Kings Of Leon bassist Jared Followill meets Jon D’Auria for the lowdown on his band’s new record, life on the road and the small matter of selling out stadiums with his band of brothers…
Pics: Kevin Estrada
There’s an old proverb that proclaims that the best way to learn how to do something is simply to do it. Nobody knows this better than Jared Followill, who was only 15 years old – no, that’s not a typo – when his older brothers Caleb (guitar, vocals) and Nathan (drums) and his cousin Matthew (guitar) convinced him to step away from his schooling in 2002 to play bass in their budding rock band in Nashville, Tennessee.
Back then, Jared’s only problem (though admittedly quite a large one) was that he had never played a bass in his life, so he immediately went out and bought a modest four-string and began woodshedding albums by the Pixies, the Clash and Joy Division to figure out how to play. Just a couple of months later he found himself in the studio, recording the Kings Of Leon’s debut album, Youth And Young Manhood, with little more than youthful ambition and a rudimentary understanding of how to play his instrument.
Twelve years later, Kings of Leon have become one of the biggest bands in rock’n’roll, having released six albums, each shifting millions of copies worldwide, winning three Grammys and countless other awards, and selling out arenas in every corner of the globe. In that time, Jared’s ability and performances as a bass player have flourished, as his early root-fifth, guitar-following riffs have evolved into finely crafted lines that affect the music both rhythmically and melodically. Not only has he grown to embody the role of a bassist, he has also developed his own unique voice on the instrument.
“After all these years I think I’ve finally figured out how to play this thing,” says Followill, now 27. “When I first started out, I wanted my sound to be deep and bassy, with no string definition. That was probably because I was self-conscious: I was new to playing and it would cover up my mistakes. In my next phase, I went with more of a crunchy mid-range tone that made my amp sound like I had a fuzz pedal on, so I could still be a little bit sloppy. Now I’m getting to where I just want a clean tone that has a little bit of dirt. My sound keeps changing and evolving, the more confident I get.”
Followill’s evolution is more noticeable than ever on his band’s sixth album, Mechanical Bull, released last autumn. Songs like ‘Work On Me’, ‘Temple’ and ‘Family Tree’ all centre round his tight-pocketed grooves and creative lines. It’s no surprise that Followill played a bigger role in writing the new material, as he teamed up with his brothers during the early sessions to hash out ideas and lay down his bass-lines as a foundation for the other instruments.
“I listen to the song ideas and then start writing my bass parts, and usually my lines are one of the first things written,” he explains. “I like to write a bunch of different riffs so that I have options, and then I’ll scrap them and rewrite them again until they stick. I wanted to write more complicated parts and challenge myself a little bit more in the studio this time.” He adds: “It always changes each record, because I get a little bit better and I’m able to do the things that I hear in my head more. In the beginning I would basically play along with chords and write really simple parts, but now I can usually play the ideas that I hear.”
The album’s first single, ‘Supersoaker’, features a tight backbeat bass-line that moves the verse while supplying a driving foundation for the vocal melody in the chorus. As Followill’s bass-lines go, this is undoubtedly one of his finest. “It was one of those things where Caleb had written a really chugging guitar part, and it gave me a lot of space to write in. I just started playing that bass-line and Nathan started playing drums, and we locked it in,” explains Followill. “Before I wrote it I thought it would have more of a Police-type feel, but after it was completed I realised that it sounded more like Nikolai Fraiture from the Strokes. It’s definitely a fun song to play live, because I can just sit back and groove out and throw in little variations throughout it.”
Influenced by players such as Kim Deal, Peter Hook, Paul Simon and Sting, Followill’s recent playing takes on a melodic role that supports the vocal lines and explores harmonic territory of its own. “What does it for me is a bass-line that carries a melody on its own. It’s kind of rare in music for the bass to be the lead melody, but then again, I’m a really weird bass player,” admits Followill. “It’s always been hard for me to lock in with the kick drum, because I don’t think that way. I was never taught how to play the bass, so I’ve never played it properly. A lot of times I’ll write to the guitar riffs before the drums are even in place. That’s kind of a weird thing to do, but then our drummer Nathan comes in and he locks into my bass. He really helped me along in the beginning by doing that, but now it’s just become our style.”
In the recording sessions for Mechanical Bull, Followill spent more time than on previous albums honing his tone with long-time producer Angelo Petraglia in the Kings’ Nashville studio. Going for a vintage rock tone, Followill captured a punchy midrange sound that retained enough deep lows to fill out the sonic spectrum. “I really changed my tone up on this album and I’m really happy with how it turned out,” he says. “I used to use midrange and gain instead of volume to get that crunch, but lately I’ve been cleaning it up and taking the midrange and gain down a bit. It’s still probably heavier than most bass players dial it in, but I like to turn the volume and bass up a bit and keep the midrange around 11 o’clock.”
To increase his tone range, Followill decided to experiment with different basses for the Mechanical Bull sessions, something that he had seldom done in the past. Known for his preference for Gibson Thunderbirds, Followill finally decided to give a few other axes a shot.
