“Your band cannot stand you. You have got to get your self together!” Inside the tour that almost destroyed Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon, 2010
(Image credit: Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage)

From their early days, Kings of Leon - brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill, along with their cousin Matthew Followill - bore all the hallmarks of a classic rock ’n’ roll band. They emerged from Nashville seemingly fully formed, with old school riffs, the good looks and retro fashion style of Almost Famous' fictional rockers Stillwater, and an almost too-cinematic-to-be-true back story, the brothers hailing from a fire-and-brimstone background, their father being a disgraced Pentecostal preacher.

After the release of their 2003 debut album Youth and Young Manhood, the good times rolled for the Kings. Britain fell particularly hard for their distinctive style, which sounded like the Allman Brothers getting pissed up in the kitchen at the Strokes’ house party, and it wasn’t until fourth record, Only By the Night, that there appeared to be anything amiss.

It’s been reported that Caleb wrote some of the 2008 record under the influence of pain medication after a fracas with Nathan, and the album certainly seemed to explore darker territory than its predecessors. Take the gothic opening track Closer, which sees Caleb emerge from a fog of electrical bleeps to announce himself “stranded in this spooky town…” The whole record is eerie and melancholic – which didn’t stop it from shifting more than six million copies and thrusting them into European enormodomes. Those doors were opened by Sex on Fire, the album's horny lead single, a huge radio hit that the group would later dismiss as “piece of shit”, which would stoke inter-band tensions, familial rivalries and a descent into debauchery that threatened to destroy them completely. 

Early warning signs arrived with the quartet's lacklustre performance headlining Reading Festival in 2009, and a muted crowd response which clearly irked the band. “I'm trying to hold back and not say anything negative man,” Caleb muttered ahead of playing Sex On Fire. “Hope it warms up out here, because we need it, we need you guys to help us do this, y'know.” When the Reading crowd roared along in recognition of the band's best-known song, Caleb could be seen shaking his head in annoyance. After the show, Nathan tweeted: “Reading? What the fuck? Zero love for the kings. I know it was cold but holy shit, y’all were frozen.”

The scrappy lads from Tennessee were beginning to look like entitled rock stars.

One year on, talking to NME, Caleb acknowledged “at the end of the day it was probably our fault. Because of the success I expected everyone to [cheer] for everything we did.”

“That was my Kurt Cobain moment when I was hating the success and I was scared that people were thinking that we did this on purpose, that we made this record so that it could be big.”

By the time Kings Of Leon hit the road for muscular follow-up album Come Around Sundown, the wheels were well and truly coming off. They’d always fought – three of them were brothers, after all – and there’d always been debauchery, but success put perilous distance between them: they began to travel in separate cars and would only meeting up an hour-and-a-half before each show. These chasms between were soon filled with resentment and miscommunication, which wasn’t helped by booze and the steroid injections that keep Caleb’s voice sounding suitably rough and raw. 

In the band-approved documentary Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon, Nathan barks at the frontman: "You get so fucking drunk and talk shit. Your band cannot stand you. You have got to get your fucking self together. We have made you, you piece of shit!"

During this period, the band fought over “the stupidest shit,” Jared later admitted to NME. “It would literally be over a seat at the bar. You’re just looking for a reason to fight.”  

Things didn’t get much better onstage. In the most famous incident from this troubling era, the Kings abandoned a show in St Louis, Missouri because – as later Nathan later tweeted, apparently without blushing – “pigeons [were] shitting in Jared‘s mouth and it was too unsanitary to continue”. True: this wasn’t their fault, but the bizarre communication pointed to a serious lack of self-awareness in the Kings’ camp.  

It was in Dallas, Texas, that the clan’s issues came to a head. On July 29, 2011, at the Gexa Energy Pavilion, Caleb rambled between songs and announced before what would have been the encore: “I’m gonna go backstage for a second. I’m gonna vomit, I’m gonna drink a beer and I’m gonna come back out and I’m gonna play three more songs…” He didn’t return to the stage that night, leaving poor Jared to plead with the baying crowd: “I know you guys fuckin’ hate us… Fuckin’ hate Caleb, don’t hate us.”

The band officially attributed the incident to dehydration and the Texan heat, though Jared later tweeted: “I can't lie. There are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade. There are internal sicknesses & problems that have needed to be addressed.” 

The tour had two months left to run, but was cancelled in the aftermath of Caleb’s meltdown. The quartet reconvened in a Nashville steakhouse a few days after the gig; the frontman later claimed that he didn’t drink alcohol for nine months in the wake of the meeting. Since then, the band have spoken candidly about the growing pains they experienced at the start of the last decade, as well as the work they’ve put in to nurture their relationships. 

“[Dallas] changed the way we do things,” Caleb revealed to NME, adding: “[We] understand that what we’re doing is great and we’re excited about it, but if you overwork yourself you overwork yourself.”

It’s clearly been effective. In a statement that accompanied the announcement of the band's forthcoming album Can We Please Have Fun, set for release on May 10, Nathan sztated “this is probably the best place we’ve ever been in band-wise”, while Caleb reflected: “When you have a band, there’s a bond like no other, and when you have family, you have a bond like no other. We have both of those things.”

Kings of Leon’s make-or-break point was now almost half their album discography ago. Since then they’ve discovered their mojo, released the return-to-form single Mustang and, crucially, learned to communicate without knocking lumps out of each other.

We’ll raise a Gatorade to that.