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Mumford & Sons Discuss The Fertile Period That Led To The Most Ambitious Album Of Their Career, ‘Delta’

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When I dialed up Mumford & Sons‘ singer Marcus Mumford and bassist Ted Dwane last week, they were taking a momentary break during rehearsals. For 99.9% of other bands, this would be as significant as tuning their instruments or riding on the bus between gigs, just business as usual in the industry of making music. But for the four-piece London band, practicing is both indicative of where they are in their career and what they have just created.

They are about to release Delta, their fourth career album and most ambitious recording yet. The group that was once known for their banjo-featuring acoustic instrumentation that seemed as ready for a subway platform as it was for an arena audience have become something of studio rats on their latest endeavor. The album features everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangements and production techniques that never rely on a particular aesthetic, instead using the band’s own voices and taste level as the barometer for continuity.

“Yeah, it’s not quite a first for us, but it might be a second,” Dwane said of the rehearsals with a laugh, calling the album “a more elaborate process,” an assessment that is readily apparent to anyone that’s heard the record. “We’ve come across various moments this week where in the old days we were just like ‘that’ll do,’ Mumford added, “but now we take our lives and jobs a little more seriously.”

To hear both of them explain it, none of this is a bad thing. Mumford noted that the band has been talking about performing music for many months while this new album was crafted, so now there is a particular excitement to be able to actually do that again. But there’s also a lot of excitement for their fans to hear what they’ve been cooking up with beloved British producer Paul Epworth, whose credits runs the gamut from Florence And The Machine to U2. “I think we all feel like it is the album we’re most proud of,” Dwane said. “In terms of what we set out to do, to make an honest expression of who and where we are at this time, that’s what a record is to this band.”

The record offers up songs that reach for the rafters with uplifting reverence, as seen on the soaring single “Guiding Light” and the cinematic “Slip Away.” On these tracks, the band seems to have found a happy medium between the folk rock of their first two albums and the expansive electric guitars of 2015’s Wilder Mind. But elsewhere, the band drifts further into uncharted territory, with everything from the finger-snap percussion on “Picture Of You” to the piano-driven fury of the (mostly) instrumental “Darkness Visible” portraying versions of the band never before heard. For a group that refuses to be defined by their past, Delta presents a lush and vibrant vision of the band’s future.

Mumford and Dwane spoke candidly about the creation of Delta, about the plans to make a second album in 2019, and about the controversial photo taken with Jordan Peterson that emerged earlier this year.

Your last album, Wilder Mind, was seen as such a departure for the band, and this record very much feels like it picks up where that left off and takes things further. At this point, do you think there is a definitive element that makes a Mumford & Sons song a Mumford & Sons song?

Ted Dwane: To us, it’s all very much us, even when someone from outside might hear them and find them disparate. It’s really just about our interests and where they converge.

Marcus Mumford: I know that we certainly approach it in the studio where we put the song first, we call it “serving the song.” So I suppose songwriting is at the heart of it.

That’s literally what I have in my next question. A song like “Woman” feels very much like a studio song, or the grandeur of the “The Wild;” these very much feel like the work of a band serving the song rather than fitting some idea of who they are or what they need to sound like.

MM: Yeah, we want to be a band for a long time, and I think we enjoy the idea of pushing beyond the restrictions we put on ourselves. I think subconsciously we did that a lot on the first two records, because naturally you write on the instruments you are touring with. Logistically you don’t have the ability to carry around a bunch of instruments and you don’t have much time when you’re playing 150 shows a year to experiment with new instruments. So we picked up the instruments we were playing and wrote that second album on the road.

When it came to the third album, we put restrictions on ourselves to pick up the instruments we played as teenagers rather than acoustic instruments, deciding to not record with acoustic instruments at all. For this album, the danger was that we threw all the restrictions out the window and we could have really gone awry with too much creative freedom. I think we really needed to have a singular vision for the record in order to be successful with it, in order to make a record that makes sense. I think that we have done that and I’m certainly more proud of this album than anything else we’ve ever done.

Can you put into words what that vision is?

