Mumford & Sons: In These Bodies, We Will Live. In These Bodies, We Will Die.

Josh Baron on February 12, 2013

On a Friday night, one hundred miles west of Chicago, Mumford & Sons are playing a pick-up soccer game at the local high school in Dixon, Ill. The school, first opened in 1929, has some medieval-looking architecture that wouldn’t seem out of place in the band’s native England. There are a few kids hanging around watching the U.K.’s biggest export since Coldplay and Adele have a go at their much beloved “football.”

The reason that Mumford & Sons are in Dixon, a town of less than 20,000 people scattered over roughly eight square miles and best known as the childhood home of Ronald Reagan, is for one of four “Stopover” festivals that the group is doing on their current U.S. tour, which began in early August. The other three multi-band events are in small towns like Dixon – Portland, Maine, Bristol, Va./Tenn., and Monterey, Calif.

Make no mistake about it: Mumford & Sons have played to audiences bigger than the entire population of Dixon or Monterey. And, quite frankly at this point in their short but stellar career, they could play shows to audiences the size of Portland and Bristol, too.

So why stage labor-intensive, one-day festivals in small towns across America when they could be selling out the country’s largest amphitheaters and making significantly more money?

I knew something was afoot when I went to the tour opener in Hoboken, N.J., which was held on a pier that had never been used for a concert before. Staring across the water at the sun setting on New York City, I asked myself a rhetorical question: “How much easier would it have been to gather the sold-out crowd of 15,000 at a venue over there?”

But there the four of them were, circled up and giddy as they prepared to hit the stage. Drinking beers and swigging whiskey out of a repurposed water bottle, they appeared as excited as they might have been if they were playing Madison Square Garden just across the Hudson River.

Which led me to a broader question: Why, two months before the release of Babel, the sophomore follow-up to 2009’s multi-platinum Sigh No More, is the band doing underplays in small markets across the U.S. in places such as Canandaigua, N.Y., Lincoln, Neb., and Laramie, Wyo.?

It’s in Bristol that I find answers to these and other lingering questions about a band whose meteoric rise in popularity after only one album is unlike any in recent memory.

“We’re all pretty emotionally intelligent people,” says bassist Ted Dwane of the band. “We can tell when you’re involved with a dickhead – and we’ve been involved with dickheads – and we’ve gotten rid of them. Everyone we work with now are really good guys.”

While sitting at a table in a train station that has been converted into a backstage area overlooking the concert grounds in downtown Bristol, we’re talking about the band’s fan-friendly tactics.

“We’re nothing without our fans,” he continues. “We owe them everything, so it’s in our interest – at the very least – to make take some simply and worthwhile steps toward them not getting ripped off.”

The ticket for this Stopover, promoted with Knoxville, Tenn.-based AC Entertainment, is $70. Out of the tour’s 16 dates, only one of the venues uses Ticketmaster. The fan club presales are through Artist Arena. The tickets for each Stopover are designed to resemble a passport replete with a few pages for stamps. Free, exclusive downloads are available via a website that utilizes the ticket’s barcode.

Given that all 15,000 tickets sold out with zero advertising, it seems like the band’s strategy is working. People have traveled from around the country – even a few outside of it – to come to the event which features Dawes, Justin Townes Earle, The Very Best, JEFF The Brotherhood, Apache Relay, Haim, Simon Felice, Aaron Embry and, of course, Mumford & Sons.

“It was a totally conscious decision,” says wily-eyed banjoist Winston Marshall of the band’s unorthodox tour routing, who served as the catalyst for the band members meeting back in 2005. “We realized that if you go somewhere that no one comes to, everyone is going to listen to you, enjoy the show and embrace you.” The Stopovers and current U.S. tour aren’t the first time that Mumford & Sons have stepped out of the conventional touring box though.

