How four Brits turned old-timey roots music into the future of rock
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).
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."
As his band's persistently God-haunted lyrics make clear, Mumford grew up in what he calls "a biblical environment." His parents, Eleanor and John, are the founders and leaders of the U.K. branch of the Vineyard, an evangelical Christian movement that practices faith healing, emphasizing the power of the Holy Spirit. (It was popular among musicians in the late Seventies, including Bob Dylan, who attended services alongside – divine destiny alert! – T Bone Burnett.) Mumford insists they're not necessarily akin to U.S. evangelicals – but his parents recently tweeted an impassioned anti-gay-marriage plea. He was born in California while his parents were visiting the founding church, so he comes by his fascination with the U.S. naturally.
Mumford hasn't talked much publicly about his religious upbringing, but during a long, sometimes tense conversation in Philadelphia the week before the Brit Awards, we break some new ground. Slowly.
He's immediately on guard when I ask if the concept of sin weighed heavily upon him as a child. "Sin being preached louder than love happens all the time," he says, picking at his breadless eggs Benedict. "That wasn't the case where I grew up."
More than one Mumford & Sons song portrays sex as a temptation that might be better avoided – not exactly a common theme in current pop. "I think we give in to just being like that, don't we?" says Mumford, who sings, "The pull on my flesh was just too strong," on the Babel track "Broken Crown." "Give in to accepting that that's the way the world works, where everything is just thrown at you."
Was premarital sex something that you considered wrong? "It was, yeah, it was. And then it changed." He pauses, sensing danger, and reverses course. "Nah, I'm not really sure. I don't know. I don't think so."
How about masturbation? He reddens and laughs awkwardly. "Oh, God, man. I don't want to start talking about masturbation, man. That's definitely not what I want to start talking about. I'm English, you have to remember that." He rifles through his pockets, eager to change the subject: "Fuck. Do you have any cigarettes on you?"
We head out into a nasty February wind in search of a pack of Camel Blues. He's not dressed warmly enough in his blazer-boots-jeans combo, plus a scarf and baseball cap, and he shoves his hands into his jacket pockets against the cold. "I was actually going to quit in January, but I delayed it," he says. "I don't want to be a smoking father." He buys his cigarettes at a cigar store, and we sit in back, underneath an appropriately vintage tobacco ad, as he lights up.
Smoking cigarettes was an early rebellion for Mumford, who was a well-behaved, if "lippy," child. He'd put on his uniform every day and head to King's College School, where he learned to read both Latin and Greek – which may account for the oddly archaic quality of some of his lyrics ("I miss my sanguine eyes," for one). From age 13 to 18, he played drums in a jazz band with future Mumford keyboardist Lovett – and they were good enough to get paying wedding gigs. But Mumford had no sense of himself as an artist, no intentions of being a professional musician. He assumed he'd become a teacher or a barrister or something.
At 16 or so, he stopped attending his parents' church. His father encouraged him to go to an Anglican congregation instead, "because he felt like I was being a bit suppressed and a bit, like, preacher kid-ed out. Everything was just being watched by people, so he was like, 'Just go and be your own dude somewhere else.' Which I think was really smart of him."
Not long after that, Mumford was rejected by the U.K.'s top universities, Oxford and Cambridge. "My brother had gone to Oxford, and that was the dream, you know?" he says. "That kind of broke me apart." He was so shattered that his parents sent him on holiday to California on his own for a while, where he temporarily cheered himself up: "I spent quite a lot of time pissing off my friends because I could get girls with a British accent, despite the fact that I was tubby and, like, not very cool."
But in his first and only year at the University of Edinburgh, he found himself feeling truly lost – and started writing songs about it. "I guess I experienced failure in my small, undramatic way," he says. "I had my heart broken. I failed to get into the colleges I'd wanted to, which was what I'd pinned all my hopes to, really. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I'd left home and kind of left behind the values that I grew up with and I didn't really have anything to fall back on. I wasn't very cool. I wasn't very popular. I don't know what my purpose was that year at university. I kind of knew what my purpose was before, and then I didn't know."
On our way back to his hotel, I finally ask a simple question: Does Mumford still consider himself a Christian? "I don't really like that word," he says. "It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn't call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don't really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. Like, you ask a Muslim and they'll say, 'Jesus was awesome' – they're not Christians, but they still love Jesus. I've kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity." His spiritual journey is a "work in progress," but he's clear on one thing: He's never doubted the existence of God.
