God, Beer & Banjos: Mumford & Sons Take America

Riding along with the year's biggest new band as it crashes a picking party, dodges the authorities, meets a Golden God and works on a hangover with Ed Helms

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Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons performs during the 2011 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on June 11th, 2011 in Manchester, Tennessee.
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Mumford & Sons are four nice British boys from well-to-do homes, who dress like railroad engineers and sing four-part bluegrass harmonies. So why are they on a street corner at midnight, face to face with the San Miguel County Sheriffs Office?

"Is that a beer?" a deputy asks, eyeing the bottle in keyboardist Ben Lovett's hand. Lovett, a 24-year-old Welshman with a face to take home to Mom, admits that it is. The officer frowns. "You know it's a $100 fine for open containers." Bassist Ted Dwane says they're sorry – they didn't know that.

The officer is quiet for a minute. "Well," he says finally, "I hate to see beer go to waste." He looks at his watch. "You've got 15 seconds." Bottoms up.

"I can't believe he made him do that!" marvels Dwane after the heat dies down. "Right there on the street!" Someone else says it could have been worse. "Yeah," Dwane says, "a hundred dollars worse! And one less beer."

It's a warm June night in Telluride, Colorado, the sky clear and starry under a nearly full moon. Tonight is the first night of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the old-mining-town-turned-ski-mecca is crawling with Dobro freaks, busking fiddlers and old-timey music fans of all persuasions. Telluride is one of Mumford & Sons' favorite places on the planet: Banjo player Winston Marshall says after they visited the festival last year, playing to 300 people in a tiny opera house, they immediately started plotting how to come back.

It turned out the return invite wouldn't be a problem. Within the past year, Mumford & Sons have become one of the biggest success stories in rock. On the strength of their two big singles – the joyous "The Cave" and "Little Lion Man," which features the irresistibly bleep-worthy refrain "I really fucked it up this time, didn't I, my dear?" – their first album, Sigh No More, has sold more than 1.6 million copies, including a million this year alone. The weekend before Telluride, they played a raucous set at Bonnaroo that was so popular it disrupted the festival's gravitational balance, drawing more people to the second stage than many bands did to the main one. The weekend after, they'll play Glastonbury, right before U2. They've made fans of everyone from Ray Davies to Taylor Swift, and even Wiz Khalifa has given them a shout-out.

"It scares the shit out of me sometimes," says frontman Marcus Mumford, 24, of the band's success. "I just feel like, not only do we not deserve to be here, but we're not good enough to be here. I guess we had a dynamic, and it caught on."

The headiest moment of all came in February, when Mumford & Sons got to perform at the Grammys with Bob Dylan, backing him on "Maggie's Farm" after playing "The Cave" by themselves. Mumford says Dylan didn't say much – "I think he was nervous" – though he did give them one instruction: "He told us to 'keep stomping.'" The rest of the weekend turned out to be just as surreal: They met Usher and Gwyneth, got high-fives from R. Kelly, and shared a very crowded elevator with fellow Best New Artist nominee Justin Bieber and his security detail, during which Marshall cheekily proposed that "the youngest passenger should leave." ("We were a bit drunk and English," Dwane says, smiling.)

And yet somehow they've achieved it all with a name like a Victorian barrister's office and the kind of music that went out of fashion circa the Victrola. It's taking nothing away from their musical charms to call the band's success a little head-scratching – almost like . . . "an accident?" Lovett says. "It is. Absolutely. No two ways about it. Our only saving grace is that we work really hard. Apart from that, who knows why people like it?"

"It's really weird to me that people like our music," agrees Mumford. "It's pretty straightforward. There's no flash to it. And there are so many other bands doing it. People are like, 'Don't listen to Mumford & Sons – listen to this band.' And I'm like, 'I know!' We're just mediocre, slightly overweight English musicians. We're fat, sweaty, and we try hard."

An open-container fine successfully averted, the band decides to head over to a nearby home for something called a "picking party." This is the thing to do at Telluride – some generous fan will stock up on booze and throw open his doors for a well-lubricated, all-night jamboree. Tonight, the party is at some guy named Ed's house – assuming they can find it.

Marshall is supposed to be leading the way, but as the rest of the guys follow him through three right turns, it becomes apparent that he's a bit lost. (The band's hold on U.S. geography is still tenuous – when someone mentions Nashville, Dwane says, "That's pretty close to here, right?")

