Reflecting on last year’s Wilder Mind, Mumford & Sons bassist Ted Dwane still sounds surprised by the initial backlash to the album’s gone-electric sound. “People did freak out a little bit, and we were a little bit shocked by that,” says Dwane. “We were like, ‘Hey, we’re just four guys making music, don’t worry.’ But for a moment we were a bit worried. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that was the case. You obviously want all of your records to do well and to be well-received.”
Yet the grumbles from fans of Mumford’s largely acoustic Sigh No More and Babel didn’t dampen the band’s desire to sonically expand its sound. “We were proud of our first two records, but the parameters were pretty narrow,” Dwane says. “We didn’t have full drums, for example. There were just so many limitations to that setup, and we really fully explored them. So we’re never going to do that again, because we’ve done that. We’ll probably explore a bit more and introduce other elements. We’ll never take it a step backward.”
Phase two of their plan arrives with the June 17th release of Johannesburg, a five-song EP that incorporates South African beats, melodies and guitars into their sound. The record essentially amounts to Mumford & Sons’ version of Paul Simon’s Graceland – although, in this case, it was more of a fortuitous accident than Simon’s more scoped-out record.
The journey to Johannesburg began when Mumford banjoist Winston Marshall was invited to join Senegalese pop star Baaba Maal at Maal’s “Blues Du Fleuve” festival in Northern Senegal. Then, last year, Maal and the entire band converged at a studio in London for a full-on collaboration. For Maal, the connections were clear once he heard Mumford’s music. “It was a little surprise for me, but I feel the roots of the music in their banjo and guitar,” he says. “I said, ‘Man, I can do something on top of that without changing my sound or singing. It will work.'” The result was a single, “There Will Be Time,” co-produced by Johan Hugo of the Afro-electronic unit the Very Best, who initially introduced Marshall and Maal.
Fast-forward to earlier this year, when Mumford & Sons traveled to South Africa to play their first-ever shows in the country. While there, they decided to create their own audio souvenir of the trip. “We thought it would be amazing to go into a studio and take a sonic photograph,” says Dwane. “None of us are experts in African music and that’s exactly why we wanted to do it – we wanted to learn about it, and we wanted to engage with the place.” Initially, he says, there were no concrete plans for the public to hear the results: “We didn’t really know if it would work or not, and if it was shit, then we never would’ve released it and no one would ever know we’d done it.”
Given their tight schedule, the band was only able to book two days in a local studio, but the plan almost fizzled. “I don’t want to be mean about it, because it’s an impressive facility and they’ve got these amazing, acoustically treated rooms, but nothing really worked,” says Dwane. “The gear was kind of fucked.” But once the technical kinks were worked out, the band and its collaborators – Maal, the Very Best and the South African power trio Beatenberg – hopped between studios at the facility and knocked out a half-dozen songs. “The first day was basically a write-off, but the second was insanely productive,” says Dwane. “We got in there about 11 a.m. and we didn’t leave until three or four at night. Everyone was a bit stressed out on that first day and everyone just really stepped up on the second day.”
“None of us are experts in African music and that’s exactly why we wanted to do it.” –Ted Dwane
The tracks that made it onto Johannesburg reflect that collaboration. “Wona” features intertwining Western and South African guitars from Marcus Mumford and Beatenberg’s Matthew Field, while “Ngamila” and “Fool You’ve Landed” find Mumford sharing the mic with Maal, Field and Malawi singer Esau Mwamwaya (who also works in the Very Best). Maal, who shared lead vocals with Mumford on “There Will Be Time,” took the lead on “Si Tu Veux,” a love song that doubles as a statement of support for international refugees.
“There was no shortage of writers and creative people,” says Dwane. “There were like 16 of us basically all working away offering ideas. It really was just a true collaboration and the joy of creation. You hear that vibe in the recordings.” As Maal says of all the collaborations, “The messages aren’t heavy. It’s cool and it makes you feel joy.”
For the moment, Mumford & Sons have no plans to perform any of the Johannesburg songs during their summer and fall shows in the U.S. and Europe. “It’s really reliant on those vocalists,” says Dwane. (One exception: Maal will be joining them at their New York shows at Queens’ Forest Hills Stadium on June 16th and 17th.)
Whatever the commercial fate of Johannesburg, Dwane feels the experiment has reinforced Mumford & Sons’ desire to extend their musical adventures. “Sticking to our guns creatively is the only way we’ll ever survive as a band and be happy,” he says. “I think we could have taken an easier route and done another Sigh No More, or whatever. But we probably would all be pretty depressed and sad by now.”