“What is it that Mumford & Sons do?” asks the band’s keyboard player Ben Lovett. “That’s what we are searching for. I really hope this record will continue to broaden the sense of what that means.”
On their third album, 2015’s Wilder Mind, Mumford & Sons traded banjo and acoustic strumming for alt-rock guitars and arena-sized choruses. Going electric divided their fan base (“Although we didn’t have people shouting ‘Judas,’” notes guitarist and banjo player Winston Marshall.) The move made the band even more comfortable in the studio. “It was a real liberator for us,” says bassist Ted Dwane. “It was a statement of intent that our interests were morphing.”
So, for their fourth album, Delta (out November 17th on Gentlemen of the Road/Glassnote) Mumford & Sons decided to do something they saw as just as radical. Encouraged by producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine, Coldplay), they brought back the acoustic instruments that dominated their first two albums, including Marshall’s banjo. Except this time, Epworth put them through production effects so that they’re often almost unrecognizable. Delta has the band incorporating elements of electronica, rap, jazz and other sonic territory rarely visited by waistcoat-wearing English folkies. You can hear that experimentation on their new single “Guiding Light,” which came out today. “This time, we were even more free because we felt we could go back to acoustic instruments,” says Marshall. “There weren’t many boundaries musically.”
So far, the band has recorded more than 25 songs at Epworth’s Church Studios in Crouch End, North London, where the producer had written and produced music with Adele, U2 and Frank Ocean. It’s full of vintage gear — the producer proudly notes that the left side of the main desk recorded Dark Side of the Moon while the right side did Some Girls. The album began with what Mumford jokingly describes as “a couple of dating sessions” with Epworth, working on loose ideas (“Did we kiss on the first date? Yeah. We almost went all the way actually. It was hard not to — he’s a very compelling character.”) The group were determined to embrace the collaborative spirit of their live shows and 2016’s Johannesburg EP, featuring Senegalese legend Baaba Maal. “All of us have much broader taste in music than either of our discographies would suggest,” says Epworth. “The whole body of work is going to catch people by surprise.”
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During recording, the band worked hard and played harder. Mumford grins as he describes their late-night, “non-gender-specific” “Friday night lads” sessions where they invited friends to hang out, play music, “smoke cigarettes and have a great time.” He estimates around 100 people passed through during recording, and many ended up on the record, including singer-songwriters Yebba, Maggie Rogers and Gill Landry.
It was a non-musical visitor, however, that sent Twitter into meltdown earlier this year. Controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson posted a picture of himself with the band, after Marshall says he “got into some of his evolutionary biology stuff” and invited him to hang out. “I don’t agree with everything he says,” stresses Mumford, “But I certainly wouldn’t want to shut down listening to someone just because I disagree with one or two things.”
Mumford gets most excited when he talks excitedly about “late night jams where we’ve fallen down an electronic rabbit hole”; similarly, Epworth mentions “Sun Ra–style free-jazz explorations.” “After this record,” predicts Mumford, “we could go and make an electronica record and people wouldn’t be that shocked.”
Despite its newfound love of the studio, the band also has highly ambitious plans for its live shows. A 60-date global arena tour is planned for later this year. “The show’s going to be amazing,” says Lovett, who pledges that, by the end of 2019, Alaska and Hawaii will be the only U.S. states they won’t have played in during their 10-year career. “It’s a completely re-imagined version of a gig. No one’s ever done it, no one’s ever used arenas like this.” (The band will debut “Guiding Light” on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon this coming Monday.)
Traditionally, Mumford shows have been joyful occasions. But much of Delta is concerned with what Lovett refers to as “the four Ds: death, divorce, drugs and depression,” all of which have increasingly stalked the band’s friends and families (the band are light on specifics, but in recent years Dwane underwent brain surgery, Marshall got married and Mumford became a father). “Life happened to us,” explains Lovett.
“It’s our emo album!” jokes Marshall, but Mumford gets serious on the subject: “We’ve all been much closer to birth and death, which both feel fucking wild to me, and most of the songs have been written about things like that. But it has to feel like an honest emotion. We’re going to sing these songs for the rest of our lives as a band and, if it doesn’t feel real, then there’s no point.”
“Grown-up bands make more than five albums, so we still feel like adolescents,” says Mumford, smiling. “I don’t feel like a grown-up band yet.”
“I feel so unsatiated,” agrees Lovett. “Whatever that satisfaction is, it’s not been found yet.”