MUM­FORD & SONS…

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The folk su­per­stars tell Peter McGo­ran how, af­ter rig­or­ous tour­ing and a pe­riod of re­flec­tion, they’ve re-emerged with their most bril­liantly dar­ing al­bum yet, Delta.

Af­ter a rig­or­ous tour­ing sched­ule, a part­ner­ship with su­per-pro­ducer Paul Ep­worth, and a pe­riod of re­flec­tion, folk su­per­stars Mum­ford & Sons have made their most bril­liantly dar­ing al­bum yet in Delta. “It feels like this might be the most im­por­tant thing we’ve ever done with our lives,” they tell Peter McGo­ran.

IT’Sfair to say that when Mum­ford & Sons first hit the lime­light back in 2010, their rise was un­ex­pected. They were a rous­ing folk band in the vein of acts like Old Crow Medicine Show, and they’d self­fi­nanced a de­but al­bum which was in­trigu­ing, cour­tesy of stir­ring bal­lads such as ‘The Cave’ and ‘Lit­tle Lion Man’.

But head­liner sta­tus in the States? Per­form­ing on na­tional TV with Bob Dy­lan? Top­ping charts over in Aus­tralia and New Zealand? This was be­yond their wildest dreams.

Ev­ery­thing since the re­lease of their de­but al­bum, Sigh No More, has felt like Mum­ford & Sons try­ing to catch up with their run­away suc­cess. 2012’s Ba­bel leaned too heav­ily on the char­ac­ter­is­tics that made their first al­bum so suc­cess­ful, while Wilder Mind leaned more to­wards elec­tronic cues that tried to ac­com­mo­date their place as arena head­lin­ers, but which didn’t feel im­me­di­ately nat­u­ral for them.

That’s not to say that ei­ther of these al­bums were bad – they were good – but as more and more folk bands tried to em­u­late Mum­ford & Sons’ waist­coat-wear­ing, heart-on-sleeve lyri­cism (some call it ‘nu-folk’), there’s been a press­ing need to rein­vig­o­rate their im­age.

Delta, the band’s new­est al­bum, gets re­leased this month. It marks a step to­wards a new di­rec­tion that may ac­tu­ally work for them. Co-vo­cal­ist and gui­tarist Ben Lovett notes,

“It feels like this might be the most im­por­tant thing we’ve ever done with our lives.”

Ben’s out in LA get­ting ready for the al­bum re­lease. Along with the other three mem­bers of Mum­ford & Sons, he’s on a press wheel up right up un­til No­vem­ber 16. But un­like when he’s done this be­fore, he doesn’t mind do­ing in­ter­view af­ter in­ter­view. As a mat­ter of fact, he’s ac­tu­ally pretty ex­cited about talk­ing about the new al­bum.

“This one feels pretty dif­fer­ent,” he laughs, when I ask him whether he en­joys get­ting up early to talk about the record (it’s 8am on in LA). “It’s dif­fer­ent com­pared to other times when we’ve been talk­ing about new al­bums. You know, we’ve loved ev­ery­thing we’ve done, but there’s some­thing about Delta which feels spe­cial.”

The al­bum came about in the midst of an ex­cep­tion­ally busy cou­ple of years, which saw them tour­ing through­out 2015/2016 and pro­duc­ing a mini-al­bum, called

Jo­han­nes­burg.

“We don’t re­ally be­lieve in breaks,” Ben tells me. “We were tour­ing Wilder Mind in 2015/2016. In the mid­dle of do­ing that we recorded Jo­han­nes­burg. Then we kept on tour­ing through 2017 and we did 70 shows that year. But to­wards the end of that year, we got an op­por­tu­nity to try out some songs with Paul Ep­worth.”

Ep­worth, an ac­claimed pro­ducer who has worked with com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful artists like Adele and Ri­hanna, as well as cult acts like The Hor­rors, helped them un­lock ideas they’d had rat­tling around for a while.

