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Mumford & Sons: Electric Minds

on April 21, 2015, 12:00am

As the door opens to the second floor Manhattan apartment where I’m meeting Mumford & Sons, I’m greeted by a gorgeously adorned loft. Passing a bedroom on my right and a walk-in closet on my left, I enter a spacious family room with a lengthy wall of exposed brick, a wide couch, the comfiest-looking armchair, and a large chaise lounge. There’s a spiral staircase leading to a lofted library with a door to another bedroom at the far end. I’m led past the bathroom, the huge open kitchen, and through the double glass doors into a living/dining room filled with modern, rustic wooden furniture and cream-colored upholstery. Even the fire escape is huge, the kind of thing you would drop an extra $150 a month on just for the “porch” space.

Rock stars, right?

“Gorgeous place, innit?” keyboardist Ben Lovett says as he looks out the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows. “We found it on Airbnb. Thought it would be nicer for the interviews than an office somewhere. I live in Brooklyn; my place is about half the size of this room.”

The fact that I had just assumed this was their place is indicative of larger perception issues with Mumford & Sons. They’re superstars whose identity is so linked to banjos, waistcoats, and charging folk-rock — factors that evoke passionate reactions on both sides of the love-hate spectrum — that it’s become hard for people to look at the band objectively. Thus, when they went on hiatus in late 2013, only to return with a highly publicized “plugged-in” sound on Wilder Mind, many cried foul. What sort of hiatus only lasts a year? What kind of folk band goes electric? Who do they think they are?

Mumford and Sons new album 2015

Well, to begin with, they never actually took a hiatus. “It was so accidental,” says frontman Marcus Mumford. “I think Ben was like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna take a break,’ so then a journalist used the word ‘hiatus.'” The band’s publicist points specifically to a Rolling Stone interview that was picked up by The Guardian with the keyword added in, and things spiraled from there.

So why not correct the reporting? “Well, because we thought actually that’s quite useful,” guitarist/banjoist Winston Marshall explains. “Because then we can get away from it, eyes off us, and take a break.” Mumford reiterates the idea, saying it created “space for us to go away and do whatever we wanted to do.” That’s why they would joke in interviews about breaking up; they let the media run wild while they focused on recharging after four years of aggressive touring that saw them rise to stadium-sized performers. Perhaps letting people be blown away by their sudden “return” after only a year and a half away was part of the lark.

As for “abandoning” their acoustic sound, it’s actually more like they’re returning to their original instruments. “‘The Wolf’ is way more natural [to us] because we grew up in guitar bands,” says Mumford. “We grew up with Oasis on in the background and Yamaha Pacificas plugged into shitty amps.” Mumford himself learned music on drums, while Marshall’s early work was in heavy metal lead guitar — quite different from a simple kick drum and a banjo. “We kind of borrowed acoustic instruments and did what we did for a while,” Mumford recalls, laughing as he adds that “it all got slightly out of hand.”

Besides which, it’s not as if they hadn’t already “gone electric.” “Half of Babel I play electric bass guitar,” points out Ted Dwane, who’s still more synonymous with upright bass. “And there’s drums all over the place. There’s lots of electric guitars and pedals, overdrive and stuff, full kit. Ben’s playing the same instrument he was in 2007.”

Their Sigh No More debut was so replete with the twang of acoustics because that’s the type of music they were discovering as young musicians starting a band. Perhaps due to their Glastonbury-headlining stature, it’s easy to forget the members’ median age is only 28. (Lovett even recalls having to use fake IDs their first time touring the States.) To assume a group of mid-to-late-twentysomethings, even as professional musicians, wouldn’t have evolving tastes is to deny that they’re just people. “We’re not purists,” says Mumford. “We’re not, like, hipsters who have one style of music and then fuck everyone else. Our music collections are pretty obscure and pretty wide-reaching. I don’t ever want to get stuck in one thing.”

During the course of our chat, they mention everything from jazz to hip-hop, Radiohead to Blink-182 to Arcade Fire. As Dwane notes, “We live in an iTunes/Spotify generation where you can access the entire history of recorded music. And I think to not embrace that and use it and be influenced by it would be a terrible waste.”

