Next weekend, Mumford & Sons are throwing a party for 40,000 people when they hijack Saturday at Latitude Festival for their latest Gentlemen Of The Road Stopover. But they’ve other things on their minds too – a new album, a change of tack and a tour with some band called U2.
Mumford & Sons have baggage. Literal baggage, as self-styled ‘gentlemen of the road’, and metaphorical baggage, as a result of the banjos, the tea-crate-bashing and a name that Marcus Mumford recently – and exasperatedly – described as “rubbish. It’s a rubbish name”.
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Their last album, 2015’s ‘Wilder Mind’, attempted to shift perceptions of them a bit, the narrative focusing on their change from tweed to leather and acoustic instruments to electric guitars; a Dylan-plugs-in moment that was, in retrospect, perhaps less of a revolution than it needed to be to justify the hype. “It felt important – vital to the health of the band – that we made that record,” says bassist Ted Dwane, although he does admit that, “A lot of people heard [lead single] ‘Believe’ and started giving the album one-star reviews on iTunes before it had even come out. It was definitely hard for our fans, I think.”
“But maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing,” insists keyboard player Ben Lovett. “Maybe there were fair-weather fans, or people who liked us for elements of our instrumentation that had nothing to do with the stories or melodies… If they’ve switched off, that’s OK. But I think quite a few people switched on. If there’s any regret, I think it’s that between us and the people we spoke to in the media, the album became more of a statement than it needed to be. I think the music should have done the talking, rather than us – letting musicians talk can be dangerous sometimes.”
A better representation of the band’s wider world, their eclecticism and the fact that – in spite of it all – they’re a 21st century thing, is their Gentlemen Of The Road Stopover festivals, the latest of which takes place at Latitude Festival next weekend (July 15). As well as playing their only UK show of the year, they’re hijacking the festival for an entire day and have picked the whole line-up across multiple stages, among them their ‘Johannesburg’ EP collaborators The Very Best and Baaba Maal and friends such as singer-songwriter Lucy Rose and Two Door Cinema Club.
Since 2012, the band have hosted 17 of these Stopovers, taking place everywhere from Aviemore to Walla Walla – and if you’ve never been to one before, they’re not quite your typical festival. “They’re perhaps more in the spirit of what festivals used to be,” offers Dwane, which is a good way of putting it – these events are designed to encourage camaraderie and collaboration between bands, fostering a spontaneous, anything-can-happen atmosphere that’s made them hugely popular with audiences and artists alike.
Lovett has particularly fond memories of their 2015 stopover in Walla Walla, Washington, headlined by Foo Fighters, “where Taylor Hawkins and Dave Grohl were rocking out covers in the rehearsal tent for three hours before they went onstage, while their kids were running around the backstage games area. It’s one thing to book an act, but it’s another thing when the act properly engages. People don’t just turn up, play their music, then go home in the van – they stick around, they drop in on other people’s sets, they make a day of it. That’s a big part of what the Stopovers are about.”
We meet the band some weeks before the festival, a little after 10.30am on a Thursday morning at their rented rehearsal space in deepest, darkest Bermondsey, London. Filing in, they look less like one of the most successful British bands of the past 10 years and more like something the cat’s dragged in. Ted Dwane is the first to arrive, lustrous of beard and bleary of eye, nursing a mild hangover from the night before (“Where were you?” his press officer enquires; “Big night in,” he grins).
Ben Lovett is next, a woolly cap pulled low over his head, grumbling about an estimate for making his 34-year-old “not-quite-classic” car roadworthy again. Finally, there’s multi-instrumentalist Winston Marshall, whose rumpled attire, unkempt hair and penchant for salty language give him the air of a man who was born on a tour bus and never got off.
Frontman Marcus Mumford can’t make it today, but his bandmates have assembled to iron out the kinks in their set before flying to Vancouver to support U2 on the first leg of their Joshua Tree world tour, in the middle of which falls the Latitude spectacular. The band are seeing the festival as a chance to test some new tracks. “We’ve been working on a bunch of new material and we wanted to get out there and play some gigs, just for the sake of it,” explains Lovett.
“So we started talking to festivals, and Latitude was one that we’ve always enjoyed but hadn’t played for a while, and because we’re not doing any Stopovers this year that quickly became part of the conversation – whether we could turn it into a day where we show people that side of what we do. Anyone who’s been to a Stopover before will feel like they’re at another one, and anyone who’s been to Latitude before will hopefully feel like it’s something a little bit different.”
When we finally catch up with Marcus a few weeks later – via phone from some unnamed stretch of highway between shows in the US – he too enthuses about the ‘Stopover spirit’ the band hope to bring to Latitude. “The whole concept behind Gentlemen Of The Road is that we enjoy touring so much we want to take our audience on tour with us,” he says. “Music is a social thing for us; we’re not shoegazers, y’know? The people we’re around inspire the music we want to play, and that collaborative spirit is there between the bands, the audience and the towns we go to. It’s grown with each event we’ve done, and it’s become the best thing about Gentlemen Of The Road. And at Latitude, that spirit will be a big part of it.”
The band reckon they’ll have six new songs ready to take on tour this summer, and the reaction to them will shape the follow-up to ‘Wilder Mind’. “We all feel slightly different about the next album,” says Marshall, “but I feel like we’ve got a really good chunk of the record done, although there’s still a lot more to do. If you’re going to write an album of 10 songs, our attitude is that you need to write 30 and choose 10 f**king good ones. We could probably put out a not-so-good album right now, but it’s better to wait and put out a great one.”
As to how the album will sound – whether they’ll continue down the electrified route of ‘Wilder Mind’, revert back to the tweedy folk of ‘Sigh No More’, or go somewhere else entirely – no one’s saying just yet. Ben points to the aforementioned ‘Johannesburg’ as a possible signifier, while Ted says something about “synths and bagpipes” that should probably be taken about as seriously as his claim that 2012’s ‘Babel’ would be Black Sabbath-inspired “doom folk”.
“We’ve been playing a couple of new songs a night on this tour,” explains Marcus, “and we’ve gone back to the mentality we had when we first started out, when every song was new to the audience and we’d get away with experimenting on them almost every night – working out what wasn’t quite right, which lyrics didn’t work, how 60 people in a pub reacted to certain things. That was always part of our writing process, but on ‘Wilder Mind’ we kind of changed that mentality – we wrote it less on the road and more in the studio. People can share songs online so much more easily these days, so that experimentation is a little riskier than before, but we try not to be too precious about it.”
In the meantime, the band’s shows with U2 – and Mumford & Sons’ own 10-year anniversary – seem to have got them thinking about longevity. “We went to meet them for a few drinks in New York before the tour, and the whole band were just chilling out in a restaurant, still cracking each other up, which I thought was awesome,” says Ben.
“My big takeaway was that the friendship at the core of that band is what’s kept them going for so long. This is our 10th year of being a band and we’ve always said that longevity is the ultimate marker of success: you can come in and out of popularity, but if you’re still doing it in 20, 30, 50 years’ time, that commitment is your biggest achievement.” Mumford & Sons may have some way to go to reach those levels of durability, but they’re in no danger of running out of road just yet.