“I used more basses on this album than I ever had before. I really had a ton of options in there. I even brought in a fretless bass to write on, though I didn’t end up recording with it,” says Followill. “My main bass, as always, was my Thunderbird, and I used that a lot, but I also used a Fender P-Bass and an Epiphone hollow-body bass that I played on the song ‘Rock City’. As we were getting our sounds together, different basses would sound completely different from song to song. I wanted to test out basses with different necks to see what kind of tone I could get from them. I feel like each of the basses actually made me write differently.”
Regardless of the bass which Followill picks up, the sound he generates is consistent, thanks to his strong picking hand. “I don’t really play wide open too much. Most of the time I’ll mute the bass with the side of my hand on the bridge,” says Followill. “I mute most all of my notes during the verses and then I open them up wide for the choruses so that my tone gets way bigger. That way, when the guitars hit their distortion and the drums open up, everything is just huge and the bass booms. I use picks most of the time, but I’ve started to use my fingers more and more. I also use my thumb for two of our songs on this album. I played a lot of keyboard bass on some of our earlier material, but on this album I stuck with playing everything straight up on the bass.”
Followill translates his studio sound to the live stage with ease, thanks to his oversized rig and his penchant for chest-rattling decibels. While his bandmates may claim that his volume levels border on the excessive, he needs all the help he can get to fill the arena-sized venues that the Kings play. “It’s no secret that I play really loud on stage. My perfect sound is crazy loud,” muses Followill. “I use big refrigerator Ampegs and put them on their sides: I stack them so that they’re just monstrous. It creates a huge, mean rumble behind me.”
His pedalboard contains a TC Electronic Hall Of Fame reverb and Flashback delay, a Boss TR2 Tremolo, an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, a Line 6 DL4, a Boss ME50 and a Voodoo Lab Ground Control Pro, while his Thunderbirds come loaded with D’Addario EXL 165-4 strings. “I’ve had to progressively move over on the stage a few feet from Caleb over the years,” he laughs. “He keeps pushing me into the corner because I keep getting louder and louder. I’m one of those annoying bass players that always plays too loudly for their own good – but I love it.”
I ask Followill how he makes certain that he is ready for every performance, and he explains: “It’s always important for me to be physically ready when we head out on tour. I don’t want to sound like a dick, and I’m not a buff dude at all, but I go to the gym all the time, so my stamina is pretty strong for our shows. When we take a little time off, then my fingers start to kill me when I play, because my callouses wear off really quickly. I have to play a lot before the first few shows of the tour to get them back. Typically, before each set I’ll pace back and forth just doing runs on my bass, while I have a couple of drinks. I always like to be nervous before a show because it helps me play better.”
As if nerves aren’t enough to keep Followill focused for his performances, he has devised a system where he rates his performance each night to make sure that his playing stays consistent over long tours. “I’m very involved in writing the set-lists each night: for me it’s almost like it’s a sport, to see which songs go well and which we could’ve done better. I even rate my performance and my playing every night; I have a whole system for it. For every missed note or wrong note I’ll take three or four points off of my score: that way I can really try to deliver a perfect show every single night. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I strive towards it. I always look to the audience for inspiration: if the crowd is going crazy then I can have a lower personal score and still be excited about the gig.”
At this point in his career, Followill often reflects on the early days, when that leap of faith in 2002 was rewarded with a record deal and an epic path into his future. As certain as he was at the time that he was making the right move, he never would have guessed the amount of success that would follow. “I had absolutely no idea that we’d get to this level,” he laughs. “I didn’t even know if we were going to stay together as a band at certain points. We’ve constantly felt like everything has been too good to be true, every step of the way. We always think that we’ll get dropped from our label after every album. Luckily Europe and the UK support us so much. Even with our first EP, Holy Roller Novocaine (2003), it blew our minds that 10,000 people were listening to our music. From there it’s been a really gradual climb, like having your hand in a pan of water on the stove and not noticing that it’s getting hotter.”
Every band inevitably has its ups and downs, and Kings Of Leon is no exception. However, the fact that the Followills are related has helped them through many turbulent times. They’re his family, after all. “It’s been amazing to be in a band with my brothers and my cousin,” he tells us. “In other bands there’s always a certain common level of courtesy, but that’s definitely not there with our band because we’re brothers. We’re totally honest and blunt and we say whatever we want. I would imagine that being in a band with other people would eventually get to that point where you cut the BS and get down to what you really want to say. It’s awesome, though. All of us are married now, so it’s even more familial. It feels like a travelling family circus.”
With a full touring schedule and a seventh album on the horizon, Followill is gearing up for the road ahead. But before he embarks on the next tour bus stretch, he offers some advice to bass players who want to follow his path. “Play your butt off to learn the basics,” he says, “and then step away from that and do your own thing so you can find your own voice. I feel like I did it the right way, but maybe I could’ve been better if I would have gotten lessons. Then again, that might have messed up my mojo and changed the way I played. If you learn enough songs of the style and bands you like, then playing will become second nature. But most importantly, just love what you do. If you don’t love it you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
Mechanical Bull is out now. The Kings Of Leon will be touring the UK in June. Info: www.kingsofleon.com