In 2008, they participated in the “River Rat Pack” tour with seven other bands where they coasted down the Thames River in Southern England on a canal boat to various ports of call. “No one came to the gigs but there were enough artists around that we made our own crowd,” chuckles Marcus Mumford who handles most of the lead singing, guitar playing and drumming for the band.

In 2010, they toured India – where they were unknown – as part of a cultural exchange. “It was a very humbling experience for us to play to the crowds and work under those constraints,” keyboardist and accordionist Ben Lovett told the filmmakers that followed them.

In February 2011, they toured the Scottish Highlands. “We figured that playing smaller shows would take us back to the beginning of our touring lives again, but we didn’t really figure that there would be so much demand in places like Orkney,” wrote Mumford on the band’s website after tickets sold-out quickly. “We think we’ve reached a bit of a tricky stage where we’re torn because we want to keep playing intimate shows, but we also obviously would like people who want to see us to be able to.”

In April that year, they embarked on the first annual Railroad Revival Tour with pals Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show that took them from Oakland, Calif., to New Orleans by train and saw them playing pop-up shows next to the depots along the way.

“When they play a show, they bring everything to that community,” says Daniel Glass, founder of Glassnote Records, which is home to Mumford & Sons in the U.S. (along with Phoenix and others). “Being here in Bristol, you see [how] the town gets affected. It happened on the railroad tour, it happened in Hoboken, it happened in Providence the other night – and Dixon is preparing for them.”

On State Street, the main drag of Bristol, which divides the town between Virginia and Tennessee, all of the lampposts sport quaint banners announcing the event. A majority of the stores have placed the Stopover’s symbol – an old-school Englishman sporting a regal mustache and top hat with antique pistols crisscrossed below him – in their windows as a show of support and welcome. Sandwich boards outside bars beckon fans while Union Jack flags flutter in the wind like distant cousins of the Confederate flag.

“In life, there’s been the Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews [style of touring],” Glass tells me. “The Rolling Stones did it when they brought their tours [to a town]. These boys, they come in – it’s an all-nighter and it’s rock and roll.”

If you know what Mumford & Sons’ music sounds like, then you know that when Glass says, “rock and roll,” he’s referring more to the band’s attitude and vibe than to their actual music. After all, it’s the music – an accessible, acoustic-based sound with pithy mantras and everyman storylines – that has allowed them the ability to take the Field Of Dreams mantra of “If you build it, they will come” anywhere in the world.

Mumford & Sons emerged from the bowels of an underage drinking establishment called Bosun’s Locker in West London where the members first met in 2005. Marshall, who once sported dreadlocks, ran the club as a causal, uninhibited venue for a burgeoning new school British folk scene led by artists such as Laura Marling (who members of Mumford & Sons backed early on and who continue to share a manager in Adam Tudhope), Noah & The Whale and Johnny Flynn.

“If you had heard some of the stuff that was played in Bosun’s Locker – some of those songwriters – the reason it was so exciting and something that’s been referenced is because there was no filter,” says Lovett. “There was a room of 60 people and it was almost like a counseling group: ‘Let’s all hang out, get drunk afterward and forget we ever said anything in the first place.’”

Two years later, the foursome gathered courage to commit three songs to tape: “White Blank Page,” “Awake My Soul” and “The Liar.” The sound that emerged on those tracks had a lilting rawness that’s reflective of the scene that Lovett describes. The group’s singing, led by Mumford’s bittersweet and throaty vocals, made them magnetic. Their harmonies came across like a powerhouse bar band version of Crosby, Stills and Nash. The charm was in both their natural talents and slight imperfections.

But it was “Roll Away Your Stone,” the lead track on the group’s self-titled four-song EP from 2008, where they found their signature sound: a quiet preface before a thunderous, foot-stomping chorus that is equal parts emotional catharsis and feel-good hoedown.

The band’s next two releases, another four song EP and a two-song limited edition 10-inch vinyl, each contained another “Roll Away Your Stone” : “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man.” (Lyrically, they all strike similar tones about a lover’s fear, contrition or failure.)