“We went in and did one song with him – sort of as a ‘test day’, be­cause ob­vi­ously you date some­one be­fore you marry. The first song we did was ‘Slip Away’ and that im­me­di­ately felt like we were on the same page. It was in­ter­est­ing for him be­cause he’d just come off from do­ing the lat­est Hor­rors record, and I think son­i­cally he was in the space where we wanted to be. We were just off of do­ing Jo­han­nes­burg, and lyri­cally and melod­i­cally, we were in­spired by what he was do­ing. The dream is, you part­ner with a pro­ducer who not only has the reper­toire and the rep­u­ta­tion, but who also wants to do some­thing im­por­tant. We all just landed at the right place at the same time. That was about a year ago. And then we’ve been in and out of the stu­dio up un­til about a month ago.”

Who takes a com­mand­ing role in the stu­dio? “Paul’s pretty dynamic. He un­der­stands when to take a back­seat and when to step in. But, as a band, we need lead­ing some­times. For us to be able to main­tain an au­then­tic democ­racy, we can’t self-elect some­one be­tween us to take charge. We have to ap­point a project leader. So with Paul, some­times he would sit back and say, ‘That’s a good idea, that’s a bad idea.’ Then other times he’d take a strong hand, say­ing, ‘Right lads, we need to put a shift in tonight, and you all need to stay.’ If it was Mar­cus or Win­ston turn­ing to me and say­ing, ‘Right, Ben, you all need to stay tonight,’ I’d be like, ‘Are you kid­ding? You do it!’ It wouldn’t come off in the same way.

“He’s great though, he just feels like one of the boys. This sum­mer ob­vi­ously we had the World Cup. So we had that on the screen in the cor­ner of the room, and for a month we were there watch­ing ev­ery game, while Paul was mak­ing this mu­sic that was emo­tion­ally im­por­tant. There’s some­thing about that that just works with Paul. It’s why he’s so great. He can be ca­sual but he’s also emo­tion­ally in touch.”

Was the screen on for the Eng­land Croa­tia match?

“Yeah…” Lovett gives a wry laugh. “We went off on one and didn’t come back to the stu­dio. We took the night off af­ter that re­sult.”

Mum­ford & Sons first per­formed in Ire­land in 2009, when they made a small, but sig­nif­i­cant, ap­pear­ance in the Academy’s sec­ond room.

From there, they built their fan­base in the coun­try. By the time they head­lined the

Heineken Stage at Ox­e­gen the fol­low­ing sum­mer, the tent was packed to the rafters.

Ever since, their live per­for­mances both here and abroad have be­come in­creas­ingly grander af­fairs. Now, it’s just over 10 years since they first

"THERE’S SOME­THING ABOUT DELTA WHICH FEELS SPE­CIAL."

started. Are the band still as am­bi­tious as they once were over a decade ago?

“Yeah, it’s weird,” muses Ben. “This week, that’s felt like an im­por­tant ques­tion. To tell the truth, I feel en­tirely un­sat­is­fied by how far we’ve gone in our ca­reer so far. I feel like we’ve got so many more sto­ries to tell, so much more that we can do on stage. So we needed a record that could set things up for us. But yeah, we just re­ally want to do this. It wasn’t a case of call­ing it in – it’s about as far from that as pos­si­ble.

“As far as am­bi­tion goes, I think it’s some­thing we gear up in each other. We set each other off and egg each other on. We have this healthy de­gree of com­pet­i­tive­ness. So yeah, I hon­estly feel like, in some ways, this is us go­ing back to day one. We’ve had an amaz­ing jour­ney and I’m very grate­ful, but I look back on it all and say, ‘What’s next?’”

Get­ting to the al­bum it­self, Delta es­chews the an­themic ve­neer of Wilder Mind for songs that pack a more emo­tional punch. There’s some clear ra­dio-driven num­bers in here, but the best songs come from a more in­tro­spec­tive place. Con­sid­er­ing that Mum­ford & Sons are now bona fide arena rock­ers, will it be dif­fi­cult to get this al­bum fully across in mas­sive venues?

“Maybe," Lovett con­sid­ers. "We’re just fig­ur­ing that out now. We al­ready have some in­ti­mate songs in our reper­toire, and amaz­ingly peo­ple do shut up dur­ing those songs! We have those quiet songs like ‘Cold Arms’ that have been in our live set for­ever and that’s al­ways worked, so we’re hop­ing the same will ap­ply for some of these tunes.

