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God, Beer & Banjos: Mumford & Sons Take America

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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.


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