MM: Not easily. Trying to summarize three years worth of life and six months in one particular studio with all the people involved… For example, when we started out, we had demos from four different songwriters, and they were sounding pretty far afield from each other. We set Paul Epworth with the challenge of bringing them under one roof. That was the starting place and then we’ve ended up with this record that is cohesive and makes sense. So yeah, I suppose I can’t put it into words. The album is there to do it for me.

Tell me about the decision to work with Paul Epworth on this album. Were you already a fan of his work and what did he specifically bring to the process?

TD: Being in London for the past ten years or so, he’s a hard guy to ignore. He’s something of a force of nature there.

MM: Yeah. I could talk about Paul Epworth for days. He’s a wonderful human being, I love him to bits, and he’s become something of a brother to us. We were obviously fans of his work, from Kate Nash to Bloc Party to Jack Peñate to Adele to the stuff he did with Coldplay and U2. I’m just a big fan of his work. But as a guy, he’s so easy to hang out with, so creatively inspiring, and has such amazing energy and vision. And also his demeanor and the way he manages situations — he’s a masterclass. He creates the right atmosphere in the room and then encourages you to be the best version of yourself in the studio. He does it so effortlessly that it was honestly the most joyful recording experience that I’ve ever had.

It’s the kind of thing you dream about when you’re a kid. The idea of being in the studio with loads on instruments and you can use any of them and no one is going to look over your shoulder. We were buying instruments and bringing in new ones every week, and so was he — he’s a gear addict. So every week we’d have a new toy to play with and whatever song we were working on, that toy would get used on it.

I read that you guys had 35 demos that became this album and you recorded a lot of those songs. Obviously, that leaves a lot of songs off the album. Do you guys have any plans to do anything with the excess material?

MM: Yeah, we want to make sure we carve out time in advance on this next tour because we have unfinished business with Paul Epworth and we’re halfway through the next one. We’re going back in February and back again in April. It’s hard because we want to tour, but we also want to keep recording. We’re on something with him. I’m pretty excited about the next batch of songs. It felt like this group fit together nicely and they lived together on one album and that album was called Delta, and the next body of songs aren’t complete yet, but we’ve certainly started work on them and I’m pretty excited about some of them.

TD: We had a pretty chill year last year, and didn’t do too many shows. And as a touring musician, because of the tempo of road life, when you come home you want to be busy. So, the prospect of next year, spending a few months of the year in London and going into the studio with Paul every day, that seems like a good use of our time.

It’s funny, going back to the mixing process in New York, Paul came out for it and it seemed like we all weren’t ready to say goodbye yet. On a personal and a professional level, we just wanted to keep going. And when we did have to leave New York, it was rather emotional. He’s an emotional guy and he’s really invested in the work that he does, and that’s what we’re about, too. We really mean it, we’re very passionate about the work we do. So we found something of a kindred spirit with Paul.

It sounds like it was a really great creative moment that we’re hearing on this record.

MM: It was a fertile time and that’s part of the reason why we called the album Delta, because it is the most fertile ground. It felt like a prolific time for our band and we needed one. We didn’t need a quick album, we needed a good one.

Do you guys have a roadmap for what you’re doing, in terms of artists that you grew up following or contemporaries who you admire? Just seeing your career trajectory, you guys ascended to this level of arena or stadium artist and festival headliner relatively quickly in terms of how many albums you released. Do you look to others to figure out how to navigate where you find yourself?

MM: There aren’t that many bands left, but certainly, if you look at the ones left and you have some massive names on there. We’ll look at how they’ve done their careers and study their records. I was just this week in my car studying A Moon Shaped Pool. Again. Figuring out how they did some of the tremolo sounds or how they did the slow-mo cello sounds at the end of “Decks Dark.” I think the energy and output that some of these bands that have been around a long time still have, and the real hunger or obsessive nature to making music and touring it. So yeah, we feel like we still have a lot to learn, but our attitude about it is still the same. It’s part confidence and part awe.

TD: No one would really accuse us of having too much commercial ambition when you have a banjo in your band, but we were really just concerned with writing songs and touring in the beginning, and that’s a fairly simple thing to do. But when we reached the position where we realized we’re going to do that for a long time, we just set our focus on doing it really well. We want to do the best show. We want to make the best record we’re able to. We try to look after each other’s creativity and we have a really nice democratic process in the band.

