On September 25th, Mumford & Sons will release their second album, Babel, the follow-up to 2009’s Grammy-winning smash Sigh No More. Expect bigger, darker songs: “Lover of the Light” uses distorted banjo and rollicking drums and the new single “I Will Wait” is a blazing sing-along heavy on Winston Marshall’s banjo fingerpicking.
The band, meanwhile, just headed out on a massive summer U.S. tour including their Gentlemen of the Road stopover festivals. “We’re really excited to broaden the spectrum of people’s perception of what we are musically,” bass player Ted Dwane told Rolling Stone in this exclusive interview. “We have this spirit that’s just uncrushable. There’s no one here who is defeatist. Whenever challenges occur, everyone starts to dive at it.”
After all the success of Sigh No More, what was going through your heads making this record? People have a pretty good idea of what they think Mumford & Sons is, but did you want to change that idea?
I think that is really where a lot of the excitement from releasing another album comes from, because Mumford and Sons is in this global sort of arena now. There’s a perception of what we are, but it’s sort of based on one album – 12 songs! We’re really excited to broaden that spectrum of people’s perception of what we are musically. It wasn’t really that nerve-wracking, because the success was really unexpected, and we never really quantify success in record sales because we’ve always called ourselves a live band, really.
You did some interesting things on this album. On “Lover of the Light“ you ran distortion through Winston‘s banjo. What else did you do that was sonically a little different?
I think the most exciting thing that is different is just having done some live recordings. We really call ourselves a live band, and it was really important to us to start really exploring that way of recording. On the first album, we didn’t really get enough of our instruments to really pull that off. But after a few years on the road, I think sonically it’s bringing a lot. And diving into the studio between spates of touring, I literally feel that the road has kind of rubbed off into the album. With sounds, the ingredients are very much the same, really – the four core instruments and the lack of a drummer – which kind of gives it that strange, simple, unique sort of sound. I don’t think we were looking for sort of crazy experimental-like stuff for us. Our purpose is to just sing songs and try to serve the song. You work out what a song needs and that’s why we ended up playing only one instrument each. I play the drums really, really badly. I play on one song, because it needed drums. And likewise, Winston’s picking up the electric guitar there.
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Which song has electric guitar on it?
What did he do it on? He does it on a few. He does it a bit in “Below My Feet” and “Whispers in the Dark.” Ben was playing a bit of guitar, which is very exciting. It’s his latest foray into a new instrument. Marcus is still playing mostly acoustic, but we’ve always played a little bit of electric. It’s just following our intuition and giving the song what it needs.
Songs like “Lovers Eyes“ and “Where Are You Now?“ are a little more emotional in talking about being away from things and people you love. How has the constant traveling and the hectic schedule played into the way you guys create?
It’s played in in a huge way. We always just write about what we know and what we feel. We’re inspired by all sorts of stuff – books, dreams or whatever. I think after the couple of years that we’ve had – the way it unfolded and being away so much – inevitably that’s a theme that’s going to occur on the record. It’s something that we’ve all shared, so we can write songs about that sort of stuff and all share intensely. We all can understand what we’re singing about. It is actually a theme in a couple of songs. We put “Reminder” on there as well, which is very much about being away and trying to keep sight of the one you’ve left behind.
Has it been tough?
Yeah, it really has. We’re all in relationships. And it’s hard to be away from our families. They all understand. For us, this is an absolute dream come true. It’s hard when you don’t get to see people that you love as often as you would like, or as often as they would like. It’s just the way it is, and we’ve tried to create as open and inviting an atmosphere as possible on tour, so if anyone wants to come – our siblings have all been on the road with us. All our girlfriends are on and off the bus the whole time and joining us for tours whenever they can. So that’s the only way to do it. In this job, you can’t expect to play gigs from your home.
Can you tell me about the track “Hopeless Wanderer“?
We took a break last Christmas and that’s, in my mind, where the conception of the [recording] session began. We had two months off. It’s the only real break we’ve had since 2007 as a band. And it was a very intentional time apart just to write. We came back together in Nashville and had a week of writing there in a little farmhouse someone lent us. We basically had a Mumford & Sons sort of workshop where all the ideas would come up and soundcheck or whatever. It was really messy, full of weird bits of half-developed stuff, and we were basically just sort of trolling through all of that stuff in Nashville and working out which ideas needed to be developed and which were good songs. We wrote “Hopeless Wanderer” there and that we haven’t played live yet. It’s one of my favorites, too. I think it sonically, it really defines the album, in a way: the excitement and drive. I think the writing is a little bit more mature. These are all things that I sort of think makes the second album different than the first album.
