Pictures: Gavin Batty / Press / Getty
NOVEMBER 23, 2018 12:30pm
Mumford & Sons: “We’ve thought a lot about mortality this year”
Mumford And Sons are back – but not as we know them. Having ditched the folk sound that made them famous – and the arena rock that followed – new album ‘delta’, out now, is an eclectic tone piece that even shimmies into r&B. Jordan Bassett learns how personal experience, politics and the grenfell tower disaster had the four-piece contemplating life from a different perspective.
Marcus Mumford is doing pull-ups on a wooden beam in the pub. He huffs and puffs, his overcoat levitating as he heaves himself toward the ceiling. It feels like maybe I should limber up too; interviewing Mumford & Sons, you’re best advised to take the approach Muhammad Ali took when boxing George Foreman in 1974: just keep going, and hope they eventually let their guard down.
A globally colossal band, they’re used to issuing well-worn platitudes (for instance: they say that Mumford & Sons’ music is almost always “autobiographical”, but appear loathe to reveal the real-life events behind their often opaque lyrics), and an interviewer must withstand long silences when they’re landed with questions not directly about the music.
If you can maintain your stamina, you may be rewarded with quotes on politics (Marcus reckons Donald Trump “is a prick”), religion (Marcus: “I really like Jesus”) and Jordan Peterson – the right-leaning reactionary who shared an Instagram snap with the band, inciting a backlash they’re still dealing with – all of which will be explored later.
It’s not that Mumford & Sons have no opinions, you see. The hurdle is that, as Marcus explains: “It’s funny when you start a band, man. When you start out as a musician, you never expect that it’s gonna be part of your job to have your photograph taken, for people to look quite carefully at what you say or to look at how you dress.”
Right now, they’re obliged to experience these things, as Mumford & Sons are promoting their eclectic fourth album, ‘Delta’. Their previous record, 2015’s ‘Wilder Mind’, saw them ditch the banjos that made them famous, instead heading towards expansive, electric guitar-led arena rock. This time around, they indulged in a free-for-all at super-producer Paul Epworth’s north London studio, swapping ideas with open minds and never ruling anything out. “With this one,” Marcus says, “we said, ‘Everything is kosher’. We followed each other’s ideas, and there wasn’t a set sound. It was more explorative.”
Mumford And Sons had previously followed the same MO since forming in 2007. Back then, when they were part of London’s booming indie-folk scene alongside Noah and the Whale, Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn, they would write acoustically and later flesh the songs out. This time around, they took a more beat-led approach. “Most of it was real playing,” says Marcus, “and we’d sample it like a Skrillex tune. Or we’d chop up beats like [one-time GOOD Music signee] 88-Keys does with Kanye.”
The result is a diverse and bold album that veers from full-blown orchestral arrangements (‘If I Say’) to doom-laden spoken-word (‘Darkness Visible’), with the finger-picking of old (‘The Wild’) and even – brace yourselves – an occasional foray into slinky indie R&B (‘Woman’). Of the latter influence, Marcus explains: “We listened to a lot of Jai Paul. The first record I ever bought was ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’. We never really tried our hands at [R&B], but we brought in some of those influences and I guess you can hear them.”
You may, fairly, wonder what the casual record-streaming public, who hoovered up more than three million physical copies of Mumfords’ folktastic 2009 debut ‘Sigh No More’, will make of this approach – of a record that reveals itself gradually, dictated by its own interior logic, comprised of 14 tracks that sometimes sound like they’re from different albums entirely.
I meet Marcus and Winston, two of the four-piece, at the aforementioned wine bar-cum-pub near the Tate Modern, the art institution where they filmed the feel-good video for recent lead single ‘Guiding Light’, to which the band invited a “flash mob” of ecstatic fans. It’s the morning after they filmed an appearance on The Graham Norton Show, and it’s tempting to think of Marcus doing pull-ups in the dressing room, preparing to duke it out with the light entertainment don.
