Mumford and Sons (from left) Winston Marshall, Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett and Marcus Mumford. Photo supplied.
The Mumford and Sons handmade aesthetic is rocking the
music world, reports Mikael Wood, of the Los Angeles
Describing the latest album from his band Mumford and Sons,
Ben Lovett sidesteps much of the language artists often use
to talk about their music. He doesn't, for instance, refer to
Babel as a bit of creative risk-taking, or as the
product of divine inspiration.
Instead, the 26-year-old keyboardist says the record was
"forced out of this internal desire to prove that we have
many more songs in us."
Mumford and Sons released its debut, Sigh No More, in
2009 and immediately set about touring the world, playing
concerts that grew steadily to a scale Lovett called "crazy."
(Last year it performed before an audience of about 75,000
people on the main stage at Coachella.) Before long the
London group - which also includes singer-guitarist Marcus
Mumford (25); bassist Ted Dwane (28), and banjo player
Winston Marshall (25) - had all but exhausted the tunes on
Sigh No More. For 2012 it needed some new songs.
"And I'm sure the third, fourth and fifth records will happen
the same way," Lovett continued, speaking recently after a
show in Cairns.
"There was absolutely zero calculation (with Babel).
No-one ever came into the studio and said, 'Turn that banjo
up and we'll make you into pop stars!'."
Yet pop stars are precisely what the band's members have
become. In October, Babel entered Billboard's album
chart at No. 1, scoring what was then the year's biggest
sales week - bigger than Justin Bieber and Madonna - with
more than 600,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen
(This month, Taylor Swift broke Mumford and Sons' record with
1.2 million copies of her new album, Red.)
To date Babel has sold 992,000 albums, while Sigh
No More is at 2.54 million. Right now both discs - which
together have yielded a string of hit singles, beginning with
Little Lion Man and extending through the new album's
I Will Wait - sit in the top 25 of the Billboard 200.
"With Little Lion Man, let's face it: You kind of have
had to ask, 'Is there more?'," says Lisa Worden, music
director at the influential Los Angeles modern-rock radio
"And there was: We had success with three tracks from the
first record. I knew then that this wasn't a one-hit wonder.
This band truly has something."
That something is spreading, too: Following Mumford and Sons
up the charts are acts such as the Lumineers, the Civil Wars
and Of Monsters and Men - proudly old-fashioned
roots-oriented outfits that seem to share little with the
sleekly modish likes of Rihanna and Maroon 5.
"What they've achieved gives a lot of hope to bands like us,"
says Taylor Goldsmith of the folky LA group Dawes, which was
to open for Mumford and Sons at two sold-out Hollywood Bowl
"It's four guys playing acoustic guitars and banjos and
everything I feel like wouldn't allow a stable career for a
young band in 2012. But here they are."
So how did these London lads carve out such an impressive
space singing original songs about struggle and redemption?
Their strategy - not that they'd ever call it that - begins
with touring, and lots of it. As Lovett suggests, he and his
bandmates more or less live on the road, performing crowd
favourites and honing new material in a variety of settings
across the globe.
The band has been careful, too, with exposure, limiting
interviews and television performances but encouraging easy
access to its music. During the first week of Babel's
release, Mumford and Sons allowed listeners to stream the
album free on Spotify - something the online service said
happened more than 8 million times.
Lovett singles out the group's performance with Bob Dylan at
the 2011 Grammy Awards as a pivotal moment, and he's
certainly not wrong: Sigh No More enjoyed its biggest
sales week in the days following the telecast.
"I think it introduced us to people who watch (awards) shows
the way we grew up watching music on TV," he said.
"It makes sense that it would widen our audience.
"But we weren't thinking about that at the time."
Indeed, all of this manoeuvring seems secondary to the
powerful sense of belonging the band's songs engender among
its fans. Not unlike Adele, whose 21 was last year's
best-selling album, Mumford and Sons offers a chance to stand
up for hand-played music in an age of machine-made pop; it
embodies the feel-good realism of people singing and playing
instruments on stage.
And yet the group isn't didactic about its position, vastly
increasing its appeal for listeners with no horse in the
authenticity race. In a recent interview with National Public
Radio, Marcus Mumford declined to describe the band's music
as bluegrass or any other traditional form, saying, "We just
call ourselves a rock band, really."
It's a refreshingly anti-purist mindset audible throughout
Babel, on which acoustic guitars mingle with spacey sound
effects and Mumford's often-sensual vocals act as more than a
And with its period-picture wardrobe and foot-stomping
singalongs, Mumford and Sons openly embraces a spirit of
With Babel out for only a little more than a month,
it's too early to say how much higher Mumford and Sons might
fly - or how much further the band's influence might extend.
"We'll have to wait and see if any of these other bands end
up being more than just a song," says KROQ's Worden. "I'm not
quite ready to put my money on the folk revival."
Nor, truth be told, is Lovett.
"We haven't got very lofty aspirations when it comes to all
that," the keyboardist says.
"We're not trying to restart any movement." The way he tells
it, the band's motivation is more immediate.
"It's pretty much, 'Oh, you've got a song? That sounds good.
I feel the exact same way. Let's play that tonight'. "