Mumford & Sons are an English folk rock band. The band consists of Marcus Mumford (lead vocals, guitar, drums, mandolin), Ben Lovett (vocals, keyboards, accordion, drums), Winston Marshall (vocals, banjo, guitar, resonator guitar), and Ted Dwane (vocals, string bass, drums, guitar). Mumford & Sons were formed in December 2007.
Bosun’s Locker, the 40-capacity venue in west London is where Marcus Mumford began road-testing his early efforts in 2006. That pub, which has subsequently closed down, became the epicenter of the “west London folk scene”, a musical community that spawned such acts as Noah and the Whale, Cherbourg, and Laura Marling.
Cherbourg bassist Kevin Jones, who now runs Communion, a hugely influential London concert series, with Mumford & Sons’ Ben Lovett, remembers it well. “It was a tiny little place under a passageway,” he says. “There were lots of really talented people kicking about—Laura Marling, Marcus Mumford, Charlie Fink (Noah and the Whale frontman), just swapping songwriting ideas and making friends. It shut down prematurely and, at the same time, we were given an opportunity to start Communion at Notting Hill Arts Club. In that sense, I guess, it is a logical next step from Bosun’s Locker. But it wasn’t a conscious decision; it just kind of evolved. We now have nights in nine cities, including one in New York, which is going really well.”
Marcus was about 20 at the time and a dropout from Edinburgh University (“not very popular” there) where he was studying Classics. It was then when he got session work as a drummer with Laura Marling. She was then a little known singer-songwriter whose career was about to take off, and in a small London studio Mumford recorded the drum track for Marling’s breakthrough album, Alas I Cannot Swim. When Marling was called away to do interviews that day, Mumford was left in a studio booth for an hour and a half, where he sat and wrote White Blank Page, later a central track on Sigh No More and a real heart-wringer, all about romantic frustration.
Marcus often speaks fondly of his and Laura Marling’s shared musical beginnings. “We toured a lot, just me and her. Have you seen Force 10 From Navarone? I was like the bomb expert, Miller, had my little box of tricks; drumsticks, a mandolin. We used an accordion case as a kick-drum, made snares out of paper stuck on tables. Laura would never say anything on stage so I’d do all the chatting. That got my stage banter sharpened.”
Mumford approached Marling’s manager, Adam Tudhope, with White Blank Page and a few other tracks he had written, and Tudhope took him on. The band gathered around Mumford from there. Lovett was an old friend from King’s College school in Wimbledon, Marshall he had first met as a teenager then reencountered in Edinburgh; Dwane they all knew through crossover work with Marling.
Under the new name Mumford & Sons, their earliest gigs, remembers Lovett, “were awful. But we were energetic, and ambitious, and gave everything we could, and that got us a long way.”
Since they formed in December 2007, the members of Mumford & Sons have shared a common purpose: to make music that matters, without taking themselves too seriously. Four young men from West London in their early twenties, they have fire in their bellies, romance in their hearts, and rapture in their masterful, melancholy voices. They are staunch friends – Marcus Mumford, Country Winston, Ben Lovett, and Ted Dwane – who bring their music to us with the passion and pride of an old-fashioned, much-cherished, family business. They create a gutsy, old-time sound that marries the magic of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with the might of Kings Of Leon, and their incredible energy draws us in quickly to their circle of songs, to the warmth of their stories, and to their magical community of misty-eyed men.
The four friends were playing various instruments in various bands in London throughout the summer of 2007. They were united to perform impromptu renditions of Marcus’ earliest attempts at song-writing in front of crowds of friends in sweaty underground folk nights in the capital. They bonded over their love of country, bluegrass and folk, and decided to make music that sounded loud, proud and live – taking music that could often be pretty and delicate, and fill it with enthusiasm, courage and confidence. “It was a very exciting time, and though we loved it and were in awe of the music going on around us, we didn’t consider ourselves contenders in the pretty daunting London music scene. There was never any idea of competition, just pure enjoyment”, says Marcus. They loved live music so much that they would practise their sets on pavements outside the venues, and also act as backing musicians for the peers with whom they played.
This sense of playing music for the love of it has continued as the main theme through the band’s short history. They booked their first rehearsals in the late autumn of 2007: “As soon as we sat down together, just the four of us, we knew we had become a band cos what came out was unique to us four as individuals,” says Ben. Out of this session came their first band songs: Awake My Soul and White Blank Page, highlights on their debut album.
