Deep within the glass-and-steel shell of London's still-shiny-new 02 arena, beneath what used to be called the Millennium Dome, Marcus Mumford is setting a chunk of wood on fire. "Palo santo," he says, with half-joking reverence, breathing deep as his band's sterile dressing room fills with citrusy fumes, an ancient intrusion on this modern space. "The holy wood, mate!"
When Mumford punctuates a sentence with "mate," he'll sometimes give you a friendly thump on the back; even when he doesn't, the backslap is implicit. He's a big, broad-faced guy – cocky, kind of loud, currently sporting an Errol Flynn-ish mustache. But there's something searching and vulnerable in his eyes, which appear to waver between brown and blue ("Mother calls it hazel," he says).
Mumford, 26, has been suffering from brutal tension headaches for the past two months, and he swears that palo santo, a South American incense wood, is the only thing that helps. "I've tried everything, pills, even went and had my brain scanned," he says. The producer T Bone Burnett recently turned him on to it, which is appropriate: Burnett assembled 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, a roots-music primer that was a key influence on the sepia-toned aesthetic of Mumford & Sons, the band Mumford fronts. (Another important touchstone: Bruce Springsteen's banjo-powered Seeger Sessions Band, especially the Live in Dublin album. Says Mumford, "Springsteen found a way to make acoustic instruments sound big.")
"I always feel slightly embarrassed saying how much of an influence O Brother was," says Mumford, who was only 13 or so when it came out. "Because that feels so recent." The O Brother soundtrack won Album of the Year at the Grammys in 2002, and Mumford & Sons' second album, Babel, took the same prize this year. Burnett, meanwhile, recruited Mumford to work on the soundtrack to a new Coen brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, which happens to co-star Carey Mulligan, Mumford's wife of 11 months.
Ted Dwane, the band's stand-up-bass player – at 28, the oldest and steadiest member, the one all his bandmates go to for advice – has also taken to palo santo, with his own supply at home. Banjo player and designated wiseass Winston Marshall – the youngest at 25 – is less impressed. "The prima donna stick," he says, sending Mumford into bent-over, bellowing laughter. "The diva twig!"
But collectively, Mumford & Sons are all about the holy wood. In the second decade of the 21st century, they've managed to push acoustic instruments and crowd-around-the-mic harmonies toward the center of pop culture. Tonight is the Brit Awards – the U.K. Grammys – and in a few hours the Mumfords will beat out One Direction for British Group of the Year. Justin Timberlake has the dressing room next door; Taylor Swift is hidden away down the hall. Muse will show up soon. None of them brought a banjo.
Mumford & Sons' sound is now considered so commercial that an American Idol winner, Phillip Phillips, ripped it off last year (and the Lumineers are building a whole career on it). Echoing Neil Young's reaction to America's "Horse With No Name," Mumfords keyboardist Ben Lovett, 26, was half-convinced that Phillips' soundalike hit "Home" was the real thing: "I was like, What's that? Did we do that?'"
The band members are savvy enough to reject the corny idea that their songs are somehow more "real" than, say, electronic music – especially since Mumford is a fervent Radiohead fan. But they believe they're feeding a certain hunger. Mumford smiles when I remind him of a Bono quote from 1985, in which the U2 frontman predicted a counterintuitive future for music in a coming "electronic age": "It'll be totally naturalist, probably acoustic. That'll be the music on the college campuses, because it'll remind us of something we've lost." Says Mumford, "He's a prophet."
That electronic age is here, and it's awesome and terrifying – we'll all have Google Glass strapped to our heads soon, just in time to document the precise moment robots or disruption take our jobs away. For kids coming of age in a world where all that was solid has melted into air, there's something deeply comforting in the Mumfords' ecstatic, morally serious mix of wood, steel, voices and feelings. "It's a complicated time we live in," says Mumford. "Every day I use my phone and I have no idea how it works – literally, like, no idea." (He has a cracked old iPhone that he hasn't bothered upgrading.) "Whereas, when I see an acoustic guitar played with gusto, I understand how it works. I don't think we're bringing simplicity – I wouldn't bad-mouth our music as simple – but sometimes it's nice to hear what you see. People can trust that they're not being duped in any way, when people are kind of cynical about being duped – like, the Beyoncé thing at the inauguration."
The idea of four privately educated young British guys drawing on antediluvian American styles – and sometimes seeming to dress up like the 1930s Okies they've been known to sing about – has raised its own questions about authenticity. (Or, as the little girls in O Brother would put it: "You ain't bona fide!") "We kind of are Okies at heart," says Dwane, then pauses and grins, his long blond beard making him look like a skinny Falstaff. "I don't really know what an Okie is, but I feel like one."
The clothes have become more of an issue than they ever imagined. "They dress like assholes," one blogger wrote. The rising singer Jake Bugg said they look like "posh farmers" – but later tonight, he'll approach Dwane to express his fandom and claim that he was taken out of context or whatever.
"I started wearing the waistcoat because I was insecure about my weight," says Mumford. "I could hide behind them slightly." He actually isn't wearing the waistcoats much anymore – and is currently on a low-carb diet, though he says it's more for general health reasons than weight loss. He also points out that the Band were not actually Civil War veterans, and Bob Dylan never rode the rails.
Today Mumford is working a kind of elegant Western-wear thing: well-fitted blazer with pocket square (he tries out a few); buttoned-up shirt; big silver "M" belt buckle (it stands for Montana, where he bought it); black Levi's 501s; worn-in brown cowboy boots purchased last year in Denver; and his grandfather's signet ring on his pinkie. "I think I've figured out how I want to look for the rest of my life," he says.
Marshall, who resembles a younger, better-looking Mike Myers (and studied improv at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre), has a predilection for ribbed undershirts – which, along with a general disinterest in grooming, led British GQ to name him the sixth-worst-dressed man in the world last year. So he's trying: He brought a tan Rag & Bone suit for tonight, only to find that Dwane brought the same one (they're all on the same freebie list).
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