Lead guitarist Matthew Followill speaks about Kings of Leon’s new album Walls, going after a classic but still relevant sound, why slow songs tend to come the most naturally, and how the band quit fighting to become more inspired than it’s ever been before.
How does it feel to be on album number seven now?
[Laughs] It’s pretty crazy. Yeah, I don’t know. I guess we feel kind of lucky, to be able to make this many albums. I can’t wait to see what the fans think and what everybody thinks because I think it’s one of our better ones. It’s weird that it’s number seven and I feel like it’s one of our better ones. Hopefully that’s a good sign of maybe more things to come.
This album you worked pretty much on the down low. Not too many people even knew you were working on one before you announced it a couple months ago. Was that easy for you to keep under wraps, and do you think it was a good thing to be out of the limelight for a little bit?
It definitely wasn’t easy. I really didn’t like it. Basically, because of all the gear and stuff we were using, I wanted to be like, “Oh yeah, look at this cool thing I’m using on the album.” But I couldn’t do all that, because like you said, we were trying to hold things back.
We wanted to do a “Surprise! Here’s our album,” because maybe it’s a little bit more fun. You don’t have to wait as long. I find that when a band says they’re making a new album or something, I just want to hear it right then. I really hate waiting for so long, so that’s what we tried to do.
And maybe there is a little bit more excitement because we were out of the limelight for so long. I don’t really know. I think we’ll probably stay in it this time for a little longer hopefully. I’m hoping to do another record straight after this, but who knows? We may be super over it after touring for two years.
As you were saying, you worked with some new gear on this album, and it’s definitely a different sounding album than you’ve made before, probably drawing a little less on your trademark Southern influences. How did you decide on what direction you wanted to take this one in?
I don’t really know if we ever had a conversation of what it should sound like. I think we just knew we wanted to have kind of a timeless sound, but still relevant now.
I bought vintage synths, a lot of vintage guitars and amps. I feel like that helped the sound of the album have that sound we were looking for, that kind of timeless, nice sound. Plus, the producer goes for that same kind of sound. He doesn’t ever try to do anything too modern sounding, really, and we didn’t want to do that really, either.
One of the big things for this album is you worked with a new producer, Markus Dravs, as you were saying, and that seemed to maybe reenergize you a little bit. What was it like working with him and how do you think he pushed you to do something new?
He was great. He was kind of tough at first, but we were just learning each other, really. He was definitely a big no-man, which I really loved.
We can write melodies all day long, because we’ve been doing it for so long. So you come in, let the song play, hum a melody, pick up a guitar and put a melody to it. But he’s like, “Does that song even need it right then and there at that part of the song?”
He was very quick to be like, “Nah, it doesn’t need that. The song doesn’t need that.” We’d be looking at each other, going like, “I mean, I think it does. It’s pretty good.” And he’d just go like, “No, it doesn’t need it.” We’d be kind of like shot down.
That was a really good thing. It’s kind of annoying when it’s happening, but you just hold off and think, well, maybe he’s right. Then you wait and you live with the music, and you realize it’s better without it. But yeah, he pushed us.
What else? Arrangements. I think that’s probably my favorite thing he did for us. Obviously, I think we made a fine album, a great album, but I really like how our arrangements aren’t just pop arrangements. We had kind of gotten into that hole of every song has the verse and then a half-chorus, and then a half-verse double-chorus. That kind of thing, and we just totally went away from that. I find it so refreshing to listen to.
One of my favorite parts of the album are the lead guitar riffs you came up with. Combined with the production and stuff, it really sounds cool and catchy a lot of the time. What was it like for you to play around with that and come up with some different sounding things on the guitar?
Nice. I don’t know. I played a lot more guitar, period. Leading up to this, for months and months, maybe even a year, I was coming up with songs and playing a lot of guitar, which I think just made me a better player.
I kind of dove into pedal world for a while. I saw there are so many awesome pedal makers now, so I got deep into that. Then I went away from that, because Marcus’ style was let’s make the song sound good without anything. But then those pedals made their way back in.
I don’t know. I just wanted to go for a more straightforward guitar album. I didn’t want to use too many pedals. The only thing I used was basic sounds, like reverb and tremolo and stuff like that. It’s not insane things, like octaves and stuff like that. Like I said before, I wanted it more classic sounding.
One of my favorite songs on the record is “Find Me,” which is really upbeat, almost poppy in places, and you have some really cool guitar work on there. Can you talk a little bit about that song?
Sure. That was one I brought to the table. I think that’s my favorite song on the album, probably. I love it. I really hope it’s a single. What can I say about it? I brought it to the guys and they immediately loved it. I had the basic chords of the song, and that’s exactly as you hear it now. Once I could actually record, or had someone playing the chords down, I wrote the other part, which is the main lead part.
I love it. I hope it’s a single so badly. I feel like it’s a cool rock song. We’ve had some rock songs that are not that cool, but I feel like this one is an obvious Telecaster, could be Tom Petty, could be the Police kind of sound.
One of the other centerpiece songs is the title track “WALLS,” which you close with. That seems to be maybe a song you’ve been trying to write for a while, and is probably one of the more vulnerable songs you’ve ever had. At what point in the process did that one come about and what was the writing like for it?