As soon as they had their first rough cluster of songs, they hit the road. Straightaway, they won the hearts of their audiences with their harmonies, the way they engaged with their instruments, their bandmates and their crowds – and chased the friendly live reception they got all over the country.
Word spread quickly. The band toured extensively throughout 2008; from a barge-tour of the Thames with eight other acts, through to an island-hopping tour of the Scottish highlands, and a triumphant set at Glastonbury in June, they sold out London’s Luminaire in July, only half a year after they got together. Their first American tour followed in support of Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit. A trilogy of beautiful 10″ EPs all on Chess Club Records also followed, recorded simply at home. Their eponymous EP debuted the same month as their Luminaire show; Love Your Ground followed in December; while The Cave And The Open Sea arrived in May.
With each release, the music of Mumford & Sons got brighter, bolder and brawnier, with an increasing focus on their empassioned and intimate lyrics. “What we write about is real, and we sing and play our instruments more passionately cos we feel like we need to. We love honest music,” says Winston.
Their success continued to build, too, with two glorious benchmarks being their place on the BBC Sound Of 2009 Poll shortlist, and their London ICA show selling out in 24 hours.
Then came the time to record their debut album – and then came the extraordinary producer who wanted to work with them. Markus Dravs recorded Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, Björk’s Homogenic and The Maccabees’ Wall of Arms, and he saw similar crossover potential in the Sons. He took them to the legendary Eastcote Studios where Arctic Monkeys, Brian Eno, Tindersticks and Laura Marling have honed their music on its vintage equipment; made the band buy good instruments; set them a daily routine; and encouraged them to try and work even more instinctively, to strengthen their already-powerful musical personality. “He wanted us just to sound like us”, explains Ben. “He talked about us working on our music’s most jubilant and melancholic moments, and make them even more evocative. And over those four weeks, everything came together.”
The album begins with the extraordinary title track, Sigh No More, a statement of intent that references the romantic language of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, as they sing: “Love it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you / It will set you free / Be more like the man you were made to be.” Amongst darkly reflective tracks such as Thistle & Weeds and ballads like White Blank Page, Winter Winds and Roll Away Your Stone, by contrast, show the band’s sprightlier side, the rollicking banjo of the former conjuring up stormy weather that “litters London with lonely hearts”; the latter a fabulous hoedown about a man unsuccessfully filling the hole in his soul.
As the album moves on, this fervour never dies. Little Lion Man – a track that Zane Lowe named the “Hottest Record In The World Today” on a recent Radio 1 show – is a rampage about regret and unresolved heartbreak: “Tremble, little lion man / You’ll never settle any of your scores / Your grace is wasted in your face / Your boldness stands alone among the wreck”. And finally, after a wild lashing out in the murderous fable of Dust Bowl Dance, After The Storm arrives, the only track Mumford and Sons wrote in the studio, away from the live stage they knew so well. It stands an incredibly moving final track to an incredibly moving album – the story of a man scared of what’s behind and what’s before, and creates a considered conclusion to the band’s epic debut album.
Dravs initially turned them away when they showed up at the recording sessions empty-handed. The only track from Love Your Ground to be included on Sigh No More was “Little Lion Man”. The band told the Herald Sun that they self-financed the album to avoid the artistic and technical compromises that sometimes befall studio-financed projects. They toured again in support of Laura Marling in 2009, and Mumford & Sons were contributing musicians to her 2010 album I Speak Because I Can.
In August 2009, Mumford & Sons signed a licensing deal to Island Records in the UK, to Dew Process in Australia and New Zealand, to Glassnote Records in North America and Cooperative Music in the rest of the world, and through its own label Gentlemen of the Road. Dew Process boss Paul Piticco signed the band after witnessing a US performance in 2009 and appreciating their “honest” approach and unique sound. Their debut album was released on 5 October 2009 with “Little Lion Man” as the lead single.
