In 2012, a few months after his band, the Lumineers, released its eponymous debut album, Wesley Schultz was unsure he had the willpower to continue pursuing his dream of being a successful musician. "I remember joking with the band: 'I'm almost 30, and I'm hauling around this Aerobed that keeps popping,'" recalls the singer-songwriter, who months earlier had been supporting himself as a busboy when not on the road with his still-fledgling band. "I don't know if this is going to work when I'm 40. Something's gotta give here." The singer/guitarist can now look back on his band's salad days with relief: On the strength of The Lumineers' massive acoustic-guitar-and-tambourine-anchored Top Five single "Ho Hey," the folk-rock band exploded onto the scene in 2013, scoring a platinum album, Grammy nominations and a performance on Saturday Night Live.
"I never had expectations of one one-thousandth of what happened with that record," Schultz says of his band's mainstream ascent, subsequent headlining festival gigs and constant touring for the better part of the past three years. "You're now being told you're this band people want to hear, but before that, you're completely anonymous. What do you do with that? It's pretty weird." For the Colorado-based outfit, which includes Schultz, multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah Fraites and drummer/cellist Neyla Pekarek, the best solution was to return to the studio and begin piecing together a new album. Recorded with producer Simone Felice at the Clubhouse studio outside Woodstock, New York, the 11-track Cleopatra, due on April 8th, sees the band continuing to remain sonically sparse while indulging some of their more ambitious musical concepts.
"A fair amount of the record feels like a new approach," Schultz says, pointing to the final two tracks on the album — the free-flowing "My Eyes" seguing into the instrumental piano outro "Patience" — as indicative of the band's more adventurous mindset this go-round. "I don't know if we would have even put them on the first record or if we could have even written those kind of songs. We were sort of in this manic state on the first one: If we were playing a show, you might leave at any minute. I feel like we've earned a bit of trust."
Schultz admits the band's mammoth success in recent years was something of a hindrance when writing their second album. He describes mainstream recognition as "this third-party in the room," which the band had to learn to disregard. "You kind of wanted to kick it out and focus on what you're doing," he says. "But you have to do that by writing more songs." Adds Fraites, "I think if I had let the pressure and fear bog me down, the album really would have turned out worse. But it was about trying to flip that fear and anxiety from 'Oh, no! So many people are going to want to listen to this' to 'Fuck, yeah! A lot of people are going to want to listen to this.'"
When they turned in the new album to their label, however — without a single like "Ho Hey" or the ever-popular "Stubborn Love" jumping out from the speakers — the Lumineers faced some blank stares. "Gradually they sort of understood it once they started listening to the record and saw what was going on," Schultz says. "They eventually got it."
The Lumineers had attempted to write material on the road when touring nearly 300 days a year since 2013. Drawing inspiration from, of all people, Lil Wayne, the band set up a portable studio on their tour bus in an attempt to record on the road, much like the rapper famously did; it ultimately proved a fruitless effort. "It was such overkill for what we needed. What we quickly realized is it would be just as useful to have our iPhones with the voice memo on it," Schultz explains, noting he still has "hundreds and hundreds" of voice memos on his phone of melodies, guitar lines and lyrics he didn't end up using on Cleopatra.
Isolating themselves in upstate New York for six weeks at the Clubhouse, where they logged 12-hour days, ended up being the Lumineers' best recipe for creative success. An avid motorcyclist, Schultz recounts going on long rides through the Catskill Mountains with producer Felice, stopping every 20 minutes or so to share lyrical ideas inspired by their surroundings. "I put 1,600 miles on a bike, and so did he," Schultz says of the six weeks he spent living near the banks of the Hudson River. "It was just this mediation on the lyrics."
"When you start a new song that you're super proud of, and you get no one clapping and they look like they're stoned, it's weird." —Jeremiah Fraites
As it turns out, very little of Cleopatra was actually written during the past year. (Schultz points to the soaring "Angela" as perhaps the only track on the album written while in the studio: "It's kind of an aberration for us.") Lead single "Ophelia" first appeared as a voice memo on Fraites' phone back in early 2011. The wisecracking musician says the song always had its strong chorus ("Ophelia, you've been on my mind, girl, since the flood/Ophelia, heaven help a fool who falls in love") but was only recently fleshed out with verses. "It was recognizable," he says of listening back to the song's initial conception. "It's almost like a guy with a mustache or a guy without a mustache: You can still tell it's him, but it's just a little bit different."
The band road-tested the songs that ended up on its debut, but most fans will have to wait until Cleopatra drops to hear new Lumineers material. Not playing the new songs for an audience is a first-time experience for the band — one it's still getting used to. "When you start a new song that you're super proud of, and you get no one clapping and they look like they're stoned, it's weird," Fraites recalls of a recent small-club gig. "It's like if you're a comedian and you know you have a funny joke but no one's laughing. We're like scientists for so long in the studio, but now we have to react more viscerally to what the song is screaming for live."