Cool, yeah. I think that was maybe the first or second song we worked on. It was much different. It was faster, it was full drumbeat and had a big ending. It was very, very Kings of Leon sounding.
We lived with it for a long time. We loved the demo at first, but then we were like, “Ah, it sucks.” We didn’t like it. So we talked about it and were like, “Let’s just play it like a song. Let’s just pick up an acoustic guitar.” We threw a few things on it, but that’s pretty much how you hear it now.
I think it was written by Caleb really quickly. It was at the start of the album, we were super inspired and ready, and that one came pretty quickly. I think that’s a great one for Caleb. Those songs are really important for a songwriter to have, a lyric writer, because it shows off his talent. People have been loving that song and it’s so cool. I love it. It’s great.
What did you think of Caleb’s lyrics overall for the album? Did anything particularly connect with you?
I love them. I think they’re great. Maybe he’s done better than ever. I don’t know, but I really enjoy listening to them. We kind of helped here and there. He would bounce ideas off of us and we’d be like, “Oh yeah, that’s cooler than this” or “I like the way you say that. I like the way that phrase is when you sing it.” We were kind of involved with that side of it.
At first, some of the stuff I was like, “What are you saying? What is this?” But after I lived with it for like two days, I was like, I love that. That’s so weird, but it also makes the song a little bit better, because it’s got that weird thing that makes you think like, What does he mean? And then you think like, how does that pertain to my life? And then you find these weird things. I love it. I think he did a great, great job.
In addition to “WALLS,” you have a few other slower songs on the album as well. You even bust out some whistling on “Muchacho,” which was a pleasant surprise. What’s it like working in more of that down-tempo atmosphere for you?
I feel like that’s our comfort zone, honestly. If we walked in right now and you said we had to write a song, it would definitely be a little bit slower and a little bit more ambient sounding. That’s the thing that comes naturally to us. We have to work at making those songs different from each other, and then also not just doing a full record of those.
Those slower songs are important because we love albums. I feel like in an album, you have your fast songs, your midtempo songs, your slower songs, and it all works together to create a little world there in your album. When we go in, we always know we have to have at least one slow one, or a couple slow ones. Those two are really the ones that came out.
I also have to ask about the album cover, which is the weirdest looking cover you have come out with so far. Where did that idea come from?
I had seen some dolls being made and they were super realistic. This was last year or something, and I was like, how cool would it be if we had super realistic dolls made of our faces?
I thought we would just put them on a wall and they would come out at you, but then we worked with the art director and he said let’s do this. He did a bunch of things with them, and the photo that we used was the one that stuck out the most. That’s pretty much it. We’re going to do a few other things with the doll heads.
It’s been a weird reaction. A lot of people were like, “Oh my god. They would do anything to not get wet [laughs].” I read stuff like that, because they thought, “Why didn’t they just put themselves in milk?” Those people really missed the point completely. It was definitely more about having creepy doll heads made.
One thing I’ve always loved about you guys is you always bring out really good openers on the road. For the last album, you had Local Natives on the first part and Young the Giant on the second, who are two of my favorites. How much do you keep up with new music and up-and-coming bands?
Nice. I’d like to think I keep up very well. When I listen to music, it’s always like a younger band or a slightly newer band. It’s usually indie. That’s just the kind of music I enjoy. So yeah, we definitely keep up. Jared keeps up. We all talk about new music amongst ourselves. I like that you like our openers, because I like our openers. Hopefully, we’ll get some really good ones this time around as well.
Is Ethan Luck still touring with you guys?
Oh yeah, he’s with us.
That’s so cool. I’ve been a fan of his for so many years, back to his Supertone days.
Nice, very cool. Yeah, he’s great.
So Caleb has been talking about with this album how your relationships are at one of the strongest places they’ve ever been at. You’re all married, and almost all of you have kids now and all that stuff. How does all of that play a part into who Kings of Leon are in 2016?
I don’t know. I’ll basically say what you said. We all have kids and families. I guess a sense of comfort comes over you, like your place in life. I feel like we took a break mentally for a while and we’re super inspired. It almost has a feeling of being back. We’re really excited to do everything now, where before it felt like a chore or a job.
Now, it’s totally like I play guitar for a living. That’s so awesome. I think we all realize that now and want to work as hard as we can for as long as we can. We bring our families along with us and we all get along fantastically now. There hasn’t been a fight or an argument in so long. Seriously, it’s been so long, I can’t even remember. I can’t remember the last fight. I have no idea. So yeah, we’re in a great place.
What do you think was the biggest key for you to get to that place?
The biggest key? I don’t know. I just really think it was time.
Getting older and all that.
Yeah. I think certain things come down, certain things go up. You realize who you are. I feel like I didn’t grow up until I was 28. Honestly, I felt like I was a teenager until I was 28 or 29. If it was the same way with those guys, then we all grew up at the same time and realized what’s important. I think that was important for us to do that together.
You mentioned at the start how this album might be a precursor for what’s to come and overall might be the start of a new stage for the band. What do you think this album means for you, both in the present here and moving forward?
This is the album, and it sounds stupid, where we all found inspiration. Just doing it while it’s fun is super important, and right now it’s so much fun. It’s great. I’m already jamming on new songs. I think like, how long do I have to wait for those?
This album taught us that we could make music that we really like again and that we could be proud of. So let’s do it.
’WALLS’ is out now on RCA Records.