The Lumineers: Family Ties
Photos by Danny Clinch
Despite crossing over into the festival mainstream with an upbeat, sing-along anthem, The Lumineers’ story actually began with a personal tragedy. And, on a new LP, the Colorado group is ready to dig into the darkness.
“We were writing the album at this little anonymous house in the Denver suburbs, when I realized that we needed to step away and have a frank discussion about where we were headed,” Jeremiah Fraites recalls of a recent songwriting session with fellow Lumineers co-founder Wesley Schultz. At the time, the pair were working on the material that would eventually surface on the band’s stirring, ambitious new album, III, but Fraites felt they needed a break.
“We had written ‘Gloria,’ which was about addiction, alcohol and how all that can affect the family,” Fraites continues. “Then, we began working on a song that eventually became ‘Leader of the Landslide’ and, again, it was talking about that same subject. After that one, we started ‘Donna.’ I had written some music and Wes had a line about not being sober enough to hold a baby. That was when I said, ‘Hey, can we go for a walk around the block?’
“While we were doing that, I told him, ‘It’s becoming apparent that there’s a lot of subject matter about this heavy stuff.’ We had a good, long conversation that was really cathartic and constructive. It wasn’t an argument as in, ‘I think you’re talking about this too much.’ It was like, ‘I need to acknowledge that we’re talking about this a lot.’ Wesley writes 99% of the lyrics, and a lot of them had to do with something going on in his life, with somebody that he cares about who’s struggling with alcohol addiction. He was like, ‘Hey, man, this stuff is so heavy on me right now and it’s very therapeutic to get it out into poetry—to get it out into lyrics and not ignore it, like everything is fine.’”
Schultz’s compulsion to explore this topic ultimately led to a record that chronicles the trials of a family caught in the throes of addiction. The album is divided into three chapters, exploring three generations of the fictional Sparks clan. The narrative begins with the perspective of Gloria Sparks, herself an addict, then tracks the effects of her alcohol dependency on her grandson Junior, before concluding with the harrowing story of Junior’s father Jimmy. The songs are stirring and reflective, as they chronicle the insults and the injuries that yield both direct and collateral damage.
The album title itself—the simple, straightforward III—is apt not only because this is The Lumineers’ third record, but also because it serves to represent those three generations, as well as the three chapters in which their stories unfold. But beyond this, the plain, almost innocuous name is suitably deceptive as it belies the record’s emotionally charged narrative. It reinforces the concept of how addiction is most devastating behind the white picket fence, as family members must put on brave faces for the rest of the world, while enduring their private, personal suffering.
Still, as Schultz explains, when he and Fraites began writing songs for their followup to 2016’s Cleopatra, they had no intention of crafting a concept record.
“I hadn’t planned out any of this in advance. There was no lead up to that idea when we were first thinking about the album. This album, for me, was more of a meditation,” Schultz acknowledges, then changes course. “No, that doesn’t really capture it. This album was sort of an obsession, and I couldn’t really get past it. I kept returning to the same subject over and over—my family and an addict in my family.”
Still, while Schultz had a personal connection to the subject matter, he found it freeing to explore the topic at several removes.
“I felt the desire to tell that story, but it didn’t feel right to tell it so literally,” he reveals. “So creating these characters, but saying what actually happened at times and depicting it in a really unflinching way, appealed to me because I didn’t feel like I was hurting that person. I was creating characters that were sort of a cover for that person and that really helped me avoid backing off some of the details.”
While the album’s backstory is compelling in its own right, there is another profound nuance that is entwined with the very origins of The Lumineers. Fraites explains, “Wes and I grew up a mile apart from each other. He was friends with my older brother, Joshua, and I was actually friends with Wes’ younger brother, Sam. So I knew Wes peripherally growing up. We even went on family vacations together a couple of times—me, my brother and Wes’ younger brother.”