Well, you’d be limbering up too: Mumfords are about to embark on a world tour that will last almost three years, and it’s rumoured they’ll headlined Glastonbury again next year (as they did in 2013). Marcus, though, insists they “don’t know – genuinely” if the gang’s heading to Worthy Farm. (After our interview, a string of British dates are postponed as the world tour, which boasts a stage running right across each venue, has proved so ambitious that they couldn’t execute it on the original schedule. Fans were understandably dismayed, but Mumfords didn’t become one of the biggest bands in the world without self-lacerating ambition.)
Some of our interview is filmed (above), and this portion of the conversation is particularly genial; Marcus and Winston share memories of ‘Little Lion Man’, the debut single the band released in 2009. At the time, Marcus often wrote songs on his bedroom floor in Edinburgh (sometimes naked, he adds), travelling down each weekend to hang out with the indie-folk set.
“We spent a lot of time distancing ourselves from the idea that there was a ‘scene’ at that time in London,” he says, name-checking then-hot north London venue Nambucca, frequented by the likes of Marling and Frank Turner. “We still don’t like the word scene because it feels exclusive. The whole point of that time was that it was unbelievably inclusive. If you had a song, you were encouraged to jump up and play it. And if it was good, you could play another one.”
In the music video for ‘Little Lion Man’, they look like a fully formed band, all vintage waistcoats and rumpled linen shirts. “Because we were doing photo shoots and videos,” says Winston, “I always thought, ‘Oh, I should dress up’. And I regret that, because I would wear things that I would never wear in normal life. I wish someone had told me, ‘Just wear what you normally wear, instead of three-piece tweed suits.’ But I thought I had to make an effort.”
If Mumfords seemed destined to become one of the biggest bands in the world back in 2009, Marcus insists it didn’t feel that way: “‘Lion Man’ was our first single; I think you can tell we weren’t expecting it to get played on radio because it has the word ‘fuck’ in it about 16 times.”
In the decade in between, they’ve won two Grammies (including Album of the Year for 2013’s ‘Babel’), cracked America – thanks to a tough touring schedule – and Winston and Marcus married famous actors (Glee’s Dianna Agron and Carey Mulligan respectively), leaving behind Nambucca for the glitzy world of showbiz; Marcus and Mulligan have two children together. Keyboard player Ben Lovett and bassist Ted Dwane, absent today due to logistics, have been through the mill: Ben got married and divorced between 2015 and 2016 and has founded the quite excellent London gig venue Omeara, while Ted underwent emergency brain surgery to remove a blood clot in 2013. Marcus, now 31, explains that the onset of adulthood, with its onslaught of life experiences, influenced ‘Delta’.
“It’s about the transition between the river lands – the shelter – of adolescence and into the wild of more experience in life,” he says, before obliquely referencing the births of his children and death of his grandmother. “I’ve been in the labour ward twice and at the deathbed once since ‘Wilder Mind’ came out. And they both felt like the fucking wild to me.” The band halved their touring schedule after ‘Wilder Mind’ was released and, he explains, “being at home and experiencing our friends and family’s lives a bit more gave us all more experience”.
This is often as candid as Mumford & Sons seem keen to be, the chummy atmosphere of video interviews a natural fit for their easy charm. Yet there’s much to discuss that isn’t banjos, waistcoats and their improbable shimmy into indie R&B. Like, for instance, that picture of the band – minus Marcus – with Jordan Peterson, who once told The New York Times that he believes a patriarchal society is predicated on men’s greater “competence” over women. It seems wise not to raise this on camera, where I think they’re likely to clam up.
It’s here, as NME’s videographer packs way the camera, that things become a little more strained. Mumford and Marshall are generous with their time and approach to the conversation, and do their best to accommodate subjects that steer through their comfort zone – the work – and into the choppier waters of personal and political matters. But it’s also painfully obvious that they don’t particularly enjoy being asked these kinds of questions.
For instance, they laugh awkwardly when I point out that they performed at the White House for Barack Obama in 2012, and ask if they would feel inclined to do the same for Donald Trump.
