Mumford & Sons hope for third time lucky as they abandon their roots
British quartet have changed direction with their third album, taking up electric guitars and sounding more like Coldplay, but are confident their fans will still support them
Belief is big in the world of Mumford & Sons. It figures into the British quartet's music - consider Believe, the first single from their new Wilder Mind album - but it's also a key element of the way Marcus Mumford, Winston Marshall, Ben Lovett and Ted Dwane approach their whole career, and in particular, the dramatic musical shift evident on Wilder Mind, released worldwide last week.
The album marks a departure from the rootsy, Americana sound that won the group millions of fans, critical accolades and industry awards for their first two albums.
The change is immediately evident: almost entirely gone are the banjo, mandolins, accordion, acoustic guitars and upright bass of 2009's Sigh No More and 2012's blockbuster Babel albums, which have sold millions worldwide. Instead, rootsy instruments have given way to synthesisers, blazing electric guitars and bass-drum loops on Wilder Mind, a distinctly different sound expressing an expanded sense of late-night melancholy.
While a major shift such as this - which now finds the band closer to the realm of British rock acts Coldplay, Snow Patrol and Elbow than former rootsy, musical brethren such as The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers - may seem risky in today's musical climate, Mumford & Sons are confident their fans will broadly endorse all their musical instincts and not a specific sound or singular recording.
"It feels almost like they're supporters of us as people rather than as musicians or rock stars or whatever," says Mumford, 28. He and his bandmates are delighted by the sunny California weather after their recent time in a still-wintry New York, where Lovett lives and Mumford visits regularly while his wife, British actress Carey Mulligan, is working on Broadway. It's also a night-and-day improvement over the grey and chilly climes of London, where Mumford and Dwane primarily reside and where the band recorded Wilder Mind with producer James Ford and associate producer Aaron Dessner of indie rock band The National.
"It sounds really corny, but it feels like they're supporters rather than fans. You know what I mean?" Mumford says. "In England, we call soccer fans 'football supporters', because it's like a lot of us obviously idolise soccer players, but you're also quite critical of them; you're quite paternal towards them, like 'What are you doing, mate? Get up! You're not doing your job properly! I'm a supporter of this team!'"
Lovett adds: "From our internal perspective, it doesn't feel like that much of a drastic move, really. It feels like more of a continuation than a departure. I don't doubt that some of it sounds very different, but to us it's pretty cohesive."
Stylistic shifts this dramatic are rare at the top of the pop music heap, but not unprecedented. Norah Jones left many fans of her sultry jazz-pop scratching their heads when she indulged her country music passion with The Little Willies side project, Katy Perry gave up her identity as Christian pop singer Katy Hudson for a career in mainstream pop, and Taylor Swift left behind pretty much all vestiges of her country music foundation on her two latest blockbuster pop albums.
In tandem early-morning interviews - first Mumford and Marshall, then Lovett and Dwane - the four British blokes finish one another's sentences and occasionally let go with hearty guffaws at something the other has said. But they also come across as thoughtful, even pensive, at times about their musical journey.
"Banjos, dobros and acoustic guitars are not our first instruments," Marshall says. "Mum's a drummer; I'm a guitarist. I think Ben's the only guy who [was] playing his first instrument. Touring for six or seven years with those [acoustic] instruments, there was definitely a need within us to do these other things. There wasn't a need to reinvent the band."
Where Babel, which earned the band a Grammy for album of the year, was largely written on the road while the band toured its neo-folk debut album Sigh No More, the runaway success of Babel afforded the group the luxury of time off and a blank canvas.
"Because we made [ Babel] and wrote so much of it while we were touring, in sound checks, we were using the same instruments that we'd had on our first record. That's what we had at our disposal," says Marshall. "This time, we could go away and play guitars and synths, drum-loop machines and all this kind of nonsense, and kind of do whatever we want."
The result: a darker, more melancholy tone, dripping with self-doubt, that has as much to do with how and when they wrote the songs as with any conscious effort to try something different. "It definitely feels like a nighttime record to me," says Mumford. "A lot of the songs were written at night. A lot of the songs we did together happened at, like, one in the morning."
Belief also figures prominently in the group's first tour in nearly two years, which encompasses the usual stops at arenas and amphitheatres in major markets while also taking a gamble with what they've dubbed the "Gentlemen of the Road" stopovers - miniature band-curated festivals engineered to stop in small towns around North America.
"Things got big quickly for us, and playing arenas … it's like - and every band will tell you this - you don't see any of the town," Marshall says. "When we first started touring, we were going to these towns we'd never otherwise go to, never otherwise see, and that's sort of why we like being in a band. But we started playing these bigger rooms and not even seeing the towns."
The idea, they say, is to work closely with residents of the towns they visit to make them an integral part of the festival. They've connected with local brewers, who concoct custom microbrews sold only at the Gentlemen of the Road stopovers. After those shows, they typically head into town and get late-night jam sessions going.
"We love the community that comes along with playing music," Mumford says. "I suppose that's an old-school way of looking at it."
As much of a group effort as Mumford & Sons may be - the band of brothers always conduct press interviews collectively, playing down the breakout-star potential Mumford carries because the group took his name - that doesn't mean each member hasn't also pursued his own projects.
Last year Marshall took an improv class with the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre group in Los Angeles. Lovett devoted his energies to Communion, his record label-concert promotion company, and Dwane spent time following his other artistic passion, photography. Last year Mumford collaborated with Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens and Dawes songwriter-singer-guitarist Taylor Goldsmith on the T Bone Burnett-helmed New Basement Tapes project, which completed unfinished songs Bob Dylan started in 1967.
"I now have much greater appreciation and confidence in the process of collaborating," Mumford says of the experience, a lesson that translated into a more egalitarian writing process with Lovett, Dwane and Marshall.
That new balance appears to bode well for the long-term prospects of Mumford & Sons. "It's like any relationship: you have to opt in every day," Dwane says. "We do work quite hard to sustain this. Creatively and personally, we try to ensure everyone's happy and fulfilled. I don't think it is a hard thing to sustain if you have something intentional about it."
Adds Lovett: "What we represent has evolved from what it started out as. Going on that journey together and being constant in not having to be bound by what we once were, it's crucial for us to have that opt-in."
Dwane sums it up: "You can't really opt into something you don't believe in."
Los Angeles Times