With their third album, Mumford & Sons have run a country mile from their trademark banjos and embraced drivetime rock. Kevin EG Perry interrogates them about this volte-face, and what it will mean for their legions of fans…
If ever a band was equally loved and loathed it is Mumford & Sons. Their first two albums have sold over three million copies each and they’ve cracked America in a way that no British band has managed since Coldplay. Their brand of earnest folk rock has taken them to The White House, where they played for Obama, and Glastonbury, where they headlined in 2013. Yet the same sincerity that’s won them legions of fans has brought them an equal number of detractors. They are gentlemen of the middle of the road: wildly successful, but deeply uncool.
Nobody knows this better than Marcus Mumford. On a recent night out in Brooklyn, in his adopted home of New York, a man approached the singer in a bar to tell him: “I fucking hate your band.” He recounts the incident as he heads across town in a cab to meet his band mates at the Brooklyn studio owned by their friend and collaborator, The National’s Aaron Dessner. “I was like, ‘You’re a legend mate. Have a good night!’” he says. “I quite like that. I don’t want everybody to like our music. That would be really boring. It’s about taste, isn’t it?”
But from what he and his bandmates say, even they’re not sure they still like their trademark sound: those twanging banjos and pounding, four-to-the-floor kick drum.
“We’ve been working within quite narrow parameters,” says bassist Ted Dwane (the next member of the band to dial in for a half-hour chat). “As a band, we feel that over two records we’ve pretty thoroughly explored that sound. Nobody in the band was that excited about playing a drum with a foot anymore. And there was no way we were just going to churn out another album for the sake of it pleasing fans.”
“We started doing this in 2007 and the worst thing we could have done would be to get trapped making the sort of music we had been making,” adds keyboard player Ben Lovett. “That would have put our lives on pause until the band ended.”
What that means is that Mumford & Sons’ third record ‘Wilder Mind’, due this May, finds the band adopting a rockier sound, more in tune with Dessner’s densely-constructed work with The National and the racing drivetime of The War On Drugs than The Band’s rootsy Americana. Banjo player Winston Marshall now plays electric guitar. Mumford’s kick-drum has been replaced with a full drum kit: on the record, Mumford plays half the drum parts and producer James Ford the other.
Dwane, who has gone seven years as a bass player without a fully-fledged rhythm section, is ecstatic. “We’ve always imagined ourselves as a rock band,” he says. “We’ve always been a rock band playing the wrong instruments. Now we have the right instruments.”
“We always saw ourselves this way,” says Marshall, “Which is why we didn’t really think we were a folk band.”
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For their fans, though, Mumford & Sons are the figureheads of the modern folk movement, and any switch in direction leaves them wide open to desertion. The band recently posted a plug for new single ‘Believe’ on Instagram. One fan commented: “Just heard this on the radio. Sad day for music when you can’t tell Mumford & Sons from David Guetta and such anymore.” Another added: “You now sound like every other band on the radio.” A handful of them used the hashtag: #bringbackthebanjo.
In truth, there’s always been something of the surging rush of EDM to Mumford’s music, driven by that pounding beat. It’s no coincidence that Avicii lifted their style for his massive global hit ‘Wake Me Up’ in 2013. But if anything the band are less bombastic now – ‘Wilder Mind’ is subtler and richer in texture than their previous work. It would be churlish and missing the point to criticise Mumford & Sons for not making their own version of Lou Reed’s borderline unlistenable 1975 noise album ‘Metal Machine Music’, yet the band know that the variation will upset the #bringbackthebanjo brigade. Dwane admits that the fact they could lose existing fans is “not something that hasn’t crossed our minds”, but adds, “We wouldn’t last a year on the road playing music that we didn’t love. We made the only record that we could have made. It’ll freak a few people out, but it was the only thing we could do.”
‘Wilder Mind’ was born at Aaron Dessner’s backyard Brooklyn studio in 2013. At the time, Mumford & Sons were still finishing off almost five years of non-stop touring. In soundchecks and during downtime they had already begun playing around with electric instruments, so they relished getting back into the studio under The National songwriter’s watchful eye. “Aaron was almost like a mentor,” explains Marshall. “He let us use this studio in Brooklyn just to fuck around in. Obviously we’re all massive National fans so we jumped on that without hesitation.”