Marcus eventually – briskly – rules it out, but Winston declines to give an answer; he says he’s bored of hearing about the President (“I have Trump ennui”) and, after a long pause, explains: “I have a little bit of frustration with the politicising of music. I don’t mind when artists are political, but I think politics is fucking complicated. It’s different from three years ago when we were doing promo for ‘Wilder Mind’ – we weren’t ever asked about politics. People didn’t care, but now everyone’s got a fucking opinion. Everything is, ‘Politics this, politics that’. It’s a massive change.”
In this climate, was he surprised by the backlash caused by the photo that Jordan Peterson shared?
“I think we all think differently about this,” Winston says. “The answer to this question could be boiled down into some clickbaity thing. I didn’t really believe any of the things that were written [about the photo]. Even [people] saying he was right-wing, which I don’t think is true. His politics aren’t really of interest to me; I’m more interested in his psychology and his other work.”
Asked to expand on Peterson’s psychology, Winston replies: “I wouldn’t do it justice. His looking into mythology and his Biblical series [of YouTube lectures] is fascinating. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong; he’s much more well-read than I am. I’m not only reading him – I’m reading lots of other things, and I think everyone should read widely. If you read something, work out who’s got the opposite opinion and read that guy so you can form your own ideas.”
Speaking of religion: every time Mumfords release an album, critics parse the lyrics for Bibical references, which are usually multitudinous. Other interviewers have noted that Marcus seems less than enthusiastic about exploring this, though it’s perhaps natural that people should be interested, given that his parents founded the evangelical Vineyard Churches UK and Ireland in 1991, and he met Mulligan at a Christian holiday camp when they were children. Anyway, he’s really asked for it this time: ‘Delta’ is filled with religious imagery.
From ‘Guided Light’: “Even when there is no star in sight / You’ll always be my only guiding light”. From the gospel-influenced ‘42’: “If this is our last hope / We would see a sign.” There’s even a slinky indie R&B track called ‘Rose of Sharon’, a phrase that crops ups The Bible.
Marcus insists he doesn’t actually mind talking about religion, and says ‘”Guiding light’ is nothing to do with religion – if it means that to some people, we have no problem with that.” He adds: “I think it’s less religious and more spirituality based. There’s less of that on this record than [previous albums], but I understand why people would go there and it doesn’t bother me.”
He’s not religious, but feels “connected spiritually”. He explains: “I really like Jesus – he seems like a good guy. I’ve got a friend who loves Jesus but wouldn’t call himself a Christian because it comes with so much baggage. We’re part of a generation that doesn’t love being labelled. Some of those tags feel like our parents’ generation, which we might not sign up to.”
When he was a teenager – stereotypically a phase for rebellion, for challenging authority – did he ever reject his parents’ religious views? “I’ve never rejected it,” he says. “I’ve got massive respect for what my parents do. They’re wonderful people. I’ve always loved them completely and what they do.” But he never wanted to be a pastor himself? “No I don’t think so. I didn’t ever really know what I wanted to do – I certainly never imagined being in a band.”
When I quote the lyrics to the heart-breaking acoustic track ‘Beloved’, on which Marcus sings, “She says, ‘The Lord has a plan / But admits it’s pretty hard to understand’”, he replies: “Well, she did actually say that,” referring to his grandmother, whose death he alluded to earlier.
“I sat with someone as they died,” he says, “Lots of people have done that, and I hadn’t. I think that changes your life. When you’re growing up, you think other people have it covered. You think your parents are doctors or whatever. And then it’s like, no-one can really control this chaotic thing that we live in. In those moments, at the beginning of life and the end, there’s an element of wildness that is fascinating to me. I ended up writing a lot about it.”
As a result, Marcus explains, “I’ve thought more about mortality in the last year than before.”
He has an apartment close to Grenfell Tower; he stood at his window and watched the building burn. “I went down alongside lots of other people in the community,” he says. “They came out when the government failed. It was like war zone – you could taste ash in your mouth. That’s really changed my life. Grenfell’s been a story of voicelessness that’s led to powerlessness. Those things, inevitably, are higher stakes than going to the pub when you’re 20.”
