Mumford and Sons: “We’re not strictly an arena band”

Mumford and Sons’ current national tour may not have gotten off to the best of starts, but they’ve always had a soft spot for Australia, bassist Ted Dwane tells PERRI CASSIE. Live photo by JAMES MARCUS HANEY.

From late 2009 until well into 2010 there weren’t many places you could go without hearing, “I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I my dear?” That seemingly innocuous lyric – from breakthrough single ‘Little Lion Man’ – was the catalyst for the meteoric rise of Mumford and Sons. Clad in Victorian farmer clothing, the London quartet frantically strummed their way into the mainstream with their banjo-laden hits, becoming a folk phenomenon in almost no time at all. The band’s debut album Sigh No More made them the biggest UK band in America since Coldplay. So the pressure was certainly on for their sophomore effort Babel.

But when FL reached bassist Ted Dwane he was feeling quite humble about their aspirations, speaking candidly about the pressure to follow the success of Sigh No More, playing drunk with Bruce Springsteen and touring regional cities with their Gentlemen of the Road concept. About midway through the interview, he even took a bread pudding delivery from a cafe around the corner. It was all very British.

What are you up to?

I’ve just had my coffee and starting to get my shit together. Today I’m actually doing something really exciting. I’m going to a writing space I got in on with a couple of friends just up the road, and today we’re going to convene there and figure out how to make it awesome.

Now, Sigh No More was massive, like meteoric. I know most bands say, “Oh we don’t really feel pressure when making albums”, but surely there must have been some weight of expectation your shoulders for Babel?

We certainly would never deny that there wasn’t some sort of pressure. I think that the thing we keep returning to is that it was more internal pressure within the band that eclipses that really. While that does exist it only serves as a sort of hindrance, whereas the pressure from the band – the pressure on each other, from each other – to write the best music we can, was much greater, it propelled us forward. I think we were a little bit stumped at the beginning, we just didn’t know where to start.

There was this lovely moment in Devon in [singer/keyboardist] Ben [Lovett’s] parents’ barn where we had sort of two recording set-ups, and everyone was working their asses off. It was there where we sort of went, “Well, fuck it. Let’s just smash out an album”, and from there it all became quite easy. I think we just needed to get far enough away from all that stuff, all of the pressure, and just go to the countryside and freak each other out, which is basically what we did.

Did you ever expect it to have that kind of impact?

The aspirations of the first record were obviously very humble. The plan was to tour until we had made enough money to make the next album, and that wasn’t a certainty at all. It turned into a bit of a shitfest in a great way, especially with you guys [Australia] and America. We thought it was going to be all home-based with success, if we were to get any. So we didn’t anticipate that at all.

What is it about Babel that led it to becoming the title of your album? What does that story mean to Mumford and Sons?

The word itself is just loaded, isn’t it? It’s a story that I think relates to what we’ve all been experiencing. I suppose it’s a metaphor for a lot of stuff and I think the story ties in to where we were last summer.

‘Little Lion Man’ was triple j’s number one [Hottest 100] song of 2009, which is a huge accomplishment. Do you ever wonder if things would have gone differently had you taken the word “fucked” out of the chorus?

[Laughs] I don’t know, you’d sort of think that would be the most efficient sort of hindrance you could hope for in a song. I’m glad it’s there, I can’t think of what might have happened if it wasn’t!

I was flicking through Rolling Stone magazine the other day and they have their review of Babel posted. It’s not entirely favourable, and I suppose the main criticism is that it doesn’t deviate far from Sigh No More … Do you feel you’ve played it safe?

Well, I haven’t read it but at the end of the day, I think we obviously make a sound and we work within our parameters – our limitations. So we’ve got like our four … is that bread pudding?

The interview is interrupted momentarily as Ted is delivered bread pudding from a cafe around the corner

Anyway … so the confines in which we work do make us sound a certain way, there are certain limitations to our sound sonically, so it’s quite similar. We worked with the same producer, but the writing has changed and I think that’s what people will hear, the evolution in writing. Sonically it’s just us, but I hope we didn’t play it safe.

You’re all so very talented and multi-instrumental. Have any of you considered or discussed about doing other projects or solo material before? Or is it all Mumford and Sons?

I think we’ve all got our fingers in pies, but in a very informal way, absolutely. I think the nature of collaboration is important. It’s kind of how we met, by playing with other people, so I think their will be a lot of collaborating, but it’s all informal at the moment. We’re just too busy.

So you’re all considering a move to the US, any particular reason?

It would only be a very short-term thing, and we’re not a hundred percent sure yet. But we have visas so we can. I mean we’re young, none of us have got kids or anything, it might just be quite fun for like six months. [Laughs] I mean yeah, why not? So we’re going to wait until we have a bit of a break, and perhaps write the next album out there.

How did the Gentlemen of the Road concept first spawn? And how did Dungog [in NSW] become the obscure place of choice for the Australian event?

