Following their mega-hit Hey Ho, you might have pegged The Lumineers as an American version of Mumford & Sons.
The Colorado trio’s self-titled debut album from 2013 certainly got them a slice of the folk revival. But it’s something The Lumineers have markedly moved away from on their return with Cleopatra, a startlingly different follow-up.
Gone are the shouty vocals and all-encompassing acoustic guitars. In its place, the guitars are plugged in, synths dominate comeback single Ophelia and singer Wesley Schultz is way subtler. If you want a shorthand comparison now, try Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen. It’s that good.
“When we came to start recording this album, we played the first one back – and I couldn’t recognise it,” admits Schultz by phone before a show in New York. “We’d reinvented the album over time on tour, and the record was so different from how I thought it was in my head.”
But, as Schultz explains, a hell of a lot had become different about The Lumineers following their multi-platinum success. Not least the friendships between Schultz, co-writer/drummer Jeremiah Fraites and cellist Nelya Pekarek…
You worked as a coffee barista and a busboy for years before The Lumineers took off. What’s the reality of success been like for you?
Wesley Schultz: Success is two sides of a coin. When I was working those jobs, I never felt like I was understood or properly treated. But when you get any degree of fame, people are so kind to you that you know that’s false too. You get over-praised and worshipped. Really, you know you’re somewhere in the middle of it all.
My dad was a psychologist, and that’s what I’d planned on doing before forming the band. Part of me is processing success by trying to be level about success. I’m trying to find my place in it, and it’s somewhere in the middle.
How has success changed your friendship with Jeremiah? You’ve been writing songs together for 11 years now…
Wesley: Well, we no longer live together and work those same day-jobs! We’ve processed our success differently, and it took me a while to accept that. I’m set in my ways, and I thought that as we were all going through the same thing that we’d treat it the same way.
When we came to record this album, we no longer knew each other like we used to. We’d become disconnected and we took a lot of long walks to repair that.
How were you to each other on those walks?
Wesley: There were a lot of words and a lot of arguments. We’ve all seen other bands where you’re only technically still a band. You only see each other on stage, and that prospect frightened me. I have to write with Jer and I really care about him. I really want to have that friendship, but it was difficult.
It took a long time and that wasn’t convenient, I’ll say that. But we are close again and we understand each other again. It felt like the classic second record slump, and we joked that we were going to call this record The Sophomore Slump. Everybody talks about how great the first album was, but when it comes to recording this new record, they put this sad look on their face and go ‘So, how’s it been?’ as if we’d lost someone in a car accident. It’s been quite a thing to undergo, but truly we’re so much better for it.
What have been the upsides of fame?
Wesley: The part of me that gets a kick out of it is that people are excited to see us back. We can announce a last-minute pop-up show in, say, Oregon and 1,000 people will be there an hour later. We couldn’t have paid 1,000 people to see us a few years ago. And we know we have something good to give them. You can’t fake self-esteem about how good your songs are. I can only imagine how tough it would feel if you thought your new record was mediocre.
Despite the success, you’ve managed to steer clear of the limelight as people…
Wesley: We lead with the music, we don’t lead with the image. We could busk the new record in a subway in the middle of London and no-one would really know who we were. Unless maybe Jer wore his braces… I’m still relatively anonymous, even in Denver where I live. I like that I can leave the stage and wander around town.
“My wife paid our first few months’ rent. I’m returning the favour now”
Is it true you and Jeremiah rented a house in Denver to write the new album?
Wesley: Yeah, to return to our roots. Our friendship started from obsessively writing together, a blue-collar 9-5 approach. We believe that, the more hours you put in the better you get.
When we lived together, I’d be brushing my teeth and heading off to my job as a barista and I’d hear Jer play some new song to get me excited enough to cope with the shift. That’s how our first songs got born, and we had to recreate that this time. We needed to be in the same room. It’s a simulation, but the first album worked from the sheer number and quality of the hours we spent together.
Were you worried that simulation would feel fake?
Wesley: It’s like buying a tarantula and building a terrarium – you put the rocks and stones in to create the illusion that you’re not forced together. We’ve always written at home, back to starting at Jer’s parents’ house. Songwriting is an unnatural process, and you need to fool yourself into forgetting what you’re trying to do.
How were you able to put aside the pressure of “Shit, we’re following up a million-selling album” when you started writing?
Wesley: We had a lot ideas, but we didn’t get the monkey off our back until we’d actually finished a whole song, which was Ophelia. When we finished that song, it was ‘Hey, this is interesting!’ There’s no guitars on the song. We weren’t going ‘Let’s make our synths record’, it was a natural change. A lot of the first album was based around busking and playing house parties, so my vocal style is very loud and shouty. But you couldn’t busk this new record.
Were your record company wishing the new album was quicker to make?
Wesley: We had an advantage, because we only signed a one-album deal before the first record. We’ve done the same this time, because we want to bet on ourselves. If you sign a big multi-album record deal, to me that says ‘I don’t believe this album will do so well as the last one, but hey, let’s take the money.’ A lot of bands don’t realise they’re doing that.
“I’m the introvert who’ll talk to one person at a party”
A lot of the songs are very detailed stories about people. Are you a natural people watcher?
Wesley: Sure. I’m the introvert who’ll talk really in-depth at a party, but only to one person. In therapy counselling sessions, my father found that when you get down to it people are full of contradictions. We compartmentalise parts of our lives, and I think that’s fascinating to everyone. Look at serial killers – people say ‘How could he have a family yet kill all those people?’
Does blocking out parts of your life apply to your father? Gun Song is about your shock at realising when your dad died that he kept a gun in his bedside drawer…
Wesley: It was shocking to me that this calm, peaceful person kept a gun. But it almost made me admire him more. He had his own compartmentalisation and that’s OK. He was married to my mom a long time before he died, and they were happy. But he used to tell me ‘It’s hard enough to wake up in your own head, without waking up next to someone every day and check in on them.’ It’s not easy to do that all the time, and that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong in the marriage.
How have you kept your own marriage to your wife Brandy alive while the band has been away on tour so much?
Wesley: Well, the good thing about our marriage is that my wife has her own business running a nanny agency. She sends nannies out all over the world. When The Lumineeers began, she knew she’d have to support me. And she did – she paid our first few months’ rent in our tiny apartment. It’s great to come from that to where we are now. I’m returning the favour, in some ways. My wife knew me when I was a busboy in a T-shirt, and I know there’s no motivation behind her love for me. It must be harder to meet someone when there’s baggage based on who you are because your music is doing well.
The last song on the album, Patience, is very different for the band. How did it come about?
Wesley: That’s one Jer came up with. It’s got a real cinematic, almost classical aspect. All of my favourite musicians took me in different directions as a listener and we want to do that. But Jer was practicing Patience when we were opening for a very big band – I won’t say who. A member of the band walked past Jer and said ‘That’s so beautiful!’ But two minutes later their manager came out and told Jer ‘You need to stop that now.’ It’s such a peaceful song, yet this guy was going ‘Shut the fuck up.’ To be fair, Jer had been playing the song for 20 minutes straight…
The Lumineers’ new album Cleopatra is out now. They tour from April 14-24 and play at Glastonbury and Latitude. For full dates, see their website.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn