Kings of Leon (from left): Matthew, Jared, Caleb, and Nathan Followill.
KINGS OF LEON UPSTART JARED FOLLOWILL’S LOW END LEADERSHIP
IF YOUTH AND FAME MAKE AN explosive combination, Jared Followill is playing with fire. The son of a travelling preacher, Jared first picked up the bass at the age of 15. Within mere months, Followill brothers Jared, Caleb, and Nathan—joined by cousin Matthew—were recording their debut album with producer Ethan Johns. Fueled by the record’s raw blend of Southern garage rock and post-punk, the Kings launched their offensive.
With blistering shows and stellar sales, the band was quick to conquer Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, but American audiences proved somewhat less receptive. That is, until now. On the band’s latest, Come Around Sundown, Jared—now 24—shows himself to be an old soul schooled in the low-end leadership styles of players like Peter Hook, Adam Clayton, and Andy Rourke. By paying tribute to that limb of the bass playing tree and branching out to give his own voice room to breathe, Jared has positioned himself as one of the youngest players to ably tend rock & roll’s flame.
What was your earliest exposure to music?
Our dad was a preacher, so we traveled to churches in different towns, listening to music in the car. My dad grew up listening to bands like Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and Thin Lizzy, but he left that world to become a minister. So we weren’t really allowed to listen to rock & roll. My earliest memories are sitting in the car listening to Oldies radio stations. We would play a game where we would each guess a band— the Beach Boys, or the Ronnettes, for example—and see which one of those bands came on the radio first.
You were pretty young when you guys started the band. What music were you into at that point?
I was 15, but before I even started playing, I was involved in [drummer] Nathan and [singer-guitarist] Caleb’s musical lives. They started out writing simple country tunes, and then the songs started getting more and more promising. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was listening to all kinds of stuff.
It all started when a kid in my Spanish class gave me a copy of the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. That was one of the first bands that changed the way I thought about music. By the time we started the band, I was listening to the Olivia Tremor Control and At the Drive-In. I remember thinking Clinic’s album Internal Wrangling [Domino, 2000] was amazing.
Once you joined the band, you were under the scrutiny of engineers and producers. What effect did that have on your nascent playing style?
I think it handicapped the way I played, but that’s somewhat of a good thing. I never had a chance to become technically good; I just had to be immediately creative, while learning how to play the bass. Nobody else could play their instruments very well, either, so it’s not as if I had the luxury of people writing bass lines for me. On the first record, I was playing the most difficult things I could play at the time. Of course, looking back I can hear I was basically following along with the chords the other guys were playing. But back then we had a simpler sound, so it worked out. I never had the time to become a technical genius, and I’m glad for that.
In your playing I hear echoes of Adam Clayton, Peter Hook, John Taylor, and Simon Gallup. Am I on the right track in terms of the players you identify with?
Definitely. I listen to a lot of New Order, and I love U2. I wouldn’t say British New Wave is my favorite kind of music, but it’s definitely some of my favorite bass playing, because it carries so much of the melody.
When we first started the band, I was almost disappointed to be the bass player, because I didn’t know anything about other bassists. But you learn so many things once you start playing. You teach yourself how to listen to the bass—to the point where it becomes the only thing you hear. It’s at that point I came to realize how many songs are carried by their bass lines. I wanted to be the kind of player who wrote those parts, but it just never worked out for me. [Laughs.]
What’s the band’s approach to songwriting?
The majority of songs come in from Caleb and me. If I bring in a song, I’ll try to make it so it already has a verse, a chorus, and a bridge. [Lead guitarist] Matthew comes in with a good share, as well, often with something that doesn’t have a full structure—it’s just an awesome part. In rehearsal, I’m usually the guy who figures out the chord changes to go into a bridge or chorus, while they hang on to their parts.
On a number of songs, it’s indeed your changes on bass that mark different sections— bridge, chorus, etc.—while the guitars playing more sparsely up top.
That’s happened since early on, like on “King of the Rodeo” [from Aha Shake Heartbreak]. Caleb had a guitar part we really liked, and when I went to the chorus, he stayed on his part. We like that kind of repetitive thing when the guitar keeps on pounding and things change underneath. That’s something you’ll also hear in electronic music. It’s a trick LCD Soundsystem uses that all the time, letting one part go through the whole song and building around it.
You’ve played a Gibson Thunderbird for a number of years, but before that you tended to favor a Gibson EB-3. What factors into your decisions when it comes to choosing basses?
I’ve used a few different basses over the years, but I’m pretty horrible when it comes to knowledge on the technical side of things; I basically started playing a Thunderbird because Gibson sent me a free one. I tried it out for one show, and it happened to be a really amazing show—it sounded great, and our soundman was really pleased. Because of its longer scale, it was a lot harder to play than my EB-3—which I could just rip on—but in time I got used to it. It was a difficult transition, but it sounded better, and it ultimately made me a stronger player. It had clearer highs and lows, and I could get a certain crunch that was missing with the EB-3.
What’s your attitude toward effects?
I’ve always felt a little self-conscious having a pure, straight bass sound—I like to have something on it, whether it’s reverb, delay, or overdrive. Live and in the studio, I use a Boss ME-50B with delay, chorus, or whatever. I’ve also used an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff ? for a really long time. I’ve had the same fuzz sound for the last three records, so I’m shopping for something different to switch things up.
How do you use effects in the studio?
They record at least two tracks—one clean, and one with the effects—but I definitely hear the effects in my headphones while we’re tracking.
What’s your approach in terms of amps?