The design is pretty simple, and it applies to the way we do business and the way we write songs, and the way we deal with people personally and emotionally. It’s all the same design, to be very fair and loving and encouraging and positive. There’s a very positive spirit in the band, which I think is key.

Your band’s brush with pop radio in the early part of this decade resulted in influence across pop culture, be it in TV commercials and far beyond rock radio. Like, Avicii basically took your sound and made it one of the biggest dance songs of the decade with “Wake Me Up,” which if you heard Mumford & Sons initially, that wasn’t where you expected the band’s reach to end up. What was it like hearing yourself everywhere you went when it wasn’t actually yourself, and in a case of someone like Avicii, did you ever just wish artists would call you and ask to work with you rather than just co-opting your aesthetic?

MM: Well, co-opting presumes some sort of possession and I don’t think we were ever in possession of our aesthetic. I don’t really believe in that sort of idea. I think we all borrow off each other and good artists steal from each other. Look at the early part of Dylan’s career, he stole off of everyone. Poor Dave Van Ronk sat there with this amazing version of “House Of The Rising Sun,” the story goes that Dylan just came and knicked it, but I don’t know if that’s true. We were certainly influenced by certain bands and people around that time, like Noah & The Whale, Laura Marling, Fleet Foxes, as well as Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Springsteen.

So, I don’t really believe in possession or ownership of a particular sound. What’s so interesting about bands like Radiohead or Arcade Fire is that you always know it’s them and it doesn’t just sound like one thing. I think our band has struggled at times with people thinking that we’re one thing, but we’re really trying to be not that. So yeah, I heard it and I saw it and it never bothered me. Maybe some people would think ‘f*ck off, that’s our territory,’ but we just didn’t think like that. We feel more like stewards than owners, I suppose.

TD: Yeah, I think from our perspective, we were coming from a network of musicians who had a converging interest in acoustic music and folk and blues and were interested in firming it in a more modern domain. I think that network was actually very big and we were only the tip of the iceberg. We were the bit that a lot of people could see because we had a few better-known songs. People might call it a “Mumford effect” or whatever, but really it was a moment where people were exploring that direction.

I don’t think we’d ever take the credit for that, it just seemed to be what people were into at the time. But it was very curious.

There was some hoopla last year over you guys posing for a photo with Jordan Peterson, who is a controversial figure. To me, it kind of felt like some members of the media wanted to take you down or that there was enjoyment in seeing you stumble because they don’t like your music or think you guys were cool. Can you tell me how it felt to be villainized for taking a photo with someone, when I’m sure you take hundreds of photos a year with random people?

TD: Yeah, I think that’s exactly the point. We take photos with fans without background checks regularly, but obviously we were aware of his views. I think it’s a big indication of where society is at the moment, it’s very divided and very reactive. There’s not a lot of listening going on, there’s not a lot of temperance or conversation. It’s a lot of shouting at each other from mountaintops. We’re very much in a listening mode, and that’s the line we draw on that particular instance.

We’ll defend the right to talk to whoever we want to. There is no endorsement going on with that photograph. I’ve read his book and some of it is really interesting. I have a psychology degree and he’s a psychiatrist and some of that is very interesting. And then there are the bits that the media has latched onto and it’s all become very reductive, very them and us. He’s obviously a divisive figure, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk to him. I think there is a conversation to be had with absolutely everybody. We don’t really see him as a good or a bad person, he’s just a person with beliefs.

MM: Certainly public opinion and the way public opinion is expressed has changed a lot in recent years. That is a lesson for us to learn from. It’s difficult for me to comment entirely because I wasn’t there. I’m not a fan of Jordan Peterson, I don’t like a lot of what he says and I don’t agree with a lot of what he says. But, I certainly love the idea of listening to people. I just don’t think it’s as simple as villainizing people for listening to each other. I think we’re in a culture where disagreeing is becoming more and more difficult.

I suppose it didn’t feel great. I had people call me up and say ‘Mumford & Sons this or that.’ No, you couldn’t be further from the truth there. But we certainly are listeners and we listen to all sorts of people. I just did a record with a self-proclaimed Marxist in Tom Morello, which couldn’t be more different than what Jordan Peterson talks about. I suppose I would seriously defend anyone’s right to listen to someone, especially if they disagree with it.

Delta is out on Friday via Glassnote. Get it here.

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