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Band of the Year: Kings of Leon

In 2008, Kings of Leon wondered if they’d ever be as popular at home as they were over-seas. In 2009 they got their answer. But as Caleb Followill and family celebrate their victory, they’re also learning they need to be careful what they wish for.

“Shot and a beer?” says Caleb Followill as he bellies up to a bar in Manhattan’s West Village. “Patrón, please-Silver, chilled.” (He quit drinking whiskey earlier this year. “The hangovers.”) He could use a drink-just 72 hours earlier, the Kings of Leon frontman was jetting back from the United Arab Emirates, where his band headlined a private show for 20,000 at a Formula One racetrack in Abu Dhabi. For four country boys from Nashville, it was a fittingly surreal end to a very surreal year.

“They put the fear in us-don’t do this, don’t do that,” Followill says. “But in the end, we did everything we weren’t supposed to. I was doing tequila shots onstage, saying, ‘God bless you.’ I almost said, ‘We’re the Kings of Leon from the United States of America,’ but I chickened out.”

If anyone could have gotten away with it this year, it’s them. Kings of Leon owned 2009: Their fourth album, Only by the Night, sold nearly six million copies worldwide and spawned two massive hit singles (“Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody”). The three brothers and a cousin, who spent the past five years toiling away as moderately successful critical darlings, were suddenly bona fide global rock gods, packing arenas from Chicago to Copenhagen.

Now, as the year winds down, they’ve gathered to reflect-to walk us through their annus rockabilis. The parts of it they can remember, anyway. “You’ll probably have to help me out,” Followill says, tipping back his bottle of Corona. “I’ve done a little drinking this year.”JANUARY 14: The year gets off to an inauspicious start as Caleb celebrates his 27th birthday-the same age that claimed Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. He nearly joins them.

CALEB: The night before my birthday, I really thought I was going to die. We were in L.A., I was drunk, and someone handed me some devil pills-Vicodins or something. I remember lying in bed thinking, “I’m gonna fuckin’ die on my 27th birthday. I’m gonna be a rock cliché.” When I woke up the next morning, I looked at my girlfriend, and my first words were, “I’m alive.”JANUARY 29: The band travel to New York for one of the year’s highlights-a sold-out show at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

CALEB: When our manager first told us we were playing the Garden, I was like, “Shut the fuck up.” When we got the tour schedule and it said Madison Square Garden, I was like, “You actually booked it? Are you fuckin’ crazy?”
MATTHEW FOLLOWHILL: I don’t get nervous hardly ever, but I was pretty nervous. The biggest and best play there.
CALEB: I don’t even remember how we played. I just remember after we hit that last note, I couldn’t have a cold beer fast enough.FEBRUARY 8: Back in Los Angeles, the band attend the Grammys, where they’re up for three awards, including Best Rock Song for “Sex on Fire.”

CALEB: I can’t lie-I used to think the Grammys were a mockery of music. They made it this big, pop ball of bullshit. But I ate my words that night. You should have seen us before the show. We were like, “We’re up for not one, but multiple Grammys! That’s fuckin’ amazing!”
NATHAN FOLLOWILL: We were still on the red carpet when we heard we won [for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group]. We left the interview we were doing and went straight over to do tequila shots.
CALEB: We met some cool people. I remember Fran Drescher was sitting right in front of us, and when we didn’t win [for Rock Album of the Year], she turned around and went [makes sad face]. We were like, The Nanny is disappointed for us! As soon as we lost that one, though, we left. ‘Cause you couldn’t drink in there. JUNE 15: The band play the first of three dates at London’s massive O2 arena. The shows sold out in an hour.

MATTHEW: One of the princes of England came to the show-Harry. He was cool. We had a beer, played ping-pong. Maybe we’ll be sirs someday. JULY 21: Only by the Night is certified platinum in the U.S. Kings of Leon spend the summer playing The Today Show and headlining U.K. and American festivals (like Austin City Limits) alongside their heroes Radiohead and Pearl Jam.

NATHAN: If a band got to do just one of those things, it would pretty much be the highlight of their year. The Today Show was awesome ’cause they said I was the first person ever to drink a beer on the air at 6:15 a.m. And Lollapalooza and ACL were phenomenal because that was kind of our American homecoming. The night before ACL was the drunkest I got all year-thanks to one Edward Vedder.
CALEB: Ed actually called it immediately. He was one of the first people to hear Only by the Night, and he said, “You’re about to ride a big wave.” I don’t even think he liked the record. But he knew immediately that we were about to go through something big.
JARED FOLLOWILL: When our manager told us we had sold a million records, I was blown away. But it’s also kind of bittersweet. Once you go platinum, you’re automatically considered not cool.
CALEB: We definitely got bigger than we wanted to be. You feel like you’ve done something wrong. That woman in mom jeans who’d never let me date her daughter? She likes my music. That’s fuckin’ not cool. You almost start doing damage control: When people ask you to do stuff, you’re like, “No, because I can already tell this record is going to get to a level where people will fuckin’ hate us.”
NATHAN: When we started this band, our goal was to sell 10,000 records and put on one concert a year for 10,000 people. We did that 179 times on this tour.
CALEB: We used to play small clubs, go out to dive bars, drink with fans-it was a beautiful thing. Now you’re backstage at a big arena with Walmart lighting, and they’re not letting anyone in. Our real fans, the ones who’ve been there for the last five years, are in the front row pissed off. They’ll turn their backs on us during “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody,” put their middle fingers up. I get it. We’re definitely sellouts. But when you have success like we’ve had, you kind of have to feed the masses. As corny as it sounds.
NATHAN: For every fan we lost by quote “selling out,” we’ve probably gained five.
JARED: The first year I was in the band, I made $500. Now you start to feel like an asshole sometimes. You’re on the plane, like, “Dude, it’s been 30 minutes-where’s my sushi?”

Read the complete Kings of Leon cover story in the Jan./Feb. 2009 issue of SPIN.