How the four English lads of Mumford & Sons discovered old-timey music via a Coen Brothers movie, spun it into arena-friendly gold, and became the rock stars of their wildest nightmares. [Magazine Excerpt]
It's the day after St. Patrick's Day in Dublin's Temple Bar district, and the locals have skipped the hangover and gone straight for mass retox. Today the English arrive for an international rugby game and the rivalry is being played out in new sideshow competitions, which we might call Extreme Beer-Chugging, Next-Level Shouting, and Advanced Stupid-Hat-Wearing.
Into this mayhem walk three members of Mumford & Sons. Lead singer Marcus Mumford nurses a sore throat, but with two hours to kill before their show at the city's Olympia Theatre, Ted Dwane, "Country" Winston Marshall, and Ben Lovett navigate the throng in an attempt to find a pub. Not just any old pub. They want to find O'Donoghue's on St. Stephen's Green, where folk pioneers the Dubliners first played in the '60s.
Other bands in their early 20s might seek more modish music landmarks: U2's old Windmill Lane studio for example or the Phil Lynott exhibition currently in town. But Mumford & Sons are far from typical. The London-based quartet play what they call soul music, though really it's accordion- and banjo- and mandolin-driven folk rock pumped up with widescreen melodrama for the masses. And then there are the lyrics: Imagine, say, Cee-Lo, reeling from a hurtful romantic snub, responding like this: "You did not think / When you sent me to the brink / You desired my attention / But denied my affections."
Four years and some 600 shows after they formed, Mumford & Sons have achieved multi-platinum success almost by stealth. Released here on Glassnote (who facilitated another slow-burn success with French rockers Phoenix), the band's debut album, Sigh No More, has sold three million copies worldwide, placing them at the forefront of a neo-Americana wave, cemented by February's Grammy performance alongside Bob Dylan. (They will also appear on VH1 Unplugged this month.) When Taylor Swift covered their "White Blank Page" on the BBC during a recent visit to London, it felt like a nod of approval and a welcome to the party.
And this is why we've failed to make it to O'Donoghue's. Mumford & Sons are now recognizable, even to very drunk people, despite the fact that they all look like they pump gas or pull turnips for a living. Banjo player Marshall, 23, has nailed the style especially well: hair cut as though with garden shears, a rattail, a small ecosystem of a beard, and a forlorn jacket, hoodie, jeans, and boots. Lovett, 24, the soft-spoken, doe-eyed keyboardist-accordionist, appears similarly unkempt. Stand-up bassist Dwane, 26, in a blue casual shirt and trench coat, is the nearest thing they have to a city boy, at least in terms of wardrobe. Nevertheless, fans approach. Auto-graphs are sought. The band oblige but seem to want to offset the weirdness, the distance set up by worship, by chatting and establishing an individual connection. The crowd thickens. We must settle for breaking the law -- we buy cans of Guinness from a grocery store and sit by the city's Ha'penny Bridge looking out for the cops.
"This Guinness is shit. It's tourist beer," moans Dwane, scowling as he sips.
"Well, we are tourists," says Marshall.
Tonight's show at the Olympia is a big deal, the end of a short tour of Ireland during which they are showcasing new songs to be recorded for their follow-up to Sigh No More this summer.
Mumford arrives at the venue croaking like Don Corleone. But half past midnight the band take the stage, and it's obvious the ailing singer will have much help from the audience. The best received new number is "Hopeless Wanderer," which evolves from mordant introspection to barnstorming hoedown. You barely notice Mumford battling for the higher notes on "Little Lion Man" or even that he's reading lyrics to the new songs off the top of his kick drum.
"I just focused on these two girls in the front row who knew all the words," says Mumford afterward. "Sometimes the crowd carries you through it. Them and the codeine."