"I'm not a purist. I love too many types of music to be able to call myself a purist. And I respect purists."
Mumford & Sons' rise from pub to stadium performers has, to an extent, been a glorious fluke. Mumford was playing drums for one-time girlfriend Laura Marling when he created the group with old school pal Ben Lovett on keys, banjoist Winston Marshall, and bassman Ted Dwane. Mumford & Sons were linked to London's nu-folk movement along with Marling and Noah & The Whale. The quartet blew up here in Australia with the stompin' single Little Lion Man — it'd later conquer triple j's Hottest 100. "Australia was the first place where we felt like we were a proper international band," Mumford declares.
"I definitely wanna make as many types of music as I can before I die — 'cause I'm just a music fan."
Soon Mumford & Sons was a global phenomenon, listeners falling for 2009's debut Sigh No More, its campfire acoustica and bluegrass elevated by Mumford's stirring lyrics — alternately romantic, literary and Biblical (his parents are evangelical Christians). Sigh No More was named British Album Of The Year at the BRITs. Mumford & Sons, who'd backed Bob Dylan at 2011's Grammy Awards, then scored the Album Of The Year gong for 2012's consolidating Babel. The band paved the way for Ed Sheeran and influenced songs by everyone from EDM's Avicii to One Direction.
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In November Mumford & Sons are returning Down Under, some shows already sold out. Earlier this year they unveiled their most daring album in Wilder Mind — daring because, increasingly ambivalent about that 'folk' tag, they've shed its tropes, notably their signature banjo, for classic rock (cue: the synthy anthem Believe). Mumford touted Wilder Mind as "a development, not a departure". Mumford & Sons experimented while jamming. Marshall picked up an electric guitar. And the band decided to trade Mumford's kick drum for a full kit. Curiously, Mumford & Sons have even switched their tweed waistcoats for leather jackets.
"I think there was part of us that expected people to say that [it was a big change], because people very much associated our band with a certain look and, in effect, just the banjo," Mumford says today. "But we also felt like we were confident to say to people, 'Look, it's not just about those things. Come and see us live and you'll understand that actually it's not that drastic a shift...' But I s'pose we were expecting people to find it a bit weird. And that's fine. But, hopefully, in the arc of our band, people will be able to put it in its place and to understand what we were trying to do at the time — which was just write songs that we could get behind and enjoy playing live, really."
Mumford & Sons previously liaised with producer Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire). However, for Wilder Mind they teamed with James Ford — following informal sessions under The National's Aaron Dessner in Brooklyn, New York. Ford is a hybridist, among his studio credits Arctic Monkeys and Florence + The Machine — plus his own techno outfit Simian Mobile Disco. "He definitely helped us sort of rediscover our love of recording — which we hadn't necessarily lost, but we just hadn't done it in a while," Mumford says.
Wilder Mind is also Mumford & Sons' most collaborative outing. Mumford allowed other band members input into the lyrics. This was, he says, "a relief". "I found it really exciting — especially when I realised that I could sing other people's lyrics in the band as if they were my own... I guess I was writing more, percentage-wise, on the first couple of records. And, to be able to share that burden out with the lads — not 'burden', sorry, it's the responsibility — I find it really exciting."
It's no wonder that Wilder Mind should be reactionary, if not iconoclastic. Mumford & Sons have experienced a backlash to their rustic sonics and image — the four's relatively privileged origins a UK media fixation (Marshall's dad is a hedge fund millionaire). Yet Wilder Mind has been favourably reviewed, drawing comparisons to The National and The War On Drugs. And Mumford & Sons have integrated the new material into shows. "I think to start with, it just needed some tweaking," Mumford says. "But, in general, we've found that the songs from the three albums fit together live better than we'd even imagined they would... We really enjoy being able to play the old ones now, as well as the new ones."
"I really wanna earn it by playing lots of shows live, by making better records than we've made, by still pushing ourselves to be as creative as possible."
Much has changed for Mumford personally, too. In 2012 he wed his childhood pen pal, Carey Mulligan, an A-list actor since the acclaimed An Education. Reluctantly, yet inevitably, they've emerged as indiedom's 'It' couple. Last month Mulligan quietly gave birth to their daughter. News breaks as this interview is scheduled of Mulligan, bump-free, walking the red carpet in London for her buzz film Suffragette. But such is the pair's anxious desire for privacy that Kanye West-level stipulations are imposed. "Don't mention the baby!", we're instructed.
Nevertheless, the scoop we're after concerns reports of Mumford's intriguing moonlighting in hip hop. The muso, raised on jazz and soul, is an ol' b-boy, "fascinated" by sampling. "I grew up listening to hip hop, really. The first record I bought was [The] Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill — and Jurassic 5 was the first gig I ever went to. So it wasn't, like, super underground — it was quite [laughs] 'English boy hip hop' — but I certainly grew up on it and have always enjoyed it."
Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is his favourite album of the last year. While in NY, Mumford connected with beatmaker 88-Keys, a Yeezy compadre. "I just called him up and said, 'Can I come and just watch what you do for a day?' We sat there and talked and listened to music all day. He became a friend out of it, luckily. I hope one day we'll be able to do something together."
It's here perhaps where Mumford's liberating himself from 'folk' becomes pertinent. "I definitely wanna make as many types of music as I can before I die — 'cause I'm just a music fan," he shares. "I'm not a purist. I love too many types of music to be able to call myself a purist. And I respect purists."
Mumford & Sons' list of achievements is impressive — they once even performed for President Obama at the White House (on David Cameron's request). But, asked what is left for them to do, and Mumford sounds almost... discomfited.
"I wanna be able to sustain [things] over a long period of time," he replies. "That's when I'll look back and feel like we've achieved something... I wanna be able to look back and say that we made six amazing records that we're really proud of and we toured for all of that time — or, like, ten records. I always look forward, 'What's the next thing that we can do?'... But I really wanna earn my place now. I really don't wanna see that [success] as a flash-in-the-pan. I really wanna earn it by playing lots of shows live, by making better records than we've made, by still pushing ourselves to be as creative as possible, by making lots of different types of music, by promoting other bands' music, by sharing the love of the people, and [by] being a good neighbour and stuff. So we're very ambitious in kinda more broad stroke general ways."
Indeed, Mumford & Sons are already contemplating fresh music. "We are looking forward to the next record — and we have been writing some songs," Mumford affirms. "I think we left it too long between Babel and Wilder Mind. I'd like to leave a little bit less time this time 'round so that we can get going a bit quicker with another record."