What the band didn’t realize at the time is that all three songs – in their moments of ecstatic release led by Mumford’s use of a standalone kick drum – have a four-on the-floor rhythmic pattern that’s one of the most pervasive beats found in house and techno music. It’s a key factor in why Mumford & Sons are so popular with people who also have a deep love of electronic music. (That’s my hypothesis, anyway.)

In Hoboken, Bristol and at the Bonnaroo Arts & Music festival two years ago, I was onstage for the band’s set. Seeing that many people suddenly spring into motion when the songs’ kick drum hits isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen. Part of the reason that so many people move to the music is that it doesn’t require a fan to know how to dance in some cool way: Clapping your hands, stomping your foot, bobbing your head or simply jumping up and down all work. It’s why you’ll see as many jocks as you will waify girls in sundresses and flip-flops at the shows.

“He said he got our band when he was listening to it at the gym,” says Marshall of what producer Markus Dravs told the band when he approached them with an offer to produce their debut. When Dravs, who’s also worked with Arcade Fire and Coldplay, first met them at a café in Liverpool, he said that he wanted the album to be able to stand up next to a hip-hop record. “That’s what made us want to work with him as a producer,” says Lovett.

Sigh No More, released in February 2010 in the U.S., quickly took on a life of its own as it effortlessly dropped into a wave of acoustic music that was beginning to sweep across the U.S., led by artists such as The Avett Brothers and Gillian Welch after an initial swell of interest with 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

“Expectations are something they didn’t have and we didn’t have,” says Glass of Sigh No More. “We wanted to do it right. I promised them a few things: We’d go slow, which we did. We’d treat it with respect and we wouldn’t hype it.” (A week before we went to press, Sigh No More was No. 20 on the Billboard 200 chart more than two years after its release.)

Word-of-mouth and a love of touring were all the band needed to hit a critical mass. As album and radio charts began attesting around the world, Mumford & Sons was a global phenomenon – not just an American or British one. They played 27 festivals around the globe in the summer of 2010. The next year they did 32.

No sooner did the band begin touring in support of Sigh No More than its members began answering questions about a new album. “It’s the perils of the Internet age,” argues Dwane. “We were on the road, testing songs – half-written songs, sometimes in front of small audiences. It’s the way we work – the way we enjoy writing and developing our musical ideas – and now it ends up on YouTube and millions of people can see it and ask you questions about. It’s quite a different climate for us.”

If the climate had changed outside the studio, then it was an equally new experience inside once the band began the process of recording Babel.

The day before the Stopover, Mumford and Dwane are sitting on a couch backstage. A ping-pong table echoes nearby and one of the town’s two mayors has just left after some handshaking and small talk.

“I’m going to speak for myself slightly, but we went into record the second album in the same studio with the same producer as the first album and I think we expected it to be a similar process,” begins Dwane. “To think that two records would ever be made the same way was very naïve.”

A few of the differences: The band cut Babel over an eight-month period in between tours versus one month. With Babel, the band tracked some of the performances live in the studio. (Something Lovett says “we struggled with at times.” ) With Sigh No More, the group wrote one song while they were in the studio and went in with 11 complete ones; with Babel, they developed 16 or 17 songs in various states of completeness, and much of the writing was finished while in the studio. (Twelve made it on to the album.)

“We kept writing better songs during the process, so new songs would leap over all the songs we were going to record for the record,” Mumford says. "Writing-wise, we were more collaborative on this record and I think that comes through in songs like “Hopeless Wanderer,” which took a bit longer to write but benefited from various people’s input."

While it may seem obvious that there are two parts to any Mumford & Sons song – the lyrics and the music – it’s a popular misperception that Mumford writes all the lyrics. Marshall, for instance, was responsible for the early tune “Winter Winds.” While none of the members care to overly elucidate who’s contributed what songs to their catalog, what is clear is that lyrical process changed with Babel.

