In this week’s music feature, Mumford and Sons — Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, Ted Dwane, and Winston Marshall — sat down with the Village Voice in a Soho loft on a gray day to talk all things Wilder Mind, their game-changing record out May 4. After their uncharacteristically plugged-in and turned-up Saturday Night Live performance, it was clear to see a major stylistic shift had taken place for the erstwhile poster boys of folk-rock, in that nary a banjo nor acoustic guitar was in sight as they blasted through power chords with a driven, arena-ready bravado. Now, with the new disc’s release drawing nigh, Mumford and Sons are opening up about what went into making Wilder Mind, from late nights in Ditmas Park spent writing and recording with Aaron Dessner of the National to how the new tunes will work within the set they’re currently honing for their forthcoming tour to why the word “hiatus” never crossed their minds before they came back from a break to make the record. Here are the excerpts and anecdotes from our conversation that didn’t make it into print.
On whether or not they were on hiatus before they started writing Wilder Mind:
Marcus Mumford: Technically, the press thought we were on hiatus. We thought we’d take a little break and get back together. We were always planning on coming back. We took, like, four months off at the end of 2013 after we finished quite a long period of touring, and then said, “Let’s gather together in the new year.” We’d written a couple of ideas. We’d fully realized one song, and then we knew kind of what the vibe was going to be roughly like. Then we went through a period of six months of just writing, two weeks out of the month, every month.
Winston Marshall: When we were apart, we were apart. Ben and I moved to New York and they stayed in England. When we came back together, we went back and forth between London and New York. There were times when not all of us could make it, which kept some of it quite fresh, because there were different combinations of us [writing or recording] each time. For example, with “Ditmas,” that song, I couldn’t come to things — I had a funeral in England — and I came back, and they had it. I just remember listening to it on headphones in Texas and being like — I think there are five songs or something they’d done that week without me — and that was the one where I was like, “That’s it. I really like that.”
On their relationship with Aaron Dessner, the National, and Trouble Will Find Me:
MM: We bumped into them at stuff, and we were surprised to know that they sort of liked us. I saw [Aaron] in New York in May of 2012. We hung out, had coffee, he sent me the new National record [Trouble Will Find Me], which I was very excited about. That was on repeat for all of us for like a year straight. That was one of those records I couldn’t put down. It’s amazing. “Pink Rabbits,” “Hard to Find” — it’s amazing. We were slightly obsessive about that record. And then when he said, “You know, I’ve got a studio here” — we had a great night out in Chicago, where we watched comedy and drank far too much whiskey. We both had to play the next day, but we were used to hangovers at that point. We got in trouble with his tour manager for getting him too drunk the night before. I was like, “I never forced anything on him! It was totally his decision!” [Laughs.] We had some good times with him, and then he said, “Come to the studio in Brooklyn.” So we did. The National guys, especially Aaron, they love the communal aspect of collaboration as well, the collaborative aspect of music. Dark Was the Night was an extraordinary record, I thought, and that’s full of collaborations that he produced with his brother, Bryce. In New York, he has a whole community of people that he makes records with, from Sharon Van Etten to Sufjan Stevens and Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire. And they all play on each other’s stuff all the time. We sort of adopted that mentality with the writing of this record. We were less, like, ‘No one else is invited to our party.’ With the recording, we’ve never been very collaborative. On this one he played a bunch.
Ben Lovett: If someone brings an idea to the table, they’re not going to force that through. It requires the other three members to have a jump on it and embrace it, and engage with the idea. What Aaron did really well — and obviously he’s done it on lots of projects — he encourages everyone to collaborate in a more positive way. It was great, and our friendship grew, and he really was a key voice in the making of the album.
On the best guitar player in the band:
WM: Marcus is a better mandolin player than I am. Ted’s the best guitarist in the band. He’s so sexy, isn’t he? He looks like Steve McQueen! I’m finding Ted very handsome at the moment. A man-crush.
On what it means to be “creatively nude”:
Ted Dwane: The [songwriting] parameters we created were quite narrow, with the instrumentation or whatever. It’s been amazing, the whole process of making [Wilder Mind], especially with Aaron, and that bit of pre-production when it was purely experimental and we were doing weird stuff. We got to see each other creatively nude, which is what it takes to be truly collaborative. You need to understand what you all look like without your clothes on.
On how the old songs sidle up alongside the new ones in their current setlist:
MM: I think this is something we’ve been looking forward to for a very long time — playing a set — which is normally around the two-hour mark, a headlining set. We haven’t released two hours of music on our records, yet. So having three records to choose from makes that more of a comfortable choice in terms of content for the live shows. In terms of putting these songs next to the old songs, I think it’ll be fine. Sonically, live, we hit the old songs hard most of the time. They’re pretty electric in their performances and in the way you plug in and turn it up.
TD: We’re straight into two weeks of rehearsal where we’re going to be playing those old songs again for the first time in a while. I’m really excited about it. It’s another sort of color on your palette. When we’re building the setlist, it’s just going to give us more variety. A set, you can watch a gig for two hours, and it can start to wash over you. We’re going to be in a really strong position where we’ve got a few acoustic moments where we bring it down and just crack into “The Wolf.” We don’t deny that there’s been a shift, but the fundamental for us is the song. Whether it’s an acoustic song or “The Wolf,” it’s the song that should engage people, not the instruments that are being played.
On their favorite tunes from Wilder Mind:
WM: I think “Ditmas” is my favorite [song] to play.
WM: You’re not enjoying it?
MM: Eh…In the live set I really enjoy “Tompkins Square Park” at the moment. It changes every night, actually. I enjoy “Hot Gates.”
On “Tompkins Square Park” and “Ditmas Park” as points of reference on Wilder Mind:
WM: The references to locations — if the record’s not autobiographical, then it’s about empathizing with each other, and I guess they’re kind of true stories. That’s why we reference those things. It’s the setting. Even though the song is called “Tompkins Square Park,” it’s not about that park. [Wilder Mind] hasn’t changed our relationship with New York, but the process of making it made me love this city more. I feel at home here.