That’s not all folk
Mumford & Sons have ditched the tweed, binned the banjos and gone to rock
It’s lunchtime on a sunny London weekday. At St Pancras station, crowds rushing to catch their trains mingle with tourists soaking up the sights and unseasonably warm weather.
Overlooking the chaos in a bedroom at the plush St Pancras Hotel are two slightly hungover but affable young gentlemen.
Marcus Mumford sits with his face to the sun, stubbled, squinting, sensibly jumpered and surprisingly soft-spoken. His bandmate, the wiry Winston Marshall, looks every inch the 1970s rock star – shoulder-length hair, blazer, skinny jeans, a shirt unbuttoned to Simon Cowell levels of indecency. It’s all a far cry from their previous waistcoat-attired country gentleman look.
These days, Mumford & Sons are a new band. Well, sort of. Three albums in, they’ve mixed things up. Out with the banjos, in with full drum kits and electric instruments. Having cemented their stake in 2012 as one of the world’s biggest acts with Babel, they must have felt exuberant, energised and ready to take on any challenger when that tour wound down. Right?
“I think it was totally the opposite. We were exhausted, and we thought, ‘What the fuck do we do now?’” says Mumford, laughing loudly. “So we took a few months off, which was important. We went into the studio with Aaron Dessner from The National at the end of the tour, around August 2013. We put a few songs down, and they had no acoustic instruments on them. Then we walked away from that and came back together four months later with that in our minds as a trail to follow.
“We started writing again around February 2014, and by September we had enough songs to try to make an album. [Producer] James Ford agreed, and here we are.”
Having crossed paths on the touring circuit, Dessner, the National guitarist who has become the go-to guy for artists from Sharon Van Etten to Local Natives, invited the band to his Brooklyn studio to thrash out some ideas.
Finding a new way of writing – in the studio, rather than on the road – proved key to how the new album, Wilder Mind, ultimately turned out, yet even those early rough demo sessions weren’t quite what they wanted. It wasn’t enough to sound different; it had to feel different, too.
“A lot of them were quite Mumford & Sons-sounding songs, just with electric instruments,” says Mumford. “There was a song called Forever which we all got excited about, because it sounded like a garage band and we wigged out on it. But it ended up not making it on to the album, because it felt like old Mumford & Sons stuff, just played on different instruments. It didn’t feel like enough of a development in terms of writing, but it was like the gateway drug to the rest of the album – it got us into the heavy stuff.”
Okay. While we’re on the topic of finding yourself musically, let’s get the banjo question out of the way. It’s not quite a Dylan Ju
das moment, but fans who clutch the likes of Little Lion Man and I
Will Wait to their bosoms who may be disappointed that nary a banjo string is plucked in anger on Wilder Mind.
“It’s an obvious question to ask,” says Mumford, “because we became known for using acoustic instruments, and I think it’s mostly because of the singles and the videos that we presented to the world. But it’s as much of a change to have a full kit on every song on Wilder Mind as it is not having a banjo.
“It not only changes your sound, it changes the way you’re writing – because if you know you have a groove in the background, then suddenly you don’t need to be doing all the rhythm with my right hand on an acoustic guitar and his right hand on a banjo.” He gestures to Marshall. “It changed the way we write, really.”
Songs such as The Wolf illustrate the shift; others, such as the slow shuffle of Snake Eyes and the funereal Only Love, are less dramatic. Every song, however, is imbued with a definite “city” feel. Marshall and keyboardist Ben Lovett now live full time in New York, and Mumford says he is “all over the place”.
With song titles relating to New York locations Tompkins Square Park and Ditmas, it’s certainly no pastoral country affair. These once quintessential British folkies are spreading their wings; does that mean their English identity is less important to them as they’ve grown bigger?
“I don’t think it’s that important,” says Marshall. “Less so than ever, probably. We like being English, but we’re not that patriotic.”
Mumford butts in. “Welllll . . . ,” he hesitates. “I am. When it comes to football.”
“Yeah,” Marshall agrees, smirking. “But even then it’s hard to support a team where John Terry is captain.”
It wasn’t just the music-writing process that changed with
Wilder Mind. Whereas Mumford provided most of the lyrics on Babel and Sigh No More, all four members contributed to this album. Some songs are instilled with a sense of melancholia, loneliness and doubt (largely down to break-ups that Marshall and bassist Ted Dwane went through). although they’re reluctant to discuss the details.
“We’ve written our first-ever love songs on this album, and we’ve never written straight-up love songs before,” shrugs Mum-
There was a song called ‘Forever’ which we all got excited about, because it sounded like a garage band and we wigged out on it. But it ended up not making it on to the album
ford, who happens to be happily married to actor Carey Mulligan. “I think it totally depends on the way you interpret the lyrics. I think writing is better felt than understood, in a way.”
“It’s like an ultimate [show of] vulnerability between us all,” says Marshall. “I think, as a band, we’ve never gotten on so well, and I think it’s been because of this process. It’s pretty nervewracking, bringing something to these three guys and thinking ‘What are they gonna think? Are they gonna like it?’ When it’s something you’ve created, it’s intimidating, even with people you trust. That process has brought us all together, I think.”
They both scoff at the thought that the label might have balked at their change in direction; Mumford & Sons are, after all, Island Records’ golden goose. Nor are they worried about upsetting fans expecting another collection of banjo aural thrill rides.
“They wouldn’t be so bold – they know their place,” says Mumford of Island Records. “They’re partners, really, but they’re not invited into the studio. I think a few people on the label might have scratched their heads and said okay, this is a bit different to how I expected it to be. We just need to go about communicating what the album is about to people.
“I think it might be a bit abrasive to a Mumford & Sons fan to listen to The Wolf, or whatever. But I think seeing it live will help connect the dots.”
Mumford stretches, yawns and pauses to consider whether there is anything that they might have done differently over the last eight years. Would they have recorded an album like Wilder
Mind first, to avoid being saddled with the “acoustic folk” tag?
Before he has a chance to answer, Marshall interjects.
“I regret a couple of wardrobe decisions,” he grins. “But we’re still learning, so you can’t have time for regret.”
“Yeah,” Mumford agrees. “I feel like the arc of the band is gonna be long enough that people will realise that trying to pigeonhole us is a bit pre-emptive. I’d like to press pause on peoples’ opinions until we’re six albums in. And even then, I wanna keep moving. I want to keep evolving and progressing.
“There were things we might do differently, but it’s a waste of time to be regretful. We’re grateful for where we are, and we’re proud of what we’re doing now.”
Wilder Mind is out now on Island Records
Mumford & Sons
“There were things we might do differently, but it’s a waste of time to be regretful”