When I point out that his building must be vastly different from Grenfell, he replies: “I feel like it’s taken something like this to bring the community together more. But I don’t think anyone would want to socially cleanse the area in one way or another. They want everyone to be listened to equally, which hasn’t happened. I think people love the diversity in that area. That community crosses all those divides that we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about. The legacy of Grenfell is the change of culture and a celebration of community.”
There is darkness and light in ‘Delta’ – a recent interview quoted the group as saying that the new record is about “death, depression and divorce”. Today Marcus plays this down: “There’s some heavy stuff, but when you try and summarise four adults’ lives over three years, it’s going to sound quite melodramatic. You’re not gonna write about damp-proofing your house, which is another ‘D’.”
Back in the NME office, I listen again to ‘Beloved’. In the light of what Marcus has said, it becomes impossibly moving – particularly the lyrics “How have I not made a note of every word you’ve ever said? …Before you leave, you must know you are beloved… Remember I was with you”. I’m surprised to be even more affected this time around, and even more surprised when I answer my phone to hear the words: “Hello, Jordan? It’s Marcus… Mumford.”
There are some things Marcus wants to get off his chest. “I didn’t get a chance to respond to a couple of your questions,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it, and want to give my response. The first one being the question about playing the Trump White House, which is such an interesting one at the moment. I think the reason we wouldn’t do it now is because it feels like it would be a political statement of endorsement of someone who I personally think is a prick.”
He explains: “Playing the Trump White House right now is way more of a political endorsement than playing Obama’s White House was; it’s a different thing. Some people would say that playing Obama’s White House is a political endorsement, and I’m not sure it was.”
Marcus is a long-time Kanye West fan, though notes that “recently he’s said something things he has admitted to have regretted”. He watched the rapper’s meeting with Donald Trump at the White House “with disappointment”. Overall, though, he insists that Mumfords & Sons “desire not to be part of the toxic divisiveness of politics at the moment”. He says: “We love that we’re musicians and get to invite people in and be a uniting force. Even within the band we think differently. We’re trying to figure out ways to disagree agreeably.”
This leads him to talk about Jordan Peterson: “It’s the same with the Peterson thing. You know, I don’t think having a photograph taken with someone is a political endorsement of them. And I certainly know the band wasn’t trying to endorse his politics. Personally, I don’t like a lot of what the man has to say, and I don’t like the way he says a lot of what he says. But it’s become a thing we have to talk about more. And I would fiercely defend people’s right to listen to him – and I think, actually, as a culture we don’t listen as much as we should.”
Having been born in California, Marcus holds both British and American citizenship, and voted for Obama. He opted to Remain in the EU (“I did not think it was a sensible argument for Brexit, publicly, and I was disappointed at the quality of the argument”) and has voted “every way – three different ways” in UK elections. “But fuck me – in my borough, mate, I’m not voting Conservative,” he adds. “After Grenfell, I’m not a fan of the Conservative council in my borough.”
It’s the most candid I’ve heard him be about politics, and I’m struck by what he says about being obliged to talk publicly about such things with his mates when all he wants to do is play music with them: “I suppose we’re sort of navigating that. And trying to get our heads around it.”
Mumford & Sons met at school and university and formed the band more than a decade ago. How much do you have in common with friends you made 10 years ago? Many of us become different people, with different opinions, and relocate common ground when we get together with those old friends. Perhaps it’s the same for Mumford & Sons, who have their own relationships and families, who live far from one another – Winston in New York, Marcus partly in Devon – and come together to honour the thing that they started back in 2007.
‘Delta’ is a record about maturity and coming of age, about taking on responsibility and accepting that your mates’ paths may differ from your own – something many of us can relate to. They’re one of the biggest bands in the world, but it’s all the same shit in a different tin, and their experiences probably aren’t really so far removed from yours and mine.
No wonder Marcus did mid-interview pull-ups. As he said: “When I joined this band, I had fuck-all responsibility. I was free to do whatever I wanted, and I made a lot of fucking mistakes. The stakes get higher; there’s more to live for, more to lose.” Like anyone in adulthood, he’s done some heavy lifting lately: birth, death, depression, divorce and, erm, damp-proofing.