1. Mumford and Sons
Album: Sigh No More
Band members: Marcus Mumford (vocals, acoustic guitar, kick drum, tambourine), Ted Dwane (double bass), Ben Lovett (keyboards), Winston Marshall (banjo)
For Fans Of: The Frames, Noah and the Whale, Langhorne Slim
“We’re pretty much useless,” says Ted Dwane. The Mumford & Sons bassist is calling from Australia’s Adelaide Airport, where Dwane, frontman Marcus Mumford, keyboardist Ben Lovett and banjo player “Country” Winston Marshall played the On The Bright Side music festival.
Our interview was delayed earlier in the day because Dwane lost his passport, only to find it several minutes later in his jacket pocket. “I can’t even hang on to my personal belongings,” he says. “Can’t cook. Can’t, I dunno, do paperwork. I don’t know, what else can’t we do? I’m not to be trusted with other people’s animals.” He mentions something about a friend’s hamster and a run-in with his cats. “But,” he finally admits, “touring is something I do really well.”
That’s fortunate, because Dwane and his bandmates have spent a considerable amount of the last year on the road. Their debut LP, Sigh No More—which pulls from the far corners of English and American folk, and beyond—was released in the U.K. last October, and came out Stateside in February. It’s gone platinum in the U.K., double platinum in Australia, and its lead single “Little Lion Man” was nominated this summer for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize.
The four first got together in 2007 at Bosun’s Locker, a pub in London’s Fulham borough where most of them had played, at some point, with fellow young folk singer Laura Marling. Since then, they—along with Marling and acts like Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit and Noah and the Whale—have been widely heralded as a British folk revival for the new century, dusting off and re-imagining ancient traditions in much the same way Fairport Convention and Pentangle did in the 1960s and ‘70s. Mumford & Sons don’t see their work that way, though. “It’s not at all cerebral,” Dwane says of his band’s songwriting process. “We just sort of try ’til it sounds good.”
So far, it’s been good enough to earn some seriously unbridled fan enthusiasm. When the band played Bonnaroo this summer, one of a few recent U.S. performances, each pause between their thunderous string-beats was punctuated by cracking voices and loud sniffles from the crowd. Old Crow Medicine Show, the comparatively-veteran Nashville-based string band who met Mumford & Sons for the first time at the festival—and cameoed during that set with a rousing take on their own song “Wagon Wheel”—share the connection. In an email, frontman Ketch Secor expressed his adoration in all caps: “THE MUMFORD BOYS HAVE SONGS, STRONG SONGS, SONGS WORTH REMEMBERING, DRIVING LONG DISTANCES UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF, LOVING SOMEONE UNDER THE SPELL OF; GOOD SONGS THAT LAST LONG AFTER THE TURNTABLE STOPS.”
This impassioned outpouring is rooted in Sigh No More, the band’s giddy, stylistic splatter-painting of a debut. The songs draw from traditional British music, but also from jazz and big band (Mumford and Lovett started playing in a jazz group together when they were 12), Anglican choral harmonies, gospel and Appalachian folk. The lyrics tell ancient tales of sin and redemption in simple, urgent language: “I’ll find strength in pain / And I will change my ways,” Mumford yawls on “The Cave.” The record is built upon the eternal tension of dualities, those pairs of words you internalize in Sunday School and try your best to forget when you walk outside into the world of gray: dark and light, hope and fear, head and heart, soul and body, give and take, night and day.
In early August, the band is at another airport—this time, Chicago’s O’Hare International—and Marcus Mumford takes the phone. He makes the requisite joke about his quartet having become “an airport band,” but then gets serious. When he was growing up, he explains, his parents were pastors, which essentially meant they specialized in crisis management: “When people are destroying their lives, my parents get a call.” But Mumford himself has long felt more ambiguous about human suffering—alternately moved by and indifferent to others’ attempts to change their lives for the better. Once, he moved on his own to Hong Kong and lived among 35 recovering heroin addicts; despite everything he saw there, when he returned to London, he remembers “going back to being a complete dickhead.” This muddy area between extremes is one of Sigh No More’s main themes. It isn’t an album about overcoming brokenness, evil, selfishness or anything else—it’s about failing to overcome, but finding redemption in the mess anyway.
“It’s a process that’s so normal for everyone, the process of, you know, being a dickhead and then trying to go about fixing that,” Mumford says. “That kind of twilight period between fucking up and fixing up, that kind of twilight period there, I find really fascinating.” Nowhere on the record is this better exhibited than on “Little Lion Man,” a folk-banger bursting with banjo, bass and foot-stomping percussion that’s likely the most joyful song ever written about being a total wreck. “Weep for yourself my man, you’ll never be what is in your heart / Weep, little lion man, you’re not as brave as you were at the start,” Mumford sings right before the shouted chorus: “But it was not your fault but mine / And it was your heart on the line / I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I my dear?”
In a world that so often tries to shoehorn experiences into the dueling categories of good and bad, black and white, it’s a liberating anthem saturated in what Mumford calls “grace” and Dwane calls “optimism.” Perhaps this, more than anything, is the source of the band’s growing appeal—its ability to navigate deftly between set categories, emotional and musical, with humility, humor and heart.—Rachel Dovey