Mumford & Sons dropped a new single last night, ‘Believe’, swapping their trademark banjo twangs and country flourishes for moody synths and Coldplay-ish swathes of stadium pop grandeur. While the world gets acquainted with the four-piece’s surprising new sound, here’s a blast from the past – their first ever NME cover feature, from March 2010. Their folk revolution was in full effect as Barry Nicolson caught up with the ‘Sigh No More’ crew amid a gruelling world tour. Here’s how it all went down…
NME walks through the dressing room door of the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire to be greeted by four road-fried young men in varying states of rumpled disarray. Eyes are puffy from lack of sleep. Clothes are creased and over-worn. Facial hair has grown unchecked until the tips take on an odd ginger glisten in the mid-afternoon sun. It’s a little after half past three, which means it’s not late enough to start drinking, but it’s frustratingly close. There’s no outward indication that today has been more or less hectic and frenzied than the day before (or the day before that, or the day before that). This state of permanent transience is now simply routine for Mumford & Sons, who look less like the vanguard of a nu-folk explosion and more like four guys in need of a sleep on something without wheels and a meal that doesn’t come pre-packaged from a service station fridge.
We hook up with them 11 days into their current UK tour, but that’s nothing; in the last three months alone they’ve played dates in India, Australia, America, Canada and Europe. For most bands it would be a case of here endeth the tether, but not for Mumford & Sons; by all accounts, keeping them off the road is the trickiest part.
“It’s quite nice for us to be busy and just plough on with doing what we know how to do,” says frontman Marcus Mumford as he wipes a crumb of unidentified sustenance from the corner of his mouth. “We don’t know how to do radio, we don’t know how to do record sales, we just know how to play gigs. Our focus has got to be on the live stuff, really. That’s where we feel like we can earn whatever comes our way, that’s where we feel like we can solidify our reputation. So that’s what we focus on. We’re focused on it just now, and we’re going to be focused on it for the next six months or so, because it’s just gigs and gigs and gigs.”
There’s a good reason for this eternal wanderlust; pausing too long in one place might necessitate a stock-take of everything that’s happened to them in the last six months, something that Mumford describes as “too scary to contemplate”.
Well, if he won’t do it, allow us to instead. From humble west London beginnings, Mumford & Sons – comprising Marcus, double bassist Ted Dwane, organist Ben Lovett and banjoist (yes, banjoist) Winston ‘Country’ Marshall – have sold 350,000 copies of their debut album ‘Sigh No More’ in the UK alone. The tour they’re currently on is completely sold out, with every date having to be upgraded to a larger venue to meet demand for tickets. Further afield, they’ve knocked Susan Boyle from the top of the Australian album charts and a recent gig in LA was attended by the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal and Benicio Del Toro. Amazingly, they’ve managed to do all of this while sounding like they predate electricity; an old-time Americana string band who had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of both the Atlantic Ocean and the 19th century.
Yet they – along with friends and contemporaries Laura Marling and Noah And The Whale – have become figureheads for a new wave of folk music, one that harks back to the weighty and honourable traditions of the form. Their eldest member (Ted) may be all of 25, but their music is weathered and wizened, old as them there hills. Which begs the question of how these four young Londoners ended up sounding as they do. Shouldn’t they be listening to dubstep or something?
For a man who owns a tassled shirt and has worn it without irony, one of the more exciting aspects of Mumford & Sons’ rise to prominence is that it should help to debunk the popular myth of country and bluegrass music being the sole preserve of Deep South inbreeders with a gun on each of their three thumbs. Britain has always been largely ignorant of the importance of country music, the music of suffering, sorrow and redemption, which is almost as influential to rock’n’roll as the blues. Changing that attitude may prove to be Mumford & Sons’ biggest achievement.