“We’ve all contributed some lyrics to the second album, which didn’t happen with the first record,” Lovett confirms the next day as he burns CDs for a DJ gig he has later that night after the band’s set. The band had writing sessions where they were each tasked with coming up with ten songs during the course of a day and would present their material to one another over dinner (and presumably drinks).

It was from this type of exercise that Dwane’s “Reminder” came into the fold along with Mumford’s “Where Are You Now,” which ultimately didn’t make the record. Sometimes the constructive criticism found choruses becoming verses.

“There was more of an open-table discussion about lyrics on this record than there was on the first record,” allows Mumford. “Presenting lyrics was less of a dead set thing. It was more like the lyrics were put on a trial a bit more which is good – I think.”

Trial or not, there’s a surprising consistency in lyrical tone not only throughout Sigh No More and Babel, but also between each 12 song album. If it’s not a love song in some form (the majority of tunes), then it’s likely dealing with man’s temporal existence on earth (about two on each). With Sigh No More, the latter two both had their genesis in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden ( “Timschel,” “Dustbowl Dance” ).

With Babel, it seems that the obvious outliers ( “Babel,” “Beneath My Feet,” ) take root in the band’s experience throughout these last few years and their determination to remain humble. Rarely has a band been so direct about not letting fame get the best of them as they are in “Beneath My Feet” : Keep the earth below my feet/ For all my sweat, my blood runs weak/ Let me learn from where I have been/ Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.

The reason behind naming the album Babel appears to be twofold. The Biblical story of Babel is that of God thwarting man’s attempt to reach heaven by his own means. Working together – in part because they all spoke the same language – mankind began building an epic city with a tower that they planned to make high enough to reach heaven. While initially proud of mankind’s teamwork, once God got wind of their plans, he scattered everyone, caused them to speak different languages and ravaged the city. The moral of the tale, as applied to Mumford & Sons, is essentially this: Check your hubris lest you be smited. If a potentially multi-platinum album title isn’t a big enough reminder to keep your ego in check, then I don’t know what is.

The second reason the band agreed on the title Babel was through a “boldness” and “confidence” in the band according to Mumford. “It was like, ‘Yeah, people will say stuff about it but fuck it. That’s what we feel the album should be called,” he says in reference to the religiosity people might infer about the members or their beliefs. “We made the album in a time when a lot of shit – either personally, in the world around us and things around us – some of it was falling apart.”

In a similar way, Lovett says that the band had to actively try to not “retreat” on Babel in being overly conscious of “the vultures that are press and media.”

“We’re not there expecting to be judged, we’re writing music to communicate,” he says. “Music is expression but when you take into account the fact that now a lot more people are going to dissect it, you can end up trying to enshroud it with another layer of protection – of making it ambiguous or whatever….I hope the record’s as accessible [as the first] and hasn’t been muddied by those waters.”

Between the aforementioned numbers and the love songs (some of which are expectedly torturous), Babel’s overall sentiment feels fairly buoyant and, yes, accessible, despite some less than cheerful lyrics and melodies. But, as of last December, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“We sat down and listened to what we had and it felt pretty dark, dense and heavy,” reveals Mumford. “We made an intentional decision as a band to try and balance that out with songs like ‘Reminder’ and ‘I Will Wait.’” He says the aborted songs were more akin to “Broken Crown,” a feverish meditation on allegiance that hears him singing in a shouted growl.
“[The rest of the band] said to me, ‘We’re lacking a little bit of the directness that we had on the first record – it’s all becoming a little obscure,’” continues Mumford. “We sat down and had those discussions, which are hard discussions to have because everything is so fucking personal.”

Marshall references Walt Disney in how the band found Babel’s emotional balance. Longtime animation fans, the band contributed an original song this past summer to the Disney/Pixar film Brave ( “Learn Me Right” featuring the U.K. singer Birdy). One of the film’s executives told him that a guiding principle for the fabled animator was that for every laugh you have, if you don’t’ have a tear, then it isn’t worth anything. And vice-versa. “I think we got to a point where we needed a balance of other emotions to give the record a greater dynamism,” posits the banjoist.

