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God, Beer & Banjos: Mumford & Sons Take America

Page 3 of 4

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!'"

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