New York is present in the titles of the songs on the record – ‘Ditmas’ and ‘Tompkins Square Park’ are named after nearby locations – and also in the urgency and shadows of the music. Set against their previous work, this is the most urban record they’ve ever made: the rushing guitars mimic streams of traffic, glinting, dark production the reflection of skyscrapers. The band returned to London to finish the record with James Ford at AIR Studios in Hampstead. “We didn’t want to make a ‘New York’ record,” says Dwane. “We’re obviously a London band, and British at heart. We’ve started referring to it as ‘a tale of two cities’, which I quite like.”
Despite their reluctance to uproot entirely, Mumford & Sons have always been deeply in thrall to Americana. They pulled off their folksy bluegrass so convincingly that when they won the Grammy for Best Album for ‘Babel’ in 2013, Twitter was awash with Americans reacting with surprise that they weren’t from the Deep South. On ‘Wilder Mind’, they’ve simply switched one strand of American rock for another: from hoedowns to drivetime AOR.
It’s by no means unusual for British bands to embrace American influences, but in Mumford & Sons’ case, America often seems like a bolthole – a country ready to embrace them regardless of their class backgrounds, which have always been a frequent sticking point at home in the UK. The band were privately educated, and Marshall’s father is a millionaire hedge fund owner and an advisor to the current Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. The band refuse to discuss class, but Dwane does lament that in Britain the band have been discredited for many things they have no control over. “I think people overlay their perceptions onto you,” he says. “We don’t sing about eating local produce or growing beards or anything like that. It’s funny to find yourself in a position where people associate you with things that are completely arbitrary to your songs.”
These problems pale in comparison to being named one of David Cameron’s favourite bands, however, as Mumford & Sons were in 2013. “I felt quite sorry for The War On Drugs recently because Cameron came out and said he likes them,” says Mumford with a laugh. “A bunch of that kind of stuff happens with us, and I suppose it comes from just getting way bigger than we ever anticipated or intended. It all happened really fast. We have to get comfortable with that, and not say: ‘Fuck it, we want to be a tiny pub band.’ It’s an opportunity to make more music, and as long as it’s about that I’m cool with it all. If we were big for any other reason then I’d be questioning it, but we’re not male models, I can tell you that.”
Religion is another area the band refuse to discuss, but which plays much better for them in the States than it does at home. Mumford’s parents run the evangelical Christian Vineyard Church group, and many of his lyrics contain earnest biblical allusions as well as references to writers like John Steinbeck and Hilary Mantel. “There has been some of that in my lyrics,” says Mumford, “There are those references on this record, but we’ve been a bit less forthright about them. We’ve decided that’s OK. We haven’t called the record ‘Sigh No More’ or ‘Babel’, which is a start.”
‘Wilder Mind’ sees the band writing more collaboratively than ever before, particularly when it comes to lyrics, and Mumford says he found new pleasure in singing lines the others wrote for him. This is where the album’s more lovelorn lyrics have come from. Dwane says it’s the half of the band who are single who’ve contributed those lines – rather than Mumford himself, who is married to the actress Carey Mulligan.
“We’re all writers and we’ve got a near enough even share of songs on the record,” explains Dwane. “The first record was mainly Marcus’ songs, the second record was much more collaborative and this record was purely collaborative.”
“I definitely regret the band name,” adds Mumford, ruing the impression that he’s the band’s only creative force. “If I’d known that it was going to go this way I would have wanted to call it anything other than my last name. It’s a ball-ache. We thought about changing it, but it’s a bit late now.”
They may be stuck with their name, their backgrounds and with having David Cameron as a superfan, but there is evidence that Mumford & Sons are currently attempting something of a rebranding. The tweed waistcoats and bow ties are gone. In their place are standard-issue indie leather jackets. “I think it would be fair to say that we’ve noticed that in some of our old photos we look like absolute idiots,” says Lovett. “There were so many car crashes. We look like us in our photos now. I don’t even want to describe how we used to look.”
