came downstairs in a Kings Of Leon T-shirt… and it’s an old T-shirt too. It’s like, wow.” These moments, he says, are “like a splash of water in the face… it definitely has surpassed anything we ever dreamed of”.

And seeing crowds singing his songs back at him never gets old.

“It’s more than just singing. Sometimes you look at people and they’re not just singing the song… it means so much to them, it’s like they are screaming it back at you. Whenever that happens, that is always just confirmation that you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing.”

Kings Of Leon’s Can We Please Have Fun is out now. The band play BST Hyde Park on 30 June



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