“When our album came out in the U.K., I read two reviews and I wept,” says Marcus Mumford, singer and songwriter for Britain’s Mumford & Sons. Given the band’s rapid rise to international success, his reaction may seem a little surprising; this week they hit town to play The Late Show with David Letterman and a sold-out date at the Bowery Ballroom, having spent last week dodging screaming girls in Australia, where their single has overtaken Lady Gaga and Ke$ha on the charts. Mumford is calling TONY from Los Angeles, where the guest list for the previous night’s show had included Jake Gyllenhaal and Benicio Del Toro.
So what was it that made him cry? “The fact that I thought they were right!” Mumford says, starting to laugh. “The little things that I was insecure about, they just nailed,” he continues. “But then I thought, You know what? Fuck this, I’m gonna put my head down and play a gig. And we did, and it was great.”
As anyone who caught one of the band’s shows during the CMJ Music Marathon in October will attest, Mumford & Sons is a breathtaking, sweat-making live proposition, the kind of act that seems to exert a magnetic pull on casually lurking observers at the back of a room. The music takes elements of bluegrass (the rustic instrumentation and the musicianship) and imbues that sound with a giddiness and fervor: A song like “Little Lion Man” (the track they’ll be playing on Letterman) opens with stripped-back guitar strums and slow double bass, then picks up a hell-for-leather pace.
The band’s other trump card (besides its remarkable nonugliness) is its sweet, sweet harmonies. “Nothing really compares to the feeling I get when we all sing together,” double bassist Ted Dwane says. “It’s that sense of union, the four lads standing the breadth of the stage, just making the best sound they can.”
Mumford & Sons formed from the same collective that fostered then-teen talents Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale; these folk-leaning kids held hoedowns in the basement of a London pub every week. “I think people got a bit carried away with the idea of there being this ‘new folk scene,’?” Mumford says. “Folk has become a byword for anyone with an acoustic guitar, but it’s really about relationships. You could call fuckin’ the Odyssey folk music because it was performed in front of people, storytelling, and it was musical and poetry. Same goes for Bob Dylan, or Rajasthani bhangra.”
There’s something terribly earnest about what Mumford & Sons does. Coupled with the sheer amount of energy the band puts into every performance, it’s a little reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s early shows. No great surprise, then, that M&S recruited Arcade Fire sound engineer Markus Dravs to produce its debut album, Sigh No More. What may raise eyebrows is that the band sounds so big on the record.
“That was a conscious decision,” Mumford says, of a sonic feel Dravs refers to as “unrelenting drive.” The singer explains: “Markus made the songs sound thick and full at the same time as making them sound tender and small, which really is what this album is about—taking what we do live and putting it down on record and letting the album be more of an advert for our live shows.”
There’s something of the stumbling puppy to Mumford’s affable, effusive demeanor—and the singer landed himself in a spot of bother when he unwittingly revealed on BBC radio that Dravs was working with Arcade Fire on a new record. “Oh, goodness,” he winces. Yes, he says, he felt very sheepish about that. He says he’s still learning: how to hold his tongue, how to rewrite songs. “I still consider our band as being very young and impressionable,” he says. “I just turned 23 and I feel like this is the beginning of something. We don’t know how long it’s going to last.”
“A lot of bands are ruined by not really knowing what they want and then doing things again and again that they don’t want to do, whether that’s becoming addicted to substances or being an arsehole to their friends. Success is knowing who you want to be, knowing what you want, and getting there.” And, perhaps, not reading any more reviews.