“I do cringe when I look at the old shoots we used to do,” agrees Dwane. “You realise that your identity as band is so much stronger and more cemented in the outside world and in other people’s minds than it is in your own. We’re four mates who write songs together. To us, there’s no aesthetic or fashion about it.”
Mumford, though, bristles at the suggestion that their new fashion choices have a calculated edge. “We didn’t sit down and say, ‘Let’s wear leather, guys,’” he says. “Over an eight-year period you behave differently. You go to different places, you probably have different friends. You wear different clothes. We didn’t hire a stylist and say, ‘Let’s rebrand ourselves.’”
Although they’ve played Reading And Leeds before, 2015 marks their first headline set at the festivals. “Reading And Leeds are rock festivals, and that’s exactly why we wanted to play them,” says Lovett. As well as positing them as a going rock concern, it also holds special significance for a band that came of age there. In 2003, it was Mumford, Marshall, Dwane and Lovett in those crowds watching Metallica. Now they find themselves billed alongside them.
“I cannot wait for it,” says Marshall. “I went every year as a kid. This is a dream come true. Even if we get bottled off, even if they chuck shit at us, at least I can say I’ve headlined Reading And Leeds – even if we only last 10 minutes.”
“It’s part of the deal, isn’t it?” asks Mumford of the threat of piss bottles, while Marshall guiltily confesses to once bottling Good Charlotte at Reading. “I’m not worried about it, though, especially because there’s nobody else on after us,” he says. “You won’t have people waiting to see someone else, so they can just go and do drugs in their tent.”
If Mumford has his way, the band could end up pursuing more unlikely directions yet. “I went to that Kanye gig in London recently and was blown away,” he says. “I grew up listening to Jurassic 5 and Nas. I’ve been getting into that again recently. I’ve been hanging out with an amazing guy called 88-Keys to learn how to chop up beats. That’s really fun for me. I don’t really care about how we’re seen right now, because I think the story of this band will be a long one. People are always going to say stuff in the moment, but I hope that the arc of the band will be interesting.”
If a Mumford & Sons hip-hop album seems improbable, Mumford is keenly aware that Kanye is something he’s not: a rock star. “It feels like he’s the only rock star left in the world who truly does what he wants,” he says. “Kanye is a rock’n’roll legend. I don’t feel like that. I don’t really feel like I want to go out there and spray my mouth off on various issues. I’d rather just play my guitar and sing songs. Obviously there are things that we as a band all believe in and values that we have, and sometimes that will come across in the lyrics, but I don’t really feel like the band is my platform for expressing that kind of stuff. Whenever it starts getting not about music, I’m out of my comfort zone. Someone like Kanye clearly isn’t. He’s as happy talking about philosophy. It’s like Joey Barton, the ‘philosopher footballer’. I’m more of a route one football man.”
What Mumfords’ “beliefs and values” are is hard to pin down. Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers argued recently that middle class bands have nothing to say. Push Mumford & Sons for an answer, and you get simple clichés about the music coming first. “We’re definitely not writing songs with a mission statement,” says Lovett.
“We started off just playing in pubs for the love of music, and really our message is just that,” adds Dwane.
Yet Mumford & Sons have become improbably big business. Eight years, six million records and a tractor-load of Grammys and Brits into their career, they know it’s time to mix it up. Their success has bought them the freedom to change, and ‘Wilder Mind’ captures a band more than happy to move on. You just have to listen to Marshall’s curling riff on ‘Believe’ to realise how ecstatic he is to be freed from that banjo he’s been shackled to. The same goes for Dwane, over the moon to find himself in a proper rhythm section. Mumford, too, sounds relieved that he doesn’t have to scream every song until his heart bursts anymore.
Whether or not they can take their fans with them on this journey remains to be seen, but love them or loathe them, ‘Wilder Mind’ is a sign that Mumford & Sons want to be in this for the long haul.