Vis-à-vis song selection, there were also discussions about the album’s sonics. “In the studio, Ted was the healthy litmus test for things that were slightly experimental,” says Mumford. “Ben and I would say, ‘Do you think this is going a bit too far?’ And he would usually say, ‘Yeah.’”

Speaking to New Musical Express in October 2010, Lovett declared, “I would like – to an extent – to tear down everything we built with Sigh No More and start again with the second album.” In Bristol, he tells me that there were discussions about making a more lo-fi rootsy record, of not having banjo and of having Marshall sing lead on “For Those Below.” (The song will appear on the deluxe edition of Babel as a duet with Mumford.) In the end, Dravs and the band stayed fairly true to the Sigh No More’s sound, save for a few moments that feel cinematically sweeping.

“I could totally see a Mumford & Sons record without banjo, but we couldn’t image this record without banjo in the same way we couldn’t imagine the next record without Marcus’ vocals throughout,” Lovett says. “It’s a balancing act – we don’t want to confuse people. There’s a sonic familiarity with Mumford & Sons that we don’t want to fuck with too much.”

If you spend any time with the band, then you’ll realize that they’re actively restraining their musical explorations in deference to the music that’s catapulted them into the limelight. They’ve long talked about “serving the song” any number of times in the press but what that actually means becomes clearer in Bristol.

Some of Lovett’s greatest musical heroes are the jazz pianists Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea whom he had the chance to meet at the Grammys last year in Los Angeles. He loves improvisation but within the live performances of Mumford & Sons, his playing is typically confined to the same melody lines over and over.

Marshall only recently learned banjo and, while he loves it – he even has a tattoo of one on his left shoulder with the word “tour” underneath it – if he didn’t feel compelled to serve the songs, then he’d be happy to ditch it in favor of an electric guitar. (I’m told he’s going through a very big punk phase at the moment, too.)

Dwane’s ongoing aspiration is to be good enough to play a four-night stand at the legendary London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s.

They all want to be better musicians – and the live setting sees them stretch out as a band with the addition of a fiddle and horn section – but the current crop of songs demand a leanness to the playing that negates any real exploration. Such self-restraint is harder than fans might imagine.

If Mumford, by his own admission, is the least technically proficient on his instrument, then he’s the most skilled lyricist of the group as its principle writer. Still, for the moment, it seems like he’s confined himself – and by extension the band’s other contributors – to lyrics largely cast in an everyman, spiritual tone about love, loss and redemption. While he’s constantly listening to music and reading literature to try and improve on his lyric writing, there’s no question that the current formula of addressing common feelings and emotions without specific details or descriptions is a key part of Mumford & Sons’ appeal in how it allows the listener to easily transpose their own experiences on to the music.

In Babel’s lyrics, there are 18 references each to some form of “love” and “heart,” in addition to a handful of other reoccurring themes and symbols that tread similar ground to Sigh No More. The struggle between the mind and body – the quasi metaphysical – is where Mumford feels most at home.

“I wish I was better at writing more specific songs,” he admits. “Dawes do it amazingly well. Springsteen, Dylan and Fleetwood Mac – those songwriters can be good with specific times and places, whereas I guess, as a band, we’ve gone a slightly different route to start with. This is only our second album and I’m hoping that might evolve.”

During the Stopover (and tour which they’re the opening), Dawes perform before Mumford & Sons. Mumford, as he does throughout the tour, joins the group for their song “When My Time Comes.” Afterward in Bristol, he sits cross-legged on the side watching Taylor Goldsmith wind his way through “A Little Bit of Everything,” a song whose transcendent lyrics belie the singer’s 27 years. After Goldsmith gets through one particularly poetic verse, I see Mumford shake his head in awe and utter the word “fuck” in expletive appreciation.

