Mumford & Sons find life beyond folk

Mumford & Sons embraced their rock ’n’ roll side when creating Wilder Mind, which showcases a jagged edge

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      Five years is a long time to be going at a job full-bore, especially when it’s hard to separate one’s work from what passes for downtime. Mumford & Sons discovered this big-time after blowing up in 2009 with their debut, Sigh No More, and then scoring an even bigger hit three years later with the follow-up, Babel.

      In just under a half-decade, the London, England, quartet went from touring in a cramped van, banjos and double bass crammed in back, to being one of the biggest acts in the world.

      When singer-guitarist Marcus Mumford, banjoist Winston Marshall, keyboardist Ben Lovett, and bassist Ted Dwane weren’t headlining Glastonbury, they were hobnobbing with the Obamas at the White House, jamming with Bob Dylan, and backing the Kinks’ Ray Davies in the studio.

      There was a Mercury Prize and Grammy awards, platinum records, a Saturday Night Live appearance, and, presumably, the kind of royalty cheques that make the idea of one day working a traditional job laughable.

      Despite all this, at some point it started to seem like too much, proving that even the best gigs in the world can sometimes lead to burnout.

      At the end of the touring cycle for Babel, Mumford & Sons made it clear they’d had enough of hotel rooms, airplanes, and tour buses, announcing an indefinite hiatus.

      And then, just weeks after committing to doing nothing, they were back at it, diving into the writing of this year’s surprisingly electrified Wilder Mind. That might suggest that the band’s members weren’t nearly as burned-out as they thought they were.

      When he connects with the Georgia Straight from his London home, however, Dwane confirms that wasn’t the case.

      “We were exhausted—deeply, deeply fatigued,” the bassist protests, albeit with a laugh. “There’s something called accumulative jet lag, which is when you get so deeply fatigued that you don’t know which way is up. There was a good bit of that going on, so we definitely needed to go home. To be honest, it wasn’t so much of a rest thing—it was more of a psychological opening-up of space for us to be creative. For so long, our whole life was being a band. Since 2007, when we first formed, we’ve always been chasing the next thing. We just wanted to not have something in the diary for once. So we booked nothing. And that made us super creative.”

      At first, everything went as planned, with the men of Mumford & Sons spending time reconnecting with family and friends.

      “There was a lot of catching up with people that I hadn’t seen in too long,” Dwane says. “It was nice to have unpressured time. Usually, when we go home to see our folks, it’s like, ‘I’ll see you for a night, and then I won’t see you for another two months.’ ”

      And yet, as enjoyable as all that was, somehow the business of making music started to seem just as important.

      “We were going to take six months off, but then we ended up taking only two months off,” Dwane relates. “Actually, about six weeks, maybe. And then we got back together to start writing this new record. We just got a bit bored—it’s funny, as a musician, if you’re not in the studio and you’re not touring, your sense of purpose starts to become questioned. It was like, ‘What are we doing here?’ That made us keen to get back to work.”

      And when they did, they started pushing in directions that challenged both themselves and their fans. That goes a long way toward explaining why gauze-swaddled postpunk guitars suddenly seem far more vital than banjos and acoustic bass.

      There are still moments of sublime beauty, but there’s now a jagged edge to Mumford & Sons. Just when the chilled-out church organs have taken hold on “Believe”, the song explodes with an incandescent barrage of six-string violence. “Snake Eyes” is a fantastic mess of thrashy distortion and beat-on-the-brat drums, while “The Wolf” rides a driving, born-to-run bass line to the shores of Asbury Park.

      Having proven themselves perfectly comfortable kicking back with Bon Iver and the War on Drugs, Mumford & Sons now sound more interested in trading shots with the Killers and the National.

      “Because we are four creative people—four writers—there was no way that we were ever going to be satiated doing the same thing over and again,” Dwane says. “Change was inevitable for us. And a very natural thing. We weren’t setting out to upset any of our fans—even though we might have done that a little bit, that was not the goal. The plan was just to be happy and creatively fulfilled. That’s all we’ve ever set out to do. We always try to make each record a snapshot of the band at that time. We really feel that, with Wilder Mind, we did that just as successfully as we did with the albums before. It was a fun record to make, and it’s turning out to be a really fun record to play as well.”

      Sometimes, reinventing things can be hard, which explains why the likes of Oasis, the Ramones, and the Strokes proved incapable of anything other than making the same record over and over.

      With Wilder Mind, Mumford & Sons set out to move beyond the new-folk explosion they helped set off. The process was kick-started when Marcus Mumford decamped to New York and began banging around in the home studio of the National’s Aaron Dessner. His bandmates would eventually join him there, embracing the idea that there was nothing wrong with cranking up the Telecasters.

      “From there, it was a process of collaboration that we’ve been honing since day one,” Dwane says. “The first album was pretty Marcus-centric. The second album was definitely more four-way collaborative, and this time it was 100 percent collaborative. That’s a nice thing—it definitely keeps everyone in the band very happy.”

      Happy enough, apparently, that no one minded getting back to work when they were supposed to be decompressing. Dwane notes that, like his bandmates, he’s now fully recharged and ready to go. Sometimes, even when you don’t know which way is up, it’s important to remember that being in Mumford & Sons is a dream job, and has been from the start. Part of what’s made everything so gratifying is that no one ever expected things to blow up the way they have.

      “People don’t really need to question our sincerity when it comes to our songs,” Dwane says. “You look at the instrumentation and you can’t really argue that we set out with commercial aspirations. Banjos and things like that are not part of some formula for global success. But it felt right, and I think there’s some value to purity of intention. I think that’s what people relate to and enjoy about our music—there’s really nothing going on apart from the simple joy of making music and singing together. It’s such a simple, honest thing to us, and I think people can see that. If there’s any explanation as to why things have gone well, perhaps that’s it.”

      He pauses, and then laughs yet again. “Our aspirations were simply pub-based. You know—drinking music for people of Irish descent.”

      Mumford & Sons play the Squamish Valley Music Festival’s Tantalus Stage on Sunday (August 9).