English folk rockers Mumford & Sons thrive on touring

English folk rockers Mumford & Sonsare that rarity - a band who thriveon touring, writesJon Pareles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 4:02pm

With the downtown Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, a big rock concert stage has been constructed for the first time at Pier A Park in New York City, a grass-covered former pier on the Hudson. Loud bursts of static compete with planes flying overhead as the last components of the sound system are plugged in. It's the day before Mumford & Sons headline a triple bill at the park, playing for 15,000 people to start the band's late-summer US tour.

When everything is plugged in, Mumford & Sons will do a thorough sound check. But in the meantime the four members - guitarist, lead singer, main songwriter and sometime drummer Marcus Mumford; bassist Ted Dwane; keyboardist Ben Lovett; and banjo player Winston Marshall - sit out in the park, dining on steak and potatoes from takeout containers and sharing an interview.

Adele's album 21 blares to test the speakers. "I'd love to write a country album with Adele," Mumford muses.

The tour includes day-long festivals - named Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers, after the band's own label - that will have Mumford & Sons headlining along with half a dozen kindred bands on two outdoor stages. (They take their music - and the Stopovers - to Australia in October.)

"We love playing live, and there's that whole adrenalin-filled thing," Mumford says.

"But we're still singing about some darker things because it's just songwriting that comes from our heads. There are those corners in our heads that are obviously there, just like anyone, so they've got to be expressed. Just because they're expressed in a major key with a banjo doesn't mean that they're any different. And that can be quite fun, playing a jolly-sounding tune with darker lyrics."

Making a career on the road as performers, as Mumford & Sons have done almost continuously since the band were formed in 2007, is a practical choice in the 21st-century rock universe, where multiplatinum album sales such as Mumford's are increasingly rare. But for the British folk rock band, hitting the road has little to do with careerism, says their manager, Adam Tudhope. "They're made for it," Tudhope says in Hoboken, New Jersey. "They just love meeting people. They just happen to be really gregarious people. If you don't love it, it's a really tough job."

Mumford & Sons' late-summer concerts include previews of songs from the band's second album, Babel, released last week. It was long in the making, largely because the band kept touring as their audience grew. For every band, how to find the balance between touring and recording is always an open question - and will remain one for Mumford & Sons. For now the band leans towards the Grateful Dead model: constant touring, sporadic recording.

For Babel, "We pulled ourselves off the road to record and at first we were kind of bent, and torn, like we wanted to be on the road really," Mumford says.

"The studio means adopting a different set of disciplines. We don't want our touring cycles to be dictated by albums so much. We just like playing shows. The albums can fit into that and be adverts for our live show, but we hope that our live work can have a path of its own, separate to albums. That might or might not happen."

Babel follows the band's 2009 album, Sigh No More, which has sold 2.4 million copies in the US alone - a startling figure for a band playing songs featuring banjo picking and four-part harmony. With hits such as Little Lion Man and The Cave, each of which has sold more than a million digital downloads, Sigh No More proves rootsy, hand-played music has an eager audience.

Mumford & Sons got a huge lift in the US from a brief appearance on the 2011 Grammy Awards, where they played The Cave before backing Bob Dylan. It sent their album to No2 on the Billboard album chart.

Unlike folk rockers of eras past, Mumford & Sons aren't concerned with traditionalism. "I'm a little bit confused when people say we hearken back to times of old," Lovett says. "We're not that at all. For me I feel more contemporary, and it just happens to be that we're using these instruments. The energy in the banjo, and the beef in the bass. They're good tools to express yourself."

Mumford and Dwane are steeped in jazz; Marshall initially took up banjo simply because he was a session musician and there was too much competition for guitar gigs. The turning point in Mumford's listening wasn't exposure to Britain's folk heritage but to a Hollywood take on old-timey American music: the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? So folky reserve isn't part of the band's mandate.

As their lyrics grapple with questions of self-doubt, betrayal and redemption, the music rouses itself to huge, cathartic crescendos. Babel expands on the sound of Sigh No More with heftier arrangements and longer instrumental passages; it's the sound of a band collaborating more closely and growing used to bigger venues. "In songwriting you take these very private moments, and you make them public," says Mumford. In the studio, "we were taking up very public songs and making them as private as we could".

The band's producer, Markus Dravs, has never seen the band live, Mumford says, "so he has no emotional attachment to anything we do live, which is very helpful in making a record".

But the album captures the hurtling dynamics of the band's songs. Mumford's voice climbs to raspy shouts and mournful confessions, as he sings about unnamed wrongs and begs for forgiveness: "I'm worried that I blew my only chance," he sings on Whispers in the Dark.

While folk rock never exactly vanished, the success of Mumford & Sons may have rekindled a movement, opening doors for other folk-rooted acts such as Ben Howard, Ed Sheeran, Michael Kiwanuka, and Of Monsters and Men. But Mumford resists the idea of being standard-bearers. "We were thinking about it just as music," he says. "We were always trying to just make the best noise we could make with what we had in our hands, with what instruments we had at hand."

Mumford's Gentlemen of the Road mini festivals purposefully introduce the audiences to folky, twangy bands they may not have heard of. And Lovett has helped create what has become an infrastructure for what he calls "quality songwriting": Communion, which began in 2006 as a small London club night introducing new singer-songwriters.

He started it with friends simply because, Lovett says: "I love hearing music that's just been written, more than older stuff. I get a kick out of hearing someone turn up with a song they wrote last night and play it because it's so fresh and so real."

Communion has expanded to include a studio, a record label, and club nights in nearly a dozen cities. "I don't think they purposely set out to make a scene," says Kiwanuka, a Communion discovery and recent nominee for the Mercury Prize, the prestigious British music award. "But it has become one as the band has become successful. And now it's a singer-songwriter's dream. You get to meet like-minded people."

In Hoboken, the Gentlemen of the Road show begins under light sprinkles as the openers - songwriter Aaron Embry and literate country rockers Dawes - perform. But before Mumford take the stage, the sky clears and a rainbow arches above the Hudson, like a benediction for Mumford & Sons' excursions ahead. "We just want it to keep going," Lovett says. "It's hard to believe you can continue adult life like this."

The New York Times