"It was kind of lovely, wasn't it?"
Mumford & Sons know how to revel in surprise. On April 5, the English folk-rock quartet announced that they'd be playing Le Poisson Rouge the following evening. The gig would serve as a run-through of their third record, Wilder Mind, nearly a month before its May 4 release.
The fact that the show sold out immediately wasn't the shocker, nor was the choice to play a room a mere fraction of the size of the arenas Marcus Mumford, Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, and Winston Marshall have grown accustomed to headlining since Sigh No More, the debut LP that launched them out of West London in 2009. Small club shows have served as sound laboratories for this introduction to Wilder Mind, and have taken place in London and Los Angeles already. Something was up, but the approach was appreciated, even if not entirely unexpected.
Given the nature of the shiny new setlist, checking phones at the door was an entry requirement in order to prevent the leak of Wilder Mind's virgin material. When the band stepped onstage and the uncharacteristic riffs of an electric guitar hit the ceiling of that Bleecker Street basement, Mumford & Sons were greeted not by a rising fleet of glowing touchscreens, but instead by the faces of wide-eyed fans who were really, truly listening.
Those present probably hoped to hear "Little Lion Man" or other hits from Sigh No More and 2012's Babel, but the stadium-ready gallop of "The Wolf," the pensive cross-examination of "Broad-Shouldered Beasts," "Ditmas" in all its power-chord-fueled confidence, and the rest of Wilder Mind went over well, despite a foreign, decidedly anti-folk feel. That made for a "kind of lovely" surprise, the type of curveball the guys can hit.
"It's such a weird thing, to play to a roomful of people who've never heard the music before," says Dwane, Mumford & Sons' bassist. It's dreary, dripping, and gray in New York the afternoon following Le Poisson Rouge, though the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Soho apartment we're sitting in allow us plenty of light. "I came offstage last night, sat down, and was like, 'I want to do that again. Now. I want to do that again right now.' I'm in the mood to do two gigs a night. Having not been on the road for a while, everyone's really hungry for it."
While Mumford and Lovett have been sticking to their instruments of choice lately -- the guitar and keyboard, respectively -- Dwane and Marshall make for the first visual cue that something's different about Mumford & Sons. Dwane's wooden behemoth of a bass is the square peg to the round hole of a rock setting. Marshall, who's responsible for the rollicking banjo and dobro rolls on their previous records, now paces maniacally on the leash of an electric guitar cord. Mumford's acoustic no longer leads the melodic charge, and of all the songs on Wilder Mind, "Ditmas" is the one that drives this stylistic departure home in the truest sense.Firm and insistent, the song's strongest sentiment -- "Don't tell me that I've changed, because that's not the truth" -- delves beyond the romantic context the song implies. It serves as an accidental mantra for Mumford & Sons as they continue to navigate this album-by-album shift from folk to folk-rock to rock, and they wouldn't have been able to do that without stepping away from their music at the height of their success. [page]
"When we're doing [Mumford & Sons], we're doing it full steam ahead, but when we're not, our identities don't solely lie in this band," says Mumford, referring to the endeavors the band members pursued independently after concluding their international touring effort behind Babel in late 2013.
Mumford, in the interim, worked on everything from major motion picture soundtracks (for 2013's Oscar-winning folk epic Inside Llewyn Davis) to Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, the album sprung from recently uncovered Dylan lyrics. Dwane, an avid photographer, flourished behind the lens; Marshall took comedy classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade and played in a one-off indie supergroup. Lovett focused on the New York operations of Communion, the artist-run label, publisher, and promotional powerhouse he co-founded in London before Mumford & Sons hit it big.
They found that these projects only deepen their interest in what they write together, rather than distract from it. "It's created a bit more freedom, and we're just a bit more secure in our mindsets," Mumford offers. "Our identity within the band, we're pretty clear on what it is. We started the band precisely out of that mindset of collaborating. We just love playing music, and we love the communal, relational aspect of playing music."
"When Marcus did The New Basement Tapes, he came back to the studio with fresh ideas and new inspirations," says Lovett. "The thing about doing this stuff, it keeps the spirit of what it was like when we started the band, when the four of us all had a lot of things going on. Otherwise, we would all be writing about the same life and listening to the same music. It's really important that we do all these things."
That spirit is what drew them to the Ditmas Park studio of Aaron Dessner of the National, whose production credits include works by Sharon Van Etten, Local Natives, the Lone Bellow, and more. Vocal National fans, Mumford & Sons geeked out when they recognized the piano that can be heard on some of their favorite songs in the space they were working in.
"He's a huge catalyst who really just understood the band," says Dwane of Dessner. "He kind of knew what our intention was, which was to come and write as freely as possible.... He had the right temperament to supply this atmosphere of creativity and enjoyment and trust in each other's ideas. He supplied us with the most important bit: the foundation to get back together and start writing."
They eagerly picked up new guitars, instead of the familiar gear they'd been touring with, effecting an immediate departure from how they used to write.
"[Sigh No More and Babel] were largely written on the road," says Marshall. "I think the reason why the instruments on the second album are similar to the ones on the first album is because those are the instruments we had in soundchecks when we were writing these songs out. They're linked in that way; they were written in the same style.... This time in the studio, we could play any instrument we fucking wanted. It was liberating. It was great."
"The instruments Aaron had in the studio definitely had a part in it, but we felt like we exhausted the creative landscape of those instruments between the first two albums," says Dwane. "We did a lot with them and it was great, and we love them. They're very accurate snapshots of the band at those times, but I don't know -- we just wanted to spread our wings a bit."
They proceeded to do so, and on a New York schedule.
"We spent time at night in Manhattan and then recording in Brooklyn," says Mumford. "I think there's a can-do spirit to New York. There's an ambition, a 'Get it done and move on' mentality. I'm not sure it filtered into the songs, but it was more the backdrop for the process. Aaron was keen on exploring every idea. Songs would happen quite quickly. Aaron thinks we work best late at night. A lot of the songs happened at one o'clock in the morning. 'Snake Eyes,' 'Monster,' 'Cold Arms' -- all of those performances happened really late at night, or were written late at night."
And with that, Mumford & Sons brought "Ditmas" and the first strains of Wilder Mind into being, shifting expectations and genre affiliations with the swap of a guitar or two. The faces at Le Poisson Rouge said it all, really: It's a lovely surprise, to accept that a band that banked on folk flavor would shuffle off the coil of banjo strings without losing the strength of their musical identity in the process. Don't tell them that they've changed, because it's not the truth.
Mumford & Sons released Wilder Mind on May 4 through Glassnote Records.
GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS
The 10 Most Underrated Guitarists in the History of Rock
The Best New Minnesota Musicians of 2014
53 things you might not know about Prince
73 things you might not know about Bob Dylan