What drew you to the story of Babel?
I think it’s a great story, the story of Babel. I think anyone can direct it as an analogy for a lot of different situations. Honestly, we’d like not to be too descriptive with the songs and their meanings. It just felt a little bit like that was the song that were gonna say, “This is like chapter two. It’ll be like our best foot forward.” It feels like an important song to us right now.
Did you guys relate to the story of Babel?
I think everyone can, yes. It’s such a human thing. As humans, we’re such a discontented species. We’re always trying to further ourselves, and you get all the way to the moon and then it’s just discontent. You want to go to Mars. You know, there’s so many stories in that story. There’s definitely, like, analogies for our strange behavior as a species that I consider interesting.
You guys must know each other so well at this point. What is it like to spend all that time with the other guys?
It’s just such a strange thing when you spend so much time with three other people. It’s like a whole new category of friendship. I love them, and I know them infinitely better than anyone else on the planet. In the last three years we’ve hung out with almost no one else. I don’t know if you heard – Marcus broke his hand. It was bad. He’s kind of fixed it now. It was kind of amazing, because when it happened, obviously the spirit on the bus was like, “Fuck, you know, this is really bad.” But now, he’s just about back on top. We have this spirit that’s just uncrushable. Everyone just mans up and everyone just gets on with it. We just work out how we’re going to do it and make the best of a bad situation. And I think that’s why we’ve continued to get along well. There’s no one here who is defeatist. Whenever challenges occur, everyone starts to dive at it.
You probably have so many songs that you’ve worked on at this point. Will you guys continue to write and keep thinking about the next album after this?
Yeah. We never sort of lock ourselves up to write. There’s always guitars on the bus, and we always overhear each other trying to bring an idea through and you’ll be like, “What’s that? I really like that.” So the writing is just kind of an ongoing thing. When we feel like we have enough songs to make a cohesive album, that will be the next one. And I think we all kind of quietly hope it to be sooner than the last time. We’re really glad we took our time with this one – it meant that we got to do loads of touring, lay a good solid foundation, and we ended up with the record that we hoped to make and it wasn’t rushing. And we’ll just do that again.
Do you all still live in London?
Yes we do, for now. I think we’re all kind of thinking about a move. We’re not quite sure where yet.
Absolutely. I don’t think we’d ever not live in the same place, because, yeah. I think that’s a slippery slope when bands start basing themselves out of different cities. I can’t really imagine that.
Would you base yourselves in the US potentially?
What about these stopover festivals? Why did you guys initially want to do those?
It’s funny. There are so many reasons why we wanted to explore this idea. It’s actually an idea that we had maybe a year ago, and as time has gone on there’s the necessity to do them. From every angle it seems to have increased. I think the main challenge we face as a band, in the last year especially, has been working out how to play these larger audiences and kind of keep it feeling like our sort of show. A lot of times you go into an arena and they’re pretty uninspiring places. We try and create an atmosphere and a night that feels like something good is happening. We love playing smaller venues, but big venues are really fun as well, and the worst thing about playing a small venues is it’s like there’s a bunch of people who don’t get in to see you, and you know, we don’t want to just piss people off by underplaying the whole time. It’s just annoying. It’s gonna make the crowds go crazy. Everyone’s gonna spend too much money. But I’m rambling.
We basically wanted to take all of the things that we love from the festivals we’ve been to, like Telluride in Colorado, the End of the Road festival here in the U.K. – the smaller ones, with 10- to 15,000 people. We’re doing two stages, [and] every band that plays we know personally or have toured with or are friends of ours, or we just fucking love their music. We’re trying to find local people to come and sell local food and local stuff. I think so many festivals now, it’s just too enterprising, and it’s all about cutting every corner and selling too many tickets and it being an uncomfortable experience. We have the opportunity to create something that hopefully will be a really positive day and a really great musical experience for the bands and the local people in the town and the fans of all the bands who play. And so why not?