Since releasing their sleeper-hit debut LP, Sigh No More, in 2009, Mumford & Sons have barely stopped touring – circling the globe multiple times in three years. "It's been tough," says bassist Ted Dwane. "We're all in relationships in London, and it's hard to be away from our families. But for us, this is an absolute dream come true." And the folk rockers are heading right into the next phase: Their second LP, Babel, hits stores on September 25th, and this summer they launch their biggest tour yet.
Mumford & Sons wrote the majority of the LP on their tour bus and during soundchecks over the past two years. "The road has rubbed off into the album," Dwane says. "It's full of alive-ness." While they knocked out their first album in just five weeks, they've spent a full year and a half recording the follow-up, mostly due to their busy touring schedule. Sigh No More producer Markus Dravs (who has also worked with Coldplay and Arcade Fire) returned for the sessions, joining the band at four different studios throughout its native England. "Being away so much for the last couple of years is inevitably a theme on the record," Dwane says, "because it's something that we've all shared."
Expect heavier emotions this time around. "You might hear a little bit more of a slight flavor of darkness on a couple songs," Dravs adds. "My Love Don't Fade Away" and "Ghosts That We Knew," which the band has been playing live for months, are desperate pleas for companionship in rough times; on "Below My Feet," frontman Marcus Mumford seems to mourn a loved one, howling, "For all my sweat, my blood runs weak." And the band rocks harder than ever on "Lover of the Light," packing the arrangement with horns, distorted banjo and rollicking drums.
But Mumford made sure not to stray too far from the earnest, mostly acoustic approach that made them stars. "The ingredients are very much the same: the four core instruments and a lack of a drummer, which can give it that strange, simple, unique sort of sound," Dwane says. "I don't think we were looking to be too crazy and experimental." Adds Dravs, "The idea was always 'If it ain't broke, why fix it?'"
Beginning August 1st in Hoboken, New Jersey, the group will take the new songs on a 15-date summer U.S. tour, including two sold-out gigs at Colorado's Red Rocks. "The main challenge we've faced as a band in the last year is working out how to play these larger audiences and keep it feeling like our show," says Dwane. "A lot of the time, if you go into an arena, they're pretty uninspiring. But we try to create an atmosphere." In between gigs, the bandmates will play four of what they call "Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers" – staging their own outdoor festivals in small cities like Portland, Maine, and Bristol, Tennessee, with friends including Dawes, St. Vincent and Justin Townes Earle, plus local food and retailers. "Basically, we wanted to take all of the things we love from the smaller festivals like Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado," says Dwane. "So many festivals now are just so enterprising, and it's all about cutting every corner."
Mumford & Sons are feeling energized now that their singer has recovered from a broken hand sustained in June, which forced them to cancel two U.K. festival dates. "It was bad," says Dwane. "Everyone was like, 'Fuck, you know, this is really bad.' But he's just about back on top. Looking back at this last few weeks, the spirit is un-crushable. Everyone just mans up. Everyone gets on with it."
This story is from the August 2nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.