By Chris Kornelis / Special to The Seattle Times
When Kings of Leon released its fourth LP, “Only By the Night” in 2008 the Nashville band not only became one of the country’s biggest rock bands, but one of its most divisive. Fans of the scrappy, undercard rock on KOL’s first two albums had largely tolerated transitional third album, “Because of the Times,” but cried sellout when the band rose to the top of the charts on the back of lead single “Sex On Fire.” The band is now touring behind last year’s “Mechanical Bull.” I recently traded notes with KEXP DJ John Richards about the band and the backlash.
Chris Kornelis: I feel like I woke up one day and Kings of Leon were the most divisive band in rock and roll. What happened?
John Richards: I think a lot of people will feel betrayed by a band that gets popular. That’s just how it is. We all went through this. We all had our band that broke through and you’re pissed because the popular kids like them now. I think for Kings of Leon, some people who liked the early records, I don’t think they saw these guys as trying to be big rock stars and making these “Sex On Fire” songs.
I think on the early records, Kings of Leon were trying to make these songs, they just hadn’t gotten there yet. So what we ended up getting were some really great albums, but not necessarily these songs popping out to a popular crowd. You know what I mean?
CK: I totally know what you mean. After the second album they did tours with U2 and Bob Dylan and you get a sense from the next albums that they were trying to swing for the arenas. Even if they were just trying to sell some records, I have no problem with that if the music is good — which I think it was. I wish more bands were ambitious like that.
JR: And put yourself in their shoes. So, you’re now opening for U2. You’re now expected to play arenas. Aren’t you expected to make arena rock? I mean, unless you’re deciding to go back and play clubs. I still would argue their singles and their popular songs have more depth than a lot of top-40 songs that you will ever hear.
CK: Did you ever spin “Sex On Fire”?
JR: I did when it was first out. This is like a scientific experiment you could do with KEXP or my show. I’ve played a lot of singles before they’re singles. It’s interesting to see how people turn. I’ve got the best example: The Lumineers. I famously played that (“Ho, Hey”) first, and am given credit for that. And played the shit out of it for I don’t know how long. But all of a sudden, a few months later, I’m actually getting criticized by a few people — not a majority — but a few people start to criticize that I would play such a popular single on my show. It kind of hurts your brain. They’re still on an indie label. They’re the band we broke. They’re the band that has nothing but love for KEXP. And at the same time, you hesitate a little, because you have this single now.
CK: So, it doesn’t sound like you’re squarely in the loving what their doing or hater camps. Where are you at, 2014?
JR: I have no problem with popular music and people’s love of it. I can’t stand destroying music because it’s popular. I saw No Doubt live, for instance. It was a girl thing. No Doubt is not for me. It does not resonate with me and I’m not a fan. But when you see them on stage and you hear the songs performed, you absolutely accept and get why people love it. So when you go to the Kings of Leon, I’m probably not going to get the latter albums on as much. There’s not as much for me to choose from on those records. I get those and I like them, but I don’t find myself playing them. The newer stuff doesn’t have as much of an emotional connection, like I have with the other records. But I absolutely get other stations playing them a lot.
CK: It’s funny that there’s more of an emotional connection for you in the first Kings of Leon records. At the time, at least a couple of those guys were beginning musicians still learning to play their instruments. They’re not the first band that could barely play their instruments to have a popular record, but it’s almost like, as they got better as musicians, their records declined — a little in my ears, but certainly to yours.
JR: I like that it was borderline garage rock. But deep in the woods, you know what I mean? I think those early records really caught that deep woods authenticity. I was a big, big fan of those first records. Some of those songs got requested daily. I think because they knew how to write hits. They knew how to write catchy songs, but back then, it was sort of these rough versions.
U2 was rough when they were making “New Year’s Day” or “Pride,” or whatever. And they would never make that song the way they made it now. But there’s something about their youngness and uniqueness and innocence that you’re hearing in those songs that you can’t do later. They can’t go back and do those records now. Those days are gone.
Kings of Leon, 8 p.m., Friday, March 28. 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $25.50 to $55.50. (206-684-7200 or keyarena.com)