08.02.11

Are Kings of Leon Breaking Up?

Fights. Broken limbs. Storming offstage. A canceled tour. America’s biggest rock band has a history of infighting. Are the Followill brothers and cousin headed for a split? Marlow Stern reports.

Is America’s biggest rock band on the verge of a breakup?

Four songs into Kings of Leon’s set at the Gexa Energy Pavilion in Dallas last Friday, singer Caleb Followill lost it. Standing in front of 15,000 screaming fans, he declared, "My voice is 100 percent completely gone,” before unleashing a muddled rant about how he had “no idea what [he was] doing” and that he loved his wife dearly. He concluded his barely intelligible ramble by saying, “I'm gonna go backstage and I'm gonna vomit. I'm gonna drink a beer and I'm gonna come back out and play three more songs." He never returned.

Twenty minutes later, bass player Jared Followill and guitarist Matthew Followill emerged from backstage and issued a mea culpa on behalf of their dazed frontman: “Caleb's just a little unfit to play the rest of the show … It's really not our fault, it's Caleb." Most of their fans filed out of the arena quietly, while some reportedly chanted, “Kings of Ripoff!” in protest. Later that evening, Jared issued a cryptic apology via Twitter: “Dallas, I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am. There are internal sicknesses & problems that have needed to be addressed. No words.” He later tweeted, “I love our fans so much. I know you guys aren't stupid. I can't lie. There are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade.”

On Monday, the band canceled the rest of its American tour and, on being reached for comment, released the following statement to The Daily Beast: “We are so sorry to say Kings of Leon are canceling their entire US tour due to Caleb Followill suffering from vocal issues and exhaustion. The band is devastated, but in order to give their fans the shows they deserve, they need to take this break. Unfortunately, the US dates cannot be rescheduled due to the band's international tour schedule. Tickets will be refunded at point of purchase. Tickets purchased online or via phones will be automatically refunded. The band will resume touring in Canada at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC, on September 28th.”

The documentary Talihina Sky: The Story of the Kings of Leon, which will make its TV premiere Aug. 21 on Showtime, chronicles the rise of the Nashville rockers from poor Bible-thumping kids to boozy rock gods. Caleb, Nathan, and youngest brother Jared grew up living out of their father Ivan’s purple 1988 Oldsmobile. The family, with mother Betty-Ann, traveled around the American South preaching the word of the United Pentecostal Church. In the documentary, Betty-Ann recalls the Followill kids being “slain by the spirit” and speaking in tongues.

When their parents divorced in 1997 and Ivan left the church, Caleb and Nathan moved to Nashville and got swept up in the garage-rock scene. The record label RCA originally wanted to sign them as a duo, but the brothers wanted Jared in. “We’re gonna buy our little brother a bass, he’s a freshman in high school,” Nathan recalled to Billboard. “Caleb will teach himself to play guitar. Our cousin [Matthew] played guitar when he was 10. I’ll play drums. I played in church when I was little.”

The hairy, handsome rockers’ first two albums, Youth & Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak, received rave reviews and notched huge sales numbers in the U.K., but were met with a mixed critical and commercial reception stateside. The Guardian called them “the kind of authentic, hairy rebels the Rolling Stones longed to be.” The band garnered a reputation for the members’ hard-partying ways, replete with booze, drugs, and groupies, and around this time, tensions between singer Caleb and drummer Nathan began to grow. During a 2005 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Caleb said, “A lot of the fights are about them acting as though I'm not the genius behind us that I know I am,” to which Nathan responded, “If we weren't in such a nice restaurant, I'd punch you in the head right now.”

By the time their fourth studio album, 2009’s Only by the Night, was released, the Followills had eschewed their garage-rock sound and grungy, hirsute looks for well-coiffed do’s and stadium-friendly anthems like “Use Somebody.” With their radio-friendly sound came their best sales numbers to date—6.2 million albums sold worldwide—and three Grammy Awards. Their increased popularity, however, only seemed to augment the bad vibes between Caleb and Nathan, who began to look like the American version of the Gallagher brothers (of Oasis fame). During the recording of the album, Caleb and Nathan got into an infamous fight in the studio that left the singer with a broken arm, and the drummer with several bruises. “We were really drunk, and one of us said something really deep and hurtful, and that was it,” Caleb recalled to Rolling Stone. “Our assistant shuffled people out the door when he knew it was about to go down, and once the house cleared, it was like they let two dogs off their chains—we went crazy.”

While promoting the album, the band reportedly got in a massive brawl backstage at the 2009 Brit Awards, with reports blaming Caleb’s excessive drinking. Later that year, following a headlining slot at the U.K.’s T in the Park Festival plagued by sound problems, Caleb reportedly exploded on his bandmates, smashing his Gibson guitar backstage.

In January 2011, Glee creator Ryan Murphy blasted the band in a cover story for The Hollywood Reporter for refusing to license their music to his show. “F--- you, Kings of Leon,” said Murphy. “They’re self-centered assholes, and they missed the big picture. They missed that a 7-year-old kid can see someone close to their age singing a Kings of Leon song, which will maybe make them want to join a glee club or pick up a musical instrument. It’s like, OK, hate on arts education.” Nathan then fired back at Murphy, tweeting, “Dear Ryan Murphy, let it go. See a therapist, get a manicure, buy a new bra.” In an email to Perez Hilton, Murphy then went into victim mode, responding, “That's a homophobe badly in need of some education. I'm all for manicures, don't wear a bra. Would guess most gay dudes don't. But it's telling that Nathan can reduce a group of people to a mean-spirited cliche, in a time where young gay men are killing themselves all over the country because of hatred like this.”

Even pigeons seemed angry with the troubled rockers, forcing them to cancel a July show on account of excessive pooping.

Even pigeons seemed to be angry with the troubled rockers, forcing the band to cancel a July show in St. Louis just three songs into their set on account of excessive pooping. Caleb, an admitted germaphobe, later told his mother, “I was attacked, Mom, but not by humans," according to CNN.

As for Kings of Leon’s future, your guess is as good as any. Drummer Nathan Followill, however, did offer some positive news, tweeting Monday afternoon: “Bummed about the tour not happening. So sorry 4 all the fans. We just need some rest. Thanks 4 understanding. WE ARE NOT BREAKING UP!” The youngest of the brothers, Jared Followill, seemed less enthused, tweeting late Monday night, “They told me the news about the tour in the gym today. This is how I felt”—and linking to a video of him violently pummeling a punching bag.