However, as Fraites discloses, “Part of the pain of writing this album was that, in 2001, Joshua died of a heroin overdose. He was 19 and I was 14 or 15, starting my freshman year of high school. I saw firsthand what addiction did to a family, how it disrupted a family. I saw the worst case scenario of what addiction can do to a single individual, which was death. Even before the death, I saw how it can be a long, drawn out, terrible set of events where people could be getting hurt constantly. There’s one lyric in ‘Gloria’ that Wes wrote that really struck a chord with me, which is, ‘Gloria, there’s easier ways to die.’ It’s almost unimaginable the lengths that people will go to when they’re addicted to something. It’s almost as if they want to die but, for better or for worse, they’re slowly getting by on this path of wreckage.
“When Wes and I went around the block and talked about it, I explained that it was bringing up dormant—and what I had thought were extinct—feelings about losing my brother to drug addiction. So I was feeling a bit apprehensive, like, ‘Wow, this is going to potentially be a shock to the system. Is this something good?’ We thought that if it was cathartic for us, then it might be for other people. We were talking through it for weeks, even months. It’s also interesting that as we started writing the album together, we had each just had a baby boy. So it was ironic that we each had these very young infants at our homes and we were leaving and going to work on this very dark subject matter.”
Over the past few years, The Lumineers’ live lineup has included anywhere from three to six musicians onstage. Still, in reality, the band is a partnership between Fraites and Schultz. But, while they were acquaintances growing up and were both impacted deeply by Joshua’s death, it was not until 2005 that they first connected as artists.
Schultz returned to their hometown of Ramsey, N.J., after graduating from the University of Richmond, looking for musical collaborators. It was a moment he had long anticipated. “I had wanted to leave college to start really pursuing music,” he says. “I just wanted to be out in the real world. I felt like I was already behind. My parents were like, ‘Both of us and your grandfather saved up our money so that you could go to college and we want you to finish. If you finish, we’ll give you our blessing. We’re not going to support you in any way financially, but we’ll be supportive emotionally.’
“A few years earlier, around ‘98, I had recorded a CD for my dad when I was 16,” he continues. “He didn’t really like store-bought gifts—he liked if you made something for him by hand. So, I had this shitty computer microphone that was very finicky and I would use the voice recorder on the computer we had at the time. I recorded 20 songs and called it Wes. It was all over the map and mostly covers, but I had a few originals on there. One of them was called ‘Second to None’ and it was a love song to my high school girlfriend. At one point, my dad said to my mom in private, ‘I think he’s got something and if we encourage him to work hard, maybe something will happen. He seems pretty into this.’”
So while Schultz contemplated the idea of attending grad school to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology, he decided to place an immediate, exhaustive focus on music. He explains, “To this day, I believe that if you work hard, you can achieve something. I know a lot of musicians and some of them haven’t gotten their proper appreciation. But I also know that anyone who wants to play music and is alright at it, can go play music. It’s not impossible, you just need to be willing to sacrifice. The pursuit of it and that sacrifice have become a point of pride because there were a lot of lean years where the world was looking at me like I was insane. Now, I feel like the congratulations and applause are not reality either. So it’s a weird walk of life, but I do believe that if I keep working hard, I’ll feel proud when what I do is good. That’s all I can really do. A lot of this is just the weather; it’s so temperamental and changing, you can’t control any of it.”
Some of this serendipity led him to reconnect with Fraites. The younger musician recalls, “When Wes came back to Ramsey, he contacted a mutual friend of ours, Justin Papp, and said, ‘Hey, I want to gig out, can you drum with me?’ He was like, ‘Sure, I’d love to, but not without Jer.’ At the time, we were making up raps and hip-hop instrumental beats, and we called ourselves, very cheesily, The Professors. I really admired producers like Timbaland, Rick Rubin and The Neptunes. That’s what I aspired to do at the time. It was something completely different than what Wes had in mind, but I gave it a go with him anyway. It was interesting because I played drums and Justin played drums, and then I tried to play piano, which was really aggravating. But Wes made me a believer, and now piano is probably my strongest instrument.”
Prior to this period, Fraites had focused on progressive music. “I only liked complicated stuff: Dream State, Planet X, Liquid Tension Experiment—prog’s prog. When I met Wes, he was into Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty. I don’t think we really saw eye-to-eye when we first started playing together. I literally said to myself before we started playing together: ‘I will not be in a band with a singer. All there is to say about love, sadness, happiness and life has been said already. I just want to be in an instrumental band with weird drums.’”