Tromping through the deserted streets, their outfits reflect varying degrees of old-timey-ness. Mumford is the dapper throwback, impeccably dressed in a brown vest and matching wool tie. He also looks oddly like quarterback Tim Tebow, and once you see this fact you cannot unsee it. Dwane, 26, is a touch more modern, with a rock-star-snug leather jacket and scuffed designer boots. Lovett is the pinup of the group, favoring loose tank tops and stubble and looking like the American Apparel version of an Appalachian hillbilly. And Marshall, 24, looks like the Appalachian hillbilly version of an Appalachian hillbilly, in shitkicker boots and a ratty semi-mohawk that he appears to have given himself with a whittling knife.

After navigating through some back alleys and around a beaver pond, eventually the band arrives at a lavish three-story ski chalet, where everything inside smells like wood and money. At this point it's revealed that Ed is not just any Ed, but Ed Helms, the ridiculously nice star of The Hangover and The Office, and also, it turns out, a huge bluegrass fan. "Hey, guys!" he says, welcoming everyone inside with handshakes and hugs. "Thanks for coming!"

Mumford & Sons Behind the Scenes

The party is already in full swing, with about two dozen people hanging out in the living room, including an inordinately large number of guests named "Critter." There's a big upright bass, a couple of guitars, a few fiddles, and lots of singing and hand-clapping and foot-stomping. Helms also has his ax, a gleaming white banjo that he and Marshall take turns strumming. Bottles of whiskey get passed and re-passed, and the fridge is so continuously filled with beer that it seems like a glitch in the matrix.

Out on the patio for a cigarette, Marshall – who's affectionately called "Winnie" – is smitten: "This festival is so goddamn vibey!" As he watches his bandmates jam through the glass door, they're all so stoked and unjaded that it's basically impossible not to fall under the spell. At one point, the banjo player Bela Fleck steps outside, and Marshall is star-struck. "That was the best banjo player in the world," he whispers once he's gone. (Sometimes the bandmates' reverence can get pretty serious: A few hours earlier, they were watching some friends from London perform at a high school auditorium when Mumford turned to a chatty woman in the audience and shushed her, librarian-style.)

But they also know how to party. By 3 a.m., revelers are starting to trickle out, but the Mumfords are still going strong. Helms, conscientious about the cigarette smoke and the noise, has spent much of the evening sliding the patio door shut, very much The Hangover's Stu. At one point, he goes upstairs and returns to find a lamp knocked over and broken. "Oh, boy," he says, biting his tongue. Mumford, clutching an armful of beer bottles, starts harmonizing with Marshall on a song he wrote, and a girl in cowboy boots hops up on the coffee table and begins stomping along. "Easy!" Helms says, laughing. "It's a rental!"

The next morning, the band members slouch into the hotel lobby at the crack of noon, looking a little worse for wear. One by one, they piece together the rest of their evenings. Mumford stayed at Helms' until 4 a.m. and got a ride home from a cop. Dwane hung out until dawn and watched the sunrise on his walk back. Now he wants some eggs; everyone wants coffee.

Strolling through town on the hunt for a cafe, Lovett and Dwane sketch the band's back story. Lovett and Mumford met sometime around third grade at the King's College School, a private school in Wimbledon attended by the likes of John Barrymore and Charles Dickens Jr. Mumford was a quasi-jock who played rugby and soccer and acted in school musicals (he played the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, much to his current chagrin); Lovett was less involved but cooler, a classically trained pianist who also played in a couple of bands. Together they started a six-man free-jazz group called Detente – which is about as embarrassing to them as you might guess – but when a friend of Mumford's older brother made him a bluegrass mix-tape near the end of high school, Mumford became obsessed and started writing those kinds of songs instead.

"Marcus will tell you, they were pretty trite," Lovett says of their early efforts. Does he remember any titles? He laughs. "Um . . . 'On the Train'?"

In the meantime, Mumford had also befriended Marshall, the son of an insanely successful British hedge-fund manager (his personal fortune is a reported £250 million plus) who would often wear cowboy boots to his posh private school. ("I was completely deluded," he says. "They were probably made in China.") Marshall also played in Gobbler's Knob, a ZZ Top cover band whose members sported fake beards ("We sold more T-shirts than we did CDs," says Marshall); when they were about 16, he and Mumford met at summer camp, where both of them played in the band. "We did, like, two gigs a day, all worship songs," Marshall recalls. "I think we bonded over Office quotes."

After high school, Mumford went off to study classics at the University of Edinburgh but returned to London after a year to try music professionally. Marshall was booking a country-music night at a sweaty underground club called the Bosun's Locker, and he, Mumford and Lovett would play with the musicians who came through. Eventually they recruited Dwane, a friend of a friend who'd been playing bass in a punk band called Sex Face, and started playing shows of their own. They played used-bookstores, a river barge, the sidewalk. The whole thing had an improvisatory air; when they first went into the studio to record their debut album – which they paid for themselves – Marshall strummed a rented banjo, and Dwane didn't even have a bass.