Sigh No More was released in the UK and Ireland in October 2009, and February 2010 in the US. The album reached number one in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, and eventually peaked at number two on the UK Albums Chart and the Billboard 200 in the US. The band gained popularity throughout 2010, performing for larger audiences and making their first network television appearances in the US. On 1 December 2010, the band received two Grammy Award nominations, one for Best New Artist and the other for Best Rock Song (“Little Lion Man”). The ensuing live performance at the Grammy ceremony in February 2011 led to increased airplay and popularity for singles from Sigh No More. The band won the ARIA Music Award for Most Popular International Artist in 2010, and the Brit Award in 2011 for Best British Album.
In a March 2010 interview, Ray Davies announced that Mumford & Sons will be appearing on his forthcoming collaborations album. Marcus Mumford confirmed this in an interview the same month, stating, “I am more excited about that than I have been about anything before in my life”. Mumford & Sons performed the track “Days/This Time Tomorrow” along with Davies on 12 February 2010 on Later… with Jools Holland.
In December 2010, Mumford & Sons earned Grammy Award nominations for Best New Artist and Best Rock Song (“Little Lion Man”). While they did not go on to win an award, the band performed their single “The Cave” at the Grammy ceremony. The performance earned positive media attention and boosted visibility for Sigh No More—US sales increased by 99% in the period following the ceremony in February 2011. The album subsequently peaked at number two on the UK Albums Chart and the Billboard 200 in the US.
On 7 December 2010, in collaboration with Dharohar Project and Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons released an EP album recorded in Delhi, India. The album was recorded in a makeshift studio with traditional Rajasthani musicians and features four collaborations, including multicultural mash-ups of Marling’s “Devil’s Spoke” and Mumford & Sons’ “To Darkness.” Sigh No More is certified 2x Platinum in the US and 4x Platinum in the UK.
The band continued to grow in popularity in 2011, winning several major awards and headlining larger shows and festivals. In February 2011, they received a European Border Breakers Award for their international success. They received a Brit Award for British Album of the Year with Sigh No More and performed “Timshel” at the ceremony. UK sales of the album subsequently increased by 266 percent. While touring the United States in early 2011, the band began writing songs for the follow-up album. Keyboardist Ben Lovett credited the creative atmosphere of Nashville, Tennessee with easing the songwriting process. While performing in Kansas City, Missouri on 3 June, the first stop of their US tour, the band announced they had been recording a new album, initially set to be released in late 2011. They then performed several new tracks from the forthcoming album, the title of which was not revealed.
In April 2011 the group joined Old Crow Medicine Show and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros on the inaugural Railroad Revival Tour, which was inspired by the Festival Express tour across Canada in 1970 that included Buddy Guy, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, and The Band. Travelling exclusively in vintage rail cars, the three bands performed in six “unique outdoor locations” over the course of a week starting in Oakland, California. Ketch Secor of Old Crow told American Songwriter that “It’s like we left all our baggage at home and just brought our instruments,” often writing new songs while on the train. “We were just on these old rattling rails. It was a railroad odyssey that would have made Woody and Doc tip their hats and blow their whistles,” he says. They appear in the musical documentary Big Easy Express, directed by Emmett Malloy, being made of the trip which premiered March 2012 at theSouth by Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW Film) in Austin, Texas, winning the Headliner Audience Award. The film went on to win “Best Long Form Video” at the 2013 Grammy Awards.
Mumford & Sons played at the Glastonbury Festival on Friday 24 June 2011, and then embarked on a North American tour on which they frequently performed songs from the upcoming album. They recorded two songs for Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights, one of which (entitled “Enemy”) is featured during the closing credits. In June 2012, Mumford & Sons contributed the song “Learn Me Right” with Birdy to the Pixar film Brave, which came to be called “Not with Haste”.
On 16 July 2012, Mumford & Sons officially announced the details of their second studio album Babel, including the release date of 24 September 2012 and a track listing of 12 songs. A deluxe edition containing three exclusive songs was also announced. A week later, the album became available for pre-order. The lead single “I Will Wait” premiered on Zane Lowe’s BBC Radio 1 show on 7 August. On 29 August 2012, Mumford & Sons recorded their concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. The Concert was later released on DVD, Vinyl and on iTunes as “Road to Red Rocks”. The performance of “I Will Wait” from the concert was released ahead of the DVD on 9 September as the band’s official video for the song. On 22 September 2012, the band performed two songs from the new album, “I Will Wait” and “Below My Feet”, on Saturday Night Live.