While Papp eventually moved on to other endeavors, Schultz and Fraites solidified their musical relationship and began writing together, completing between 50-75 songs prior to the release of their debut self-titled record in 2012. Three years earlier, after Fraites graduated from college, the pair had moved to Denver with the hope of finding a cost-effective locale where they could focus on their music.
“Denver eliminated a lot of distractions,” Fraites comments. “When we were living on the East Coast, Wes was living in Brooklyn, and I was finishing up school and living with my parents. We considered moving to the city, but were like, ‘If we live in New York City, we’re each going to have to work two or three jobs, which would leave like two hours a week to work on music.’”
So after considering a number of areas—from Philadelphia to the U.K.’s Brighton Beach—they opted for the Mile-High City. It soon became an intense, nearly insular experience. “We lived in the same house, we worked at the same sushi restaurant and then, we worked on music together,” Fraites says. “It was crazy how much we saw each other. I remember we were living at this really small house and we were working on music. When we wanted to watch The Office on DVD just to chill out, I had to move my drumset away from the TV. We both went to work, then we’d probably go to a gig together. It was absurd, but we met a lot of people in Denver. There was an open mic at this place called the Meadowlark. We Googled “good open mic in Denver,” saw that, and went there. That’s where we met Stelth [Ulvang], who eventually recorded with us and later began touring with us on piano.”
The two soon placed a Craigslist ad for a cellist, looking to add some warm, sonorous tones to the mix, through a unique instrument that could offer a counterpoint to their rough-hewn edges. Neyla Pekarek, who was classically trained on the cello—and as a bonus could contribute rich, melodic vocals—was the first person to respond. That version of the band began gigging on an active basis, steadily gained renown, and eventually signed a record deal with Dualtone. The Relix review of The Lumineers observed, “The group writes earnest, foot-stomping anthems. The songs ‘Ho Hey’ and ‘Dead Sea’ are shining examples of third-wave folk done right with their slow-churning crescendos and trudging, but determined beats; the songs practically roar with life, inviting anyone game to sing along.”
As it turned out, plenty of folks were game, and “Ho Hey” became an unexpected pop hit. The song peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, in between Rihanna’s “Diamonds” at No. 2 and Ke$ha’s “Die Young” at No. 4. “Ho Hey” remained on the singles chart for an improbable 62 weeks, which is still the tenth longest duration in the history of the Hot 100. The song topped the Rock Songs chart for 18 non-consecutive weeks and also achieved No. 1 status on the Alternative Songs and Adult Pop Songs charts.
Schultz reveals, “For me, having a song on the radio is as an icebreaker, it’s your opening line at the bar. It’s not everything. It gets you in the door, it gets you a drink with the girl, but it doesn’t close the deal. At that time, I remember meeting bands who opened for us and they would say, kind of filled with dread, ‘How’s it going? Are you going to be alright?” I was thinking, ‘But this is exactly what I’ve been working for—a moment. Pick up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer. If you come to the show and you leave dissatisfied, at least I had a chance. If you actually listened to the album, then that’s way more than I had a couple years back.’”
Still, as Fraites acknowledges, “We didn’t want to become the tragic one-hit wonder. It’s great to have success, but you also want to evolve and get out from the weight of one song. At the height of the ‘Ho Hey’ success, we would play that song third or fourth in the set. We were thinking that, if we had a thousand people at a show, and we played it third or fourth, then, half the people could leave if they wanted to and they’d be like, ‘Nice, we saw this song; let’s get out of here.’ But then we were trying to create a fan base out of those 500 that remained.”
If, as Schultz suggests, a good song can serve as an icebreakers, then The Lumineers are particularly adept at taking things to the next level in the live setting. The group has a keen sense of dynamics from song to song, not only in juxtaposing the pace and colors of each tune, but also switching up the instrumentation. Schultz is an affable, impassioned frontman whose sincerity resonates. Of course, it helps that The Lumineers have a fair share of icebreakers, from singles “Ophelia,” “Stubborn Love” “Cleopatra” and “Submarines,” through album cuts like “Big Parade,” “Slow It Down” and “Flowers in Your Hair.”