The events themselves have just been so fun. We did a couple in the UK, and we’ve jut come back from America where we did the GOTR stopover as a sort of backbone. So every Saturday we’d go into a town, set up two stages and have all the bands, make sure the food is good, and sort everything out. After it’s all sort of finished, [the idea] is to go out into the town and make as much stuff happen as possible, like jam nights and DJ nights and all that sort of thing. It’s so people get to enjoy the town and go somewhere interesting they wouldn’t usually go.

Generally, the towns really love it because they’re great little towns and times are hard, and they just appreciate people coming in and having a nice time and sort of putting them on the map a little bit. Obviously some of these towns were very much on the map already. We just did Monterey in California, but there are all sorts of places. People help us out, but I think Dungog was only one of two that we were sort of considering in Australia. It’s got to be a two-way thing, obviously. The town has got to be up to it. Some of them go, “Yeah, we don’t really have the infrastructure to handle 10,000 people”, but it was just a good match. They’re up for it, and we’re up for it.

You’ve gone from theatres to arenas on this tour. You yourself have said “they’re pretty uninspiring places”. Do you think folk loses some of the magic when it’s not in an intimate setting? Are Mumford and Sons now strictly an arena band?

We’re definitely not strictly an arena band. This is the thing about the GOTR tour – we get to play to an arena-sized audience, but in our own way, with our own vibe. I guessed that’s why we latched on to concept so much, and want to move it forward and develop it. That’s a really, really great thing, because I know it’s annoying when bands constantly underplay and the tickets end up get shafted. The GOTR stopover is a great way of doing it, but it’s also taught us how you can sort of just play a bigger show and make it special. I mean even all the decorations and stuff we have from the stopovers we use to vibe it out a bit. It’s a whole learning curve.

“I think we just needed to get far enough away from all that stuff, all of the pressure, and just go to the countryside and freak each other out.”

Tell me about the Sydney pop-up saloon you guys are opening.

It should be a quite cool. By coincidence we just went in and saw a Bob Dylan one, and it’s just really cool, I didn’t understand the concept until I saw the Dylan one. It’s just a place where people can go have a look at some of the visual stuff we’ve done like the railway tour, some of the GOTR documentaries that we’ve made. It’ll just be a place people can go, and we’re going to put on fun events, and they can grab a shirt or an album or whatever.

So the big news at the moment is your people-trafficking mix up last year [they were falsely accused of trafficking illegal immigrants into the country]. You seem like the quiet, polite types. Have you guys ever had any other run-ins with the law?

We usually do what we want and don’t get caught. I mean, that’s the best way isn’t it? I think we’ve been pretty good at not getting caught lately.

Why? What have you been doing!?

[In his cheekiest voice] Just the usual mischief, too much booze and following the night.

You’ve become the biggest UK band in the US since Coldplay, Noel Gallagher has complimented you, and you’ve shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen. What’s been the highlight?

There have been a few and you really just listed them. With Springsteen we didn’t see that coming at all. That was a very weird day. It was earlier this summer and it was basically the day we were allowed to tell everyone when the album was coming out and that was naturally elating. We played our gig, and got really drunk and we were just casually watching a bit of Springsteen and next thing he is waving us on. We did a really good job of ruining that song. So that was pretty special. The other highlight would probably be the Railroad Revival tour. It was ridiculous, purely on the account of the amount of people on the train, and the amount of playing. It was literally non-stop. And then there’s the GOTR stopovers [which] have provided the optimum sort of forum for what we want to do as a band. So it’s definitely a big thing in our four consciences at the moment.

The Australian tour is huge for you guys. Last time you were here you returned pretty quickly. Can we expect you back soon after this tour?

Yeah we’d certainly like to. That’s the thing with us at the moment, though. We’d like to be prolific band, but we like the idea of touring a lot, and they don’t really go hand in hand and that’s the sort of balance we’re going for. I think we’re sort of going to do one lap and then get back and make another record. We’ll have to see, but there’s no sort of master plan. We certainly like coming to your country, you must have noticed.

I was at one of the Palace shows on your last visit, they were pretty special, and you all seemed so humbled by the crowd.

We wrote ‘Below My Feet’ that day. After the first night we were all set up and sound-checked, and the next day they very kindly let us in and we were just playing all day before doors open … We wrote that song that day, and played it that night.

Babel is out now through Dew Process/Universal.

Photos from Mumford and Sons’ first show in Perth

Mumford and Sons Tour Dates

Monday, October 15 – Entertainment Centre Theatre, Adelaide SOLD OUT

Wednesday, October 17 – Riverstage, Brisbane SOLD OUT

Thursday, October 18 – Entertainment Centre, Sydney SOLD OUT

Tuesday, October 23 – Derwent Entertainment Centre, Hobart

Thursday, October 25 – Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne

Friday, October 26 – Royal Theatre, Canberra SOLD OUT

Sunday, October 28 – Kuranda Amphitheatre, Cairns

Monday, October 29 – Convention Centre, Townsville

Wednesday, October 31 – Convention Centre, Gold Coast