Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett and Marcus Mumford chat Guinness, white tigers and Babel with Emily Mullen
The Westbury’s Marble Bar. Gathering my thoughts while a concerned barman, who had obviously been viewing my twitching and writhing at the idea of meeting Mumford and Sons, aided and abetted the situation by placing a fruity cocktail in my hand. The drink was possibly the most ostentatious ever made, with what seemed like ten straws accompanied by delicately arranged fruit on toothpicks, and complete with a two-toned fruity hue. It made it extra awkward when a jet-lagged Mumford and Sons were ushered into the room to behold me and my fruity cocktail.
Mumford and Sons are every inch the upper-class boys that the media portrays them to be; their plummy accents are no exaggeration and their manners not of the generated verity. Dressed head to toe in west London chic apparel, each and every one looked and spoke as if they had just met up with Millie at the BlueBird café on the Made in Chelsea set.
Rocking up to the interview 45 minutes late, changing tables twice, and then finally ordering the first pint of Guinness of Arthur’s day (leaving my drink ever more shameful), the interview had begun. My first few precious minutes with Ben Lovett and Marcus Mumford had been eaten away with jokey questions about Guinness consumption and a very formal game of musical chairs, they seemed to enjoy my banter, but I think it was as useful to my article as my fruity cocktail monologue is to it now.
Mumford and Sons, the band that brought folk to the forefront of popular music, are currently shrinking from the label. “We have tried to do everything we can to avoid putting ourselves into one genre at this stage, we still feel like we are figuring it out and even though we’re two albums in, we really are just beginning,” says a somewhat irate Lovett.
Yet, this is a reasonable enough label to give their attitude a voice. The most natural thing to do when you hear the erratic strings of banjos, and soaring harmonies,and see slightly hairy tweed-bedecked men, is to place them in the genre of folk, right? Wrong. Mumford and Sons do not mess around on this matter.
The band have been defined by the term ‘fusion’ at numerous points, a term given to them by Emmylou Harris, is a contrite from of vernacular. “I suppose it is a fusion, I think we would probably be alright with that. A mixture of I don’t know what, but yeah sort of a mixture of personalities.”
The pressure placed on Babel, not just as an album, but as a signpost to the direction of Mumford and Sons’ music, was enormous. With an album that was perceived as so new, and so fresh as Sigh No More behind them, you cannot escape the feeling that Mumford and Sons preferred to steer away from the trappings of a radically different sophomore album, in favour of a slightly altered and matured sound when it came to Babel. To use their own words this album is a “reaction as opposed to a revolution.”
Babel, a simple biblical title, one that may lead to questions concerning an emphasis upon religion, humanity and the greed that civilisation can accumulate, is for Mumford and Sons simply an album title: “Album titles are a weird thing you know, because they don’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter what you call your album, but people, specifically the media, attach themselves to it. I don’t think anyone who listens to our music or likes our music for what it is, gives a shit about what the album is called. No one would really care if it was titled ‘A Piece of Shit’, but the media need something to write about. So I don’t know, maybe it’s not the best album title in the world, but it felt appropriate, it summed up the vibe that we were going for.”
Feelings of pressure or notions of discontinuity never surfaced during the writing process of Babel for Mumford: “I think we were just focusing on writing songs, we didn’t think about it too hard. We didn’t over-think it, we just recorded songs that came along and just focused on the sound really. We have never been very intentional with our sound as you might imagine, it’s just been quite organic. It hasn’t been really thought-out or too calculated. We’ve just wrote the songs that have cropped up and tried to serve them as best we can within the limitations of what we have instrumentally and personally in the band.”
Lyrically the stance has shifted to an almost autobiographical standpoint, with the heavy emphasis upon literary citations taking a back foot: “I think we were a bit more open with our citing and literary references on Sigh No More, and it’s something that we were keen not to do this time around, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been a massive shift in our approach to writing songs. It’s always been quite reactionary.”
From shifting from their reliance upon literary classics, on to a more autonomous self-motivated method of storytelling, the band as a whole are growing and learning. Accepting that Babel does not have a dissimilar sound to Sigh No More, Mumford and Sons are continuing along their own path at their own pace and are not answering or wondering what the public desire to hear. These ‘revolutionary’ changes that the media longed to hear were not apparent in Babel.
However, highbrow literature will always feature in their lyrics in one form or another, from profound literary themes to small citations, the great authors, past and present, are of cogent influence to them. “I think we all agree that we like Steinbeck’s approach to depicting relationships and stories, I think he writes in a very balanced manner. But there’s probably a thousand authors that we read. Steinbeck isn’t our torch bearer that we build music behind, he is one of many authors out there that writes in a way that inspires us, and I don’t think we would ever claim to write in the same realm of that.”
Controversy raged on whether Babel would or indeed would not be Mumford and Sons’ final album, after a throwaway remark made by Lovett set blogs and magazines ablaze with debate. “No, there definitely will be a third album.” Lovett’s words are sure to set many millions of fans’ minds at ease. “I just said it after the iTunes gig, something like, ‘If there will be a third album.’ It was meant to be more hopeful than that, it wasn’t supposed to be controversial,” he explains. “It felt a bit early to talk about a third record so I’d just back it up by saying ‘If there is one’, because right now we are focusing fully on Babel.”
Launching the UK and Republic’s Tour of Two Halves leg of the tour next month, talk of a third album must have been a tedious question for a band that had just released an album and were just about to go on tour with it, despite this they seem extremely positive about the tour: “It’s going to be great, a four week tour, and we are going to get to visit some completely new places like Carlyle and Llandudno in Wales playing theatres and then we are going to do some arenas as well and it rounds off in the O2 in Dublin. It’ll be a good place to finish.”
Performing live, something that the band have long been credited for, appears to hold a sort of metaphoric value for the group; as an act, it breaks down barriers between musician and viewer, leaving fans with the impression that Mumford and Sons are indeed just mere men. “I think it’s a weird thing isn’t it? Especially these days, the sort of cult celebrity status, whereon people have a very different impression of you just because you are on the stage. I think we are very different, we passionately disagree with being treated differently for being famous musicians, so yeah at gigs we do our best to engage, and we probably are sort of. I think we just try and break down that barrier between musician and fan. We for our own functioning as a band need to be real and need to be honest and sort of organic I guess.”
Does being ‘real’ and ‘honest’ have any altercations when it comes to the simple fact that they are extremely rich and famous? “I think we’ve had our head down, and been working too hard to even fall into the trappings of fame, we haven’t even had the time to buy a white tiger like Akon.”
No white tigers is perhaps a disappointing realisation: “A white tiger might have taken up too much time. We’ve been working so hard recording and doing shows and we are hoping to get future recordings out swifter if touring allows and that’s our focus really and who knows where our lives will lead, but it’s pretty straightforward at this moment in time.”
Call them what you want, celebrate their new album, or call it a rehashed Sigh No More, no one can deny their success and their allure. Handsome, intelligent and painfully well-bred, Mumford and Sons are perhaps the best kind of celebrity, simply because they don’t want any of it.
Giving interviews is a task, their hatred of journalists is deep, and the critical analysis of their music is a watershed of discontent. They are steadfast celebrities, their intangibility and sheer awkwardness simply increases their intrigue. Trying and failing to get an understanding of the intent behind Babel really threw me, so too did the stonewalling that so many of my questions received, and so I bid adieu to Marcus and Ben, fruity cocktail in hand.
Mumford and Sons play the O2, Dublin on December 16th. Tickets are priced from €39.05. Their new album Babel is out now.