All of this was on display this past summer during the closing day of Manchester, Tenn.’s Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, when The Lumineers played the penultimate set on the What Stage, just prior to Phish.
Bonnaroo is of particular significance to Schultz, who attended the inaugural event in 2002 as a fan. “A friend of mine was one of those people who rallies others to do things like that. He was like, ‘We’re going to this thing.’ So I said yes. We drove the 14 hours from New Jersey, and we didn’t really understand the scene. When we got there, we put up our tent—it was really hot out—and we went inside the tent to smoke weed, thinking we weren’t allowed to smoke in public, while it was actually the most free, Wild West thing I’ve ever been to. It was a hilarious start to the festival. Bonnaroo also felt grassroots and not superficial. Everyone who was there really wanted to be there. No one was there for show or for the fashion.”
While Schultz wasn’t familiar with all the artists, the totality of the experience drew him back to the festival in 2003, where Michael Franti & Spearhead left an indelible impression: “I referenced this onstage at Bonnaroo [in 2019], but I saw bands that I had never been exposed to or would not necessarily buy a ticket to and fell in love with their music. I had seen Michael Franti & Spearhead open up for Dave Matthews Band, but I had only caught part of that set. At Bonnaroo, I saw them in one of the tents on Father’s Day, and Michael Franti gave a beautiful intro to a song, where he spoke about the various people in his band and in his crew who had lost their fathers. Then he said, ‘Two weeks ago, my father died,’ and explained that he wanted to sing a song about his dad and that he wanted everybody to put their arms around the person next to them, even if they were a stranger, and sing along.
“At that point, my dad wasn’t sick yet, but he died in 2007 after a three-or-four-year battle with cancer. So this year at Bonnaroo, we played on Father’s Day, and I told that story and talked about how my dad never saw me do much of anything with music. I was thinking about him that day and, now that I’m a father, it had a lot of meaning. So I commemorated a moment that was so special to me, and I asked people to put their arms around each other while we played ‘Gun Song’ because that one’s about my dad. I got offstage after playing and felt like that was one of the most gratifying, mind-blowing experiences for me. It wasn’t that long ago we were begging people to come out to our set, and now you have people coming out in a big crowd in the sweltering sun in Tennessee, and it couldn’t be better.”
The Bonnaroo performance was also notable in that it was the band’s most high-profile appearance since Pekarek’s depatrure. In October 2018, the group announced that she would be leaving the band to pursue a solo career. Schultz and Fraites share songwriting duties in The Lumineers, so she opted to strike out on her own to create music. Pekarek’s debut album, Rattlesnake, a collection of 13 original songs, tells the story of “Rattlesnake Kate” Slaughterback, an independent woman in early 20th century Colorado.
“I give her credit for making that decision,” Schultz offers, “because it’s not an easy one to leave something that’s kind of on a track. It’s hard to say, ‘I’m going to do my own thing,’ but kudos to her for doing that.”
Rather than a cello, the band opted to add a violin to its live show, bringing in Lauren Jacobson. Her association with the group goes all the way to the first record, where she contributed to “Stubborn Love” and “Dead Sea.” Fraites explains, “We had known her for years. She played with Brandi Carlile and has been very sought after because she’s such a talent. Now we have her full-time, which is amazing.”
A few songs into The Lumineers set at Bonnaroo, Jacobson joined her bandmates as they ran from the main stage to a platform that appeared in the middle of the concert field. There, she stood alongside Fraites, Schultz, Ulvang and bassist Byron Isaacs for a four-song set, which saw the musicians peel off and return to the main stage over the course of the performance, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the Von Trapp children during The Sound of Music’s “So Long Farewell.” It ended with Schultz, alone on the riser, singing “Ophelia,” then strolling through the crowd with a wireless microphone while finishing the song. (Isaacs, whose résumé includes time with Levon Helm and members of The Band family, has been with The Lumineers since Cleopatra.)
