"We try now to look like the least rock-star possible," says Kings of Leon bassist Jared Followill, dressed casually in a jean jacket. "I think it's cheesy. I hate that whole persona."
It was bound to happen eventually, but the Kings of Leon's sex is no longer on fire.
The whole well-documented thing went up in flames in 2011, when singer Caleb Followill walked off stage during a concert in Dallas. Members of the group publicly criticized their front man's diva-like behaviour. The singer didn't appreciate being thrown under the bus. The band was touring its Come Around Sundown album, which was a commercial failure compared to 2008's Grammy-winning predecessor Only by the Night and its pair of blockbusting singles, Use Somebody and Sex on Fire.
The rock-star thing? The Leons – the brothers Caleb, Jared, Nathan and cousin Matthew – had that down, what with the tight clothes, long hair and longer girls. The Tennesseans were the modern-day equivalent of Grand Funk Railroad, the famously debauched American band who would not only come into your town but also would help you party it down.
The Only by the Night album had bothered fans and other musicians – including My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Oasis's Liam Gallagher – because it was seen as a corporate, fame-seeking sellout. Then there was the 2010 incident in St. Louis, Mo., where the band, upset over a flock of pigeons that were dropping more than hints upon them, cut short a concert. The Leons were getting much too big for their britches.
Now, sitting with Jared, 27, and Matthew, 29, in a hotel suite recently, the mood was laid-back. Their pants were fine, and their sex wasn't setting off any alarms. "I'm in bed at 10 o'clock every night," says Matthew, married with two kids. "We stopped partying," adds Jared, the youngest of the band. "Now we drink and stuff, but we don't go to clubs."
(Jared sips a Heineken during our afternoon interview and tokes on an e-cigarette.)
If the Leons have toned down the partying, 2013's Mechanical Bull doesn't carry the vibe of a band that has settled down. The LP is lean and rugged, and the album's lead track, Supersoaker, is a melodic number recalling the nimble garage rock of the Strokes. It's more upbeat than 2010's Come Around Sundown, which was recorded at New York's Avatar Studios in the winter and didn't sound like it was much fun to make at all.
"We were in a dark place, literally," explains Jared. "The studio had no windows, and we were in there for eight or nine hours a day for six weeks. There was almost an urgency to get out of the place."
In contrast, Mechanical Bull, the Leons' sixth album, was recorded at the band's own (new and naturally lit) studio in Nashville.
Much has been made of the disc's mellow, jangling eighth track, Comeback Story. The Leons' tale – out-of-nowhere Southern boys corrupted by bright lights, led astray by rock-star hedonism and brought down by brotherly infighting – is archetypical.
According to both Jared and Matthew, the rift with Caleb – after an awkward airing out of issues and a clearing of misunderstandings – has been fixed. Asked if Comeback Story could be applied to the band's latest chapter, Jared plays down the narrative. "Our lyrics are rarely literal. They're fantasies about other people's lives."
Still, the Leons are on a comeback, song or not. Jared had seen an online poll asking about rock's least hip bands. The contenders? The Kings of Leon, against the pitifully uncool dullards Creed and Nickelback. "Nothing against those bands, but when I saw that I just thought, 'We're there now, huh? That's us now? We're one of those bands that people literally hate?'"
Nobody ever said being rock stars would be easy.
Kings of Leon play Toronto's Air Canada Centre, Feb. 26.