Still, their sophomore effort, Babel, continued with a similar stomping folk as the previous record, although that was at least partially out of necessity. “We wrote things in soundcheck on the road,” Marshall explains, “so it was the instruments we had in our hands, which was the instruments we started the band with: banjos, double bass, keyboards, acoustic guitars.” It not only limited what they could do, but who could do what. “Everyone [had] picked instruments that no one else could really play,” Mumford adds. “Like, double bass is really hard to play. And no one was going to have a part with a banjo.” He gives Marshall a nice, long smirk.

To shake things up, they purchased electric guitars at Chicago Music Exchange while on tour, but could only fiddle with them during soundchecks since they had no place in their catalog at that point. Then came the summer day in 2013 when they met The National’s Aaron Dessner. He invited the band to his garage studio in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, a space “full of the most brilliant guitars and amps and stuff.” It was there that one drunken night, the band laid to tape the first electric song they’d written on the road, a track called “Forever”. “[That] demo … was like the gateway drug to the rest of the record,” Mumford says.

Four other demos were made in that garage, including an early version of “Monster”. The band, however, still had a tour to finish and a break to take, so work wouldn’t commence again until February 2014. When it finally did, bits and pieces of those sessions made it into the studio, as did Dessner himself to play guitar on tracks like “Hot Gates”, “Snake Eyes”, and, of course, “Ditmas”. He also wrote some of the drums for “Monster”. It was an approach they’d never used before. With a touch of self-deprecation, Mumford remarks how musicians playing on each other’s records was a foreign concept. “I suppose to us in a band, we were a bit more English about it,” he says. “We were like, ‘But that’s your band, and this is our band. That’s cross pollination!’ … But actually, of course, it’s totally fine for someone to come along and be like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this groove that might work sound-wise underneath that thing that you’ve been writing.'”

In that way, “Forever” was used as a benchmark, not just for the way it sounded, but for the collaborative way it came together.

“Thanks to Aaron Dessner, we [started to] celebrate each other’s output more than ever,” Lovett says. They’d all written songs before, but the balance had tipped heavily in Mumford’s favor. “This time around we kind of realized that that doesn’t have to be how we live the rest of our lives.”

“I think the whole value of this band lies in the coming together of four creative people,” adds Dwane. “It’s always been our intention to be as collaborative as possible, and Aaron just really put it up a gear with his first sessions.”

Every two weeks, they found themselves in either a London or New York studio working together on new material. As Mumford points out, this was essentially their first time making a true “studio record,” whereas prior efforts were all formed on the road. “I never really got that phrase [studio album] before,” he says as if he’s stumbling on the discovery that very moment. “I guess that’s what it means.” He adds this is why “Forever” didn’t make the album — it was technically a road-written song. “I wanted to put it on the record right until the end, but it didn’t quite fit sound-wise, style-wise.”

mumford press e1429572858352 Mumford & Sons: Electric Minds

Not being on tour allowed for even further collaboration, as they weren’t limited to the equipment on their buses. “This time, we could pick up any instrument,” Marshall explains. “I’m playing guitar, and I’m playing parts that Ted wrote on the guitar. Or Ben’s playing key parts that I might have written.” If one person couldn’t finish an idea, another could step in and push it along.

Wilder Mind, therefore, puts the most emphasis to date on the “and Sons” aspect of the band. The work is so intertwined that they struggle to remember who wrote what, and that’s fine with them. They’d rather listeners not try to extrapolate themes from a song and pin them onto one of the musicians’ actual lives. Besides, many songs were written by the group together, and none escaped without passing through their four-layered filter.

Switching up their methods and switching out some of their sounds had rejuvenated them. Mumford recalls that after finishing the first Ditmas sessions, “It felt a bit like being in a new band, which is fun. I wanna have that feeling every few years with this band because it just kind of keeps you moving. I don’t think we ever want to sit still too long.”

But feeling like they’re on a new path does nothing to discredit what came before. “I think we always talk about creating snapshots of a band at that time,” Dwane says, noting that Mumford & Sons’ snapshots are “really accurate. Sigh No More, 2009 — bang! That is the best effort of this band, the most true creative expression of what we’re into and we’re listening to and what we wanted to say. And Babel the same, and Wilder Mind the same.”

“We’re not there to screw things up,” says Lovett of the quote-unquote new direction. “We’re not offending our fans. We’re not trying to go out there and [distance] ourselves from our old material. I actually think that Babel was an important record for us because it finished what we began with Sigh No More … We wouldn’t be where we are with Wilder Mind if we hadn’t done Babel. So I think that was a crucial record, but we’ll see how they sit next to each other. I think it’s going to be really interesting.”