“It harks back to something we used to do when we were starting out,” Fraites recalls. “Sometimes there were more band members onstage than in the audience. If you drive 12 hours a day from Denver to Omaha, show up, load in all your gear, set it all up, and there are 10 people in the crowd, then you’re losing money on gas, and losing money on everything else in your life, except music. You have like 45 minutes to make an impression on people. So we would unplug our instruments, leave the stage, and go to the center of the room, where we would stand on tables or chairs and try to engage people.”
The Lumineers essentially did just that at Bonnaroo to a crowd of 50,000, who appreciated both the intent and the execution.
Still, the band faced a particular challenge when playing to such a sizable audience: how to incorporate new material with a particularly dark turn. Some groups might have avoided this altogether, especially in the festival setting. However, Schultz notes, “That was a much bigger priority this time around—to incorporate more of the record than in the past when we might be precious with that. It was exciting to say, ‘We’re going to play some new music and that’s going to be OK,’ without feeling like people were going to run for the hills. I think there is a weight to the new album; there is a heaviness. But there’s also hope in it, and that’s the part that you only get if you stay around long enough to hear it, and if you listen to it often enough. The music I go back to over and over is often darker than that. So I was never frightened by that; I never thought it was a bad thing.”
Fraites adds, “I don’t really know a song that’s truly affected my life positively that is a happy song. Any song that’s really inspired me on some deep or profound level tends to come from pain or sadness, or just an epic feeling of loneliness.”
After opening their Bonnaroo spot with familiar crowd-pleasers “Sleep on the Floor” and “Cleopatra,” The Lumineers performed “Life in the City,” which is the second track from III’s “Gloria Sparks” chapter. They also offered versions of “Gloria,” “Donna” and “Leader of the Landslide.”
To some degree, there was familiarity with the material via a series of three music videos that had already been released from the “Gloria Sparks” sequence, which would later be followed by seven more to capture the full epic sweep of the narrative. Schultz and Fraites tapped Kevin Phillips to direct the series, after watching Phillips’ film Super Dark Times. The results were so artful that the complete 44 minute III was accepted at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival.
Schultz explains that the decision to explore the new album in this medium was inspired by Beyoncé’s Lemonade, as well as a series of videos by Florence + The Machine. He suggests, “Years ago, people would make a music video, and for the most part, it was a paid advertisement for what the band looks like. You were supposed to look sad playing your instrument, and maybe they’d tie in some visuals, but it I felt like it was mostly shallow. Now you can go pretty deep with how you can present the music and tell a story.”
Still, the post-Bonnaroo challenge—as the band kicked off a November European tour—was how to tell that story in concert. One possibility would be to group the songs from each chapter together. The band did that at a fan-club show in Denver, alternating between older material and each of the chapters presented in their totality. However, Fraites and Schultz felt that it didn’t make for the most engaging performance, so they began finding spots for the new material throughout the set.
This makes sense: While III is a unique entity, the album’s individual songs share essential affinities with the rest of The Lumineers’ catalog. The tunes are moving without feeling moody or maudlin. The band’s work shares an earnest, emotive through line, which helps the group’s swelling audiences feel connected and in the moment.
“We’ve learned a lot about how to support those songs in the setlist,” Schultz adds. “You just get a sense about a song and what it can do live that you really didn’t know in the studio. You have to throw it in the deep end and see what sinks and what swims, and learn how to support those moments. Initially, I thought that the last chapter, which is sort of the heaviest, needed to be in one chunk. They felt like temperamental children that needed each other. It turned out I was wrong, and that’s a good thing.”
There have been a number of surprises, such as “Donna,” which has found its way into the encore slot. “I didn’t even think we were going to play that live when we were writing it,” Fraites admits. “I thought, ‘This is a cool, weird song and it’s going to be awesome for a really nice pair of headphones, and when you’re sitting on your couch at night. But we’re not going to play this live.’ It’s basically me on piano and Wes singing, but for such a quiet song, it gets one of the biggest reactions live.”
Fraites pauses, then looks back on his experience devising and developing the poignant sounds of III: “We never decided, ‘Let’s go dark on this album’ or anything as clear cut as that. At the end of the day, maintaining sincerity and honesty is the only thing that matters. We just did what felt right and what felt true, which is what we’ve always done.”
This article originally appeared as the cover story of the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.