Mumford & Sons: Rattle and Strum

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Facing the dressing-room mirror, Marshall eyes himself uncertainly in the suit, which he's thrown over a catastrophically wrinkled, half-untucked shirt. "It looks like I had a bad week on Wall Street," he says.

Mumford squints. "I think if you went hoodie-and-leather-jacket you'd be very comfortable," he says.

Marshall smiles, and slips out of his suit jacket. "The less I try," he says, "the cooler I am."

The previous day, Mumford and Dwane are in a mildew-scented, wood-floored, low-ceilinged, pleasantly vibe-y studio in North Kensington, reminiscing about recording their first album. "We stood in a semicircle around the microphone, right here," says Mumford, "and sang the verses to 'Sigh No More.'" That song – the title track and album opener – features Fleet Foxes-inspired group vocals, with all four Mumfords harmonizing on the line "I'm sorry." It's one of two prominent apologies on their debut – the more famous one comes in "Little Lion Man," where Mumford sings, "It's not your fault but mine… I really fucked it up this time." Daniel Glass, the head of the band's U.S. label, Glassnote, had to fight Walmart for that, but it was worth it: When Mumford gets to the line in concert each night, women swoon like they've been waiting their whole lives to hear it, even as guys close their eyes and shout along like it's their only chance to admit it.

While Mumford can be maddeningly vague about the inspiration behind the band's lyrics (he writes most, but not all, of them), he acknowledges that "Little Lion Man" is exactly what it sounds like. "That was very real," he says. "I suppose it's confessional. And living as a dude for a few years since writing that, I've realized it's a very easy song to sing every night, you know." He laughs.

The members of Mumford & Sons have no trouble saying sorry. 'We're not, like, hard men," Marshall says. 'We're emotional, weeping pussies. We're not, like, rock & roll. If AC/DC had ever apologized, that'd be the end of their career."

There can be a surprising amount of aggression in the Mumfords' music – "for a bunch of pussies," adds Marshall. Or maybe not so surprising: As various emo dudes taught us last decade, it's the sensitive guys who really get mad. In this same room, before his band even existed, Mumford wrote the Sigh No More track "White Blank Page" – he was here playing percussion for the singer-songwriter Laura Marling, whom he also dated for a while. A tale of unrequited love, it rhymes the title phrase with "a swelling rage." "I had my heart broken," says Mumford. "And I wrote it in a song 'cause I couldn't really confront it, even in my own head. It was easier to do so, in a song where I could literally, like, scream it. Almost every night when we play it, my blood pumps a little faster when we sing that rage line."

The ferocity of the Mumfords' instrumental attack (Lovett shows me cracked fingernails) is what allows their music to stand up on the radio against far denser and electronically tweaked productions – despite the fact that they usually don't even use a drum kit, just Mumford stomping a kick drum. "The secret is a supertight performance," says their producer Markus Dravs, whom they selected, per Marshall, because they liked "the epicness" of his work with Arcade Fire. "The tighter something is, the louder it can be. The secret to that is just rehearse, then go fucking rehearse once more."

"I don't have anger issues, but I definitely experience rage," Mumford says. "My dad was always like, 'You're entitled to scream and shout. But you're not entitled to swear at me and call me a c-bomb or throw something at me. That's bad behavior. But you can be as angry as you want – it's what you do with that anger.'"

On what may or may not be a related note, there's a nasty scar on the back of one of Mumford's hands – my first thought was that it looks like he punched through a window. He won't say exactly what happened, at least on the record – but suffice it to say that he broke his fourth and fifth metacarpals last June, forcing the band to cancel a couple of shows and get a substitute guitar player for others. "I was an idiot," he says. "I've never explained it to anybody. I've said I was being a 'numpty,' which is a great British word. It's not good to break your hand if you're in a band."

Injuries and all, the touring went on and on as the Mumfords' popularity grew, and more than three years passed before they finished their second album. Despite the gap, Babel isn't a huge sonic jump from Sigh No More, except for the sweeping, U2-ish "Lover of the Light," which even includes "a bit of synth."

"Friends have called me out on the fact that there wasn't as much of a departure as they would have thought," says Lovett, who considers the two albums to be companion pieces, almost a double album. "We just hadn't quite finished what we set out to do. I just see it like you can't really depart somewhere before arriving there."

The big question is what Mumford & Sons will do when they get around to their third album. More electric guitar (or "leccy," as these guys like to call it – they also call backing vocals "BVs") seems almost certain. Mumford plans to start playing one around the house for the first time. "I've never felt more urgency to make music," says Marshall. "I think it'd be dangerous to do another record that's so similar. We could literally do anything."

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