“The thing is,” says Marcus, “it’s a wonderful platform for melodies. Of all the country bands I love, it’s the melodies that I love the most about them. If you listen to a Gillian Welch album or an Alison Krauss album, the melodies on it are just mindblowing. And the instrumentation that’s involved in it, it really gives a voice to those melodies and harmonies. To me it’s very pure and to-the-point. But if you listen to the intricacies around it, some of the playing, some of the musicianship… like, we’re all big fans of jazz music and grew up playing it, and the musicianship in that sometimes just makes you marvel, and it’s the same with, for example, a really brilliant mandolin player.”
But what drew you to that sort of music in the first place, when most other kids your age were obsessing over The Strokes and weeping over The Libertines?
“I guess we were all into it from quite a young age,” he explains. “I got into it just as I was leaving school. Then I went to America on my gap year and gradually got into it more and more. When Winnie started teaching himself the banjo… how old were you again?”
“I was 17.”
“Yeah, so he was 17. And I guess we all just got into it in different ways, and met when we had the suitable instruments in our hands. Winnie had been learning the banjo. Ted bought himself a double bass. I was trying out things on the harmonica, as everybody who starts playing folk music does! And when we sat down together, with Ben’s keyboards and organ sounds, we just really liked that combination sonically. Then about a year later, I listened to a Kinks album and realised that, actually, we weren’t all that original and that it had all been done before.”
That it had all been done before hardly mattered; then, as now, the joy for Mumford & Sons lay in live performance. Years before the band would actually form, it was Winston who provided them with a stage to play on in the shape of Bosun’s Locker, a venue-cum-underage drinking den in Fulham he ran as a 17-year-old that has since passed into legend as the place where Laura Marling and Noah And The Whale first cut their songwriting chops.
“We never actually played there as a band,” says Winston, a serious-looking 22-year-old who takes exception to being mistaken for a ukulelist. “It was where we would just meet up and jam. It wasn’t a ‘band’ thing – it was only towards the end of it that bands started to form. What it basically boils down to is that a lot of us were underage and it was the only place where we could drink. We were all either 16 or 17 at the time, except for Laura – she was only 11! Anyone who wanted to play could just get up and do it.”
“It was really accidental,” adds Ben. “Not to mention ramshackle. Nobody had any motive other than to get pissed and have a great time. It was all about listening to and playing music. If you weren’t doing one, you were doing the other. The only qualifier to be in there was that you had to be willing to engage in some way.”
Mumford & Sons hate the word ‘scene’ and, in truth, it’s a little disingenuous to describe the Bosun’s Locker bands as such: for one thing, they didn’t actually form until years after the Locker’s doors had slammed shut for the final time. For another, while Marcus is currently dating Laura Marling and rates Noah And The Whale (whose second album was inspired by frontman Charlie Fink’s break-up with Marling) as “one of the most inspiring bands around,” he also admits that, “To be honest, we don’t see each other a lot. We haven’t seen each other in years actually. Everyone has this idea that we all hold hands and skip around London together when we’re off tour, but it’s just not like that.”
Still, this ‘musical friend-circle’ (as Winston prefers to call it) does have certain scene-like qualities. In a way, it’s oddly reminiscent of the Laurel Canyon community of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a folksy Hollywood Hills commune of friends, lovers and rivals that included the likes of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Like Mumford & Sons, they too were steeped in harmonious Americana and confessional folk troupes, and met with unexpectedly huge commercial success. Unlike Mumford & Sons, however, we don’t recall – as a recent Drowned In Sound review that completely missed the point did – any sniffy critics ever dismissing them as “being to folk what Nickelback are to grunge.”
We get about three words into that quote before Marcus interrupts us.
“Please let’s not finish that sentence,” he asks. “The last time someone quoted that line to me… well, let’s just say that it spiralled into a very bad day.”
