In England, Kings of Leon are stars. Here -- they're working on it. When the band's debut Youth & Young Manhood came out in 2003, the British press loved the Flannery O'Connor-like story of three brothers and a cousin from Tennessee who were sheltered from secular music by their drunken Protestant minister father/uncle, who was subsequently defrocked. Skeptical media have yet to turn up a defrocked minister by the family name of Followill yet, but that's neither here nor there -- the story, the hip-shaking Southern rock 'n' roll filtered through the Strokes, and the fact that they partied like they were shot out of a cannon made them overnight sensations. Still, they were rumors in their homeland.
"Now it's a lot better than it was," guitarist Matthew Followill says. "Right now, America reminds me of how it was the first time we went to London -- smaller venues, but they're packed out and the crowds are crazy."
He's talking from outside his hotel in Chicago because they don't allow smoking inside, and, he says, "I've got to smoke four or five cigarettes to feel normal." The band's second album, Aha Shake Heartbreak is getting critical approval and the sound is more distinct, less Southern. Followill attributes the growth to listening to Prince, the Ronettes and early hip-hop, and more importantly, to experience. "We toured for 18 months after the first record and got a lot better on the instruments."
After a few months of large club dates, Kings of Leon were selected by U2 to open the band's stadium tour starting later this spring. "We played a TV show in UK with U2," Followill says. Afterwards, U2 wanted to meet the band, then soon after asked them to open on the tour. "We thought about it for two seconds and said yes."
Besides becoming better musicians, the constant touring after the first album taught them something else.
"I learned if you drink every night for a year, after that year's over, you'll probably be an alcoholic," Followill says. "We decided it's OK to chill out sometimes and go to sleep instead of stay up all night."
Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers has a problem with corners.
"I know in the Archers (of Loaf -- the band he first made his name with), I felt like I had backed myself into a corner being indie-rock, dork guy, so I elbowed my way out of that corner with Crooked Fingers," he says by phone from Seattle. "I felt like I did that pretty well, and I felt like now I was backing myself into a corner as a dark, curmudgeonly singer-songwriter type, and I want to elbow my way out of that corner."
He hopes the new album, Dignity and Shame, will accomplish that goal. It is, bluntly, an album of attractive songs, many of which deal with love, its challenges and consequences. The centerpiece is "Andalucia," based on the story of the legendary bullfighter Manolete, who promised his love Andalucia that he'd quit after his last bullfight. In that one, he was gored in the groin and died.
"The first song was 'Dignity and Shame," and I like that concept. Our dignity isn't tested as it was in the past," Bachmann said. "When I started thinking of stories to demonstrate that, I stumbled upon bullfighting, and a quote that bullfighting was the ultimate test of whether a man lives with dignity or with shame."
For fans of that early, noisy Archers of Loaf sound that emanated from Chapel Hill, N.C., this album seems like a radical departure. But Bachmann doesn't see it in those terms, being a fan of subversive music more than punk rock. "I was a fan of Mission of Burma, the Fall and Television, but also Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Richard and Linda Thompson and Bruce Springsteen," he says. "Then I'd go onstage and play 'Audiowhore.'"
The radical guitars that were the trademark of the Archers of Loaf only occasionally make an appearance here, in the solo on "Destroyer" and the rave-up ending of "Coldways." According to Bachmann, though, that's all guitarist Barton Carroll. "I play nylon string guitar on the album," he says. "When people want to ask me about the tunings I use, I want to ask them, 'Don't you guys get laid?'"
For a guide to SXSW-bound bands Watchers, the Moaners, the Dears, Pale Blue Dot, Supersystem, Enon, Clem Snide and Guitar Wolf performing in New Orleans this week, see Opening Act 2.