Babel debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart and the US Billboard 200. It became the fastest selling album of 2012 in the UK, selling over 158,000 copies in its first week, and was the biggest selling debut of any album in 2012 in the US, selling 600,000 in its first week, and over a million worldwide. At the 2013 Grammy Awards, they sang “I Will Wait” and Babel won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. In 2013 the band won a Brit Award for Best British Group.
The first phase of a 2013 world tour in support of Babel was released in November 2012. Their Gentlemen of the Road tour continued through 2013. After performing two shows on 8 & 9 June 2013 at the Austin360 Amphitheater inAustin, Texas, United States, bassist Ted Dwane checked himself into a hospital the next day. Surgeons found a blood clot on the surface of his brain and performed surgery on Dwane to remove it. Heeding medical advice to aid Dwane’s recovery, the band cancelled the rest of its Summer Stampede Tour, including performances at the 2013 Bonnaroo Music Festival and returned to the United Kingdom. Dwane’s surgery was successful, and his recovery was such that the band managed to headline Glastonbury Festival.
After first including select stopover cities in their 2012 Tour, the band decided to once again select five cities throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to play host to a two day festival with continual shows on multiple stages as well as various other activities and performances. The first stopover of the 2013 Gentleman of the Road tour was in Lewes, England from the 19th to the 20th of July. Next was Simcoe, Ontario from the 23rd to the 24th of August, followed by Troy, Ohio from the 30th to the 31st of August. The band rounded out their tour with stopovers in Guthrie, Oklahoma on September 6th and 7th and finally St. Augustine, Florida on September 13th and 14th. The Vaccines, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Vampire Weekend, Old Crow Medicine Show, Yacht Club DJs, Alabama Shakes, and various other bands also performed at many of the stopovers throughout the tour.
On 20 September 2013, the band announced they were going on hiatus for a “considerable amount of time.”. “There won’t be any Mumford & Sons activities for the foreseeable future following Friday’s show,” said Ben Lovett, the keyboardist, in an interview with Rolling Stone.
The band uses bluegrass and folk instrumentation, such as a banjo, upright bass, mandolin and piano, played with a rhythmic style based in alternative rock and folk. Much of Mumford & Sons’ lyrical content has a strong literary influence, its debut album name deriving from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The track “Sigh No More” includes lines from the play such as Serve God love me and mend, For man is a giddy thing, and One foot in sea and one on shore. The song “Roll Away Your Stone,”‘s title alludes to Macbeth; the song includes the line Stars hide your fires/And these here are my desires which borrows and pares down Macbeth’s line in Act 1 Scene 4:Stars, hide your fires,/Let not light see my black and deep desires. In an interview, Mumford was quoted as saying, “You can rip off Shakespeare all you like; no lawyer’s going to call you up on that one.”
Additionally, “The Cave” includes several references to The Odyssey, in particular the sirens that Odysseus encounters on his journey home. The song also contains many references to G.K. Chesterton’s book, St. Francis of Assisi, in which Chesterton uses Plato’s Cave as a way of explaining how St. Francis views the world from God’s perspective. In addition, the song “Little Lion Man” appears to be a retelling in dramatic monologue form of Chretien de Troyes’ Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, which is the story of a knight who goes mad after betraying a promise to his wife to return to her.
Both “Timshel” and “Dust Bowl Dance” draw heavily from the John Steinbeck novels Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath. Mumford, in an interview, even compared touring to a Steinbeck adventure: “Steinbeck talked about how a journey is a thing of its own, and you can’t plan it or predict it too much because that suffocates the life out of it. That’s kind of what touring is like. Even though there’s a structure—you know what towns you’re going to, and that you’ll be playing a gig—pretty much anything can happen.”
In the documentary Big Easy Express, Marcus Mumford recognises the Old Crow Medicine Show influence: “I first heard Old Crow’s music when I was, like, 16, 17, and that really got me into, like, folk music, bluegrass. I mean, I’d listened to a lot of Dylan, but I hadn’t really ventured into the country world so much. So Old Crow were the band that made me fall in love with country music.” Mumford acknowledges that “the band inspired them to pick up the banjo and start their now famous country nights in London.” Ketch Secor, Old Crow front-man, concurs: “Those boys took the message and ran with it.”