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Kings of Leon: Recharged and kicking with mischief

Jared Followill tells tales of whoopie cushions, electric pens, fake spiders and the making of the band's 'youthful' sixth studio album

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

After Kings of Leon finished touring behind 2010's "Come Around Sundown," the band, which consists of brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill and cousin Matthew Followill, decided to take a hiatus.

The group had been on a relentless recording and touring cycle for the last several years, especially after the breakthrough success of 2008's "Only by the Night," which included the hits "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody." The frayed edges were beginning to show: A seemingly inebriated Caleb walked offstage in Dallas in July 2011, leading to the cancellation of the rest of the U.S. tour (though Jared points out that the band did return to the road to meet the rest of its international commitments).

The break seems to have done the quartet good. On "Mechanical Bull," the group's sixth studio album, the foursome sounds refreshed and energetic, especially on such cuts as the raucous "Don't Matter" and "Family Tree."

Jared Followill, the band's bassist, called MSN Music from London as the band prepared to appear on "Later ... With Jools Holland" to address the pesky breakup rumors and to discuss recording in their "teenage boy cave," feeling renewed vigor as Kings of Leon heads into a new chapter, and, yes, whoopee cushions and parachute pants.

MSN Music: There's a sense of joy and abandon on "Mechanical Bull" that wasn't on "Come Around Sundown."

Jared Followill: We definitely had fun recording it. We built our own studio [in Nashville] and we turned it into almost like a man cave, except maybe more like a teenage boy cave because it was a pretty immature process with tons of pranks and practical jokes, but we're definitely having a lot of fun. Having a year off made us into where we completely recharged our batteries and it was perfect.

The band had some rough moments during the touring cycle for "Come Around Sundown," including Caleb walking offstage in Dallas in July 2011. Was there ever a moment when you came close to breaking up?

No, never. I mean, there's definitely been times where you think, "Oh my God, I want out of the band" or something like that, but that's been for like an hour and that's happened since the day we started the band. Everybody has moments like that when you get into arguments and stuff and you're like, "You know what, I'm over it," but we've never given any serious thought past a drunken argument or anything like that. We'd actually planned on having a year off for a very long time; it just hadn't really worked out. Basically, we would write an album, record it, tour it, come home and immediately start writing another album.

Bing: Find out more about Kings of Leon

How different was it to record in your own studio? Was it hard to stay focused, or was it a blessing that you could call your own shots?

It was a little bit of both. It was definitely a lot more relaxed than any other album we've made, but some days it could get a little too relaxed. We would go in there and be sitting around and playing and goofing off for five hours and realize, "Man, we should probably do some work today because that's why we're here."

Much of "Mechanical Bull" has a fun, loose-limbed feel, especially "Don't Matter" and "Family Tree." What do you remember about recording those songs?

Both of the songs we actually wrote in the rehearsal space when we were getting together some other songs we'd been working on. One day we just started jamming on "Family Tree" in the rehearsal. We were worried that it was maybe too bluesy or maybe too funky, but we decided to give it a shot, and it's now one of the funner songs we play live. And "Don't Matter," we were supposed to start working up another track that we had almost completed and we started playing "Don't Matter," just jamming and goofing around, and we were like, "Wow, that's pretty exciting-sounding."

Each of you is credited as a songwriter on all songs, but how does the process usually work?

I would say 80 percent of our songs come from soundcheck. Most of the time it comes from a musical idea and then Caleb will write the lyrics after. But on this record, there were a lot more songs that did come from Caleb because during the year off, I feel like maybe Caleb put a little more work in in the year off than we did [laughs]. He brought in probably six or seven ideas that aren't fully formed songs, obviously, but he'll have a guitar part that he plays and he'll have like a rough vocal melody, and then we'll all start jamming on that, and then we write choruses and bridges and do certain little things like that, and that becomes a song. He'll write the lyrics after.

During a Twitter Q&A this spring, you called the album "youthful." What did you mean?

Youthful to me just meant that it felt a little bit less serious than our last couple of albums. A song like "Don't Matter," it kind of is more straightforward rock and roll; there's nothing really like that on our last album. Maybe I was in a youthful mood because we were playing on a mini-basketball goal every day, putting mini-firecrackers under people's drinks and had fake spiders everywhere and stuff like that. I mean, maybe that's why I said this is like a really youthful album, because we're being really immature the entire time.

MSN Music: Listen to "Supersoaker" from "Mechanical Bull"

Were there whoopee cushions involved?

Yes, there were. Definitely. And electric shock pens. Every pen you picked up shocked you. Every lighter. Everything.

This is your sixth album, but you sound like you're starting fresh in many ways.

Absolutely. And the year off not only gave us energy and made us rested and made us excited to get back in there and excited to go make an album and excited to get back on tour, but it also gives you a chance to step back and look at everything and look at what you've done as a whole and see what the good aspects are and what you could make better, and we, definitely, when we made this album, we wanted it to be a new chapter.

Your recent cover of Robyn's "Dancing on My Own" for BBC Radio One absolutely upends the song. Why were you initially so reluctant to do it?

When we first started, we had a couple of rules, and I felt like every single one of those rules has been broken now. We always said if we did a video, we would never look into the camera during the video because we always thought that that was a little bit cheesy, singing while looking into the lens of the camera. I think we've broken that on our last 25 videos now. We also said we would never do covers, and we didn't do a cover until about eight or nine years in the band. We worked up a cover [ Pixies'] "Where Is My Mind?"] for Bonnaroo. With the Radio 1 Live Lounge, that's kind of a tradition over there that you do a cover, and we've actually not done Radio 1 Live Lounge before because of that and if we had done it before, we didn't do a cover for it; they let us slide [until now].

Any other rules still to be broken?

I'm pretty sure we've given up all the rules at this point. Maybe no parachute pants, but you never knows if those begin to come back around.

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music,, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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