While ‘Sigh No More’ – which was recorded with Coldplay and Maccabees producer Markus Dravs before the band had even signed their record deal – was met with wide acclaim, there were a few dissenting voices, and the issue that really seemed problematic was the one of ‘authenticity’. This is a problematic concept, because it raises the question of what actually is authentic anymore. We all live in the 21st century, after all; even Jack White owns an iPod. Mumford & Sons may use traditional instruments to sing songs about faith, love and death, but there’s no law that says they need to have lost limbs in the Civil War to mean them. And as far as any conspiracy theories about cynically tailoring their sound for mainstream consumption go… dude, they employ a banjo player. And, in the words of that banjo player, “People are giving us way too much credit for being more calculated than we actually are.”
This is a touchy issue for Mumford & Sons, and one they visibly don’t enjoy talking about.
Says Marcus: “People can say what they want. That idea must occur from people thinking that we were just sitting around one day and decided, ‘OK, we should play the banjo or the double bass because we want to sound like this’, as though there was some sort of premeditated sound that we wanted to create, or recreate. But it really wasn’t. Like everything that’s happened to us in the last couple of years, it’s all a massive accident. People must think we’re very tactical about things, when it was literally like… I had an acoustic guitar in my hands. Winnie had a banjo in his. Ted had just bought a double bass, and Ben brought in a keyboard. Then we just sat down and played through some songs that we’d written. But, I mean, I can’t really claim that I care all that much if someone thinks what we do is authentic or not. Come and see a show, and if you don’t like it then ignore it. I just like playing gigs. I like standing next to my three best friends onstage, singing our hearts out and sweating our balls off. I don’t care if someone thinks it’s inauthentic. We’ll fucking do what we love.”
Somehow, doing what they love has managed to strike a chord with an audience far greater than they could ever have imagined. But Mumford & Sons haven’t just sold an eyebrow-raising amount of albums; they’ve influenced the way people are dressing (seriously, next gig you go to, keep an eye out for the ever-growing waistcoat and corduroy folk brigade) and, perhaps most excitingly, the instruments people are buying – sales of traditional instruments such as banjos, double basses and even fiddles are soaring. Typically, when we suggest their complicity in this to them, they look at us like we’ve just sprouted antlers.
“Cultural impact?” scoffs Marcus. “I think it’s cool that people are buying those kinds of instruments, but I don’t think we can claim too much credit for that. I think that’s more to do with the music press! And we’re definitely not the sort of band that attracts people looking to change their image or anything. We try to encourage people to be themselves, to be honest, to be a little happy-go-lucky, but that’s all. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a case of, ‘We’re all dickheads, but let’s have a nice time being dickheads together and maybe try to fix it.’”
“We do everything we can to get people out of the house, have a drink and enjoy a nice evening,” says Ben. “But I really can’t believe we’re changing people’s lives in any way.”
Except, whether they know it or not, Mumford & Sons are doing just that. They’re a refreshingly unfashionable and unselfconscious band who love music for music’s sake, and their enthusiasm for it is every bit as infectious as the tremulous euphoria of ‘Little Lion Man’ and ‘Winter Winds’.
In spite of what their critics might say, there’s nothing calculated or cynical about them; after our interview we go downstairs to watch them play three new songs in soundcheck (‘Lover Of The Light’, ‘Whispers In The Dark’ and a stately country ballad that’s currently nameless). Even in this chaotic setting – with roadies scurrying around the stage adjusting the levels on their amps – they’re imbued with a quiet, solemn intensity that you can’t take your eyes from, and that certainly can’t be faked. That’s why Mumford & Sons aren’t too bothered by nu-folk explosions, platinum albums or critical acclaim: for them, right now, there is only the road.
Marcus: “For us, it’s as much about making friends as it is the music. What’s cool is that we can go to places like Australia, and find kindred spirits on the other side of the world. We want to record again very soon, but we also want to tour more. We enjoy it, and we find it’s easy to write there. Ideas tend to come thick and fast during soundcheck. And there’s never a mundane day.”
Expect these nu-folk minstrels to wander a while yet.