Of course, the different eras of the band will be most prominent on stage. That very evening they’re to play the last of the secret shows during which they’ve tested out the new material. Though each member says the gigs have been fun, they also know they still have some kinks to work through. Besides simply practice, part of it is the record not being out. Each of them uses the word “frustration” when discussing the wait for the public to hear the album, saying it’s been challenging to push the new songs on audiences who haven’t encountered them yet.

“I think it will be good to integrate them a bit with the older songs,” Mumford says. He notes that such integration could prove logistically challenging. For instance, he and touring drummer Chris Maas use entirely different kits, meaning they’ll need two on stage. Then there’s the kick drum and tambourine, which are at his feet for old material but not used in the new songs. “[You could] trip over it — annoying if you’re not actually playing it,” he says.

They won’t be reworking old favorites to eliminate those complications, either. “We tried with one, and it sounded like shit, so we tacked it off,” Mumford says. “‘Little Lion Man’. Did kind of an electric version of it. Rubbish. Sounded like a bad cover.”

Follow this through logically, and, yes, the banjo will be back. Marshall made waves with his “I fucking hate the banjo” comments last year, and he’s not apologizing for it. “I don’t know why the record label denied it, but I admit it,” he says. “I have a fucking banjo tattooed to my arm. It’s a disaster. I have to think of something to put over it.” Anyone who ever tattooed the name of a one-time lover on their body can surely relate.

He didn’t pick up the instrument for 18 months after concluding the Babel tour, but his hatred has diminished. “I’m bang up for it,” he says. “I’m excited to play banjo. I really enjoy it again. I’m surprised how much I enjoyed it.” He says it can be frustrating when you aren’t inspired playing the same instrument over and over, so being able to bounce between things is refreshing. He’s even messing around on his new drum kit, though he notes, “If there’s one instrument I won’t play in Mumford & Sons ever, it’s drums.”

Even as they maintain they’re not leaving “old” Mumford behind, they’re under no illusion about how “new” Mumford will affect their fanbase. I ask each of them if they fear losing fans. “I don’t fear it,” Mumford says, “but I think it’s inevitable.” He relates it to how he felt about his longtime favorite band Arcade Fire and their last album, Reflektor. “I knew a lot of people who were like, ‘Ah, I never used to like Arcade Fire, but I love that album,'” he says. “And that wasn’t my favorite album of theirs.”

“I think the bigger the vehicle, the harder it is to maneuver,” says Dwane, acknowledging that their particular level of notoriety makes any change difficult. “It’s just, to us, we feel so flexible and creative and dynamic. And it’s hard to meet that with the wider perception of the band, which is like, waistcoats and banjos. Which isn’t what we feel like or ever really felt like.”

Lovett has a reasonable expectation of a turnover. People grow older and grow apart, but they’re always meeting new kindred spirits along the way. “Musically, that works for us,” he explains. “If we were holding for dear life onto this version of us from 2007, the music and the people that love that music, and as we naturally grew up we were clinging onto that? We would be hollow.”

Mumford and Sons

“Becomes a museum piece, doesn’t it?” Dwane chimes in. “It’s sort of not real.”

“I just think changing, evolving as a band, is a good thing,” Mumford adds. “Just repackaging all the same old shit is not something you want to do when you’re still in your 20s as a band.”

Most twentysomethings don’t dress the same way they did seven years ago, but it doesn’t mean they’ve completely altered their identity. In the end, the band hasn’t really changed much either. They’re not doing Pink Floyd laser shows or shooting fire from guitar necks. Sure, the instruments have been swapped some, but the music remains firmly about the songs. “The folk stuff, we kinda hit that as a secondary thing,” says Marshall. “That’s just the treatment.” Regardless of stylistic framework, Mumford says the band still delivers “storytelling in music.”

Being one of the biggest bands in the world comes with the baggage of public perception. Even though Mumford & Sons have only two albums and just one band member barely in his 30s, expectations have been set by past success. But the band is confident in Wilder Mind and in the fact that they’ve created another album that, as Lovett says, “is a true representation of each other.” Whether listeners come along for the ride is entirely up to them.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter,” says Mumford. “As long as we’re still playing shows. Those club shows are really fun.”

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