Despite their seemingly overnight success, things at the beginning were a little rough. The first time Mumford read reviews of their record, they were so bad he cried. "They were spot-on," he says. "I agreed with them wholeheartedly – they nailed everything I was insecure about it. I was like, 'I don't need to read your shitty writing to know what's wrong with us!'"

Listening to Mumford & Sons songs, it's hard not to detect a vaguely spiritual undercurrent. The lyrics – in addition to high-literary allusions to Shakespeare and Steinbeck (Mumford, after all, is a guy who reads 16th-century English historical fiction for fun) – are also full of references to faith, sin and atonement, not to mention explicit exhortations to "serve God" and profound queries like "Can you kneel before the King and say, I'm clean, I'm clean'?" Coupled with the band's harmonies and a propulsive beat, they can almost sound more like Christian praise songs than modern-rock hits.

As it turns out, there's a reason for this. Mumford's parents, John and Eleanor, are the national leaders of the U.K. arm of the Vineyard movement, an evangelical church from the 1970s that they have been involved with since before Marcus was born. (It's the same church that lead Dylan to Jesus around the time of Slow Train Coming.) According to Lovett, a committed non-believer, Mumford's religion made things tricky. "It was always a bit of a stumbling block for our friendship," he says. "I don't know if Marcus would see it like that – we were still great friends who played music together. But whenever that stuff would come up . . . "

When it comes to talking about the church today, Mumford is circumspect. "I just feel like it's personal, you know? For who we are as people, it's almost everything. But I don't feel like it's super-relevant to what we do musically."

This is something he's been struggling with lately: keeping personal things personal in the face of magnified attention. In the U.S., the band members have been snapped by paparazzi a few times, usually when they're out with their friend Jake Gyllenhaal, who's a fan. But at home in England, the coverage could become more intense – in part because of Mumford's new girlfriend, actress Carey Mulligan. It's actually a pretty sweet story: When they were 11, they became pen pals through church; eventually they fell out of touch, but they reconnected a few months ago and have been together ever since. Mumford calls her "a great sounding board" and says they're very happy together, but it also takes him only about a minute of this line of inquiry to shut it down – albeit in the most polite, English way possible.

"So," he says, "should we go for a ride?"

One of the crew guys has a couple of motorcycles here, and Mumford, missing his Triumph back home, wants to take one for a spin. He chooses a Yamaha, slips on his shades and cruises out of the grounds and up the mountain toward a waterfall. As we climb, he soaks up the scenery, marveling at the mountain vistas and blue sky. "Are those aspens up there?" he says, pointing to the ridgeline. At the top, he stops for a cigarette and calls Mulligan to say hello.

On the way back down, the beautiful afternoon starts to turn dark and wet. By the time Mumford & Sons take the stage, it's freezing rain, with everyone in the crowd drenched and shivering. Helms watches the band's set in a big yellow rain slicker and galoshes ("my Paddington Bear look," he jokes). But if the bandmates' spirits are dampened, it shows not at all, as they bounce around the stage as excited as ever.

This is their last show in the U.S. for a while. Tomorrow they'll fly back home to London for a couple more festivals, and then they'll go into the studio to start recording their new album with producer Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Coldplay). They're already halfway there; last January, they wrote half a dozen new songs while staying at a friend's farm near Nashville. ("Nashville is less of a cliche if you're British," Lovett says a little sheepishly.)

The next act up is Robert Plant, playing with his roots outfit, Band of Joy. "Wow – Mumford & Sons!" he says from the stage. "I'm so proud to be British today. Marvelous beyond belief. How wonderful." Mumford, watching from the wings, grins like an idiot. Afterward, the band gets an audience with Plant backstage, and he repeats his earlier praise. "You're just what this festival needs – a good kick in the ass," he says.

Later, Mumford is giddy. "That was fucking mental!" he says. "I called Carey and said, 'You'll never believe what just happened.'" They have an early flight to London tomorrow, but first they're heading back to the opera house where they played last year for one last blowout jam. Plant might even come by – "If you need us, mate, just say the word," Mumford told him earlier. (Plant, laughing: "I think we're all right, mate.")

But whether Plant shows or not, Mumford seems content. "Days like this, man," he says, shaking his head. "Wow. Awesome."

This article is from the August 4th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 1136: August 4, 2011