I have my live sound pretty much dialed in, but when we get into the studio and the engineers bring out some sort of new rig, I get totally sucked into it. I basically try to get the crunchy sound I get with my live rig, an Ampeg SVT Classic with two 8x10 cabs. Again, I don’t really get wrapped up in the technical side of things. In terms of our live sound, the changes we make are generally to make it better for our front-of-house engineer.
What do you do to get your live rig to sound how you want it?
I turn up, and up, and up. [Laughs.] I actually listen mostly to my sound from the monitors, but I need that push from the onstage cabinets. I used in-ear monitors for a while, but it started turning me into such a dork—I wouldn’t move around at all on stage, because I felt like I was at home listening to a CD in my room. It sounded much better and made it easier to play, but I had to sacrifice those things in order to put on a better show overall.
What was your input in terms of getting the right mix for the record?
I told our engineers that I want people to be able to choose a part—bass, guitar, or whatever—and hear that track through the entire song. It’s sometimes hard to get that message across without sounding egotistical. It’s not necessarily about volume, though. I don’t play much in the bass’s lower registers, so I’m often fighting with the guitar frequencies in order to punch through. We tend to bump up the bass’s higher frequencies. We do that at the board, rather than on the amp; amps can make the high end sound too doinky.
If you could sub for any other bassist on road right now, who would it be?
That’s a touch question, because I’d choose different people for different reasons. I know that Peter Hook is on tour playing a lot of Joy Division material, and I love all those bass lines. But then there’s a band like Phoenix, which looks like it has so much fun onstage. It would also be fun to tour in a smaller band. I don’t miss the travel aspect of playing smaller shows, but I love the way bass sounds in a club; with the amp right behind you, you can hear it perfectly.
In your estimation, how have you progressed as a player?
I suppose I’m writing more complicated parts now, but the main difference is that I’m able to play what I hear in my head. It used to be that I would come up with a part and hum into my phone as a voice memo, but back then it would be too difficult for me to play.
Part of what I enjoy about your bass lines on record is your tasteful deployment of slides, grace notes, etc. Are those kinds of details prescribed elements of your bass lines, or do you tend to change them up?
I’ll change them up as much as I can—until the guys get pissed! [Laughs.] Sometimes when you take those kind of gambles, you end up losing.
Do you practice while on the road?
We have a practice room at every venue, but we never go in there and play our own instruments—I’m usually on drums or guitar. Our practice room is there for us to learn other instruments.
How do you prepare yourself for recording?
Mainly by thinking about arrangements.
Live, the band seems to exude confidence and attitude. Is that an accurate assessment?
We’ve always been competitive, whether in terms of music, sports, or other games; everything is a competition with us.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned about life as a full-time musician?
I love playing with other people. I recorded with Angelo’s band, the Jane Shermans, and I’ve done a few songs with my friends in the Honeymoon Thrillers. We used to tour with Regina Spector, and I would always go on and play with her before we went on. It’s important to have other outlets.
What advice would you give a bass player who’s just starting out?
I don’t really know, because I did it in such an unusual way. I already had the biggest motivation in the world: I was in a band that needed to make a record in a month or two. But I don’t think a person needs to take lessons to get better. Taking lessons is like getting a personal trainer—if you need a little motivation, you might want somebody who can help you along the way. But if you really want to be in shape, you’ll do it on your own.
Basses Gibson Thunderbirds
Rig Live: Ampeg SVT Classic with two Ampeg 8x10 cabinets; Studio: Ampeg SVT Micro head and 2x10 cabinet, Audio Kitchen head with Ampeg 8x10 cab, Avalon U5 DI
Effects Boss ME- 50B Bass Multiple Effects, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb, Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, Boss TR- 2 Tremolo, Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, Voodoo Lab Ground Control Pro controller
Picks Dunlop Tortex, .88mm. “All I know is that they have my signature on them,” laughs Jared. “Because I’m a cheeseball.”
Strings “I change them every second show, but the studio I like them to be broken in. I find it a lot like shaving—at first, you look good. But then you go through an awkward stage where you just look like the Dirty Guy Who Doesn’t Shower. And then you grow a nice beard. If you leave strings on long enough, they start to sound really good.”
With Kings Of Leon (all on RCA) Come Around Sundown ; Only by the Night , Because of the Times , Aha Shake Heartbreak , Youth and Young Manhood 
KINGS OF LEON PRODUCER ANGELO
PETRAGLIA ON JARED’S GRITTY RESOLVE
“I first started working with Caleb and Nathan when Jared was still in high school,” says producer Angelo Petraglia, who’s teamed up with the Kings from their debut through their latest, Come Around Sundown. “When Nathan and Caleb got the record deal, I think the record company was assuming they would surround themselves with established players. The guys told me that Jared would be a great bass player for the band, so asked if he was any good. They said, ‘Well, he doesn’t really play yet. . . .’ So we went out and got him a bass. It wasn’t long before we got into the studio, because Jared is a man of great will. It blew my mind—I watched him go from having never played bass to becoming one of my favorite bass players.”
“I showed him a bunch of stuff,” says Angelo, himself a guitarist, of Jared’s introduction to the instrument. “Some of that might show in his tendency to play melodic lines way up high.”
“Jared is not the type of player who will just stay on the root of the chord,” Petraglia continues. “And he uses more effects than most bass players I know, which I find very cool. For this record, we almost exclusively used an Ampeg SVT Micro VR stack; Jared loved the way that sounded. We also went through his Audio Kitchen head and an Avalon U5 DI,” adds Angelo.