No great band is born without a struggle and no great records are born in a vacuum. For every artist whose ideas makes your wig spin there are a huge pile of influences – from specks of colour to swathes of sound – that delivered them to that point. And this where The Roots Of… comes in. Each week we’ll take a band, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences. This week: Mumford & Sons.
“You can never really tell what your influences are,” reckoned Mumford banjo and dobro player Winston Marshall back in the autumn of 2009. He has a point. While a quick earful of the west Londoners will reveal a lot (country music, Arcade Fire, Dylan), what’s less clear is what else is underneath. The four grew up on jazz, brash pop and crunchy rap as much as they did with anything that could be called “traditional” music. In fact, as their producer Marcus Dravs noted two years ago, “If you make [bluegrass] sound as fat sonically as hip hop, then you can fill an arena, easy.” That is the key to the Mumfords right there, take something as old and as the hills and present it in a whole new way.
Marcus Mumford was born in California, but moved to London as a child. He met keyboard player Ben Lovett at King’s College School in Wimbledon (another friend of theirs, Matt Owens, went on to form Noah and the Whale, Marcus joined a big-band jazz outfit called, oh yes, Détente). The pair met Winston and bass-player Ted Dwane (previously a member of punk band, Sex Face) while at university in Edinburgh and by late 2006 this new group were practising on the street outside Marshall’s country and bluegrass night held in a long-since closed, 80-capacity King’s Road basement bar called Bosun’s Locker. Laura Marling used to go there, as did Noah and his “Whale” and a chap called Jay Jay Pistolet (now known better as Justin from the Vaccines).
“It wasn’t really a scene at all,” Marcus told me in 2009. “But I understand that people might like it to have been. They were just our friends – and I like hearing my friends tell their stories in songs.”
Two EPs on Chess Club followed, before Dravs – hearing, “amazing dance music” – signed on to produce their debut LP, a work inspired by not just music, but Shakespeare and Steinbeck, Arthur Miller and Cormac McCarthy. Here was a band without a drummer, a band with a stand-up bass, a band who fought against the “fabrication of emotion” while getting the approving nod from Radio 1. Spirit-sapping debates about “authenticity” and “privilege” (pop music’s most screamingly pointless dead-ends) would follow, but in early 2010 Mumford were on the cusp of being absolutely massive. The question is, how did they get there?
In the beginning
Side-step the childhood flirtation with Count Basie’s big band jazz and head straight to Bob Dylan and focus on his “born-again” LP Slow Train Coming (Marcus’ heavily religious mum owned a small handful of records, another was The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun) and his double-LP masterpiece, Blood On The Tracks. “We wouldn’t be playing music at all if it wasn’t for Dylan,” Marcus has said. From there it’s a short hop to The Band and then Bruce Springsteen, whose song Atlantic City was always a Mumford favourite. 60 years ago, American historian and sociologist Lewis Mumford wrote about suburbia’s creeping malaise. In 1962 folkie Malvina Reynolds turned that idea into a song called Little Boxes, which was covered, famously, by America’s preeminent cultural archivist – and unstintingly hardcore folk-dude, Pete Seeger.
In 1958 Pete’s brother Mike had formed a band called The New Lost City Ramblers, a band without a drummer, but with a banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar, a band who, inspired by legendary country, blues and folk song collector Harry Smith’s Anthology series, breathed new life into forgotten music. “The New Lost City Ramblers are a very good comparison actually,” Winston told me in 2009. “They really took the music seriously and we take the music very seriously. But we don’t take ourselves seriously at all.”
While at school Winston was a big Backstreet Boys fan, while the first record Marcus ever bought with his own money was Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation album. “I was trying to be a badass,” he said later. “So I listened to it religiously.” Those Bosun’s Locker gigs showcased Laura Marling, Noah, King Charles, Emmy the Great and Johnny Flynn, while the band’s early tours found them hammering Kings of Leon and Fleet Foxes in the tour bus. Above them all, however, floated Arcade Fire, who Marcus once described as, “the best band in the world.”
Outside of Bob Dylan, the single biggest influence on the Mumfords would be Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Released just when Marcus had learnt to drive, the mix of gospel, country and folk – both old and new – the soundtrack became his constant companion on long car journeys. “With those bluegrass tunes on the stereo,” he said in 2010, “you’re almost back there in America.” One highlight of the soundtrack was Gillian Welch’s I’ll Fly Away and it was Welch’s musical partner David Rawlings who would later produce the first two Americana bluegrass band Old Crow Medicine Show albums. And who, some nine years later, declared OCMS, “one of our biggest influences”? Why, Marcus Mumford, that’s who.