He claims his parents are fine with all of this, and they're certainly far from estranged: His father reportedly officiated at his wedding last year, and both parents attended the recent MusiCares tribute to one of their favorite artists, Bruce Springsteen, watching Marcus and his bandmates sing "I'm on Fire." The organizers wanted them to do "American Land," but the band rejected that on account of not being American – and also, says Mumford, "We wanted to do the sex song."
It's hard not to wonder, though, whether his parents worry about their not-quite-Christian son going to hell. "No," he says, "because they don't believe – well, I wouldn't speak for them." So he's not sure? "Uh, no. No, I know," he murmurs – at this point he would clearly be delighted if the conversation turned back to masturbation. "But it's way more complicated. I'm figuring it out, man."
Mumford glances behind him, where a jittery young female fan has been tailing us. "Can I have a hug?" she asks. He offers a high-five instead.
During his dark year in Edinburgh, Mumford got a glimpse of salvation in the form of a half-dreadlocked trustafarian: Winston Marshall, who came to town with his band, Captain Kick and the Cowboy Ramblers. "It was the best night I had at university by far," says Mumford, who had met Marshall a couple of years earlier in a worship band at a church retreat – they had communicated almost entirely in quotes from The Office. At one point during the performance, Marshall got Mumford to come onstage, making him look cool for the first time in his university career.
"Winston cut through all the posh Edinburgh bullshit, like, do you have the money or the bloodline or aristocracy or being Scottish," says Mumford, "none of which I had. He was just, like, magnetic to be around. I was like, 'I want to be around him.'"
Marshall, the son of a fabulously rich investor, had started playing electric guitar at age 13, inspired by Blink-182 and ZZ Top's 1973 album Tres Hombres; he started a ZZ Top cover band that also played songs by his other favorite band, Audioslave. Unlike the other three future Mumfords, he had no interest in jazz – "the lowest form of art," he says wickedly.
He had a singularly intense O Brother, Where Art Thou? experience. "Watching it was fucking the end of me. It was like, 'That is the music I want to make.'"
So he took up the banjo, which created quite a contrast with the rat's nest of semi-dreadlocks he had going. "I looked like a fucking tit. Technically, I suppose I was following all the right behavior patterns of a trustafarian. I don't think I knew what a trustafarian was at the time. I think I would have shaved my head if I did know." He was the only member of his class not to attend university – "Led Zeppelin didn't go to university" was his reasoning – but many of his classmates found that the finance jobs they had trained for had vanished when they finished school. "Turns out the banjo was a better investment," he says.
Mumford, who hadn't been going to class that much anyway, started commuting to London on weekends, plunging into a thriving West London acoustic-music community that included Marling and the indie-folk band Noah and the Whale. "It was basically just a massive, tangled mess of loads of young people," says Dwane, who spent long nights hauling his stand-up bass from club to club on the Tube. "A lot of them had just moved to London and were writing songs." Mumford transferred to a school in London, but he put that aside when Marshall hooked him up with a gig backing Marling. (Technically, Mumford is still on leave from university, and gets letters asking him when he might be coming back to school.)
Mumford was writing songs that were heavily influenced by Ray LaMontagne; he began demo'ing them with Lovett at the well-equipped home studio in his childhood friend's house. Lovett, a slightly less diligent student than Mumford, had decided to be a professional musician early on – and opted to skip university after a chance encounter with a musical hero, Branford Marsalis, who told him, "You want to be a musician, you stop studying. You go and live life, and express yourself."
Lovett has sharp, sometimes suspicious brown eyes – and by his own admission, his Peter Pan-ish features bear a striking resemblance to the Dangerous-era version of Michael Jackson's face. These days, Lovett is the most ambitious and driven member of Mumford & Sons – he runs a successful record label, Communion, and talks openly about wanting the Mumfords to play stadiums. But he was less focused in his teen years, spending his weekends partying, fooling around with girls and slumming with a bunch of council-flat kids in a Blink-182-influenced punk band called ADHD. (He was the only member who didn't actually have the disorder.) He saw Mumford as unworldly, "green," in comparison; Mumford's parents considered Lovett a potential bad influence.
But when Mumford returned from Edinburgh, Lovett found him transformed. "He had fast-tracked through a bunch of shit that I had been through – girls and drinking and stuff. He started telling me stories and started playing me some songs and I was like, Yeah, now we're more on the same page than we ever have been.' And that's only gotten more and more the case."
