Kings of Leon's Caleb Followill praises New Zealand's 'amazing' COVID-19 response, wants to tour new album in Aotearoa

Kings of Leon have released their new album, When You See Yourself.
Kings of Leon have released their new album, When You See Yourself. Photo credit: Getty / Supplied

Two people, two churning tummies, and one bathroom - a situation no couple wants to navigate in the early days of a relationship. That's the fond memory Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill associates with New Zealand - a country he says the Grammy-winning four-piece is eager to return to. 

"Me and my now-wife, we weren't married at the time, and our relationship was pretty new. We got to New Zealand and I'll be damned if we didn't get the worst food poisoning ever," Followill chuckles.

Despite being in the midst of an undoubtedly gruelling press circuit to mark the release of the band's latest album, When You See Yourself, Followill  - the musician at the helm of the alt-rock outfit - is pleasant and easygoing. 

Answering the phone in his husky, Southern drawl, Followill is all too happy to kickstart our 20-minute slot with a series of questions about New Zealand, the country he says "cemented" his then-budding relationship with model Lily Aldridge - the mother of his two children and the inspiration behind the band's classic hit, 'Sex on Fire'.

Long-lasting love is scarce in the red-carpeted world of celebrity - rockstar meets model, and the rest is history - for a few months, at least. But unlike their Tommy-and-Pam predecessors, Followill and Aldridge appear to have conquered the volatile terrain of fame and fortune, and are now approaching their 10-year wedding anniversary. It's a testament to the strength of their union - one that Followill says was solidified with an upset stomach in Aotearoa.

"It was the beginning of our relationship, so we were still trying to be cute around each other. There's nothing cute about two people with food poisoning in a one-bathroom room," he laughs. "That kind of cemented our relationship."

Caleb Followill and his wife Lily Aldridge.
Caleb Followill and his wife Lily Aldridge. Photo credit: Getty

The 39-year-old rose to prominence in the early noughties as the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist of Kings of Leon, a Followill family affair comprising his two brothers, bassist Jared and drummer Nathan, and cousin Matthew on lead guitar. Originating in Nashville, Tennessee, the band's beginnings were rooted in blues-inflected garage rock - with an unmistakably Southern twang. 

That sound gradually evolved over the years, the band venturing into alternative, arena rock fit for the stadiums. Their rhythmic force and resounding riffs secured their status as bonafide rockers - but it was the success of 2008's Only by the Night that catapulted Kings of Leon to international stardom, spawning the alt-rock anthems 'Sex on Fire' and 'Use Somebody'. 

And now, more than four years after their last album WALLS hit the top of the charts, Kings of Leon have released When You See Yourself - the band's self-proclaimed most personal project to date. 

Kings of Leon.
Kings of Leon. Photo credit: Supplied / Sony

Moody and melodramatic in equal measure, the album experiments with carefully-curated instruments and equipment dating back to the '60s and '70s, handpicked to foster an "older, warmer" sound reminiscent of yesteryear.

"There's definitely some throwback vibes on there," Followill says. "We kind of threw the rules out the window and didn't worry about the length of a song so that it would make it on the radio. We didn't worry about alienating some of our fans by going less guitar-driven on certain songs."

The latest offering marks another "welcome" departure from their early repertoire, says Followill.

"If we tried to recreate something we did in the past, that would be a cop-out. We wanted to expand on our sound. Some of it comes off as a little different from what you've heard from us in the past."

And despite the tumult of the past year providing fantastic fodder for socially-conscious musicians around the world, When You See Yourself is, perhaps surprisingly, not at all influenced by the political turmoil and social unrest that marked 2020. The album, which had its original release date delayed for almost a year, was recorded pre-pandemic, pre-protests, and before the political whirlwind that dominated the latter half of 2020 - a storm that called the future of a weather-beaten democracy into question.

"I didn't want to go in there and try to make some statement and force something. Everything was happening so fast and the times were so crazy. I like to let things marinate - I'm sure some of the craziness will inspire what we do next," Followill explains. "We felt it was a better time for us to sit back and listen - not try to force ourselves into the conversation.

"Some of the lyrics, they kind of touch on things that have happened, but it wasn't on purpose. These songs were written in a storytelling way and painted a lot of pictures - and some of those pictures [have] popped up."

Caleb Followill.
Caleb Followill. Photo credit: Getty

With a new album but no way to tour it, Followill says the band is itching to return to Aotearoa - a safe haven in a world ravaged by COVID-19.  

"We want to get back," he said. "New Zealand is stunningly beautiful. I remember the first time we were there, we were all kind of stunned - it felt like we were in a different world."

And with the rest of the globe fighting to free itself from the claws of COVID-19, New Zealand is almost a different world. Prior to the most recent outbreak, the nation felt close to pre-pandemic normality. Large-scale festivals were given the go-ahead over the summer, and gigging had resumed for local artists. It's a far cry from the current climate in the United States, the prospect of live performance relegated to the distant future as the country continues its battle against the virus. 

"It's so amazing how you guys have done that. I wish that was the case everywhere," Followill says. "Hats off to you guys for doing the right thing."

With travel still highly restricted amid the ongoing border closures, it's unlikely Kings of Leon will be announcing an international tour anytime soon - but that hasn't stopped the band from dreaming.

"A lot of these songs really lend themselves to some beautiful moments, and I think when we do finally get out there, the live show will be something special," Followill explains. 

"When we came up with When You See Yourself, it didn't carry the weight it does now. The whole world has now had a chance to take a hard look at themselves - who they are, what they're capable of. I feel like it's going to be a new world, whenever we do finally get to share the music."

Kings of Leon are now eagerly awaiting the day they are able to showcase their new material to a crowd thirsting for live music after an unprecedented drought. Depending on the success of widespread vaccination campaigns, could Kiwi fans be the first to hear it?

"Trust me, we've definitely had conversations [about it]," Followill says. 

"I might take you up on that offer."

When You See Yourself is out now on all streaming platforms.