It’s nearing midnight and the electronic African group The Very Best are closing out the Bristol Stopover with one more song on the second stage. When they break into “Will You Be There,” Marshall begins jumping up and down with excitement and drags his girlfriend out to dance onstage. “Let’s go. No one’s left behind,” Mumford chides, as he coaxes the rest of the backstage contingent to join them in dancing for the final number onstage.

All day, the members of Mumford & Sons have been attentively watching the bands they handpicked to play their festival. Their biggest concern is making sure that the bands and fans have a positive experience. They realize that their popularity has allowed them to become tastemakers and the more they can share their success with other bands, the better.

“They’re the kindest guys around,” says Goldsmith after his set. “Their fans are exactly the kind of fans we want to play to. There’s no better place for us to be right now.”

The night before the Stopover, the singer/songwriter Aaron Embry tells me that he’s impressed with all of the planning that went into executing the festival and tour. “They also take care of the logistics here,” he says placing his hand over his heart.

On my flight back to New York the next morning, I end up sitting next to the band Delta Spirit, who are returning from a festival in Nebraska. When I mention where I was coming from, the lead singer, Matt Vasquez, says, “Those guys have helped out some of my friends’ bands more than their [own] record labels have.”

Mike Luba, a producer for band’s Stopovers who also works with The String Cheese Incident, hopes that other popular bands will take notice not only of the Stopovers and artist camaraderie, but also of Mumford & Sons’ fan-friendly tactics in general. “This is a game changing shift to show what can be done if you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is,” he says. “There are no limits as to what this can and will be, as long as they keep making music and playing shows.”

Part of Luba’s point is illustrated by the fact that, at 1 a.m., Lovett has just wrapped up DJing to a small crowd of fans at a club downtown while, just down the street, Mumford and Dwane are sitting-in with an ad hoc group of local musicians and their touring horn section for a funk jam. While Lovett’s DJing sensibilities leave something to be desired and Mumford’s funk drumming could use a little more punch, it’s the idea that they’re making these efforts at all that resonate the most. I’m hard-pressed to think of another band this size that routinely engages with fans this way.

In speaking to all four twenty-somethings, each remains extremely enthusiastic about a life spent mostly on the road – the chance to make memories in places like Bristol and Dixon – despite the stress it may put on their romantic relationships or bodies. “We’re hungrier to tour now than we ever have been,” says the recently married Mumford. “I’ve also never been more aware of the importance of balance, of having time off.”

It’s just that – a sense of balance – that I come away with after observing the band for the weekend. They don’t take themselves particularly seriously nor are they overly precious about the music they’ve created. They readily acknowledge that many of the musicians they surround themselves with are, technically speaking, more gifted than they are. Their extracurricular activities are voraciously reading (Marshall), motorcycle riding (Mumford), photography (Dwane), concert promoting (Lovett) and playing any sport that comes their way (all).

Their idea of good time Friday night wasn’t remotely close to the cliché of hookers and blow – it was playing Marco Polo in a pool with Haim, Apache Relay, their managers and friends. Sure, there was plenty of drinking, smoking and some irresponsible firework lighting, but that was the extent of bad-boy behavior.

“We genuinely have a shitload of fun but it’s stable people trying to seek out stable people – the crew and everyone around us,” says Lovett.

It wasn’t that long ago that the band’s benchmark of success was simply being able to tour. “[Getting your] travel paid for and having a bed for the night – that was all that mattered for me,” Dwane says. “We could have gone on like that forever, I think. We had such a good time. It’s easy to feel nostalgic of that time – it was much simpler.”

Like the rest of the group, Lovett is pragmatic in his assessment of their future in understanding how hard longevity can be to achieve. “It will be interesting to see how we handle the plateau or the fall,” he says of the band’s popularity shortly before Mumford & Sons’ headlining set. “I think we’re grounded enough to weather that storm – but it has to happen.”