In a way, the lineup of Mumford & Sons was predestined: Mumford, two of his best friends, plus the only cool young guy in London with a stand-up bass. Unlike everyone else in the band, Dwane had finished university and then spent a year at a music academy. He had been playing since age 10, around the time he heard Nirvana's Unplugged in New York, his own doorway into American roots music. In college, he played John Frusciante-style guitar in a Red Hot Chili Peppers-like band, even as he mastered the stand-up bass. He was committed to the life of a musician: "I was fully fine with living in abject poverty."
The foursome's shared love for Americana felt a lot more like a fun secret than a ticket to riches. Says Mumford, "I remember driving in my car – this little shitty, amazing car, a Vauxhall Nova, three-door – and having my drum kit in the back, blaring the O Brother soundtrack and Flatt and Scruggs, this old-timey stuff in the streets of London and getting really funny looks and enjoying it. Like, in a kind of fuck-you way. Because it wasn't cool and no one else in our culture that we knew was really embracing it."
Back at the Brit Awards, the band's dressing room is getting crowded: Lovett's girlfriend has arrived, along with Mumford's wife. Everyone in the band is in a relationship at the moment, which is "pretty solidifying," says Dwane. "The best thing is all the girls get along really well, so it's a great vibe." Mulligan looks glittery and slightly fragile in a black cocktail dress; Mumford doesn't introduce us. "I'm at the beginning of a marriage which is high-profile," he told me the night before. "And so we're figuring out how we do that."
The afterparties are eventful, especially for Marshall – for the first time in his life, he gets blackout drunk. He was spotted talking to Taylor Swift, but has no memory of meeting anyone in particular. He wakes up to two text messages – one from a new buddy inviting him to see a coveted soccer match; the other from Dwane, informing him that he had been an "asshole." Marshall was puzzled: "I was like, What did I do in the space of two hours that I almost lost one of my best friends and I also got tickets to the biggest sports game of the year?'"
Everyone in the band likes a drink, and when they first hit the road, Mumford and Marshall went hard. Recalls Dwane, 'When we were first hanging out, Marcus and Win were so loud. Like the amount of noise they made and energy they had was completely insane. I'd never seen anything like it. It was actually terrifying. And as a reaction to that, I became really quiet. I can't even explain how loud they were. I'm only, like, two, three years older, but I'm a fuckin' old man to these guys."
These days, Mumford takes it easier on tour, mostly to protect his voice and stamina (and he certainly doesn't smoke pot – for some reason, it makes him vomit, or, as he puts it, "pull a whitey"). But he does drink a fair amount during the show, running back to the drum riser for beer and watered-down whiskey.
Lovett stopped drinking on the road altogether, in the wake of a series of intense discussions the band members had last year. After endless touring, they were getting on one another's nerves. There were hurt feelings. "We're a pretty emotional bunch," says Marshall. "You know, someone doesn't say hello to you one day and you're like, 'I cannot believe the gall!'"
Dwane is the only member who doesn't see the band as a democracy. "Marcus is the leader," he says. "No one denies that." (Except everyone else in the band, that is.) They do all write music, which Mumford welcomes. "At this point," says the frontman, "I'm like, 'Bring on the songs.' Nothing is ever a Mumford & Sons song without all of us having creative input."
Like Mumford, the other three band members don't consider themselves Christians, but they spend a lot less time thinking about it. In fact, they're incredibly sick of the subject. "Springsteen said something amazing at his MusiCares thing," recalls Marshall. "He said, 'The thing about music is that it requires no faith.' And actually, I just believe in music."
Before each show, the Mumfords take a minute to huddle together. "We have a moment of reflection," says Mumford, "about who we are and what we're doing and why we're doing it, before we go out and make ourselves vulnerable and see a roaring crowd." Backstage at one Camden show, a few hours after Mumford revealed his journey from his parents' faith, the huddle includes the horn and string players hired for the tour – among them trumpeter Nick Etwell, who had been Lovett's childhood music teacher.
They form a circle, leaning on one another's shoulders, heads bowed. Mumford talks at length, in solemn tones, as they all stare at the ground. In this moment, it seems very much like he's the group's leader – and that he's leading them through something a lot like a prayer.
This story is from the March 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.