The hoedown is over. That’s what Mumford & Sons want you to know. So what if their boot-stomping, banjo-picking, vest-and-suspenders-wearing brand of neo-folk has made them the best-selling band in the world? They are done with that shtick.
Not that this was premeditated or anything.
“When we were making Wilder Mind, it didn’t feel like such a big move necessarily,” says bassist Ted Dwane of Mumford’s latest record. “But now, as everyone’s talking about it, we’re like ‘Okay, I guess maybe there’s something that sounds different.’”
Hell, there’s even something that looks different: as Dwane and drummer Ben Lovett sit before me at Toronto’s Thompson Hotel, they don leather jackets and tight jeans—a far cry from the bowties and waistcoats we’re used to seeing them in. Their new, 21st century sound matches: distorted guitars, big drums, warm synths and U2-sized soundscapes coming this summer to an arena near you. Nary a mandolin within earshot.
But, again, none of this was intentional.
“We’re not a purist folk band and we’ve always had issues with people calling us that.”
“For whatever reason, we started making a sound that we weren’t making before,” says Lovett. “We didn’t even sit down to talk about it beforehand. We were like, ‘This is fun. Everyone’s smiling. Cool. This is what we should do, then.’”
Yes, Mumford & Sons have plugged in. Like Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, they’ve gone electric, messing with an acoustic formula that’s won them throngs of fans—and in this case, sold them millions of records. After the British quartet snagged a Grammy for their 2012 effort Babel, you’d think they’d be wiser sticking to the same old song and barn dance.
Ask Mumford, however, and they’ll tell you they’ve never been terribly keen on the O Brother Where Art Thou? thing. “We’re not a purist folk band and we’ve always had issues with people calling us that,” says Lovett. “We always saw ourselves as a rock band who used acoustic instruments because when we started out, those were the tools we could most easily take into pubs and play. It was practical.”
Mumford’s strum-and-holler sound may have been adopted out of convenience, but here’s what’s even more convenient: it’s become frighteningly pervasive ever since. You can’t flip through terrestrial radio these days without hearing varied takes on the euphoric banjo anthem by modern rock bands (Imagine Dragons) and EDM artists (Avicii) alike. Call it the Mumford-ization of pop music. It now pays enormous dividends to sound like a rustic, cider-sipping farmhand. Kind of an inopportune time to hang up the fedoras.
Of course, album sales aren’t everything. And, if you’re cynical enough, you might surmise that Mumford & Sons have updated their sound with contemporary touchstones—like slick, spacey production by Aaron Dessner of the National—in an effort to achieve a different type of success. Say, that of the Pitchfork-ian ilk. After all, the critical class has long had a hate-on for the band, big enough for NME to ask, “Why Do People Hate Mumford & Sons So Much?” The answer: the Mumford boys don’t actually drive tractors and say “y’all” a lot.
Is releasing an entirely banjo-less album the band’s answer to those allegations of inauthenticity, then?
“No!” insists Lovett. “And I think the view you’re giving is definitely a very skin-deep, part-time awareness of Mumford & Sons’ view. People who know our music know there’s much more to what we’re about than a banjo or a specific photo they’re thinking of. The idea of being inauthentic is just so bizarre to us, because we’ve just been so true to making the music we want to make and telling the stories we want to tell. Everything we write is autobiographical.”
“People who know our music know there’s more to what we’re about than a banjo.”
Man has a point. Textural variation aside, Wilder Mind is still brimming with the kind of heart-rending, lump-in-throat sincerity that can only be described as Mumford-esque. Flugelhorns be damned, these are still songs to shout, cry, make love and get spurned to. Real feelings from real people, who really couldn’t give a fuck whether you approve or not. It don’t get more authentic than that.
“If people don’t like it, we’re willing to accept that,” says Dwane. “But we’re going to enjoy playing the songs regardless.”
So put that in your corncob pipe and puff on it.