"We want our sets to be as dynamic and full of con­trasts as pos­si­ble, to re­ally ac­cen­tu­ate the point of what we do. You take a song like ‘Wild Heart’, that’s about as in­ti­mate as you can get. That was just a mic in the mid­dle of a room, and we only did one take of that song. It feels so in­ti­mate and wears all its im­per­fec­tions. It’s al­most like a camp­fire song. But that’s as im­por­tant to us as ev­ery­thing else.”

When were most of these songs writ­ten? Was there an in­tense pe­riod of cre­ativ­ity?

“We’ve al­ways been writ­ing,” ex­plains Lovett. “We have the great for­tune of hav­ing four great writ­ers in the band. So we draw from each other. We had songs from the Wilder Mind pe­riod that didn’t quite make that al­bum and re­quired more de­vel­op­ment. We had songs from

Jo­han­nes­burg. Hon­estly, we’ve got a lot more. We’ve got an­other 30 songs kick­ing around.

“One of the rea­sons why we called the al­bum

Delta is be­cause the delta is the most fer­tile part of the river, and we feel like this is a re­ally key pe­riod of our lives when it comes to cre­ativ­ity.”

Cer­tain songs on the al­bum, like lead sin­gle ‘Guid­ing Light’, took a long time to cre­ate. Is ev­ery­one in the band pa­tient with each other when it comes to road blocks like that?

“‘I think we are – that’s some­thing we’ve prac­tised. We learnt pa­tience from the last al­bum when we were work­ing with The

Na­tional’s Aaron Dess­ner. Aaron was like a coach for us in terms of pa­tience. His ex­pe­ri­ence with The Na­tional – a band that we loved so much – taught us the im­por­tance of pa­tience.

“We also learnt to re­ally flesh out each other’s ideas. That’s the other thing. If you rush some­thing, you don’t em­brace the full ex­tent of cre­ativ­ity. You know, some­one might point to a glock­en­spiel in the cor­ner of a stu­dio and say, ‘Oh what about us­ing that in this song?’ and your nat­u­ral in­stinct is to roll your eyes. But we’ve learnt to see out those ideas. That’s what we did with this al­bum. We were like, ‘Okay, let’s take a cou­ple of hours. Let’s ex­plore these things’. We’d try stuff and a few hours later re­flect on what we’d done.

“That wouldn’t have hap­pened five years ago. We were much younger, we were 18-20 when we started. We were im­pa­tient. We didn’t lis­ten to each other. We got into a cy­cle of de­cid­ing that cer­tain things just didn’t work.”

Delta ul­ti­mately em­braces some ex­per­i­men­tal colours as it pro­gresses. The hip-hop in­flu­ence of ‘Rose Of Shan­non’ works quite well, while the ti­tle tune uses elec­tronic mu­sic in a way that feels more nat­u­ral than it did on their pre­vi­ous al­bum. But it’s the song ‘Dark­ness Vis­i­ble’, which fea­tures Amer­i­can singer Gill Landry recit­ing Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lost, which is most in­trigu­ing.

“That’s a cool story ac­tu­ally,” Ben says. “See as a band, we jam a lot. We love im­pro­vis­ing to­gether. And I think it was about 1am on a Fri­day night and some­one started play­ing chords and we picked up dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments, and we got into this kind of mantric state for about three hours. That’s where the in­stru­men­tal side of ‘Dark­ness Vis­i­ble’ came from. Then Gill came and lis­tened to what we’d made, and he lis­tened to ‘Pic­ture You’ (the track be­fore ‘Dark­ness Vis­i­ble’, which is in­trin­si­cally linked to it).

“There’s a lot in that song that ref­er­ences Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lost. And Par­adise Lost is one of the most po­etic and ar­tic­u­late ex­plo­rations of de­pres­sion that we’d ever read. So we all bonded over it, and Gill com­pletely got the sen­ti­ment of the in­stru­men­tal side of things. So we said, ‘Why don’t you read Par­adise Lost over the track?' We never would’ve done that a few years ago. It was too out there. We’ve never done some­thing pre­dom­i­nantly in­stru­men­tal.

But we’re proud of it. It feels as much us as any­thing else we’ve done.”

Delta is re­leased on No­vem­ber 16 on Is­land.

"WHEN WE STARTED, WE WERE IM­PA­TIENT. WE DIDN’T LIS­TEN TO EACH OTHER."

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