That’s not all folk

Mum­ford & Sons have ditched the tweed, binned the ban­jos and gone to rock

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

Ac­er­tain feel

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.

First­love

“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”

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